CUNNING-FOLK: Popular Magic in English History
By Owen Davies, published by Hambledon & London at £19.95. 256pp. HBk. ISBN: 1-85285-297-6
This book fills an enormous gap in the literature about magic and witchcraft in England. Owen's previous book, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951, also covered a huge gap by assessing the evidence of witchcraft for the period following the witch-trials. In this new book he takes studies on cunning-folk to a new level. Most other books which contain information on these wise-people do so almost incidentally while looking at the witch-trials. Here Owen uses numerous case studies of individual cunning-folk from the 16th century onwards, dipping his toe into medieval waters here and there too where appropriate.
The book is structured in a very logical manner. The first chapter deals with cunning-folk and the law. The second assesses the motives of the cunning-folk and exposes some of their more dubious activities (in addition to looking at some of their more benevolent moments). The third chapter looks at what type of person became a cunning-man or woman and why they may have done so. The answer to this one appears to be that being a cunning-person was a well-paid job which commanded respect in the community. The mystique and power associated with it no doubt contributed too. The fourth chapter is all about what kind of services the cunning-person could offer. The whole range of services are described in this chapter from fortune-telling to unbewitching amongst other interesting and unusual things. The fifth chapter I found particularly fascinating because it describes the kind of books that were sought after by cunning-folk for use as reference material. This chapter is a whistle-stop tour of some very interesting occult manuals and chapbooks. The sixth chapter is fairly close to my heart as it deals with written charms, their content, and to some extent, their symbolism. Chapter seven is a comparison with the cunning-folk of other parts of Europe and chapter eight looks at twentieth century cunning-folk.
Owen has used a great deal of fascinating source material to piece together this history of the cunning-folk providing what is clearly the most lucid account of their role in English history yet published. In a more sensational (and slightly less accurate) world this book could have been called 'The White Witch – A History'. Of course we all know that these people were a variety of shades of grey and rarely white or black.
This book is very well worth purchasing and is pretty good value for a hardback. This is one of those books that any self-respecting witch or historian of witchcraft should own in my view. It goes straight to the heart of the topic. Nice one Owen!