Book Reviews: Eva Pocs, Between the Living and the Dead and Owen Davies, Cunning-Folk

By May 31, 2010

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.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. Steve, thanks for the reviews. I would draw the connection between European folk practices and the Smiths somewhat differently, however, simply because I don’t think that looking at two marginal areas of Europe (England and Hungary) is going to point to a common European folk tradition (about which I’m skeptical). The religious contexts these books are looking at, especially with Hungary at the border of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, are exceedingly local and particular. More than a few times, I’ve found that English-language works on “European” history end up using primarily English sources and examples, and consequently are fine works on English history, but largely tangential to whatever made me pick them up in the first place. So I’d draw the connection from Davies to the Smiths via specifically English folk practices, brought to America by immigration from England.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — May 31, 2010 @ 11:29 am

  2. Jonathan, as mentioned there is more literature here than what I’ve posted. I decided to hold off on a more thorough explanation until the post I want to do on Edward Bever’s book. I put these up as background.

    In short, starting with Carlo Ginzburg who found some interesting practices in northern Italy which he detailed in his book The Night Battles. Since then people have found a number of similar practices all over Europe. Bever’s book is on Germany.

    Anyway, the practices Pocs describes in Hungary can be found earlier in England (like the 12th century) but seem to have retreated by the earlier modern period.

    Anyway, Davies no doubt is more important (I’d draw things the way you describe) but Pocs is still interesting. The book I reviewed earlier by Wilby essentially applied Poc’s methods to England.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 31, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

  3. “Putting biblical knowledge to beneficial use.” Ah. I love it.

    Comment by WVS — May 31, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

  4. Steve, I’m looking forward to your next post. But isn’t finding similar folk practices all over Europe at least as old as Frazier’s Golden Bough? How do the modern variants avoid the same problems?

    Also, the comparisons with Hungary make me nervous because the cultural roots are so different than anywhere else in Europe. How do similar practices arise in 12th century England and early modern Hungary? In the 12th century, the Magyars had been Christianized for, what, a century? The folk practices you’d expect to find there actually could have come from Siberia (and then survived into the 17th century, perhaps). But how do parallels show up at the same time in England? The Saxon peasants just weren’t hanging out with the Magyars back then, and there’s no good source for a common origin in the kind of pre-Christian belief that Wilby is looking for.

    One way you could get common folk practices all over Europe, I suppose, is as a common reaction to Christianity, or as a popularization of Catholic theology (and certainly a lot of what once passed for “pagan” belief and practice in the Eddas, for example, now seems to have been patterned on Christianity).

    But I’m just speculating at this point. I’ll see what the next review brings.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — May 31, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

  5. Well, these scholars are sort of unconcerned with the niceties of synchronic v. diachronic. Ginzburg’s follow up book, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbath, was all over the map. Fun read though. Thus they often don’t bother with a clear unifying theory. The theories are very much in flux.

    However, I’d say there are two main cross-currents. One is the idea of a broad Indo-European culture. This was popular with the annales school. Things survive because the groups have common cultural origins going way back. The second is related to cognitive science. The phenomena are pan-human biological experiences. Wilby simply argues for a pan-shamanism, and is happy to compare the English cunning-folk to Native Americans. Most scholars wouldn’t be happy about that, but Bever follows it up with some very interesting data.

    What are the Eddas?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 31, 2010 @ 11:08 pm

  6. Eddas = Old Norse mythological poetry (or prose discussions of the same) recorded in 12/13th c. manuscripts from Iceland. Actually, some of the examples I had in mind are from Icelandic sagas, so I should have mentioned them, too.

    I’m long overdue to read Ginzburg, so thanks for the reminder to put him on my summer reading list (The Worms and the Cheese, in this case.)

    Comment by Jonathan Green — June 1, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

  7. Thanks for the post Steve, and the comments. I haven’t read as much, but it seems to me that there is significant crossover in folk practice between Germany and England. Seems to me that it is tied into Catholicism as much as indigenous practice. But I am woefully under-informed.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 1, 2010 @ 5:53 pm

  8. Just an example: that idea of being born with the caul giving special seeric abilities is all over the place.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 2, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

  9. Totally. Being pulled through forked trees and amulets also seem to me to be all over the place.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 2, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

  10. Very interesting indeed. I used Davies’ more recent book, Grimoirs, in my course on religion and evil last semester. The students hated it. I like it though. He spends a section on Mormonism weighing in on the Quinn/Hamblin dust up.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 2, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

  11. I haven’t read Grimoirs yet, but I did see that it had a section on Mormonism. I very curious what he says (I guess I ought to read it). His book on the cunning-folk is really worth reading.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 2, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

  12. Steve, thanks for these reviews.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — June 3, 2010 @ 9:14 am

  13. Yeah, thanks Steve. These are great. Keep ’em coming.

    Comment by Christopher — June 3, 2010 @ 9:22 am

  14. […] have real 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 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Review Essay: Edward Bever, The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe — July 4, 2010 @ 11:40 pm


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