Certain men and women were thought to have the gift of healing a specific disease or injury in humans or farm animals, for example bleeding, burns, king's evil, warts, or ringworm. For some, the gift was inborn, notably in the case of a seventh son or daughter; more often it depended on a secret verbal charm and ritual learnt from an older healer—usually a relation who was near to death. Each charm cured only one trouble, and the charmer rarely knew more than one or two. A third group were those owning a material object such as a snakestone, which would be lent out when needed.
Methods used were various. Many charmers stroked the injured area with a hand wetted with their own spittle (preferably when fasting); others blew on it; for warts, looking at them or counting them might be enough. All these actions might be accompanied by prayer or by verbal charms, uttered mumblingly and low. Some charmers undertook healing at a distance and by telephone, provided they knew the name of the person or animal to be treated and the nature of the trouble. They and their patients regarded this as a natural God-given ability; they must therefore be distinguished from cunning men, who used magic to combat the effects of witchcraft.
Occasionally, charmers turned ‘professional’ and charged for their services, especially in towns (see seventh son), but most took no money, believing this would destroy their power; however, they would accept hospitality or a gift-in-kind if tactfully offered. Their livelihood was usually farming, or one of the rural crafts such as smithying; women charmers were of equivalent social status. There are many references to charmers in 19th-century sources, and some were still practising well within living memory.
Davies, 1996 and 1998;Theo Brown, Folklore 81 (1970), 37–47.