cunning men, women

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From the medieval period almost to the present day, there have been people who were employed by others to practise magical skills on their behalf, and were paid in money or small gifts, thus usefully supplementing the income from their regular occupations. Frequent complaints by the educated classes indicate how popular they were. In a sermon in 1552, Bishop Latimer lamented: ‘A great many of us, when we be in trouble, or lose anything, we run hither and thither to witches or sorcerers, whom we call wise men…seeking aid and comfort at their hands’ (Sermons (1844), 534). In 1807, Robert Southey could still say: ‘A Cunning-Man, or a Cunning-Woman, as they are termed, is to be found near every town, and though the laws are occasionally put in force against them, still it is a gainful trade’ (Letters from England, p. 295).

It is impossible to arrive at any figures, but anecdotal evidence indicates that they were quite common throughout the 19th century, and in some country areas in the first half of the 20th century. There were various popular names for them: wizards, conjurers, sorcerers, charmers, wise men/women, cunning men/women, the latter two being the most widespread. ‘White witch’ was a term more used by outsiders than by practitioners and their clients. ‘Conjurer’ implied the ability to summon and dismiss devils or spirits—a power claimed by some rural magicians, such as Jenkyns of Trelleck (Monmouthshire) (Wherry, 1904: 76–81).

Cunning men were called upon to heal sickness in humans or animals, to detect and punish thieves, look into the future, give information about people far away, cast horoscopes and tell fortunes, and to procure love; perhaps their most important function, and certainly the most dramatic, was to diagnose witchcraft, identify the witch, and defeat her by their own counter spells. Some claimed their power was inborn and hereditary, but many others used manuals of fortune-telling and/or astrology, and handwritten collections of herbal recipes and magical formulas; the predominately illiterate clientele were awed by such displays of book-learning. Several regional folklore collections give reminiscences about famous individuals such as the cunning man named Wrightson who lived at Stokesley (North Yorkshire) around 1810 (Henderson, 1866: 177–82; Brockie, 1886: 21–5; Blakeborough, 1898: 187–92). He was the seventh son of a seventh daughter, and appeared to have clairvoyant powers, though some thought him a fraud, and ‘his private character was said to be very bad’; Blakeborough says he favoured counterspells ‘of the heart-frizzling, pin-sticking, wickenwood and bottery-tree order’.

The educated classes criticized or mocked the influence of such persons throughout the whole period; they could be prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1736, which, while denying that magic had any reality, imposed penalties on anybody who publicly claimed to practise it, this being regarded as a form of fraud. Such prosecutions were rare, and were generally brought by dissatisfied clients who thought themselves cheated.

Owen, 2003;Thomas, 1971: 177–252;Sharpe, 1996: 66–70;Maple, 1960;Davies, 1997; Davies, 1998;Davies, 1999 6: 27–91.

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