By Sam Stoker
Folk magic in Britain can be traced back to the Mediaeval period, also known as the Middle Ages, which lasted from around the 5th to 15th century CE. Practitioners, cunning folk, were known as cunning men/women, and occasionally white witches (though the word 'witch' held a negative connotation) . These people practiced folk medicine and spellcraft, but were not actually pagan; as Christianity was the ruling religion of the time, they would have been Christian and used prayer and worship of the Christian God in their work.
Most of these people would have been men, but around a third were women and would have been as respected as their male counterparts, a surprising and refreshing thing for a time when women were still mostly viewed as property.
Cunning folk were not to be conflated with witches. Witches were, to Christians, evil and to be feared; cunning folk, on the other hand, were of use to communities and therefore were not classed as witches or hunted in the same way.
Cunning folk had a wide variety of work in the community. Most were to aid people in their day to day lives, but some branched out into what we would call witchcraft today.
Curing disease was often the work of a cunning man or woman, often disease thought to be caused by supernatural means. Many people could not access, or afford to access, the care of standard physicians, and therefore folk medicine was a viable alternative for many. Lifting curses/evildoing created through witchcraft was a regular task alongside healing.
Healing people - and often animals - was the work of the cunning folk. Vets were practically unheard of and doctors were rare so going to the village wise woman/man was an option taken by many in order to cure their ailments. Rudimentary medicine such as bloodletting or use of leeches may have been carried out by these people.
Cunning folk were skilled in the art of herbalism, growing their own plants and knowing what their uses and properties were. They would likely know what natural remedy would help with a headache or have an answer to personal questions.
Divination and fortune telling were widely practiced, including palmistry, astrology, card reading, and scrying using pools, glass, crystal balls and bowls of water were commonplace. People would go to ask their futures, or to find out who their future spouse would be, and they would be given answers in exchange for payment.
Spells and charms would be created using natural materials such as feathers, food/drink, stones, dirt, hair, herbs, and other such items. Charms or talismans could be worn/carried on the person or placed somewhere inside the house or even buried. Spells could be cast whilst the requester was there and could involve reading or reciting words, or creating a concoction of the former style of items. These spells and charms would be for anything from good fortune to bringing love or ensuring fidelity from an existing partner.
Witch bottles were another form of spellwork carried out by cunning folk. Spell ingredients (small items such as feathers, personal possessions, stones etc.) would be placed ubsude a bottle that would then often be buried on a person's property. These bottles are a possible influence for our modern day spell jars - think sour/sweet jar for getting rid of an annoyance or personal problem or enticing a lover/encouraging good luck, and you're about there.
Finding missing people or objects was also a common request, and cunning folk would use their skills of divination in order to locate what was lost.
They were occasionally brought in for assisting with extracting confessions from suspects in trials or civil matters, and the innocent may fear the possibility of witchcraft being used against them and give false confessions in order to escape a perceived worse fate, so cunning folk may not have been the greatest option for true justice.
Cunning folk were occasionally thought to have familiars - just as we would call them today. A familiar would be an animal who would assist its owner in communication with spirits, in some cases fairies, and crossing between realms either with the human or in place of them.
Often from the middle classes and having some ability to read, they often used grimoires - large tomes containing written down spells, instructions on making charms/talismans, and other magical knowledge. These grimoires would have been used as reference, but just as often used simply as decor - a clear reference to their trade lying in their home.
In our modern world, there is no need for cunning folk in most places in Britain any more. We are fortunate enough to have access to healthcare, and it's more widely acknowledged that fortune telling isn't real. The judicial system isn't exactly using witchcraft to get confessions out of people, and while some of what is known of herbalism has been adapted into modern medicine, there is some limited call for what is now known as alternative medicine.
A path considered to be linked closely to that of the cunning folk is hedgewitchery. With their knowledge of spellcraft and herbalism, and their belief to be able to walk the hedge between realms, they do come across as remarkably similar. However, the main difference here is that cunning folk have almost exclusively been Christian throughout history, and hedgewitches nowadays tend to follow a pagan path.
Here at Pagans of the North, we are incredibly lucky to have a cunning woman as a part of our team. Granny Benn has been practicing for many years and her craft has been passed down to her. You can find her insight in each issue in our Expert Panel section.
Owen Davies - Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (2003, ISBN 978-1-85285-297-9)
Ronald Hutton - The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (1999, ISBN 0-19-820744-1)
(cunning woman figure at Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, England)