Cunning Folk: Life in the Era of Practical Magic

  • By Tabitha Stanmore
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 272 pp.

When spells — and the fear of them — reigned supreme.

Cunning Folk: Life in the Era of Practical Magic

When I was a child in Amarillo, Texas, in the 1960s and 70s, people came to my mother when they wanted a wart removed. Some of these folks I knew. Others were outside our circle, having been referred by friends.

Mama would take the petitioner into the back yard and ask him for a penny. It had to be copper, she would explain, and it had to be one the petitioner had on him, not something contributed by a bystander.

She would spit on the penny, rub it on the wart, and then ask the petitioner to close his eyes and throw the coin far into the yard. That was it. “It will disappear soon,” she would say. And almost always, the wart did. Such is the power of the mind.

Until I read Tabitha Stanmore’s Cunning Folk, a charming reconstruction of daily life from the 14th to the 17th centuries, when belief in the mystical was common, I had no idea that Mama was part of a long tradition of “service magic.” Back then, both high- and low-born people, and even the clergy, routinely turned to “cunning men” and “cunning women” for everyday help. Healing. Getting revenge. Finding a lost object. Attracting wealth or a lover. Making a spouse nicer. Even turning a court decision in your favor. (For that, a 1500s Donald Trump would be advised to carry a bit of mistletoe in his pocket.)

Stanmore uses “cunning” to mean having a specific kind of wisdom. She explains that the word stems from the Old English cunnan, “to know.” Practitioners were respected members of the community and often made their living through what was essentially a service industry. In a time when nobody knew where diseases came from or how to treat them, magic was a reasonable explanation.

Spells might be carried in objects, in potions, or on scraps of paper (if one could afford to pay a literate practitioner). Finding a “poppet,” a little spell-carrying doll made in a person’s likeness, could elicit heart-stopping fear.

Note that the “white magic” of cunning folk was distinct from the “black magic” of witches, which has always been frightening and forbidden. There were medieval laws against witchcraft, says the author, but ordinary spells — like a love spell left under the plate of your intended — were so commonplace that strictures against them were generally overlooked. Magic was a part of life.

Cunning women often specialized in healing spells, particularly the healing of children, and frequently blamed sickness on witchcraft. When someone fell ill, prayers were said, and even exorcisms performed. If the patient didn’t begin to recover, the cunning woman might try to transfer the demon assumed responsible:

“Using animals as repositories for disease was a common practice among cunning folk of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Apparently the favored method of Katherine Thompson and Anne Nelson, healers from Northumberland, was to put the bill of a white duck to a patient’s mouth and recite charms until the disease was drawn out. Others would take a bewitched patient’s urine, mix it with flour, then feed it to a stray dog. The curse would thus pass out of the human and into the animal: if the spell was successful, then sadly, the dog would die, but the patient would recover.”

Because men were more likely than women to be literate, they were apt to rely on spells or prayers written on tiny scraps of paper, to be pinned inside clothing or carried in a pocket. Friars and other religious figures made money selling such charms, and nobody thought anything of it. Stanmore notes that John Lambe, who later became powerful as a court favorite of both James I and Charles I, “began his ascent by selling spells to his aristocratic pupils at Westminster School.” No strike against him for it, either. Perhaps his spells worked?

When their remedies failed, cunning folk were not infrequently taken to court. (Think: breach of contract re: failure of magic.) Stanmore takes much of her extensive, well-annotated scholarship from court records, as well as from church records and histories of the aristocracy. Queen Elizabeth I herself wore a ring with a good-luck spell in it.

A minor complaint: Upon being presented with a colorful charge of failed magic, readers are often left in the dark as to what happened next. This seems not to be the fault of the author, however. In courts at the time, records of hearings were kept in one place, while verdicts were recorded in another. Evidently, there’s no ready way for scholars to match them up.

Stanmore is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter specializing in medieval and early modern magic. While Cunning Folk is meant for a general audience, it has a strongly academic cast. In fact, the book sometimes reads like the pasted-together notes of a topnotch researcher, with little pruning of too-similar stories. (This is an observation, not a condemnation.)

Read in short takes, the book is a delightful excursion. Open it randomly to any passage and you’ll enjoy a window into the lives of medieval people whose worries pretty much line up with our own. Of course that couple, sick child in their arms, walked 20 miles to see a well-regarded cunning woman. Is there a parent today who hasn’t done the modern equivalent? And along with all those entertaining anecdotes, you’ll absorb a lot of little-known history — and maybe even learn a few love spells.

Salley Shannon’s writing has appeared in many national magazines and newspapers.

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