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Cunning Folk: Life in the Era of Practical Magic (Hardcover)

Cunning Folk: Life in the Era of Practical Magic By Tabitha Stanmore Cover Image
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"Rich and lively."--New York Times Book Review

A vibrant look at an unsettled and strangely familiar time that overturns our assumptions about the history of magic.

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.

About the Author

Tabitha Stanmore, PhD, is a specialist in medieval and early modern magic. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter, UK, the first university to offer a master's degree in occult history. She has been interviewed on BBC Radio and TV. Her monograph, Love Spells and Lost Treasure, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2022. Cunning Folk is her first book for general readers.

Praise For…

“With hundreds of colorful incidents drawn from legal records, court chronicles and contemporary accounts, Stanmore hopscotches through history, exploring the uses to which cunning folk were put.” —The New York Times

“Despite an eventual government crackdown on the dark arts, between the 14th and 17th centuries folk magic stayed very much alive across England, according to this rich and lively account. Everyone from courtiers to peasants secretly consulted diviners, astrologers, charm makers and healers. How effective were they? It's impossible to know, but fun to speculate.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Charming . . . Stanmore persuasively argues that [the cunning folk's] stories provide a window on the everyday life of premodern Europeans that proves more intimate than other forms of history.” —Slate

“An insightful book about medieval life and the power of belief.” —Booklist

“As Tabitha Stanmore delightfully recounts, magic played a major role in everyday life from the 1300s to the late 1600s, sometimes conducted by fraudsters but even more often by people who genuinely thought they had supernatural powers . . . Who could argue with Stanmore's eloquent plea to treat the belief in magic by our ancestors with compassion rather than disdain? And, anyway, don't we share their fascination in a magical universe?” —Air Mail

“A stand-out look at the real people behind the folkloric magic of medieval and early modern England. No other book reveals the strange and wondrous details of magic in English society in the way this intelligently written narrative does. It is new required reading for students of traditional witchcraft and researchers alike. Truly a fantastic read.” —Rebecca Beyer, author of Wild Witchcraft

“A delightful excursion . . . a window into the lives of medieval people whose worries pretty much line up with our own.” —Washington Independent Review of Books

“The achievement of Cunning Folk is to make pre-modern magic seem not only real, but also reasonable, interwoven into everyday life in ways that don't feel antiquated. Through lively and extremely well-researched storytelling, Stanmore shows readers that for many people both medieval and modern, to believe in magic, to hope for magic, is part of being human.” —David M. Perry, coauthor of THE BRIGHT AGES

“Before, during, and after the witch trials, purveyors of magic were in fact common, helpful community merchants. Cunning Folk brings us into this fascinating era with personal accounts that deepen and complicate the history of spellcasting, and offer inspiration for today's practitioners.” —Michelle Tea, author of MODERN TAROT

“A significant follow-up to Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English's seminal Witches, Midwives & Nurses, Cunning Folk offers a nuanced view into pre-modern spirituality, dispossessing us of the idea that all supernatural belief was relegated to 'devil's work.' Service magic, as Stanmore illuminates for us, is not the same as witchcraft: in fact, cunning folk played an important role in medieval society as skilled practitioners of their crafts. Deeply researched, Cunning Folk is rich with primary source accounts that elucidate how service magic was used to treat the ills of everyday life in pre-modern and medieval Europe. Cunning Folk would make a welcome addition to any history-buff's bookshelf. Connecting past to present, Stanmore proves that magic-seeking is deeply human; that medieval desires and impulses were not so different from today's.” —Frances F. Denny, author of MAJOR ARCANA

“Packed with vivid historical anecdotes, this is an intriguing insight into the magical lives of past people and the history of our own superstitions today.” —Marion Gibson, author of WITCHCRAFT

“The best introduction to late medieval and early modern popular magic yet written. Comprehensive, humane, lively, and a great read.” —Ronald Hutton, author of THE WITCH

“Charming and informative . . . based in prodigious knowledge and impressive research . . . Cunning Folk is a sterling example of the ways in which a scholar can share the fruits of their research in an accessible (and enjoyable!) manner. Throughout the book, Stanmore's perspective is refreshingly expansive and tolerant, understanding these centuries on their own terms and never ignoring the fact that practical magic was always intimately human, based in our desires and fears as they relate to our livelihoods, our loves, our health, our family, our future.” —The Wild Hunt

“This is a brilliant book, written with wit and vigor. Tabitha Stanmore explores the pre-modern places where magic was real, offering not only practical solutions to ordinary problems but a way of feeling about the world, an emotional relationship between cosmic forces, anxious humans, and the mundane mysteries of their lives.” —Malcolm Gaskill, author of THE RUIN OF ALL WITCHES

“I adore Cunning Folk. A truly fascinating and human book.” —Ruth Goodman, author of HOW TO BE A TUDOR

Product Details
ISBN: 9781639730537
ISBN-10: 1639730532
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication Date: May 28th, 2024
Pages: 272
Language: English