Who are Cunning Folk, and do they exist today? Cunning folk (both women and men) have been around for centuries, and the term ‘cunning’ was entitled to these people as far back as the 1400’s (AD). When we think of the cunning woman (or man) we usually think of a poor peasant woman healing the sick with herbs, acting as midwife, or tending to sick animals and so forth. Indeed, cunning folk were all these but a lot more. The term ‘cunning’ did not have the same connotation as it does today, back then it meant someone who is skilful and knowledgeable. But they were also known as many other things depending on where their area of expertise lay. Not only that, they were not only peasants but also people of high status too. Titles that they were known by were wise man/woman, cunning man/woman, witch, wizard (for men), conjurer, charmer, magician, wight, necromancer, seer, blesser, cantel, soothsayer, fortune-teller, girdle-measurer, enchanter, incantrix (for women) and many more depending on the village or town where they lived, as these titles tended to be geographical in nature. Practically every village or town had a cunning man or woman often families of them, where their arts were passed down orally from mother to daughter, or father to son. They were honoured for their wisdom and knowledge; when they spoke, people listened. Such men and women carried on the beliefs and traditions handed down to them through the centuries – those of their traditions and that of the land and of nature. The practices of these women and men had much in common with shamans and witch doctors around the world- a belief that we are surrounded by spirits and that we can commune with them, that the land is alive and must be honoured and cared for, that our actions affect the world around us and we must seek to live in harmony with it, that we are part of the ebb and flow of the seasons and must perform certain actions at the correct time.
Famous cunning folk of old are numerous. Some examples are that of George Pickingill (1816-1909) was a well-known cunning man who practiced his art in the Essex village of Canewdon. Julia of Brandon, who had lived in a village north of Thetford in Norfolk. In Essex, from 1812 to 1860, nearby Hadleigh was the home of James Murrell, called Cunning Murrell, the seventh son of a seventh son. Robert Berewold from St Mildred Poultry, who was accused of theft in 1382. John Harries (1785–1839) from Cwrt y Cadno in Wales and Mother Merne from Milborne Down in Dorset. These are just a handful, yet research has shown that men actually made up two-thirds of all cunning folk. For every famous cunning man or woman there were probably many more who went about their business out of the public eye.
Now we come onto that word ‘business’ because contrary to popular Wiccan belief these old cunning folk did in fact charge for their services, either financially or by bartering. It is a popular notion today that one should not charge for magical or healing services yet this is not traditional. Remember, many cunning folk were poor and had to eat and find shelter, so charging something for services rendered was perfectly acceptable and expected. It is the same for us today – those who perform magical or healing services should be expected to charge for their services and it is not against any pagan law to do so.
Cunning Folk practiced in all kinds of ways – some were experts in plant lore (or wort cunning), some had a great knowledge in astrology or divination (also weather magic), and others cast all kinds of spells on behalf of their customers. What most of these earlier cunning folk had in common was their reliance on folk magic and amalgamation of earlier times such as druidic and Anglo-Saxon practices. In England during the Early Medieval 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 (there is speculation among historians that this was the anglicised term for the Irish drai, meaning Druid). Even after Christianisation, cunning folk would still hold onto their ways because magic is energy and perfectly natural.
So what about today? Well, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the number of cunning folk across Britain had dropped markedly from that of a century before, and by the 1940s they had essentially vanished from the country. Despite this, other professional practitioners of popular magic, such as astrologers and fortune tellers, continued to remain popular. Historian Owen Davies suggests that the reason for the decline in the cunning craft was the declining belief in the existence of witchcraft in the country brought about by modernization and increasing education and literacy rates. however, I believe that anyone who still utilises folk magic and the healing arts, and is attune to the natural cycles of the seasons can call themselves a cunning man or woman.
Owen Davies – Cunning Folk: Popular Magic in English History
Anna Franklin – Wise Women
Ronald Hutton – The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft
Emma Wilby – Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic