Cunning Folk: Life in the Era of Practical Magic

Research output: Book/ReportAuthored book


Imagine: it’s 1600 and you’ve lost your keys. You turn over your house looking for them, but they’re nowhere to be found. You ask your family, and they don’t know. You ask your friends. You even knock on your neighbour’s door in the hope they might have picked them up; no luck. What do you do next? Leave your front door open? Get the lock replaced? Pray for their return? Or, perhaps it’s time to seek out some cunning folk; a magician, a wizard, a witch? As Cunning Folk will show it was often this latter option that leapt to the front of medieval and early modern peoples’ minds. Magic was the fallback when things went wrong – or even when life wasn’t going as well as one might like.

Cunning Folk will be a book about the people who practiced ‘useful’ or ‘practical’ magic, and the people who bought into it. It is about their hopes and desires, their fears and their vulnerabilities. It is about the kinds of problems that people faced every day in medieval and early modern Europe, and the solutions they found. It is a book about life, faith, and how magic was intimately woven into the everyday. Each chapter will look at the different applications of magic, ranging from the seemingly trivial (how to find some spoons); to the deadly important (how to predict the future, or get rid of your enemies). On this journey into the past we shall meet some scheming wizards and frantic clients, as well as the kind-hearted practitioners who offered their powers to any who needed them. We will see that magic wasn’t confined to humble villagers with peculiar beliefs, but also commissioned – and feared – by the very highest ranking in society; and far from being suppressed by the Church, it was priests who were often selling spells from behind their altars. Our present-day preconceptions of magic, of its practitioners (often women) secluded to dark woods, hidden vaults, cottages and hovels, will be proven wrong, we will see that magic was all around, practiced in plain sight, and regarded by people as a tool as much as it was vilified as the work of the devil as we conceive of it today.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherThe Bodley Head
Number of pages280
Publication statusIn preparation - 2024


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