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CUNNING FOLK: Life in the Era of Practical Magic, by Tabitha Stanmore

If Siri, embodied as a real-live woman, had popped up in England a few centuries ago with access to her present range of information, she might have been hanged for her helpfulness. The services the virtual assistant can provide — geolocation, weather forecasts, image capture, finding lost objects and (no small point) revealing the dates of the deaths of kings — strike us today as merely convenient; but, to the pre-modern mind, they would have seemed suspicious, not to mention possibly illegal.

Between 1542 and 1604, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and James I enacted draconian laws against “Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery and Inchantments” that remained on the books until 1736, making it a potentially capital offense to dabble in such practices. Given the risk of the gibbet, would the monarchs or their subjects have dared consult a person who claimed proficiency at these arts?

They did. In her spirited and richly detailed “Cunning Folk,” Tabitha Stanmore, a specialist in medieval and early modern magic, writes that between the 14th and 17th centuries, “a whole host of magical practitioners” pervaded villages, cities and royal courts — diviners, astrologers, charm makers, healers. Their customers were commoners and courtiers, peasants and merchants, housewives and queens.

“This book is not about witches,” Stanmore emphasizes. The cunning folk were different, she explains, because they used “service magic,” not the dark arts, “to positively affect the world around them.” What’s more, “most people” marked a “distinction” between magicians of this kind (good, basically) and witches (evil), although the boundary, she admits, could be “fluid.”

That’s because their clients’ requests could be “sinister,” to put it mildly.In 1613, for instance, the depraved Countess of Essex (later imprisoned for murdering a foe with a toxic enema) requested a slow-acting poison from a fortuneteller named Mary Woods, so she could bump off the Count. Woods skipped town rather than comply (so she told authorities) but was tried anyway; her fate is unknown.

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