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Audience spellbound by talk on witchcraft

By Somerset Guardian  |  Posted: September 27, 2012

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After the summer break Clutton History Society resumed its monthly programme of talks in September with a visit from Professor Ronald Hutton, of Bristol University's History Department, who gave a talk entitled Village Witchcraft.

Appropriately the audience were spell bound with the professor's informative and very interesting talk. Professor Hutton is a notable authority on early modern history, folklore and pre-Christian history.

Today the word 'witchcraft' in most people's eyes conjures up the practice of evil deeds, but as Prof Hutton pointed out in the past it was seen as a form of 'magic' during the medieval period and up to the early 20th century.

There were different types of people practising the art of witchcraft or magic.

The charmers who notably charmed away warts, bleeding, unexplained rashes etc amongst others and the cunning folk, otherwise known as wise folk or wizards, who were mainly men and were perhaps the most successful being at least semi-literate and of possessing more skills than the charmer.

The common people regarded the cunning folk as helpful but witches were seen as harmful.

The cunning folk were either professional or semi-professional operators and although mostly operating on their own many visited markets in town centres to ply their trade. The only known gathering of a group of cunning men occurred in Manchester where several gathered to share ideas.

The middle classes were usually charged but in many places the poor were treated free. Charges included 1/2d to charm away a wart, 2/6d to bewitch someone, £1 for a charm or spell, £1 to remove a curse and a love spell was charged at £10.

Although most of the cunning folk were Christian in their beliefs the church authorities regarded them as being in league with the devil. Laws were passed condemning them and their practices but there was very little witch hunt of the cunning folk as most people saw them as benefiting them rather than the evil of the witches.

Very few were ever brought before the courts. Some cunning folk were regarded with suspicion however and there was one case of an elderly Essex cunning man, a Frenchman, who the locals suspected of being a witch. The man had had his tongue cut out in his past and was therefore dumb, but was also deaf and was known locally as 'Dummy'.

Being foreign and disabled the rumours spread that he was a witch and would put curses people. In 1863 a drunken mob got hold of the man and tossed him into the river to see if he would sink or float, this being the method used to determine a witch; a witch would float but an innocent would sink. The resulting shock to the man, who was in his eighties, unfortunately killed him.

The next meeting in the village hall will be on Tuesday October 9 when we welcome Paul Gregory who will be giving a presentation about The Weston, Clevedon and Portishead Railway. For more information telephone 01761 471533.

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