The Cunning Folk (a.k.a. witches) in Britain
It is no secret that people are fascinated by witches.
Don’t look at me like that; we both know it’s true.
Uh-huh….So, you’re telling me that the triquetra pendant hidden in your jewelry box is not actually there…And you haven’t binged-watched “Charmed” at least half a dozen times…
Yeah, yeah, I’m totally buying that…
Oh, come on! It can’t be just me!
In any case, you witchy liar, there is no doubt that the matter of witches has always been of great interest.
Have you ever wondered why that is? What is about witches and witchcraft that we find so incredibly irresistible?
In two words: personal empowerment.
As human beings, we interact with the environment around us and affect it through our bodies as extensions of our minds. But the thing is, we are never satisfied with the simplistic nature of these interactions. We are aware of the limitations of our human nature and that has always been a driving force for us as a race to look for other ways to affect our environment in a more impactful way.
Witchcraft is -allegedly- another way, a “tool” if you will, to impact the environment in a way so unique that simple, everyday folk like us can’t wrap our minds around it. It surpasses the wonders of mechanics as there is no external connection, the power of witchcraft extends from an internal world, bypassing the need to learn complex machinery or spend years laboring over physics and math textbooks.
According to supposed witches themselves, the fountain of their power lies within, deep inside a person’s psyche.
And that’s where its “forbidden” nature stems from.
Given witchcraft’s alleged ability to give profound personal power to a person, any governing group, political or religious, that gives power to a select few, was bound to see such a notion as a threat to their own governance and thus immediately deem it “wrong.”
In Medieval Europe, when the clergy was the governing group with the most sway in society, witchcraft and its aforementioned empowering of individuals, was an immediate threat to the status quo. Thus, witchcraft was instantaneously connected to the figure of Satan and the legions of demons that would drag anyone who dared dabble in it to a painful and fiery eternity of suffering in the pits of Hell.
As you probably already know -even though all these stories about special powers, devil worshiping and kid-snatching were completely unfounded- these ideas spread like wildfire among the illiterate population and being accused of witchcraft soon became one of the worst fates one could experience. And of course, the women bore the brunt of the impact as accusations of witchcraft were thrown left and right. In reality, those were mostly poor, everyday women.
It is believed that the consumption of hallucinogens, as well as the symptoms of autoimmune or other diseases, were often to blame for such unfortunate accusations. What people simply couldn’t explain back then was immediately deemed “unnatural” and “dangerous.”
Certainty of death, zero chances of survival (Goodie, sign me up…).
Behind the stereotypical broomstick-flying hag lies a dark history of trials, persecution, and torture that claimed the lives of hundreds of men and women.
Witchcraft in Britain
No one was safe from an accusation of witchcraft, even clergymen. However, marginalized women bore the brunt of the accusations – particularly elderly spinsters, widows, and those living alone. In fact, 80% of those tried in Britain were women.
Begging, a standard method of survival, lay at the root of many witchcraft allegations, and beggars were often blamed for misfortunes that occurred after they were refused help. More often than not, accusations of witchcraft resulted from neighborly disagreements, inextricably bound to a deep-rooted fear of malevolent magic and the devil.
As stories of continental trials spread and as the new witchcraft laws filtered down through society, some took it upon themselves to lead the witch hunts, gathering evidence before trial as self-proclaimed “witchfinder generals”. The most notorious of these in England was a Puritan called Matthew Hopkins who launched an unprecedented campaign of terror against suspected English witches during the 1640s.
These self-proclaimed English “witch-hunters” lead to at least 300 trials and the death of at least 100 people, though it is suspected that the body count was in fact much larger.
After a while, it became almost common practice for people to accuse their adversaries of witchcraft knowing full-well the fate that awaited those poor souls.
Did you steal my chicken? Witch!
Your cow is producing more milk than mine? Witch!
The man I want pays more attention to you? Witch!
Those pimples disappeared from your skin faster than mine? WITCH!
And now here comes the interesting (and bone-chilling) part: How did they determine when someone was a witch?
Well, my dear traitor (don’t think that I’ve forgotten about your earlier betrayal), by utilizing a variety of very imaginative and very accurate (sarcasm, much?) methods, of course!
For one, torture.
Ah, good ol’ torture to the rescue for these self-proclaimed witch hunters!
Though the use of torture to extract confessions was illegal in England, Ireland and Wales, it was still used by people like Hopkins on a local level. Of course, the opposition to such methods was zero, considering how fearful people were and there was always the possibility that they would be accused of witchcraft and dancing with satanic imps too.
(Admit it, you pictured a dancing imp too.)
Another popular method was that of swimming.
And no, it was not an all-inclusive holiday at a resort with a swimming pool.
The alleged witch’s right thumb was tied to their left big toe and they would be thrown in a body of water. If they floated, they were guilty of being satanic worshippers who rejected their purification through water as a form of reverse baptism and an insult to the Holy Trinity. (“Horrible History”, Macdonald Young Books, 1996 )
If they sank, they were innocent. But still dead. From drowning. Who knew…
Have you ever heard of the witch trial with the Bible? Oh, trust me, this is a good one!
The accused was tied and placed on a scale with a bible on the other end. And all that above a body of water (notice a pattern?). If the accused was lighter than the Bible, then they were promptly executed as a witch. If, on the other hand, they were heavier than the Bible, they were promptly sunk in the water. (“Horrible History”, Macdonald Young Books, 1996 )
I bet you didn’t see that coming!
Among others, witch tests included asking the accused to cry. If they failed…I bet you know how that went. They were also asked to pray, and a single mispronounced word could land them at the stake.
It was believed that witches always had a demonic spirit accompanying them on their various nefarious endeavors (including the dancing with the imps, don’t forget about that one!), and that demonic spirit usually transformed into an animal, like a bird or cat. Since it was thought that witches nurtured these demons-turned-cute-animals with their own blood, people like Hopkins, were always on the lookout for the “Devil’s Mark”, as they called it. Any old scar, birthmark, or even bug bite could be used to “prove” one’s ties to witchcraft. (“Horrible History”, Macdonald Young Books, 1996 )
Picture this: late 18th-century witch-hunters and the modern day tattoo trend!
The Cunning Folk or Witches in Britain of the early 19th century
The cunning folk were professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic in Britain, active from the medieval period through the early twentieth century. As cunning folk, they practiced folk magic – also known as “low magic” – although often combined with elements of “high” or ceremonial magic, which they learned through the study of grimoires.
Primarily using spells and charms as a part of their profession, they were most commonly employed to use their magic in order to combat malevolent witchcraft, to locate criminals, missing persons or stolen property, for fortune telling, for healing, for treasure hunting and to influence people to fall in love.
Although the British cunning folk were in almost all cases Christian themselves, certain Christian theologians and Church authorities believed that, being practitioners of magic, the cunning folk were in league with the Devil and as such were akin to the more overtly Satanic and malevolent witches.
It was in nineteenth-century Scotland that an agricultural organization that acted as both a trade union and a magical fraternity known as the Society of the Horseman’s Word was founded. Its members, whilst not being cunning folk, practiced folk magic, and soon an English alternative, the Society of Horsemen, was also founded. The spread of such magical groups and their ideas could be seen in the diffusion of the toad bone rite, which was used by such horseman’s groups and various cunning folk, and examples of which could be found scattered across Britain.
At the start of the nineteenth century, the popularity of cunning folk continued, and there was still a large and lucrative market for their services, for instance in 1816, there were eight different wise women working independently in the English coastal town of Whitby.
Nonetheless, the nineteenth century also saw an increase in the numbers of those cunning folk being prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.
Soon after this, in 1824, a new law commonly referred to as the Vagrancy Act of 1824 was introduced, bringing about a further blow to the cunning profession by outlawing “persons pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means and device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose.” The enacting of the law led to the increased prosecutions of cunning folk, something that would only begin to wane in the 1910s.
The Enlightenment, which travelled through Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and emphasized the importance of reason, spelled the end of the period of witch trials. The laws against the crime of witchcraft were eventually repealed.
However, ill-sentiment to those deemed to use black magic did not entirely disappear. In the absence of legal options, communities occasionally took matters into their own hands and attacked suspected witches. For example, in 1808, an angry mob in Cambridgeshire assaulted a young woman named Ann Izzard, who was accused of being a witch. They beat her in the face and stomach with a club and scratched her arms to draw blood.
Right through to the 19th century, magic and witchcraft were still very much a part of everyday life, and although trials by swimming were frowned upon in the eyes of the law, they continued to be used by the population at large long after the repeal of the witchcraft statutes in 1736.
The last recorded case of swimming in England occurred in the village of Sible Hedingham in 1863 when an elderly man by the name of Dummy was dragged from the taproom in The Swan public house to a nearby brook. The man, who was deaf and dumb, gained a living by telling fortunes and was a figure of curiosity in the village. He was accused of bewitching the wife of the beerhouse owner, Emma Smith, who complained that she had been ill for some ten months.
Despite the official ending of the trials for satanic witchcraft, there would still be occasional unofficial killings of those accused in parts of Europe as recently as the early 20th century.
But fear not, guys and gals!
The witch trials have long since ended and with pop culture adding more and more witches and wizards to its arsenal, the cunning folk have become much friendlier faces than they were in the past.
So, by all means, continue to mumble Harry Potter spells when no one is listening!
And take that triquetra pendant out from that box, will you?!
Written by Hanna Hamilton