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Cunning folk

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Cunning folk

Folk healers, in England also known as cunning folk or (more rarely) as white witches are practitioners of folk medicine, folk magic, and divination within the context of the various traditions of folklore in Christian Europe (from at least the 15th up until at least the early 20th century).

Names given to folk healers or magicians in parts of Western Europe include the French devins-guérisseurs and leveurs de sorts and the Dutch toverdokters or duivelbanners, the German Hexenmeister or Kräuterhexen, the Spanish curanderos, Portuguese curandeiros/as, benzedeiros/as or mulheres de virtude (this last one applies only to females, translating as "women of virtue"), and the Danish kloge folk,[1] Swedish klok gumma ("wise old woman") or a klok gubbe ("wise old man"),[2][2][3][4][5][6] Slavic Vedmak. Some historians and folklorists opted to apply the term "cunning folk" as an umbrella term for the entire range of the phenomenon.[7][1]


The Swedish cunning woman Gertrud Ahlgren of Gotland (1782-1874), drawing by Pehr Arvid Säve 1870.

In Scandinavia the klok gumma ("wise woman") or klok gubbe ("wise man"), and collectively De kloka ("The Wise ones"), as they were known in Swedish, were usually elder members of the community who acted as folk healers and midwives as well as using folk magic such as magic rhymes.[8] In Denmark, they were called klog mand ("wise man") and klog kone ("wise woman") and collectively as kloge folk ("wise folk").[9]

Many Norwegian[10] and Danish[10][11] practitioners of folk magic and medicine would have a copy of the "Svartebok" (or "black book"), a tome that, according to some, was written by Cyprianus, that is, Archbishop Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus of Antioch,[10][11] and by others to have been the Sixth and Seventh books of the Bible (or "Books of Moses" as the Pentateuch is known in Norway) that were left out of the official Old Testament by the learned so that the common folk would not learn the knowledge held within the text.[10] A formulary found in a "black book" recovered from a farm near Elverum contains many formulas such as one for a toothache that commands the user of the charm to write the words "Agerin, Nagerin, Vagerin, Jagerin, Ipagerin, Sipia" on a piece of paper using a new pen, cut the paper into three small pieces, place the first piece onto the tooth in the evening and in the morning spit the piece into the fire. This should then be repeated with the other pieces.[12] Another charm used for helping a woman who is having a difficult labour says to take two white lily roots and give them to the mother to eat.[12]

There is an old idea that it was "Klok gumma" who often fell victim to the Witch Trials in the 17th century, but this does not appear to be true. However, some "wise women" and "wise men" were punished, not for witchcraft but often under the indictment point of "superstition" (Swedish: "Vidskepelse").[8] In the 1670s, the wise man Johan Eriksson of Knutby was sentenced to seven gauntlet for "superstition", and again in the 1680s to nine.[8] Per Ericsson of Dalarna, who read the diseases in wine, was punished both in 1720 and 1726.[8] Brita Biörn of Gotland said in court that she learned to heal the sick when she spent some time in the underworld, and she was sentenced to prison terms in both 1722 and 1737.[8] The punishment of Sweden's "cunning folk" only seemed to have the opposite effect. Ericsson said that his clients had been coming in greater numbers after the rulings against him, and that he would be forced to hide if he was to obey the court and refrain from his practice, and in the Biörn case, the vicar complained that people from throughout the country came to seek her help, and relied on her as a God after her first sentence.[8] The sentences, in reality, had the effect of good advertising, and Brita's daughter and granddaughter's daughter were also healing women.[8]

There are many examples of well-known "cunning folk" who were known far beyond their village boundaries, such as [13]

The customs persisted well into the 20th century, until the medical doctor became more accessible to the public.[3][4] In the 19th century, every neighbourhood in Norway had at least one folk-healer.[13] Such beliefs in folk-medicine, magic, and the use of "black books" were taken by migrants to the Americas. However, many beliefs died out in Norwegian-American communities around the 1920s with many not having knowledge of the subject or of the "black book". Knowledge of these beliefs did last longer in Norway, even if they were not commonly believed in by Norwegians.[10]


The term "cunning man" or "cunning woman" was most widely used in southern England and the Midlands, as well as in Wales.[14] Such people were also frequently known across England as "wizards", "wise men" or "wise women",[14] or in southern England and Wales as "conjurers"[14] or as "dyn(es) hysbys" in the Welsh language.[15] In Cornwall they were sometimes referred to as "pellars", which some etymologists suggest originated from the term "expellers", referring to the practice of expelling evil spirits.[14] Folklorists often used the term "white witch", though this was infrequently used amongst the ordinary folk as the term "witch" had general connotations of evil.[16]

Certain Christian theologians and Church authorities believed that the cunning folk, being practitioners of magic, were in league with the Devil and as such were akin to the more overtly Satanic and malevolent witches. Partly due to this, laws were enacted across England, Scotland and Wales that often condemned cunning folk and their magical practices, but there was no widespread persecution of them akin to the Witch Hunt, largely because most common people firmly distinguished between the two: witches were seen as being harmful and cunning folk as useful.[17]

In England during the Early Mediaeval period, various forms of folk magic could be found amongst the Anglo-Saxons, who referred to such practitioners as wicca (male) or wicce (female), or at times also as dry, practitioners of drycraeft, the latter of which have been speculated as being anglicised terms for the Irish drai, a term referring to druids, who appeared as anti-Christian sorcerers in much Irish literature of the period.[18]

Some of the spells and charms that had been used in the Anglo-Saxon polytheist era continued to be used following Christianization. However, as historian Owen Davies noted, "although some such pre-Christian magic continued, to label it pagan is to misrepresent the people who used it and the context in which it was used."[19]

In England and Wales, cunning folk had operated throughout the latter part of the Mediaeval and into the Early Modern period. In the 15th and 16th centuries, there had been no attempt to illegalise the cunning craft, although private lawsuits had been brought against some of them by those clients who felt that they had been cheated out of their money. This changed with the Witchcraft Act of 1542, enacted under the reign of Henry VIII, which targeted both witches and cunning folk, and which prescribed the death penalty for such crimes as using invocations and conjurations to locate treasure or to cast a love spell.[20] This law was repealed no later than 1547, under the reign of Henry's son Edward VI, something that the historian Owen Davies believed was due to those in power changing their opinion on the law: they believed that either the death penalty was too harsh for such crimes or that the practice of the cunning craft was a moral issue that was better for the Church to deal with in ecclesiastic courts rather than a problem that had to be sorted out by the state.[21]

A model of a 19th-century cunning woman in her house, at the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle in England.

For the following few decades, the magical practices of the cunning folk remained legal, despite opposition from certain religious authorities. It was a time of great religious upheaval in the country as Edward's successor, his sister Mary I, reimposed Roman Catholicism, before Anglicanism was once again restored under Elizabeth I. In 1563, after the return of power to the Anglican Church of England, a bill was passed by parliament designed to illegalise "Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts", again being aimed at both the alleged witches and the cunning folk. However, this law was not as harsh as its earlier predecessor, with the death penalty being reserved for those who were believed to have conjured an evil spirit or murdered someone through magical means, whilst those for whom the use of magic was a first offence faced a year's imprisonment and four stints in the pillory.[22] Nonetheless, this law would have little effect on the cunning folk, as "the attention and focus of the courts shifted away from the activities of cunning-folk and towards the maleficium of supposed witches"[23] - the Witch Hunt that had been raging in Scotland and in many parts of continental Europe had finally arrived in England.

Whilst across England, many people were accused of witchcraft by members of their local communities and put on trial, the cunning folk very rarely suffered a similar fate. It was unusual for a cunning man or woman to actually be accused of witchcraft; in the county of Essex for instance, whereas around four hundred people had been put on trial for witchcraft, only four of those were identifiably cunning folk.[24] However, many of the professional witch-hunters and theologians continued to proclaim the cunning craft as being the same as witchcraft, with them both being caused by the Devil.

With the decline in the witch trials in the latter part of the 17th and early 18th centuries, partly due to the rise of the Enlightenment amongst the educated elite, a new law was introduced, the Witchcraft Act of 1736. Unlike earlier laws, this did not accept the existence of magic, and took the opinion that there never had been any witches, and it therefore came down heavier on the cunning folk, who were claiming to perform genuine magical spells. It portrayed the cunning folk as practitioners of "explicitly fraudulent practices designed to fool the credulous" in order to gain money off of them.[25]


The belief in cunning folk and the use of "white magic" to be used for healing and as protection against "black magic" was once widespread in Germany,[26][27] however during the early modern period such practices gradually became less accepted by the authorities, partly because the belief in "white magic" was viewed by the church authorities to be contrary to Biblical teachings and partly due to the loss of revenues for certain groups such as barber-surgeons and physicians, as was the case in Rothenburg ob der Tauber in which periodical action was taken against users of "white magic". The usual punishment was banishment rather than execution as was common for others convicted of witchcraft and the use of "black magic" [26]

In Germany practitioners of folk-magic were almost always female, however by contrast the Hexenmeister (also a term for a warlock) or Hexenfinder[28] who hunted witches and "neutralised" them on behalf of society was always male.[29]


The names used for cunning-folk in Italy vary from region to region, although such names include praticos (wise people), guaritori (healers), fattucchiere (fixers), donne che aiutano (women who help) and mago, maga or maghiardzha (sorcerers). At times, they were sometimes called streghe (witches), although usually only "behind their backs or by those who either are sceptical of their powers or believe they deal in black magic."[30] Unlike in other parts of Europe, such as Britain, the cunning profession survived the 20th century and into the early 21st, allowing Italian-American sociologist Sabina Magliocco to make a brief study of them (2009).[31]

As in the rest of Europe, the primary role of the Italian cunning-folk was apparently in healing, both through the use of herbs and through spiritual healing. The former required knowledge about various plants and herbs on the behalf of the cunning-person, although the spiritual healing was believed to come from an inner power, known as la forza (power), la virtù (virtue) or il Segno (the sign).[32] Such healing was often in the form of removing the malocchio, or evil eye, which had cursed someone.[33]

Italian cunning craft was, and continued to remain rooted in the country's Roman Catholicism, which is evident from the use of charms and prayers, which often call upon the aid of saints.[34] Such magical practitioners also widely believed that they dealt with spirit beings, both benevolent (who would aid them) and malevolent (whom they would have to combat). The latter included the unquiet dead as well as supernatural witches who were believed to cause harm to people, whilst the former included ancestors, the helpful dead and saints, who could help defeat these malevolent entities.[35] Magical tools were also utilised by Italian cunning-folk, and whilst these varied between both regions and practitioners, these commonly include fiber ropes or cords to bind, knives or scissors to cut away illness, and mirrors and weapons to reflect or scare away malevolent spirits.[36]

See also


  1. ^ a b Davies 2003. p. 163.
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ a b Signum svenska kulturhistoria, Stormaktstiden
  4. ^ a b Jan-Inge Wall, Hon var engång tagen under jorden
  5. ^ Wicked arts: witchcraft and magic trials in southern Sweden, 1635-1754 By Per Sörlina
  6. ^ Witchcraft and magic in Europe: the 20th centuryby Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra, Willem de Blécourt, Brian Levack, Ronald Hutton, Jean Sybil La Fontaine and Roy Porter, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1999, ISBN 0-485-89106-9, ISBN 978-0-485-89106-5
  7. ^ De Blécourt 1994.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Jacob Christenssen (Swedish): Signums svenska kulturhistoria. Stormaktstiden (Signum Swedish Culturhistory. The Great Power Era) (2005)
  9. ^ Healing by hand: manual medicine and bonesetting in global perspective Kathryn S. Oths, Servando Z. Hinojosa, Rowman Altamira, 2004, ISBN 0-7591-0393-3, ISBN 978-0-7591-0393-1. p.05
  10. ^ a b c d e Remedies and rituals: folk medicine in Norway and the New Land by Kathleen Stokker, Minnesota Historical Society, 2007, ISBN 0-87351-576-5, ISBN 978-0-87351-576-4. p.75-76
  11. ^ a b H.P. Hansen: Kloge Folk - Folkemedicin og overtro i Vestjylland (Rosenkilde og Bagger 1960)
  12. ^ a b Remedies and rituals: folk medicine in Norway and the New Land by Kathleen Stokker, Minnesota Historical Society, 2007, ISBN 0-87351-576-5, ISBN 978-0-87351-576-4. p.78
  13. ^ a b Remedies and rituals: folk medicine in Norway and the New Land by Kathleen Stokker, Minnesota Historical Society, 2007, ISBN 0-87351-576-5, ISBN 978-0-87351-576-4. p.23
  14. ^ a b c d Hutton 1999. p. 85.
  15. ^ Davies 2003. p. 184.
  16. ^ Hutton 1999. p. 86.
  17. ^ Davies 2003. p. 07-13.
  18. ^ Hutton 2009. p. 47.
  19. ^ Davies 2003. p. 185.
  20. ^ Davies 2003. p. 04.
  21. ^ Davies 2003. p. 05.
  22. ^ Davies 2003. p. 06-07.
  23. ^ Davies 2003. p. 07.
  24. ^ Davies 2003. p. 13.
  25. ^ Davies 2003. p. 20-21.
  26. ^ a b Witchcraft narratives in Germany: Rothenburg 1561-1652Alison Rowlands, Manchester University Press, 2003 ISBN 0-7190-5259-9, ISBN 978-0-7190-5259-0, p.72-73
  27. ^ Lucifer ascending: the occult in folklore and popular culture Bill Ellis, University Press of Kentucky, 2004, ISBN 0-8131-2289-9, ISBN 978-0-8131-2289-2
  28. ^ Beleg laut dem Deutschen Rechtswörterbuch in: Basler Jahrbuch 1935, Seite 41 und in: Hessische Geschichte und Landeskunde Heft 2, Band 48/1932, Seite 44
  29. ^ Lucifer ascending: the occult in folklore and popular culture Bill Ellis, University Press of Kentucky, 2004, ISBN 0-8131-2289-9, ISBN 978-0-8131-2289-2, p.22
  30. ^ Magliocco 2009. p. 114.
  31. ^ Magliocco 2009.
  32. ^ Magliocco 2009. p.114-116.
  33. ^ Magliocco 2009. p.123.
  34. ^ Magliocco 2009. p. 104.
  35. ^ Magliocco 2009. p.117-118
  36. ^ Magliocco 2009. p.120.
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