Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History by Owen Davies

Much of modern English folk magical practice or folk and traditional witchcraft is rooted in the practices of the historical cunning folk of England. The cunning folk were folk medicinal and magical practitioners who were employed for services such as healing, finding lost goods, divination and fortune-telling, for matters of love, communicating with the dead, and much more. With this book, Owen Davies gives a fascinating and invaluable analysis of the cunning folk in great detail, more than any historian has ever done before.

Davies goes through who the cunning folk were: what type of person could be a cunning man or woman, what did they practice, the what were their beliefs and how did a cunning person differ from other folk magical practitioners at the time such as charmers, girdle measurers or toad doctors. Davies also gives the context to which the cunning folk were useful and a necessity for the common folk, and the decline of these cunning practices as laws against magical practice and witchcraft increased. The author also dives deeper into the analysis of magical practices, by discussing the prevalence of written charms and what type of magic (beneficent or baneful) the cunning folk often employed.

Chapter 5, titled ‘Books’, is especially intriguing, where Owen Davies breaks down the books that the cunning folk would’ve utilised (or not) in their practices. Most information during these times was transmitted orally, and the majority of the common folk, especially in the more rural and poorer areas, were illiterate. Yet the cunning folk would still collect these grimoires and books of magic in order to give a good impression to their potential clients, as literacy meant power. Davies further goes into detail about how influential the cunning folk were in the history of magic, outlining how “it was through the cunning folk that literary and oral traditions of magic merged, and via them that learned magic was distributed more widely.” (pg. 119) The author has done extensive scholarship on grimoires as well, he’s also written a book titled ‘Grimoires: A History of Magic Books’, and you could clearly see his expertise here in this chapter as well.

Following on from this, something to consider is that this is an academic text. Owen Davies is not a magical practitioner – this was confirmed in a talk I attended of his about grimoires last year. The aim of this book is not to be a practitioner-friendly manual to with helpful tips on applying cunning folk to a modern witchcraft or pagan practice. It is a historical and sociological analytical text, which is in itself massively valuable for any modern magical practitioners reconstructing a traditional witchcraft or folk practice.

But all of this is to say, it is not an easy read. There’s academic language and formatting, therefore it may not necessarily accessible to younger or beginner readers. The price may be fairly inaccessible for some as well, where here in England retail price fetches for around £30. However, if you have standard or university library access, it may be worth checking there for this book as I initially read this as an eBook through my university’s library. My general tips for reading this book are to make notes, so you’re re-writing the information in your own words so what you’re learning is more digestible for you and to take your time, bounce between chapters if it helps.

But the academic language and formatting brings plenty positives; the index, citations, references, footnotes, bibliography is all plentiful and wonderful. There’s a 19 page bibliography, which is split into primary and secondary printed sources – so useful for any reader who wants to evaluate a particular topic the author discusses in more detail by looking into further resources. In the physical copy I have, the text isn’t too small (which happens a lot with these academic books) and there’s plenty of margin space so reading it feels easier on the eyes, at least for me. 

There’s only one particular critique I’d give regarding the material and that is the fact that Davies particularly misses out on the conversation of the cunning person’s familiar. Emma Wilby in her work ‘Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits’ explains this, where she outlines that many prior historical analyses have omitted discussions of the use of familiar spirits by the cunning folk as many have “overlooked the value of witch trial records as sources to be mined on this subject”. Emma Wilby quotes Katherine Briggs (a notable folklorist) to present a great case for the value of these records, as not simply false confessions cried in interrogational contexts, but as they “bear witness to a real belief and cannot be dismissed as poetic embroidery”. These trial confessions are expressions of popular beliefs at the time, and that in itself is still massively valuable. I bring this up, as I think the missing piece here in Owen Davies’ work is the discussion of familiars and the cunning folk. I feel as though that would’ve really made it an all-encompassing guide to the cunning folk.

Nevertheless, this is still a massively valuable book. There’s much to learn from this text and I’d honestly rate it 5 stars. Overall, if you are interested in general magical history or English folk magic then I thoroughly suggest getting this book. As an English folk magical practitioner, who didn’t grow up in an English folk magical hereditary practice, this book has been phenomenal in shaping my modern practice. The cultural, sociological, historical context is so important and Davies’ book outlines such things in great detail.

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