Charmers and Charming in England and Wales from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century

By Davies, Owen | Folklore, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Charmers and Charming in England and Wales from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century


Davies, Owen, Folklore


Introduction

In the historiography of magic and folk medicine a variety of interchangeable terms have been used to describe several types of folk healer whose roles were, in fact, quite distinct and well-defined. The most obvious example of this has been the compounding of "charmers" with the more complex magical practitioners known variously as "cunning-folk," "conjurors," and "white witches." This tendency has not been absent from the work of folklorists. Ruth Tongue, for example, listed as a "white witch" a blacksmith who could "draw nails or thorns from a horse's hoof by a charm," and as a "conjuror" a man who charmed for warts (Tongue 1965, 76-7). Margaret Courtney interchanged the terms "charmer" and "white witch" (Courtney 1890, 145), and Charlotte Burne used "charmer" and "conjuror" interchangeably (Burne 1883, 169). This blending of terms has led to some confusion both in their own work and in that of those who have used them as source material.

The same loose classification can also be found in the work of historians. Keith Thomas, for instance, although obviously aware that charmers operated in a distinct way, discusses them in the same context as cunning-folk and includes them in his observations on the status, function and activities of cunning-folk. In Thomas's index, for example, the reader, looking under "charmers," is told to see under "wizards" (Thomas 1971). Alan Macfarlane (1970), and Kathryn Smith (1977, 26) have also seemingly placed charmers and cunning folk in one homogeneous group. This tendency has undoubtedly arisen partly from the fact that some cunning-folk added the role of charmer to their list of remunerative occupations,(1) and also that a few charmers flouted the traditions which bound them, and so appeared to be acting like cunning-folk.

The fairly extensive ethnographic source material relating to charmers collected by nineteenth-century folklorists and antiquarians reveals, however, that within popular culture charmers were regarded as quite distinct from cunning-folk. The compounding of terms and roles in the work of those who have recorded the activities of charmers is little evident within the discourse of popular culture during the period. The object of the following discussion, therefore, is to delineate clearly the behaviour and function of charmers, and to restore them to their unique place in the history of magical healing and folk medicine.

The charming tradition outlived most other aspects of folk magic, and charmers remained in demand in parts of the country up until the 1970s. To understand the longevity of the charming tradition within the context of folk medicine, we firstly need to make an important distinction between folk illness and folk medicine, since the latter has commonly been used as an all-encompassing term. As Irwin Press has argued, both "are aspects of the same cognitive system, but they are not identical and should be conceptually differentiated" (Press 1978, 72). Press defines folk illness as relating to concepts of cause, etiology and manifestation, while folk medicine refers solely to instruments, practices and practitioners. Importantly, as Press has observed, folk medical practices may survive long after concepts of folk illness have disappeared. Charmers did not diagnose, and charmed only for commonplace complaints which were recognised by orthodox and folk medicine alike and which were popularly held to have a natural causation. Thus, in this sense, charmers, unlike cunning-folk, were a component of folk medicine but not of folk illness. The belief in witchcraft had been central to folk concepts of illness, and as that belief died out during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the role of cunning-folk became increasingly redundant also. Charmers, however, continued to function as a residual aspect of folk medicine.

Within the category of "charming" I have included three types of folk healer: those who possessed written or oral charms (as discussed in Davies 1996); those who had an innate healing touch; and those who possessed object-charms with healing properties. …

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