Cunning Folk: Life in the Era of Practical Magic by Tabitah Stanmore fantasy book reviewsCunning Folk: Life in the Era of Practical Magic by Tabitah Stanmore 

Cunning Folk: Life in the Era of Practical Magic by Tabitah StanmoreCunning Folk: Life in the Era of Practical Magic by Tabitah Stanmore, is a deeply researched exploration of a particular sort of magic in the medieval/early modern era. Full of illustrative anecdotes mostly from primary sources (particularly court cases), Stanmore does an excellent job in showing how “Our focus on witches and the sensationalism of witch trials makes us forget that there was a whole host of magical practitioners … not every person who practiced magic was a witch.” The specific cases are often fascinating, and while I had a few quibbles with some elements of structure and style, the text makes for a mostly engaging and always informative take on a relatively unfamiliar aspect of history, at least among non-historians.

Stanmore notes in the intro that “people tended to put magical practitioners into two distinct categories: those who used magic out of spite to harm others [witches] and those who used it as a tool to positively affect the world around them [cunning folks]. The latter were generally viewed positively (or at least as “morally neutral”) because they provided a variety of services to their communities, which leads to the other name for this type of non-witchcraft practice: “service magic.” This may seem odd, especially as in popular culture we tend to think all supernatural practice was branded as “witchcraft” and that even a wart, a mumbled aside, or simply being an old woman living alone could get one sent to the fires, but Stanmore’s research shows that only a “handful” of cunning folk were tried as witches and in fact, their business increased during the peak witchcraft hysterias in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Following the introduction, Stanmore structures her text via nine sections detailing the various jobs cunning folks did, including finding lost goods, getting someone to fall in love with you, healing, and divining the future. Each of these is vividly illustrated by multiple specific cases drawn from a variety of primary and secondary sources, with a number of them being court records due to a dispute. Some of these anecdotes involve regular folks, such as a woman who employed a cunning person to find a lost spoon. But the customers of cunning folk ran the social gamut, from commoners and the poor to churchwardens and priests to nobility to kings and queens. Customers contracted to find lost household items, help them win in a trial by combat (charms sewn underneath the armor), kill their husband/wife, help them find treasure (rarely successful apparently), find a thief (more successful perhaps) and so forth.

By grounding so much of the text in these true-life examples, Stanmore avoids a too-abstract academic discussion of the topic and also humanizes those involved so the reader sees them as real people (which they are of course) expressing the same real-person, real-world fears and desires we do today: jealousy, a yearning for love, hope for economic stability, grief, fear of a child’s death. This goes a long way toward preventing readers from viewing the medieval people as gullible or silly for believing in magic.

While Stanmore offers up some of the specific spells, magic words, charms, and activities employed as “magic”, what is often more interesting than the magical trappings is how the cunning folk relied on knowledge of basic human nature, employing psychology when possible. For instance, the ordeal of eating was meant to find out who amongst several suspects was a thief. A piece of cheese was cut into chunks with a charm on each, then the suspects ate their piece. The primary suspect would go last or near last, and the assumption was their nervousness would make it difficult for them to swallow the cheese.

I had, as noted, a few minor issues, one of which is no fault of Stanmore’s — the fact that we often get the description of a particular case or event but not its resolution, due simply to the reality that while the disputes often appeared in records the verdicts/sentences did not. I’m sure this was as frustrating for the author as it is for the readers. The other issues were far from deal-breakers but did detract a bit from my reading experience. One was that while I appreciated as stated above the grounding of the text in real-world examples, at times it did feel like a compendium of anecdotes rather than a unified non-fiction narrative. I wouldn’t have minded a bit more intervening commentary from Stanmore in between the examples to break them up and add some context. That also would have allowed perhaps for a livelier style in terms of language, metaphor, etc. Another quibble was how Stanmore was overly coy I felt (YMMV) about whether or not the cunning folk actually performed magic or not. And so we get lines like, “We can only speculate whether Watsall really had the ability to conjure demons,” or “It is not my place to say whether the magic practice by cunning folk was real . . .” or “Even more exiting — to me at least — is the advice given out by TikTokkers and others who have used the [magic] method and found that it worked.” I’m all for the mindset of medieval people believed the magic was real, but, and perhaps it’s churlish of me, but I’m pretty sure Watsall could not in fact conjure demons.

A more engaging style, a bit more sense of narrative, a less playful “was it magic?” references, and a better sense of resolution as to many of the examples (again, this last not Stanmore’s fault) would have made for a more enjoyable read. But Cunning Folk is certainly an informative read, one bolstered by a plethora of real-world examples dug up by clearly meticulous research (there’s also an excellent works consulted list for future reading) into a topic often overlooked by the general public. And Stanmore deserves lots of credit for that.

Published in May 2024. Imagine: it’s the year 1600 and you’ve lost your precious silver spoons, or maybe they’ve been stolen. Perhaps your child has a fever. Or you’re facing a trial. Maybe you’re looking for love or escaping a husband. What do you do? In medieval and early modern Europe, your first port of call might have been cunning folk: practitioners of “service magic.” Neither feared (like witches), nor venerated (like saints), they were essential to daily life. For people across ages, genders, and social ranks, practical magic was a cherished resource for navigating life’s many challenges. In historian Tabitha Stanmore’s beguiling account, we meet lovelorn widows, dissolute nobles, selfless healers, and renegade monks. We listen in on Queen Elizabeth I’s astrology readings and track treasure hunters trying to unearth buried gold without upsetting the fairies that guard it. Much like us, premodern people lived in a bewildering world, buffeted by forces beyond their control. As Stanmore reveals, their faith in magic has much to teach about how to accommodate the irrational in our allegedly enlightened lives today. Charming in every sense, Cunning Folk is at once an immersive reconstruction of a bygone era and a thought-provoking commentary on the beauty and bafflement of being human.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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