Cunning folk


Winter was traditionally a time of storytelling. There was little to do on the land. Frost, snow, rain and cold kept people in the house. It was a time to repair your tools, a time to weave baskets and mend clothes, a time to sit round the fire. It was a time to remember the myths and legends, the fairy tales, and also a time to remember the stories, as well as the true history, of the clan.

The Craft too has a history. It has what we may call a mytho-poetic history, a history of myths and legends, of archetypal imagery. And it has a historian’s history, a history of real people, of existing documents and verifiable events. I find both versions of history equally valid, equally important and equally useful, but one should of course not be confused with the other. Neither should either version be used inappropriately. And of course it is important to stay informed of the latest historic evidence.

The person, who has put a lot of effort into documenting the proper historian’s view of the history of the Craft, is Ronald Hutton, professor of history at the University of Bristol. In this article I would like to present an overview of one chapter from his book The Triumph of the Moon, together with some of my own questions, insights and conclusions.

The chapter that I’ve picked, deals with the “hereditary Craft”, with Wicca before it became Wicca: it deals with the people who practised what many these days would call ‘witchcraft’, before Gardner came along. The chapter is called Finding a Low Magic, and it deals with real people who lived between 1740 and 1940, before Gardner published his work, and who practised magic, spells and so on.

Were they called witches?

In chapter 6, ‘Finding a Low Magic’, Hutton reviews the evidence for low magic, and examines three fairly distinct groups who practised magic and spells:

  • cunning folk, literate middle class traders, artisans or schoolmasters
  • charmers, often lower class magical practitioners
  • witches, anti-social individuals practising evil magic for their own ends

These were the “practitioners of this operative magic in England and Wales between 1740 and 1940” (p.84). They were astrologers, fortune tellers, wise women, wise men or wizards, cunning men and cunning women, conjurors, ‘dyn hysbys’ (Welsh) or ‘pellar’ (Cornish, believed to be from ‘expeller’, one who casts out evil spirits), but not ‘witch’. “Folklore collectors themselves often employed the term ‘white witch’ [for cunning folk and charmers], but this formulation was very rare in the vocabulary of the ordinary people, to whom the word ‘witch’ almost always signified somebody who worked magic for personal ends of profit or malice.” (p.86). These cunning people usually had some regular employment too.

The cunning folk

Hutton builds this chapter on top of, and supplements, the work of Owen Davies. Davies introduced the term ‘cunning folk’, and collected 41 case studies, male practitioners, mainly tradesmen and artisans, and the rest were herbalists or schoolmasters. Females were rare, married or widowed, although just as commercially successful. The reason for finding almost exclusively middle class people was that “literacy and learning were perceived as integral accomplishments for most types of cunning craft.” (p.87) Hutton presents short case studies of over a dozen of these cunning folk, with an overview of various practices, anecdotes and so on.

The source of knowledge

“The outward sign of their accomplishment was that they possessed books, an immediate distinction…” (p.90) These books were mainly works on astrology, herbalism, medicine, charms, ritual magic, astrological charts, sometimes the Key of Solomon. Writers like Cornelius Agrippa, Michel Nostradamus, Reginald Scot, William Lilley, Francis Barrett. But: “Cunning folk wrote their own notebooks” (p.92), for example “a conjuring book with large brass clasps and corners, an elaborate book of charms and recitations”. Some of these are preserved in national archives, such as the National Library of Wales. Cunning folk bought their books, often by mail order, from either Leeds or London. Charmers, to the contrary, often had their simple charms passed on by personal transmission, as to write charms down would dissipate their power. (p.94)

Magical techniques

Charmers often confined themselves to curing growths or rashes of skin, promoting the healing of wounds, staunching bleeding – all ailments which are very responsive to mental suggestion, and often with a near total success rate.

Magical practitioners often used a mirror, crystal, vessel of water etc. for the client to gaze into, until they saw who had bewitched them, stolen their goods, spread gossip and so forth.

Cunning men used fire to burn a special powder or incense to purify houses, people, animals. The heart of an animal could be stuck with pins, burnt or roasted. Hair and nail clippings could be put in a bottle, boiled or buried. Wax effigies were used as well to get even with a witch who put a spell on a household. Apart from this, amulets, charms, healing potions and poultices, horoscopes, card reading and tea-leaf reading, trickery, ventriloquism and slight of hand were all used. “Above all, they devised spells and rites according to their own whims and creative talents, and the needs of their customers”. (p.97)

Lodges and covens

“Did cunning folk ever work together, or meet in lodges, guilds or covens? The answer seems to be an almost complete negative…” (p.98) There are exceptions, such as husband and wife teams, or a gathering of wisemen in Manchester in the early nineteenth century. But cunning folk in general were competitors of each other, and their craft was a sideline to their regular employment.

There are plenty of references to witches, but they are the opponents of the cunning people: “individuals possessed of magical powers who chose to use them maliciously against their neighbours, from motives of revenge or entertainment”. (p.98) Folklore collectors on the other hand refer to cunning folk as ‘white witches’, confusing the issue and using a word which the people themselves never used.

Witches always worked alone. There are exceptions: in the tip of Cornwall witches were thought to gather every Midsummer Eve to feast. It is possible that maritime contact from France or Spain planted this idea, which is unusual in England. The word Sabbath for example was used by French and German demonologists, and is not found in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century English folklore.

Other beliefs include witch conventions in Lincolnshire, in Dorset, and south Staffordshire, were “each Midsummer Night all the witches of the world met on the moon to determine the fate of ordinary mortals during the next twelve months”. (p.100) There are also a few traces of social contact between witches. But these are rare exceptions. In general, a witch was an anti-social, isolated figure. The word coven was unknown. It is of Scottish origin, but even there it was not popular, deriving from one sensational and very atypical case of witchcraft, the case of Isobel Gowdie in 1662. Through scholars and writers the word has been popularised.

A belief?

In general, the belief of cunning folk “did not reflect a single cosmology, but was made up of the debris of many” (p.101). So they believed pretty much what everyone else believed, and were mostly Christian, albeit with the addition of what we now would call ‘superstition’. The charms and spells too had a clear Christian character – the Bible being used as a spell book more than a theological message. There is no record of a pagan belief system in existence at this time.

Hereditary craft?

Cunning folk’s talents were individual, like a talent for music, or beauty. At most, talents like this lasted for one or two generations (p.103). Charmers, who used just one skill to heal one particular ailment, often did pass this on through the family or a close friend. Sometimes people were supposedly born with the gift. In the West Country a charm should be passed down between members of the opposite gender.

In witches it tended to run in families, but that may just be because a family had a bad name anyway. There was also the belief that the power must be passed on when the witch was close to death.

Rich and famous

Charmers regarded their power as a gift, so usually accepted no payment, only gifts.

Cunning folk usually charged a fixed fee – usually a low one for the poor, a high one for the gentry.

In general these people were commercially successful and had a handsome income – note that they had regular employment as well – and could live comfortably.


The Witchcraft act of 1736 made it an offence to call somebody else a witch, and outlined penalties for people who claimed to work magic, up to 1 year imprisonment.. But for the rest of that century, the law remained a dead letter (p.107) in 1824 the Vagrancy act outlawed persons telling fortunes or using anything like palmistry to deceive and impose (p.107), and this law was enforced and did make life more difficult for cunning folk. The prosecutions rose with the installation of the professional county police forces in 1851, but they also helped to wipe out mobbing of suspected witches. Prosecution usually was the result of unhappy clients being charged exorbitant fees, but most cunning folk who charged normal fees had no problems. The decline in prosecutions around 1900 continued until both acts were repealed in 1951. So these laws never had any real impact: “ordinary people valued magic too much” (p.109).

A decline?

Astrology, herbalism, card reading, spiritual healing – they are still here and have never been away. But the labels have changed, to homeopathy, hypnotherapy, and aromatherapy and so on. So no, the profession is still there, but the name has changed.

Personal summary

Hutton finds it a paradox that cunning folk, which most modern witches see as being very relevant to witchcraft, in fact are least relevant! (p.111). And as far as characteristics like religion and coven meetings are concerned, he is right: cunning folk did not have a separate pagan religion, did not meet in groups, did not have initiations, did not pass on things within the family, were not born with ’the gift’, and so on. At least… if we ignore all the ‘odd’ folklore, that is.

However, cunning folk and charmers between 1740 and 1940 provided the same services which are now being provided by the palmist, tarot-reader, astrologer, holistic healer, herbalist or therapist! And then as now, these people usually work alone, they often have a normal job as well, they earn a decent living, they are literate, learn from books and each other, they do not inherit their skills nor pass them on within the family, they do not meet in lodges or covens, and their religious outlook reflects that of the society in which they live – in the past that was usually Christianity, today it is more ‘new age’: Wicca, paganism, shamanism, Indian or a more free form of Christianity.

Modern day witches (Wiccans) see their ‘craft’ part of ‘witch-craft’ often in this perspective. They become proficient at one or two of these crafts, like astrology or herbalism, in order to help their fellow man. In this sense, they continue (just as the new age therapist does) the tradition of the wise women, wise men, cunning folk and charmers of past centuries: they help their fellow men with natural and magical techniques, above and beyond what science and society provide.

So I don’t subscribe to Hutton’s conclusion that the cunning folk were the least relevant to modern Wicca. I recognise in their contribution roughly half of what Wicca is today!

What Hutton does point out, is that folklorists mistakenly called cunning folk and charmers ‘white witches’. Also, ‘Sabbath’ and ‘coven’ were imported words from the continent or Scotland respectively, and generally unused in England. But the people themselves used the word ‘witch’ between 1740 and 1940 for the traditional single, evil and anti-social practitioner.

The confusion about the word ‘witch’ is again on the rise today. More and more people (and writers!) believe that one who works with herbs or precious stones or simple spells, is practising white or modern ‘witchcraft’. However, this occupation is at most just a ‘craft’ – a therapy – completely in line with the cunning folk which Hutton describes. Even a Christian can practice such a craft, just like most cunning folk in past centuries were devout Christians. To call such practice ‘witchcraft’ is incorrect in the historical sense of the word as Hutton has shown. And it is also incorrect in the modern sense of the word, where practices like these are at most only half of modern witchcraft or Wicca.

Hutton says that there is no evidence of a pagan religion at this time. But he does give anecdotal evidence for many practices which are now considered normal in modern Wicca, such as meeting in groups, passing on of power, working male to female, not charging money for the gift, working with magic, charms and spells. The anecdotes are exceptions, and come from all three groups: cunning folk, charmers and witches. Witches, in this historical context, are the anti-social evil competitors of the cunning folk.

One Dalmatian…

Modern Wicca has in effect assimilated all sorts of exceptions from these three competing groups, as well as aspects of the groups themselves, into one coherent working philosophy. It has incorporated the cunning folk practice or ‘craft’ – a practice which of course continues in main stream society too, with all the ‘new age therapy’ practitioners. It has incorporated the charmers’ simple spells, and the principle of not charging money. And it has incorporated the exceptions from the folklore about the evil witches, such as working in a group, passing on power, working male to female etc. The one thing it has not incorporated is the evil, anti-social and solo-aspects of the witches from past centuries. However, even this aspect is still present in a certain way: it is the archetypal image of the (fairytale) witch – an image that symbolises a certain state of psychological and spiritual development that we all need to come to grips with. More often than not it manifests as someone who falls into the trap of being ‘powerful’, or someone who is blinded by the glamour of Wicca.

Modern witchcraft or Wicca therefore is not a simple continuation of the cunning folk practices, nor of the charmers, and certainly not of the evil witches. But it does have things in common with all of these groups.

Is it possible that the folklore, and the practices of cunning folk, charmers and witches, are the fragmented reflections of an older and more coherent body of knowledge and practice? Just like today’s psychologists, doctors and priests are different professional groups, performing functions which used to be performed by the shaman, or by the wise woman or priestess of the tribe in (pre)historic times? Is the evidence which Hutton gives more like the description of a few branches of a tree, whilst the tree itself remains invisible to the historian?

Gardner had travelled extensively all over the near and far east. He spent many years in Ceylon, and later in Indonesia. He was well versed in folk magic, and wrote a book about the Kris. He already had a spiritual connection to the Goddess. See his biography, Gardner, witch, and his own book, A Goddess Arrives.

If there ever had existed an old tradition that could be considered a precursor to modern witchcraft, then Gardner’s knowledge and interests would have put him in the unique position to recognise the scattered remains of such an old pattern behind surviving remnants such as cunning folk, charmers and witches. He would have been able to intuitively see the outline of such an old tradition. He would have been able to recognise the invisible tree, from looking at the branches and the scattered odd leaves. Just like an archaeologist can see the outline of a building in the colours of the plants in a meadow. And just like you and I can recognise the Dalmatian dog in the scattered dots in this picture. Yes, the dots could represent something else. Yes, they could be random. No, the outline of the dog is not present. But does anyone doubt what it represents?

Gardner’s lifelong interests in folklore and magic may have given him the edge, in being able to pick and choose correctly from what appears to others as ‘mere folklore’. Gardner may have been simply ‘connecting dots’ in a picture that was clear in his own mind. A picture, established over many many years of contact with folk magic all over the world, and quite possibly inspired by the Goddess he loved. As far as I am concerned, and judging by the strength and vitality of Wicca, this is exactly what Gardner did.

Ronald Hutton: The Triumph of the Moon, A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford University Press,, ISBN 0-19-820744-1


Over Merlin

Merlin Merlin Sythove stond in 1979 samen met Morgana aan de wieg van Wiccan Rede. Hij is tot aan het eind van de papieren uitgave van Wiccan Rede in de zomer van 2010 hoofdredacteur geweest. Daarnaast schreef hij graag filosofisch getinte overpeinzingen over onderwerpen die nauw met wicca samenhingen, en kaartte hij bij voorkeur controversiële thema’s aan. Merlin is in januari 2012 naar het Zomerland gegaan.
Dit bericht is geplaatst in English articles met de tags , , , . Bookmark de permalink.