The True Nature and Business of Cunning-Folk

Murrell's_Magic_Book

A late 18th-century Magic Book

I’ve been reading and thinking a good deal about 18th century Cunning-Folk. The first discovery I’ve made is simple: I knew a great deal less about who Cunning-Folk were and what they did than I thought I knew.

What made someone part of the group of local, ‘alternative’ practitioners known as Cunning-Folk? Where did they get their power and authority? What did they believe about themselves? More importantly, what did their clients and the people amongst whom they moved believe about them? What did they even do? Were they all quacks and charlatans; little more than confidence tricksters or stage magicians, who preyed on people’s gullibility?

These are some of the questions I’m going to try to answer in a series of blogs during the coming months include:

  • Who were these Cunning-Folk? How did you gain this reputation?
  • What did they do for people?
  • What cultural beliefs and context allowed them to operate?
  • How did they relate to the orthodox medical practitioners of the time?
  • How did they fit into what was supposedly an overwhelmingly Christian country?
  • How did they differ from witches and warlocks — always supposing they did?

I’ve already featured a Cunning Woman in my two most recent Ashmole Foxe Mysteries. She’s in “Bad Blood Will Out” and she also appears in the following book, “Black as She’s Painted”. However, neither delves deeply into her activities. In one sense, this is fair. What I have discovered suggests that the ‘high tide’ of the Cunning-Folk occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries, with a slow decline thereafter, as an increasing emphasis on rationality and science replaced mystical and supernatural explanations of natural phenomena.

The Cunning-Folk may have faded from our lives, but they never went away entirely. The more I discover about them and their activities, the more similar much of it appears to today’s booming industry in alternative medicine and life-styles. Orthodox medicine and state interventions may have triumphed on the surface. Look more closely, however, and you could argue that the Cunning-Folk are having the last laugh!

In that vein, here’s an excerpt from the “Norfolk Chronicle” for Saturday, 1st April 1815:

At the trial of Lucy Black, for robbing Robt. James, the following peculiar circumstances were detailed. The prisoner, it appeared, was the grand-daughter of the prosecutor’s wife, and resided with the prosecutor. The whole family went to the meeting house on the March instant, but the prisoner not being quite ready, did not go with the prosecutor, but remained in the house herself, and arrived at the meeting-house, which was at a considerable distance, within a few minutes after the prosecutor. On their return home, the prisoner observed to the prosecutor, that she saw a light in his dwelling, which was then above mile distant. The prosecutor also, saw a light, but could not discern at what house. When they got home, they found two squares of the outside window broken, as if for the purpose of getting in a hand open the casement, and a briar bush under the window was partly cut away and much trampled down. Upon entering the house they found the things scattered about, chest broken open, guineas missing thereout. A very extraordinary stratagem of the prisoner led to the suspicion of her having committed this robbery, during short time that she remained in the house after the prosecutor was gone to the meeting-house. She related to her grandmother shortly after, that she had been to the cunning woman, Lucy, who had told her that the bigger half of the money would be returned the next day, at about the same hour that it was stolen. At about eight o’clock on the following evening, the prisoner said she heard a noise and went into the garden to make out what it was. Shortly afterwards, she returned, and said she saw somebody in a dark coat fly over the garden gate, upon which the prosecutor went out to see this extraordinary sight. He did not see the dark coated Genius, but the prisoner took this opportunity for picking up a paper parcel at the door containing eleven guineas, which she took to her grandmother, observing that the fortune-teller’s prediction had come true.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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9 Responses to The True Nature and Business of Cunning-Folk

  1. noelleg44 says:

    Sorry it has taken me so long to getting to reading this – I let thing slip abysmally when I am in the thick of writing! I do love your introduction to the cunning woman in the Ashmole Fox series. Would you consider having a Cunning Woman as the centerpiece of another series?

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    • The next Adam Bascom book, which is now in its final production stage, also contains a Cunning Woman (of a kind). If she proves popular with readers (I like her a lot), she may very well have her own series one day.

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  2. Hilary says:

    Interesting that the Cunning Folk are a post-dissolution phenomenon. I wonder how much the ousting of the monastic herbalists and doctors had to do with it, and how much of our modern idea of doctoring as a secular field of study regulated by the state – its removal from the religious sphere entirely – had to do with the dissolution, the forcible removal from the daily lives of ordinary people of the monks and the medieval monastic culture. We remember that the description you give of them as having wisdom gained from natural and “mystical” sources fits quite well a figure like Abbess Hildegarde on the continent. How many of these people would have been trained in their craft of healing in monasteries and ended up using these skills as a way to find a place in local villages, and how many were local people trained by former monks?

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    • Thank you for this extremely interesting suggestion. I suspect Cunning Folk were around even in the time of the monasteries, but I don’t know for certain. However, I’m sure you’re correct in saying the monasteries once provided similar help to the poor.

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      • Hilary says:

        It certainly seems reasonable to believe that the knowledge of the healing properties of various plants and minerals would have been known to man since our hunter-gatherer days. The archaeological evidence certainly supports this. (In fact, ancient peoples knew surgical techniques as well as things like bone-setting techniques as the skeletons of the survivors attest.) There is no reason to think that this knowledge was a kind of exclusive and guarded reserve of monastic practitioners, but monastic life – providing daily structured time for work and study as it did – would be uniquely suited to developing these skills and knowledge to a substantially higher degree than could be possible by laymen, whose daily concerns would have necessarily reduced their ability to focus attention on the subject. It’s certainly well documented that the monks were able to develop much in the way of agricultural techniques, engineering – they drained most of the swamplands of Europe turning them into arable farmland – and all manner of other useful skills. In Italy, not far from Nursia where St. Benedict and Scolastica were born, is the monastery of San Eutizio that predates the twins of Norcia, and is thought to be a place where they went as children and teenagers to receive instruction in the spiritual life. San Eutizio is also the place known for being the “cradle of medicine” – a school of surgeons was established there and the techniques were developed by monks who helped teach local laypeople who to care for the pigs that were such an important part of the economy of the Valnerina.

        I have a copy of Hildegarde’s book “Physica” and admittedly some of the information and medical recipes in it were fanciful to say the least, it wouldn’t have taken long for certain remedies to reveal useful results – and if nothing else, it shows clearly that the systematic study of plants and minerals were of immense interest and importance to monastics of the period.

        We of course make a mistake in thinking there was a great social separation between the monks and the laity, since monks would have come from the local population with few exceptions and been wholly integrated into the daily life of the people. The concept of “learned men” being somehow “too high” to interact in a meaningful way with the community was an invention of later, less civilised, more materialist ages.

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  3. Hilary says:

    Interesting that the Cunning Folk are a post-dissolution phenomenon. I wonder how much the ousting of the monastic herbalists and doctors had to do with it, and how much the idea of our modern idea of doctoring as a secular field of study regulated by the state – its removal from the religious sphere entirely – had to do with the dissolution, the forcible removal from the daily lives of ordinary people of the monks and the medieval monastic culture. We remember that the description you give of them as having wisdome gained from natural and “mystical” sources fits quite well a figure like Abbess Hildegarde on the continent. How many of these people would have been trained in their craft of healing in monasteries and ended up using these skills as a way to find a place in local villages, and how many were local people trained by former monks?

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  4. Andrew J Furley says:

    Fascinating, I look forward to the reslts of your research. I suspect that the controls excersised by the New Religion has never quite eradicated the old knowledge especially in respect of health and good or bad fortune.

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  5. Sue Roe says:

    What an intriguing story. Was it easy to find in the Chronicle?

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