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Cunning Folk and Wizards in Early Modern England

Fae Honeybell

Witchcraft has been a reoccurring preoccupation for societies throughout history, and as a result has inspired significant academic interest. The witchcraft persecutions of the early modern period in particular have received a considerable amount of historical investigation. However, the vast majority of this scholarship has been focused primarily on the accusations against black witches and the punishments they suffered. Due to the useful sources left from trials involving allegations of black witchcraft, this focus is understandable. However, this ignores the considerable network of white witches, or cunning folk that can be found in sixteenth and seventeenth century English records. This project will consider the origins of cunning folk’s powers, their occupation and social status and the gender differences between practitioners. It will also explore the activities white witches were involved in and what tools they used to carry out their practices such as healing, finding lost goods and predicting future events. It will discuss many of the most commonly requested spells and forms of magic and will look at the devices that were used to fulfil these. The position of higher magicians will also be discussed, looking at the well educated men, who dabbled in white magic through subjects such as astrology and alchemy. Finally, after establishing the skills and situation for cunning folk overall, the final part of this dissertation will consider the persecution cunning folk and wizards faced in this period. It will look at their position in the law and the criticism they faced from contemporaries. I aim to offer an original perspective on white witchcraft in this period; revealing its relevance to the historical study of witchcraft in which it is often overshadowed.