My thesis explores the role of practical or cunning magic in medieval and early modern English society. Spanning the years from c. 1350 to c. 1650, I research how magic was practised and by whom, whether this changed over the period, and how magical practice was affected by perspectives on gender. I also explore the extent to which magic was tolerated at different social strata, from the employment of village cunning folk to magic's use at the English royal court.
Theological perspectives on magic in early modern England largely portray cunning folk – otherwise known as wise men and women, charmers, or good witches – as a social ‘other’, existing on the wrong side of moral and social acceptability. However, though officially deviant and thus liable to prosecution, cunning folk were also common, inhabiting every major town and many villages across the country. The practical function of cunning folk and their popularity among all social classes suggests a broad societal acceptance of cunning magic.
Using plays like Mother Bombie and The Witch and evaluating them against contemporary trial records, this essay explores depictions of cunning folk in early modern English culture, and what they might tell us about contemporary attitudes. The plays often portray magicians as well-known locals and the deus ex machina who resolve plays’ disputes. In this sense, I argue that they reflect a reality in which magic, though treated with fear and suspicion, was also widely accepted, and that some practices were familiar even to the point of mundanity. Though cunning folk’s abilities sometimes provoked alarm and awe among their clients, the existence of the magicians themselves and the services they offered were arguably common enough to be considered mainstream.