Book Review: Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits

By March 14, 2010

Wilby, Emma. Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.

The amount of scholarship on early modern witchcraft is huge, but Wilby?s book represents an interesting trend. The cunning folk or what Wilby calls ?magical practitioners? are the individuals in British society who were seen as having special gifts of healing, divination, and counter-witchcraft charms. ?Although historians have produced a number of perceptive studies which bear testament to the sophistication and efficacy of popular magical traditions in this period, and which extol, in particular, the value of ?cunning? or ?wise? folk as policemen, detectives and doctors?something remains missing from the picture. An experiential or ?spiritual? dimension? (5).

To determine what this spiritual dimension is, Wilby takes a new look at British (particularly Scottish) witchcraft trials coupled with the complaints against the common people by British elites. Scholars had been dismissive of these kinds of sources as a means of uncovering folk beliefs, by Wilby represents a movement that now looks at these sources much more favorably. While prosecutors and clerical polemicists cannot be seen as ethnographers, Wilby sees some interesting trends in these sources.

The major theme that Wilby finds in these sources on the cunning folk is the familiar; that is, some type of spirit being that converses with and aids the practitioner. These familiars could go by all sorts of designations: fairies, elves, dwarves, animals, or the dead. Yet Wilby warns, ?Trying to make any hard and fast distinction between categories of spirits in early modern Britain is impossible because supernatural beings were labeled differently, depending on geography, education and religious perspective and definitions overlapped considerably. The term fairy, for example, is a misleadingly broad generic term which, in the period, covered wide range of supernatural entities. On a popular level there was often little difference between a fairy and an angel, saint, ghost, or devil? (17). Wilby gives a number of examples of how these designations could overlap in popular descriptions, but concludes ?The most consistent association to be found, however, is the link between fairies and the dead? (18). Of course the dead were often ambivalent, from terrifying, to helpful, to saints and angels.

Familiars, Wilby notes, gave guidance to the cunning folk in terms foreknowledge and supernatural abilities, and helped in traversing the fairy realm (called by the Scots ?elfhame?), which was generally also seen as the land of the dead. Wilby then notes the degree to which these themes show up in both Siberian and Native American beliefs, arguing for common ?shamanistic? practices. (Wilby notes that ?it has been argued that while this indiscriminate use of the term ?shaman? has rendered the word almost meaningless, in the absence of any viable alternative, it will still be used here? [127].)

Wilby thus suggests that the practices of the cunning folk represent pre-Christian animistic beliefs, but her last section muddies that conclusion. This is because Wilby argues for the degree to which medieval mystics also fit the trends she notes. In her chapter ?Greedigut and the Angel Gabriel,? Wilby asserts, ?From this perspective, a Christian contemplative at her prayers who hears the voice of Jesus (whether through her ?bodily ears? or, more profoundly, through the ?ears of her soul?) in response to her supplications, could be said to be communicating with her spiritual guide? (220). Thus Wilby is happy to equate the experiences of cunning folk and Christian mystics. The division between orthodox vision and the false/demonic is extremely important to religious boundary making and thus Wilby?s assertions can be hard to us moderns to swallow. Says Wilby, ?Both the modern western mind (however secular, and however uninterested in mysticism), and the early modern elite mind, inherit Christian preconceptions about the moral nature, visual appearance and behavior appropriate to a spiritual guide. Both find it difficult to imagine Greedigut drinking from the same cup as the Archangel Gabriel? (220). Ultimately, the practices of the cunning folk, says Wilby, ?could be interpreted as expressions of a popular mysticism? (217).

Contrary to Wilby, who ends her book by talking about neopaganism as revivals of these practices, current scholarship has attacked the notion of ?pagan survivalism,? because 1) we don?t really know what the Germans and Celts were doing and 2) Christianity needs to be defined by those who practice it and we can?t simply accept definitions of the clerical elite as absolute. That is, timeless and normative definitions of Christianity cannot work for historical analysis: Christianity has to be understood according to time, place, and social group. Thus practices become Christian when people who see themselves as Christian see the practices as Christian. Of course, definitions of practices are always contested among Christians, but scholars ought not to take sides. Judging what particular practices really are is an ontology historians ought not to engage in. Nevertheless, Wilby?s analysis and data are certainly thought provoking and with Joseph Smith as both visionary and folk practitioner, have a number of implication for studying early Mormonism.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. Nice, thanks for the pointer and for the editorial comments.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 14, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

  2. The appeal to paganism makes more sense in the Renaissance when there was an overt pagan revivalism. I agree one has to be careful. Further clearly Christianity and paganism were pretty muddled in most communities. (Witness Easter and Christmas celebrations to this day)

    Comment by Clark — March 14, 2010 @ 10:01 pm

  3. Thanks J.

    Clark, to clarify a bit, pagan survivialism in this context is related to the issue of Christianization of the masses. Some scholars (particularly Jean Delumeau in the ’70s) have argued that the country people of Europe did not become Christian until the eighteenth century; that is, they were still essentially pagan until then (Jon Butler applies this argument to the U.S.). Things like fairy belief would be seen as evidence of pagan survivals. This idea has been heavily criticized along the lines that I point out in my last paragraph. The point about Christmas can illustrate what Delumeau’s critics would say. Regardless of any origins, Christmas is about the celebration of the birth of Christ; it’s not something that pagans would celebrate. Whatever pre-Christian celebrations took place on that date would have very different meanings. Thus the holiday is “Christianized”: the tree, the presents, and Santa.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 15, 2010 @ 9:48 am

  4. Steve, your reviews of these books lately are much appreciated. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — March 15, 2010 @ 10:55 am

  5. Thanks Steve – I didn’t know that was actually an ongoing claim. It seems the transformation of symbols to add new connotations and denotations is an obvious feature of history (and semiotics in general). I’m surprised someone would even make a claim that effectively depends upon the stasis of the sign.

    Comment by Clark — March 15, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  6. “the dead were often ambivalent, from terrifying, to helpful, to saints and angels”

    Does she give examples of the dead as angels (as are our Mormon angels)?

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — March 15, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

  7. Thanks for this, Steve.

    Comment by Ben — March 15, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

  8. […] Juvenile Instructor » Book Review: Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits […]

    Pingback by Is There a Simple Solution to the Problem of Why God Allows Evil to Occur? - God Discussion — March 15, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

  9. Clark, you occasionally see little summations equating saints to the pantheon of pagan deities, etc. (Wilby herself does it). Most scholars attack such claims, but the issue of fairies does make it tricky. I mean, how “Christian” can belief in fairies be, right? Says Wilby, ?The early modern ?fairy faith?, if we can call it that, was an amalgamation of many of the animistic beliefs and rituals surrounding nature spirits, deities, ghosts and so on which had not been completely homogenized into Catholic hagiolatry and the cult of the dead. And it is here, in this surviving bedrock or pre-Christian animism, that we can trace the origin of the early modern familiar? (17). This thinking certainly deviated even from medieval orthodoxy which had a lot of spirits but classified them strictly as good or bad. Wilby makes the point that fairies were usually seen as ambivalent.

    But that reminds me of a story cited in Jane Shaw, Miracles in Enlightenment England. In the late 17th century when deism began to be articulated, the clerics were pretty freaked out by the attacks on biblical miracles and thus wanted some miracle stories to counter the skeptics. A bishop encouraged a book printer to print the story of how one Ann Jeffries was given the gift of healing by fairies as proof that God is still active in the world. So what do we make of that?

    Mark, says Wilby, “On a popular level there was often little difference between a fairy and an angel, saint, ghost, or devil? (17). She also tells of a cunning man who said his familiar was an angel that served the queen of the fairies. More generally speaking, the dead as potential angels is not uncommon in popular representations; think It’s a Wonderful Life, Touched by an Angel etc. I saw a poll that said that about 40% of Americans believe that the dead can become angels.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 16, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

  10. Yeah – and that’s completely natural. People don’t just neglect their other spiritual culture. They’ll interpret new symbols in light of the others. And, as you know, sometimes this was done overtly. Sometimes the local symbols were just used to teach the new symbols though. The point is that it’s impossible to maintain symbols – even in our own Church. It’s interesting for instance to compare legends of the wandering Jew with LDS legends of the Three Nephites.

    Comment by Clark — March 16, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

  11. […] 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 […]

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  12. […] effects, and their perceptions reflect objective events?? (xiv). As I mentioned in some earlier posts, there are a number of scholars who have tried to figure out what the actual practices that people […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Review Essay: Edward Bever, The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe — July 5, 2010 @ 8:41 am


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