Eva Pocs. Between the Living and the Dead: A Perspective on Witches and Seers in the Early Modern World. Trans. By Szilvia Redey and Michael Webb. Budapest: Central University Press, 1999.
Owen Davies. Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History. London: Hambledon and London, 2003.
As I mentioned in my review of Emma Wilby, there is a growing focus in the study of early modern witchcraft on trying to get at the actual folk practices behind the accusations. Some of the most important works on the topic come out of Hungary where the witchcraft trials generally lasted longer. Pocs’s book is one such; I also include a little summary of Owen Davies book on the cunning-folk, which is also very helpful.
Pocs looks at the witchcraft accusations in early modern Hungary to determine a variety of “mediators” or magical practitioners who engaged in “practices that were reported for creating connections with the other world. Mediators were the magical specialists of everyday village life, people who communicated professionally with the supernatural world.” Such practices were “widespread, commonplace, and non-cultural-specific” (7). Pocs follows Richard Kiekhefer’s typology of those accused: neighbor witches accused as a result of conflict, sorcerers who preformed magic, and the night or “supernatural” witch. I found this and her many other typological divisions confusing. Pocs sees a kind of shamanism underlying these beliefs, or the contact with the dead. Following Eilade, she uses the term shamanistic to set these practices apart for the “strict sense shamanism” of Siberia.
Despite the confusion of types, which I found hard to keep track of and not very useful, Pocs does note a lot of fun folkloric traditions. First and foremost, there was the issue of the dead, who returned at particular times, either November first (Celtic New Year) or near the winter solstice (close to Christmas). Such times were often times of initiation for seers. Seers were often set apart by being born with the caul or extra body parts. Men so born were often werewolves who would battle with evil sprits to protect the harvest. Women did less battling and instead healed and saw treasure, lost objects, and the dead. The native Hungarian seer was the taltos.
Seeing treasure was one of the most common abilities and shows up in the trials more than anything else. “They helped the villagers—or often, in eighteenth-century Transylvania, their noble clients—to find buried treasure and money. This activity was not sharply divided from locating lost animals, discovering the fate of people who were away, foretelling the future, helping to catch thieves, or predicting death, birth, the outcome of illness, or fire and war in town. In brief, their speciality was in seeing things that were distant in tome or space, or that were concealed underground” (143).
Pocs also notes the degree of “Christianization” or how such beliefs took on Christian terminology. The fairy realm became heaven. Some said that Christ was their spirit guardian. “Fairy magicians had strong religious connotations due to their charismatic healing activities, and often won reputations as holy seers or living saints. These processes of becoming heavenly and Christian went on in the Hungarian regions too” (150). Further Pocs adds, “During the Middle Ages, healers and seers became the enemies of demonologized witches, and could simultaneously gain divine connotations in a process running parallel with the polarization of the demonic world. In this process they were allocated Christian patrons instead of their dead guardian spirits, which were presumed to have been the original: however, this role of the dead also remained.” Living saints fulfilled a similar role “at the same time they would fulfill the roles of the lay seer and healer of the village” (154).
Cunning-Folk is the first full-length treatment of this important subject. Davies begins by noting that the cunning-folk were always intertwined with witchcraft belief and makes the very interesting observation that England’s witchcraft law spent more time focusing on outlawing the kinds of folk magic that the cunning-folk did than they did on the maleficium of the witches. Davies shows that the primary function of the cunning-folk was the protection against witches and thus as belief in witchcraft declined so did the cunning-folk’s clientele.
Davies’s work is full of useful gems. After analyzing how Protestant writers lumped the cunning-folk with Catholic survivalism that they hoped to eradicate, Davies notes, “Leaving aside such partisan criticisms and expressions of intolerance, there was an element of truth in the claimed association between cunning-folk and Catholicism. In their use of certain elements of prayer, exorcism and holy objects, cunning-folk borrowed from Catholic practices, not only at the time but also in subsequent centuries. Protestant suspicions were confirmed by the activities of people like Henry Clegate of Headcorn, brought before a Kent church court for curing bewitched people and cattle by repeating prayers and the creed. He confessed he had been taught to do so many years before by his mother and a neighbouring priest” (36).
On the cunning-folk’s popularity, “People could not understand why cunning-folk should be condemned for putting their biblical knowledge to beneficial use. From a popular point of view, they were only doing what the Anglican Church should have been doing more of—using the power invested in the Bible for practical as well as spiritual purposes.” And further, “In the nineteenth century clergymen continued to complain that people considered the charms provided by cunning-folk and charmers as somehow holy” (62).
On treasure-seeking, “Treasure-seeking was a dangerous enterprise for cunning-folk to get involved in. With the exception of those who dug into Bronze Age barrows, the chances of finding buried treasure using magic were exceedingly poor. As a result, many cunning-folk refrained from getting involved” and often told people to look elsewhere for help. “Those … who took up the challenge were presumably either sincere in their quests and had faith in their magic, or were merely itinerant rogues who could disappear from the scene when the inevitable happened and nothing was found.” (96).
Perhaps the most useful part of Davies’s analysis is the distinctions he makes between various magical practitioners. First he notes a shift in the practices of the cunning-folk that took place around 1700. At that time fairy belief had mostly died out and literacy had increased so cunning-folk relied less on believed innate abilities and more on learned traditions from books. This marks a contrast from Wilby’s book who focused on cunning-folk before 1700. Davies makes another interesting distinction between the cunning-folk and those whom he calls “charmers.” Charmers, says Davies, had inborn healing ability which they believed came from God and thus refused to accept money for their services, while the cunning-folk always took money. Davies also works to distinguish the cunning-folk from various doctors, clerics, and astrologers that did similar things. In all, Davies paints a very full picture of supernatural folk beliefs from the early modern to the modern era.
Anyway, I see these as helpful in shedding light on some of the Smiths’ folk practices.