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  • Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History
  • Edward Bever
Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History. By Owen Davies ( London and New York: Hambledon and London, 2003. xv plus 246 pp.).

Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History is a good, solid book that delivers less than it appears to promise. To begin with, its subtitle is misleading for, as its main title states, it is about cunning-folk, and so does not cover broad aspects of popular magic like home remedies or local magical lore. Furthermore, the term "cunning-folk" has come to be used as a generic term for pre-modern popular magical practitioners, but Davies restricts its usage to full-service popular magicians, thereby excluding the numerous specialists like charmers and fortune-tellers. Finally, while Davies insists on "the principle that cunning-folk are definable by what they practiced," (p. 75) and acknowledges that "there is evidence that the essential services early modern cunning-folk provided were also in demand" in Anglo-Saxon and medieval times (p. viii), he puts such emphasis on the role of books and written charms that he effectively excludes cunning-folk from before about 1500 from full membership in the category.

Within its limits, though, Cunning-Folk is a solid history of full-service popular magicians in England from the Reformation to the present. It fills a significant gap in the literature on popular magic by surveying the legal position of cunning-folk, their moral standing and social backgrounds, the services they offered, the increasingly central role of books and written charms in their practices, the relationship of English practitioners to those in other parts of Europe, and the reasons for their eventual disappearance in the early twentieth century.

On each of these topics Davies makes important points that are either original or reinforce others' innovative interpretations. Legally, he shows that cunning folk were at least as much a concern as witches when the various "witchcraft" statutes were drafted, but they were seldom prosecuted rigorously, and as a consequence judicial measures never came close to suppressing them. In discussing cunning-folks' moral status, Davies shows that while the elites fluctuated between denouncing them as frauds and denouncing them as Devilish, ordinary people continued to patronize them as long as they fulfilled their perceived needs, and only stopped when their services came to seem irrelevant. Socially, Davies shows that significantly more English cunning-folk were male then female, and most were artisans, tradesmen, or farmers, or their wives, rather than laborers or marginal people.

Cunning-folk typically provided a range of services that included love magic, thief detection, astrology, other forms of fortune-telling, herbalism, and countermagic against witchcraft, and while they might be particularly well known for their skill in one, practitioners who possessed only a single magical talent belonged to different traditions. This difference did not just reflect the number of services offered, but also their bases: charmers and fortune-tellers, who [End Page 790] did just one thing, needed to utilize only an innate gift or the power of a simple object or technique, while cunning-folk, who did many things, needed to supplement their natural talents with acquired skills and imposing props. These greater requirements explain why books came to play a crucial role in cunning-folks' practices: they were an important source of knowledge and became a vital source of prestige.

Comparing English cunning-folk to various European practitioners, Davies finds that the term can be used meaningfully for those who offered similar services. He also finds that their legal statuses and experiences were generally similar. On the other hand, there were, not surprisingly, significant differences in many specifics, particularly between England and the Catholic countries of southern Europe.

Finally, in accounting for the decline of cunning-folk, Davies focuses in part on the gradual constriction of their competitive field as the police took over identifying and punishing thieves and doctors proved increasingly effective at curing diseases. However, the decisive blow came with changes in community structures in the early twentieth century that ended peoples' fear of witchcraft, and, correspondingly the market for what Davies asserts (somewhat inconsistently, and without strong argument) was cunning-folks' defining...


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pp. 790-792
Launched on MUSE
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