Cunning Folk

Owen Davies. Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History. Hambledon and London, 2003.

This is the first full length treatment of the English 'cunning folk', the village herbalist, astrologer, cow doctor, treasure finder, love token maker, and preeminently witch finder and de-speller. Basing his account on trial records and local newspapers, Davies surveys their activities from the early medieval period to the first world war, and their battles with authority both clerical and secular. The cunning folk ranged widely from local intellectuals such as the Harries family with their extensive collection of rare antiquarian books, through to wild characters such as the battling, many times imprisoned Maria Giles, who reads just like a character from a modern soap opera.

The cunning folk were always liminal characters, regarded by the church in the heyday of witchcraft beliefs as enemies even worse than openly "black" witches as they provided subtler traps for unwary souls, and by later generations of official and "respectable: opinion as worthless charlatans. They tended to come not from the poorest sections of society but from the "middling sort" of yeomen farmers, artisans and such, their literacy setting them apart as something mysterious. One might argue that they recruited from intelligent members of these middling sorts who lacked the financial and networking resources to gain more respectable employment. In the later years the more respectable hid their witch discerning and de-spelling activities, behind the facade of herablists, astrologers and other alternative practitioners. They moved with the times, traveling to clients by train, advertising in local newspapers and publishing puff pamphlets. They formed at least part of the client base of the network of the occult bookshops which flourished just as much in the early nineteenth century as they did at the end of the twentieth. Some, such as Warrington's Thomas Harwood, would try their hand at ritual magic.

In later chapters Davies examines the relationship between English cunning folk and similar figures across Europe, and looks at the suggested connections with shamanism, and the claims of various pagans to be their successors. Davies argues that the cunning folk operated very much within a Christian world view and would never have considered themselves pagans. He also suggests that few of the rather idealistic modern pagans would find themselves having much in common with people who whatever else they were, acted as hard headed often cynical business folk.

If we interpret the role of the cunning person very narrowly, as the discerner of witches, the person who told you whose spell was the cause of your afflictions and offer to remove it for a fee, then we have to agree with Davies that the days of the cunning folk ended when belief in witchcraft ceased to be part of mainstream discourse (it survives still, but belief in real witches is most prevalent in those strict Christian fundamentalist circles where visiting a cunning person would be absolutely taboo). However if we interpret their role rather as discerning and curing supernatural affliction in a more general sense, they surely they live on in the ranks "gutter roots" spiritualism and the numerous psychics who will tell you who is haunting you or your house and remove them for the right fee. We can ponder why the agents of supernatural affliction have shifted from the living to the dead, but their is still of class of people who deal with supernatural emergencies.

Perhaps they live on in wider circles, in the vast range of therapies, those for example who will diagnose whose sinful actions towards you (various forms of abuse taking the place of spells) are the cause of your present woes and how you can "confront" them. And what of alien abduction discerners, and might not belief in witches spells themselves survive under a variety of euphemisms (psychic attacks, negative vibrations, astral vampirism, negative influences etc). Just as in a theological age, the language of theology was appropriated by folk practitioners in their spells, charms, amulets and invocations, today the official discourse of science, technology, psychology and social work is appropriated by the discerners and healers of supernatural affliction, and those who provide techniques to provoke love or lust, to find riches, see what the obscure future will bring and to chart clients through life's shoals.

No comments: