Cunning men or women was a term denoting practitioners of folk magic in England during the Burning Times when “witches” were equated with Satan worshippers. They were frequently hired by local peasants or authorities to locate persons sincerely believed to be evil witches. They themselves often practiced occult skills such as healing, all sorts of divination, astrology, and crystal scrying for clients.
There is no evidence that these cunning men and women as a whole were non-Christian. During the last century or so detailed information concerning these people has been collected by the British folklorists. No trace of Paganism was found; in fact, among such information are prayers to the Trinity and saints, Bible quotations, and other items of Christian folk magic.
There were handbooks of Renaissance high magic, such as Agrippa Cornelius’ Three Books of Occult Philosophy; textbooks of astrology as well as almanacs which were popular among the cunning people. Some apparently had access to ancient magical traditions that were lost; it is hard to give any other explanation for the discovery in various English locations of the seventeenth-century binding tablets made to Greek specifications. But there was also witch bottles and herbalism.
Often these folk were also called conjures, witches, and wizards. They dwelled in rural England until the first decades of the twentieth century, and a few still can be found there. A.G.H.
Greer, John Michael. “cunning men/women.” The New Encyclopedia of the Occult. St. Paul, MN, Llewellyn Worldwide. p. 119