Cunning folk – Traditionally the cunning man or cunning woman was a person who healed, worked magic, created herbal remedies, provided charms, anti-witch measures, spells, and fortune telling services, they were paid a fee for their work. Cunning (knowledgeable) or (wise), originated from an Old English term kenning, this referred to professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic. Some acquired their gifts through heredity, their magic was a mixed bag of folk medicine and occultism. Folk magic was passed along in oral tradition, and embellished along the way, they employed practical remedies for specific problems. It was believed they could work with supernatural powers in order to increase the effectiveness of their work. In most instances someone could set themselves up as cunning folk, with no particular background or training, although some did come from a background of magical practitioners.
Up until the mid nineteenth century there were several thousand cunning folk working in England, and although there was a higher ratio of men, the women were successful in their role. Many of the cunning folk working in Britain kept their ordinary line of work, while earning money as a professional cunning man or woman to boost their income. Most cunning men and woman were solitary practitioners and employed a variety of magical implements.
Some kept animal familiars and supernatural entities, known as familiar spirits, they were considered to be benevolent and helpful. It was believed the familiar spirit took the cunning person on a visionary journey to a place called Elfhame, (elf- home). In this trip the cunning folk’s soul would go with the familiar on a journey into a hill, to a great subterranean fairy hall, while there they would encounter fairies led by the king and queen, and take part in a feast.
As most local clients were poor, fees for magical services were small. Their fees were much higher when a member of the aristocracy sought them out, and this was often to do with matters associated with love, money and bewitchment. The cunning men and cunning women who worked for the aristocracy, were much better off financially than those who only treated villagers. Some cunning folk received annuities, and others took a percentage of all stolen goods found through divination.
They were particularly popular for their charms, which they recited during their spell casting and divination work. They also created specific and very expensive charms for the aristocrats, writing down magical words in order to conjure, love, money, fertility and prosperity. The charms were sometimes written on parchment or paper, sewn into a bag, and either placed in the clients home, or carried about by them. By employing a variety of divination tools the cunning person was able to tell a person’s fortune and divine the name of their future love. They were often consulted to cast spells or charms to ensure a spouse’s fidelity and to find lost items. Some cunning folk claimed to have the ability to locate lost treasure, the cunning man or woman was called upon to overcome through magical means, the demon, spirit or fairy that was guarding it.
The cunning folk were especially adept in creating charms that would repel or break the spells of other witches blamed for bewitchment. They were the only healers to offer a package of anti-witch measures and were especially effective curing malevolent sorcery. They were also called upon to protect, heal and locate lost animals, and to care for crops. The cunning folk used a wide variety of methods to heal their clients, using various herbs, plants, the laying on of hands, and conducting elaborate ceremonies. They practiced folk magic, known as low magic, and ceremonial magic known as high magic, their role was to attend to the physical and spiritual needs of their client.
Cunning folk flourished up until the late 17th century, this was a time when belief in magic was high, they took the role of unofficial police and were believed to be a deterrent to crime, and when crimes were committed a cunning man or cunning woman was consulted to divine the guilty party. From the 18th century onwards their place in society continued, and carried on into modern times, especially in rural areas. Many cunning folk operated in a very competitive market, and would often travel great distances to visit their clients, their profile was very important to them. They used crystal balls and scrying bowls in their work, also astrology and numerology. A Grimoire was a most coveted item and those who owned one added to their profile. Although they were predominantly solitary practitioners, there were some families who approached it as a magical business.
British Cunning folk were referred to as wizards, wise men, wise women, conjurers, pellars, charmers and white witch, and in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods Britain was a place where folk magic was very popular. In France, the terms devins-guerisseurs and leveurs de sorts were used to describe cunning folk. In the Netherlands they were referred to as toverdokters or duivelbanners, in Germany Hexenmeisters, and in Denmark kloge folk. In Spain they were curanderos and in Portugal they were known as saludadores. Cunning folk and their use of white magic for healing and as a protection against black magic, was widespread in Germany. The primary role of the Italian cunning folk was healing,with the use of herbs and spiritual healing, their spiritual healing was believed to come from an inner power, known as la forza (power), la virtu (virtue) or il Segno (the sign), they were also consulted to remove curses.
Because of the usefulness of cunning folk, they were able to practice their magic as an open secret, and quietly conducted their business in such a way they avoided anti-magic and anti-witchcraft laws. They met with little interference from authorities, who chose to ignore them unless there was a specific complaint. The cunning folk were often denounced during religious gatherings, but because of their popularity and usefulness, were never pursued. During the time of the Inquisition, cunning folk became vulnerable targets, but in spite of this there was a huge amount of public support for them, because they were so important to those who required their services.
The disparity between witches and the cunning folk, was that witches were seen to do harm, and cunning folk were seen to be useful and provide a valid service. Cunning folk were active from the Medieval period through to the early twentieth century, when it is believed the declining belief in malevolent witchcraft, did away with the need for anti-witchcraft measures, which was a primary service offered by the cunning folk.