Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History

Popular Magic cover

Owen Davies, Hambledon Continuum, 2007.

A densely packed handy reference for all your folk magic queries.

This deceptively slim octavo volume is, as we now expect from Professor Owen Davies, about as tightly packed with condensed information as it is possible to get.  A pleasure as an immersive experience, it is a deep and complex little read and all the better for that.

The layout is logical and concise, starting in the introduction with a definition of the very meaning of ‘magic’ as practised in its various forms, and then moving into the legal aspects of being a magical practitioner at the various periods in history. In a chapter packed with detail and acknowledging the inevitable fact that document survival will always skew the apparent occurrence (or not) of particular crimes, the whole gamut of English legal measures pertaining to magical practitioners is briskly summarised, commencing with King Alfred, who took the hard-line translation from Exodus: ‘…do not allow them to live’ into periods in the Medieval where magic was considered a moral offence and a matter for the church unless it was classed as treasonable. (And therefore a burning offence: here are the roots of the mistaken notion of witch burning in England. In Scotland and on the continent witches were indeed burned, in England witches were commonly hanged; heretics and traitors burned). Moving via the witch hunts (but, interestingly, not Cunning Folk hunts) of the 17th century and the remarkable persistence of Cunning Folk through the 19th and eventually into the 20th century. Petering off only with the replacement in 1951 of the Witchcraft Act with the Fraudulent Mediums Act – acknowledging that, in the eyes of the law, cunning folk were no more threat than stage magicians or sideshow performers and that action was only necessary if they could be shown to have defrauded a client. The chapter is packed with legal information (always handy to know before starting an online argument about a period two hundred years distant) and with details of some of the cases, including the extraordinary Maria Giles, who in the 1860s served three long spells in prison and yet still maintained her external client base.

Chapter two moves on to consider changing attitudes towards witchcraft, magic and cunning folk over time, moving as one would imagine, from the general fear and horrified belief of the medieval, into the potentially more enlightened attitudes of the present day. Again, and more clearly visible, there is a dichotomy between practitioners considered to be witches and those considered to be cunning folk or healers and a clear indication that the client base knew exactly which was which and was happy to let the cunning folk continue their work, regardless of more ‘official’ lines. Indeed, it is the vagaries of the official line which provide much of the interest: grass roots approval may have fluctuated and eventually atrophied with the arrival of an embryo health service, but the legislators and the churchmen seem to have been quite consistently vociferous in their disapproval. What is especially fascinating (at least to your devoted reviewer) is that the level of complaint and ensuing legislation ranged against magical practitioners varied to a great extent in tandem with mainstream religious and political pressures. If the Catholics are a nuisance: round up the witches. If the nonconformists are gaining ground (yes, really) legislate against heretical practices (that’ll be witches again). Twitchy legislators with an eye to courting popularity are nothing new.

Subsequent chapters then move logically on through the detail of who and what these people were and deal a death blow to the notion of the hideous illiterate crone cackling over a fire in a benighted hovel. The crone may have existed; in some form she probably did, but for the most part she seems to have been a figment of establishment propaganda, and later of the novelists. Cunning folk, from all the court records, appear to have been literate; owners of books, trained up as apprentices and generally belonging to the artisan level of society – in fact just the level where a modest level of literacy and the indentured apprenticeship would be normal. A certain amount of set-dressing becomes apparent: books not just for use but for prominent display to impress visitors. Idiosyncratic clothing and mannerisms perhaps – though many seem to have worked simply in the back room of the family business; just running their own business in tandem. A useful second income and a very useful cover for activities which, however the clients appreciated them, were still not legal.

For the graffiti hunter in search of a deeper understanding the whole book is of interest, but perhaps individually it is chapter 6 ‘Written Charms’ that will be the most immediately attractive. Although many surviving charms are, or contain, gibberish phrases, the majority (harking back the general literacy of the practitioners) were not. The majority of the survivors contain a strong religious element and prayers seem to have been commonplace among their creators – once again providing an annoyance to the Protestant church, which seems to have been unable to bear perceived competition of any kind. Professor Davies cites several examples, many of which originated in hiding places over doors, and one of which contains a linear version of the SATOR acrostic.

The final chapters range across Europe and through time into the 20th century, comparing traditions and noting their slow but inevitable decline with the advance of medical science. Inevitable, but perhaps not total? Though it is questionable whether modern faith healers are providing quite the same services.

This is an enjoyable and highly informative book, the referencing is thorough (as expected) and the index comprehensive. I really do recommend it (and given that it is not new, there will be second hand copies available).

Reviewed by: Rebecca Ireland


Publisher ‏ : ‎ Hambledon Continuum; New Ed edition (1 Jun. 2007)

Paperback ‏ : ‎ 262 pages

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 184725036X

ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1847250360

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