“Cunning Folk”: Witchcraft, Healing and Superstition


“Wise Woman”
(CC) Midnightblueowl

It’s easy to forget that “Cunning Folk” had been a normal part of society from the Middle Ages and continued right through until the start of the 20th century. They included men and women, some practising as healers, some as what we would today call fortune-tellers and others as white witches or wizards.

In the 18th century, orthodox medical practitioners, whether they were physicians, apothecaries or surgeons, were frequently beyond the financial reach of ordinary people. In such cases, the sick turned to the local wise-woman or wise-man, from whom they could expect to receive anything from herbal remedies to amulets and charms against their illness. Love-charms were also a profitable line of business for many of these Cunning Folk, as were charms against witchcraft and the evil eye. Robert Southey wrote this in 1807:

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. (Robert Southey, Letters from England, London, 1807, p. 295.)

Who Were They?

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the majority of Cunning Men seem to have been artisans or tradesmen, as far as we can tell from the sparse evidence. Their other jobs were extremely diverse: stocking-makers, stone-dressers, butchers, blacksmiths, weavers, wheelwrights and shoemakers. Others were more educated: herbalists, schoolmasters, tenant farmers, a parish clerk, a dentist and an apothecary. Cunning Women either had no other form of employment or it was simply not reported. Of the few cases where it was, herbalists and midwives were the most common.

Was The Business Legal?

Not surprisingly, Cunning Folk were viewed with great suspicion by the authorities, both religious and secular. Prosecution was possible under the Witchcraft Act of 1736 (9 Geo. II., c.5), which covered all who pretended “to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, or conjuration, or undertake to tell fortunes”. Yet, at least in the eighteenth century, the law was rarely used against Cunning Folk and and few steps were take to suppress their activities. During the early nineteenth century, however, attitudes began to change and the law was eventually strengthened, perhaps because of the growing influence of the Evangelical movement in the church. While the witch-hunts of the 17th century were generally past, the newspaper extracts below show that Cunning Folk, especially those who cast horoscopes or claimed to be able to foretell the future, were never entirely free from risk.

In an age, and in a country where every idea of superstition is reprobated, we are much surprised to find even a shadow of the ignorance & credulity of the last century remain. A poor man and an old woman in the parish of Reedham, whose knowledge of the world being superior to the narrow conceptions of their neighbours, had acquired to them the character of being of possest [sic] of “the second sight,” were absolutely under the necessity of complying with the usual test of witchcraft, swimming: Tuesday the 7th instant was the day appointed, when a number of people assembled at Reedham Ferry; but the man only went through the operation, the woman being excused on account of proper vouchers appearing to prove — she could not swim. In Lancashire this mode of punishing Satan always proves fatal; for if the victims sink they are drowned, if they float [they are] taken out and burned.

(Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 18 July 1778)

We could not suppose in an age when miracles and witchcraft are equally exploded; at a time when we are boasting of our enlightened understandings and superior judgment compared with our fathers and grandfathers — one could scarcely suppose, I say, that the Roman augurs and soothsayers were outdone by the fortune-tellers of this city; yet it is true that the proficients in astrology, and the pupils of the learned Sibly, abound within our walls. The happy effects of their practice may be anticipated by the conduct of Mary Adams alias Burgess, committed last week for setting fire to the barn, &c. of Mr. Burgess, of Bawburgh, whose nativity [horoscope] cast by one of these conjurors was found in the pocket of the unhappy wretch, promising that she should overcome her enemies if she had patience. (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 8 January 1791)

Practising Folk-Magic

Folk-Magic is almost as vague a term as Cunning Folk, but it included both the laying and removal of curses, finding items that had been lost and love-charms and forecasts of marriage. As a time when sickness and misfortune could arise seemingly without warning or cause, Cunning Folk were also in constant demand to ward off the effects of the evil-eye. Equally, they might provide charms aimed at bringing about some desired outcome — or simply to provide general good luck.

Here’s an example from the Norwich Assizes of 1797, where a couple tried to bring a case for slander, based on the reported words of a Cunning Woman.

A Mrs Whiffen, of Hetherset, having lost seven cheeses, caused an enquiry to be made of a cunning woman to discover the thief. This cunning woman, by the aid of magic, or some other mode of detecting culprits, unknown even in Bow-Street, found out that the offending person had a mark on her nose. Now it happened, unfortunately, for Mrs Bailey that, under this description, her nose betrayed symptoms of her guilt; the defendant [Mrs Wiffen’s husband brought the case], at least, (who is a shoe-maker, at Hetherset) entertained no doubt on this point, and roundly taxed her with the robbery. He told her that “he knew very well by the subscription that was given of her that she was the woman who had stolen the cheese,” and said, that “the guilt was lodged on her, and she could not get it off.” (Norfolk Chronicle, Saturday 12 August 1797)

The judge, finding that the two families were already at daggers drawn before this event, dismissed the case.

It would be a mistake to assume that all folk-wisdom was of this magical kind. Many housewives collected and preserved traditional herbal remedies against common illnesses and ways to deal with nuisances such as insect infestations or having the day’s milking curdle. Remember, people at that time had no knowledge of bacteria. If a vessel appeared clean, but the milk curdled when put into it, it was not entirely irrational to assume some evil outside agency was at work. If a local woman proved particularly careful at recording such useful remedies, then made them available to her neighbours, she might well gain a reputation as a wise woman and earn suitable rewards, whether in cash or kind.

Quack Healers and Sorcerers

One of the principal characters in my latest mystery book, “A Tincture of Secrets and Lies”, is a Quack Healer. They were very common at the time, going from town to town and fair to fair, selling their own patent remedies and nostrums. Many used conjuring tricks to help draw a crowd, dressing themselves in sorcerer’s robes and displaying gruesome objects as charms. It was all part of the entertainment for, like all snake-oil salesman, they knew that showmanship was an essential ingredient in their business.

Not all Cunning Folk were honest either. Here’s a salutary tale, rather reminiscent of many of today’s financial scams perpetrated on the elderly.

A huckster-woman (far beyond the meridian of life) of this city, long the solitary tenant of a cellar, about a fortnight ago, consulted a cunning woman, alias a fortune teller, respecting the good things that the Fates may have in store for her, during the remnant of her pilgrimage through life: — When, among others, the cunning woman told her, if she had any money, and would suffer her only to count it, by lodging it ten days in a certain place, which she should point out, it would increase to double the sum! — This stale trick the credulous creature eagerly swallowed, and soon produced a bag containing ninety pounds, the hard-earned fruits of long and patient toil. — The better to confirm the charm, the deluded woman was persuaded to turn her back upon her duplex friend until she counted it — and still to make “assurance doubly sure,” she actually was prevailed upon to take an oath not to peep into the bag to the expiration of the tenth day. — This done, the bag was carefully lodged, by the hands of the supernatural agent, in a dark retreat, to produce the promised crop; but, alas! it is hardly necessary to add, that, when the tenth day came, and the poor creature eagerly opened the hidden treasure, she found the idol of her soul, her precious gold and silver, transformed into beggarly button-tops and Birmingham halfpence. The shock, it is feared, will prove fatal to her. (Chester Chronicle, Friday 28 March 1794)

Herbalists and Healers

18th-century medicine was largely unregulated and it was not uncommon for people to set themselves up as “doctors” without any specific medical qualifications. Orthodox practitioners struggled to stamp out this practice, but it continued well into the 19th century.

Amongst these unqualified medical practitioners were many Cunning Folk, offering everything from herbal remedies and folk-medicine cures to midwifery. Nor was it only the poor who consulted such people. Some gained local reputations for their skills and would be consulted by people from any level of society. Indeed, since physicians — the most expensive of the orthodox practitioners — often offered little other than bleeding, cupping and purging, and apothecaries mostly sold “cures” based on laudanum and violent purges, it was likely that the cures provided by such unqualified practitioners would be at least as effective, if not more so.

Indeed, the people of the time clearly discriminated between different classes of Quacks or “Bubblers”, as this extract shows:

We have Bubblers in Physick also. For when I see a Pretended Physician pass on haughty Looks, talk much, little to the Purpose, ride the Country round, like a Scotch Peddler, never out of his Way, nor in; to impose upon his Patients by the Artifice of Lying, and Impudence to support his Ignorance; him I may justly call a Bubbler in Physick, because he deceives the World by Arguments of Words only, but in reality wants Skill in his Profession. Of these there are two Sorts, one called Quacks, both Graduate, and Non graduate, who understand something of Physick, as to the Practice thereof, but know nothing of the regular Method when and where proper to give it. These venture at All, let the Patient Dye or Live, so they get the Money. The others sort are call’d Mountebanks, who Practice Physick only upon the Foundation of Lying, Ignorance, and Impudence. (Ipswich Journal, Saturday 17 December 1720)

The value and activities of Cunning Folk is much too large a subject for a single blog post, but I hope that I have given at least an overview of their activities in the 18th-century. In many ways, they foreshadow today’s New Age and Alternative Medicine, both in the remedies they offered and in the dislike, even scorn, their modern counterparts engender in the scientific community and amongst orthodox practitioners. Even so, the tenacity with which they remain a significant part of society shows that they meet a demand today, just as they did 200 years ago and more.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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9 Responses to “Cunning Folk”: Witchcraft, Healing and Superstition

  1. noelleg44 says:

    Loved reading about the cunning folk. There’s a sucker born every minute, isn’t there? Also really enjoyed your latest book…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tessa Candle says:

    This is riveting! 🙂 Brilliant! Thanks for the article!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Enjoyed your latest Bill and have shared it on my Facebook Group Page “Norfolk Tales & Myths” interested in such topics. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating to see that the old ways survived into the Age of Enlightenment

    Liked by 1 person

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