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Welcome to Episode #189 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

You may have heard of common superstitions like throwing salt over your shoulder when you spill some to ward off bad luck, or crossing your fingers when you tell a lie to prevent consequences of your transgression. These kinds of small acts to try and control or influence the spiritual realm around you were more than just common superstitions for the life of William Shakespeare. Even in Protestant England, where the monarchs like Elizabeth I and James I after her, were actively harsh against anything even suspected of being witchcraft, simultaneously operating in the households of families and property owners around England were those known as Cunning Folk. These people were witches, wizards, and magicians whose practices included mixing up specialty brews to cure someone of bewitchment, as well as practicing various kinds of miraculous healing. What’s surprising about these cunning folk is not only that they were tolerated in a very anti-witchcraft society like Protestant England, but that they were rampant across England, to the point of being quite common and ordinary for Shakespeare’s lifetime. Here today to explain what the cunning folk were, their place in society, and what kinds of magic they practiced is our guest and author of Cunning-Folk and the Production of Magical Artefacts Owen Davies. 


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Owen Davies (born 1969) is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire and has been described as Britain’s “foremost academic expert on the history of magic”.  He has published widely on the history of witchcraft, magic, ghosts, religion, and popular medicine from antiquity to the present. Find out more about Owen and his work at the University of Hertfordshire.

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What say’st thou, man? hast thou as yet conferr’d
With Margery Jourdain, the cunning witch,
With Roger Bolingbroke, the conjurer?


Henry VI Part II (I.2)

An image of a witch and her familiar spirits taken from a publication that dealt with the witch trials of Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell and Mother Margaret in Windsor, 1579. | Public Domain | Source

A selection of jars containing herbs and other ingredients used by Cunning folk in Britain. Artefacts at the Museum of Witchcraft. | Photo by MidnightblueowlCreative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.| Source

A figurine of a human with pins stuck in it. From the Museum of WitchcraftBoscastle | Photo by MidnightblueowlCreative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication | Source

A photograph of the cunning woman in her house, at the Museum of Witchcraft |Photo by MidnightblueowlCreative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.| Source

Quoted in Davies 2003. p. 158.

Heywood, Thomas (1638). The Wise Woman of Hogsdon: A Comedie. D4r.

Books & Resources Recommended by Owen Davies:

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic

Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits

Casebook Project from Cambridge University (Here you’ll find free access to online digital versions of 16th century casebooks from astrologer physicians like Richard Napier and Simon Forman)

Lauren Kassell, Michael Hawkins, Robert Ralley, John Young, Joanne Edge, Janet Yvonne Martin-Portugues, and Natalie Kaoukji (eds.), ‘Casebooks’, The …

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