Charmers and charming in England and Wales from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth century
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. The reason I believe they can be discussed in the same context is that all three types of charmer usually professed no other magical powers, they only healed “natural” ailments, and they mostly respected a tradition of gratuity.
A good general definition of charmers was given by the nineteenth-century Shropshire folklorist Charlotte Burne:
They are often very respectable people, who make no
pretence of magical arts and owe their power merely
to the possession of some infallible charm, only effectual
against one disease, which they are reluctant to
divulge and which, for the most part, they firmly believe
in themselves (Burne 1883, 181).
As this description indicates, charmers were remarkable for their ordinariness:(2) they did not usually dabble in any other magical activities. Unbewitching, fortunetelling, thief detection and love magic were all in the province of cunning-folk. In this respect we can certainly draw a clear boundary of practice between the two types of healer. The only activity which they sometimes shared was the application of herbs or herbal remedies as an adjunct to healing rituals. Charmers usually cured for ailments which fell into only two categories. The first category included injuries resulting from accidents, such as bleeding, burns, snake-bites and pricks. The second consisted of “natural” diseases such as ringworm, toothache, scrofula and warts. Unlike cunning-folk, charmers did not cure for any supernaturally inspired ailments. I have found only one instance of a charmer curing for witchcraft, that is the following charm found amongst the papers of an inhabitant of a parish adjacent to Marystowe, Devon:
When Jesus saw the Cross, thare to be crucified, pirate
said unto him “What aileth thee? why shakes thou?
hast thou fever, ague or witchcraft?” Jesus said unto
him “I have neither fever ague nor witchcraft, but
shake for thy sins.” Whosoever carryeth this in his
mind or in writing shall never have neither fever, ague
or witchcraft–in the name of the father and of the
Son and of the holy ghost. Amen and Amen (TDA
This was the common charm for curing the ague and fever (see Davies 1996, 22-3). Presumably, someone down the line of ownership simply tagged on the word “witchcraft” to instantly confer protection against witches as well. The ague charm was probably utilised for this purpose because to be efficacious it had to be worn permanently as a prophylactic, rather than pronounced verbally.
Charmers could be of either sex. When male, their occupational status was varied, though it was usually related to traditional rural vocations. For example, John Tobias, a wart-charmer of Cerne, Dorset, was a mason (March 1899, 479); a charmer from Llanigon, Radnorshire, was a wheelwright (Morgan 1896, 304); and in the vicinity of Marwood, Devon, a blacksmith and a small coal-dealer were both well-known for stanching blood (N&Q 3rd series 1 :404). From Theo Brown’s experience of Devon charmers still practising and in demand, most were associated with the land. The majority were farmers, though she knew of one who was a farrier, one who kept broiler chickens and another who was a veterinary surgeon (Brown 1970, 43). Charmers were, then, usually from the artisan/tradesman/small farmer class in society. With the exception of those born with a healing touch, few charmers were from the labouring classes. A similar exclusion of the lowest social class in rural society from wielding the power of beneficial magic is evident from an examination of the occupations of cunning-folk (Davies 1997, 92-3).
People usually became charmers because the secret of the charms, and the rituals often associated with them, were passed on to them by a family member or sometimes a close friend, when the possessors of the charm felt they were about to die. One reason for their secrecy was that it was commonly held that if the charm was disclosed it would immediately lose its efficacy, or that, if imparted, the charmer would lose his or her power and the other person would gain it. It was said of the Wiltshire charmer, William Willshire, that his gift would be lost if “the secret be revealed, except at the time of death” (Wiltshire Notes and Queries 6 [1908-10]:38). A correspondent in Notes and Queries recounted how one old woman of Brackley, Northamptonshire, who had “a more than ordinary renown for the cure of agues”:
received the secret from the dying lips of her mother;
who, in her turn, is said to have received it from hers
… This old dame is upwards of ninety, and still refuses
to part with her charm, the probability of its perishing
with her, forms a constant theme of lamentation among
her gossips (N&Q 2 :36).
In another instance, an old man at Monk Soham, Suffolk, told W. Wollaston Groome that his mother knew a charm for curing scalds and burns, and that “when she was dying was just going to tell the words to him, but someone coming into the room interrupted her, and as she died very soon afterwards he never learnt the secret” (Groome 1895, 119).
In the case of written charms for toothache and ague, the text of the charm was occasionally passed from one sufferer to another rather like a chain-letter, even though such charms were often originally given with the injunction that they must never be opened or read. Marie Trevelyan knew a South Wales collier who declared that his fellow workmen passed on a toothache charm from one to the other, and with almost immediate relief. She also noted that: “In the present day the charm is written on a piece of paper, enclosed in an envelope, and sealed” (Trevelyan 1909, 227).
A rule of thumb concerning the transmission of charms was the requirement that they be passed on contra-sexually, otherwise they would cease to be effective. This explains why the Herefordshire folklorist, Ella Leather, when asking an old woman to tell her what she said when she charmed burns, was told that it would be of no use at all if she told her; Leather was directed to an old local man who also knew the charm (Leather 1912, 70). As with all rules of thumb, though, contra-sexual charm transmission was not always adhered to. We have already seen that the Brackley charmer received her knowledge from her mother. Writing in the 1960s, J.B. Lang also observed that, although in most Dorset districts the charming ability could only be passed on to someone of the opposite sex, in the Marshwood Vale charms were also passed on from mother to daughter (Lang 1969, 222).
The Cornish charmer and seventh son, Tony Cleverdon, on being asked by the Revd R.S. Hawker if he might write down some of his charms, questioned whether “their virtue would not be utterly destroyed when he was gone, by their being put into ink” (Hawker 1870, 173). Mrs Whitcombe recorded that in Cornwall and Devon: “According to the superstition prevalent with the lower orders, the efficacy of all charms is destroyed when they are recorded in print” (Whitcombe 1874, 14). However, one of Theo Brown’s Devon informants was of the opposite opinion, stating that the charm must never be passed by word of mouth, but should be written down; moreover, it should not be delivered directly, but left where the recipient might find it by chance (Brown 1970, 38). One Sussex charmer, on being asked to divulge the substance of her charms, reasoned as follows:
I promised the man who taught me them, by all that’s
good and great, never to tell them to any one, but I
did not say I would not write them down, and I have
done so, and they will be found after my death, for I
should like to know I have done some good to my
neighbours after I am gone (Latham 1878, 37).
There would seem, then, to be some disagreement within popular discourse as to the effect of the written transmission of charms. However, many charms were passed down through a written tradition, and those for ague and toothache were only efficacious in their written form. Charmers, therefore, provide a concrete indication of the strength and longevity of the written transmission of folk knowledge in popular culture. They show that oral and written transmission were not mutually exclusive, but could interact to disseminate and preserve information which, although secret, benefited the whole community.
The influence of print on the transmission and preservation of charms is not easy to assess. Its significance was that anything printed was immediately transferred from the private to the public domain. In this context, it must be stressed that access to printed knowledge was not limited to the literate. Those who could read were able, and often expected, to pass on any knowledge gained from printed sources (Reay 1991; Vincent 1989). I have not come across any examples of eighteenth–or nineteenth-century popular literature which included any of the healing charms mentioned, but several examples of common charms for stanching blood, ague and fever were printed in educated works during the early modern period (Davies 1996). It is possible that some of these printed versions of charms could have found their way into, as well as out of, the channels of folk transmission.
There is nothing in the English tradition of popular literature, however, which mirrors the content of the French chapbooks Le Medecin des pauvres, and Medicin des Campagnes during the period concerned. These very popular works, contained a number of standard healing charms, such as the St Appolonia charm for toothache. Judith Devlin has suggested that the literary versions of healing charms contained in Medicin des Campagnes “became popular, and that the book’s influence on rural society was maintained through the reading or memorization of its contents” (Devlin 1987, 48). The widespread ownership of these chapbooks undoubtedly helped perpetuate the tradition of charming, and perhaps to some extent created a certain uniformity of content. However, the English tradition of charming was maintained throughout the nineteenth century and well into the next century without the circulation of comparable popular printed works.
As modern French ethnographic studies of charmers show, the ability to charm is not just based on the possession of knowledge. Only those who also possess the gift [le don] are considered to be effective (Bouteiller 1966; Laplantine 1978; Julliard 1982; Camus 1990). Andre Julliard, in a study of charmers [leveurs de maux] or [panseurs de secrets] in the Departement of Ain, in southeastern France, found that although Le Medicin des pauvres was known and owned by a number of countryfolk, only those considered to have le don were consulted (Julliard 1982, 44). Furthermore, Dominique Camus, in his recent study of panseurs de secret in eastern Brittany, found that although Le Medicin des pauvres was widely diffused in the region, and several formulae he had collected could be found in it, he had not come across any panseurs who actually owned a copy (Camus 1990, 25). The same concept of “the gift” existed, though not so explicitly, in the English tradition. Joseph Hammond obtained several charms from “an old and very dirty charmer” and printed them in his book about St Austell. He prefaced them with the comment: “they must be used by persons who have the gift, and this they cannot have without faith” (Hammond 1897, 351). Margaret Eyre commented that: “True charming–white magic–is a gift, a power in the possession of one person … communicable only by a species of initiation to those who are likely to use it fitly” (Eyre 1905, 167).
The concept of “the gift” is best exemplified by the tradition of wart charming. Numerous magical methods for removing warts have been recorded, which could usually be employed by the sufferers themselves. Most of these cures were based on the sympathy between some decaying organic matter–a snail, pea-pod, stick, twine or meat, for example–with which the warts had been rubbed, and the corresponding diminution of the warts themselves. Symbolic transference was another commonly employed method whereby each wart was rubbed with a small stone. All the stones used, their number corresponding to the number of warts, were then placed in a bag and left on the public highway, so the warts would subsequently be transferred to the first inquisitive passer-by who picked up the little bag. Despite this common forum of knowledge, there were numerous wart charmers, perhaps more than for any other ailment, who were obviously seen to possess some extra healing gift, even though they often employed exactly the same methods as above (see for example, Morley 1917). The poet, Robert Southey, recognised this phenomenon: “For warts there are manifold charms … But there are gifted old women who have only to slip a thread over these excrescences, or touch them with their saliva, and they dry away” (Southey 1984, 295). In accounts of their curative actions we often find that the wart charmer also mumbled some formulae. Two Dorset wart-charmers, John Tobias and Mrs Bowring of Cerne, for example, conducted the following common operation: they touched the warts with the stalk of some freshly plucked plant, touching each wart separately and counting them, some words were then said “that are not understood,” and then the stalk was buried (March 1899, 479). In 1967-8, a farmer, then aged sixty-eight, from Beaminster, Dorset, recalled:
There was old man next door there. If you have any
warts on your hand he’d say something, and `bout a
week or a month they’re all gone. He asked you how
many you’d got and he’d say, “That’s all right then,”–and
they’d be gone. But he told the missus he could
tell her what to say, but he couldn’t tell me,–not a man.
But never told her, and he’s dead now … Something
he’d read in the Bible, I suppose (Smith 1976, 26).
As mentioned by Southey, some wart-charmers performed the spittle cure whereby the operator anointed each wart with his spittle, often fasting spittle, and directed the sufferer to moisten his finger and pass it round each wart three times in the morning fasting (Groome 1895, 121). A rather more unusual wart cure, based on the transference method, was practised by a Cardiff blacksmith who, for a small consideration, used to mark the number of each person’s warts on his hat and “carry them away” over Rumney Bridge into Monmouthshire, less than a mile’s journey from his smithy. All these operations could have been carried out by the wart-sufferer, but obviously an intermediary imbued with the ability to facilitate the charm was considered necessary.
Another “law” of traditional charming which distinguished charmers from cunning-folk was that the patient should never say “please” or “thank-you,” or give any direct cash payment for their treatment. Keith Thomas stated that “charmers and blessers sometimes performed their services without making any formal charge” (Thomas 1971, 298), but the evidence suggests that he understated the case and that, in fact, it was rare for charmers to make any formal charge. As the charmer and erstwhile butcher Luke Page, of St Briavels, Gloucestershire, put it, “you got to take No Thanks, but thank the Almighty, and keep it to yourself” (Eyre 1905, 168). This rule presumably derived from the belief that these charms and the ability to charm were divine gifts and as such should, in turn, be given freely to those who required it. Of course, the dictates of poverty led to the circumvention of this policy of strict gratuity, and presents in kind were usually given, sometimes after a respectable period of time. While this rule undoubtedly stemmed from an altruistic tradition, it could also serve to shield the charmer from the possibility of prosecution for obtaining money under fraudulent pretences. Although valid, this latter, more cynical, explanation was not, I believe, the predominant reason why charmers refused money. Cunning-folk, who sometimes charged considerable sums of money, rarely asked for payment in kind and seem to have been largely unbothered by the possibility of prosecution for fraudulent cash payments.
Tony Cleverdon told the Revd R.S. Hawker that his powers had been as good as a fortune to him all his life:
for, although he is forbidden by usage and tradition to
take money for the exercise of his functions nothing
has hindered that he should always be invited to sit as
an honest guest at the table furnished with good things
in the house of his votaries (Hawker 1870, 173).
The Northamptonshire correspondent who furnished the account of the Brackley charmer concluded that although the fact that the influence and position naturally accruing to charmers afforded sufficient motive for imposture (even though there was no immediate pecuniary remuneration), he believed that, for the most part, “they may be said to be the dupes of their own credulity” (N&Q 2 :36). It is not surprising, though, that charmers were loath to reveal the content of their charms.
Theo Brown believed that the “gift-in-kind” payment of charmers was a modern development, for the “white witch of old was always a professional and charged considerable fees” (Brown 1970, 41). I believe this statement is misleading. Her conclusion was probably reached as a result of the common confusion of traditional charmers with cunning-folk. Like several other West Country writers on folklore (Hewett 1900; Powell 1908; Tongue 1965), she adopted the three-type categorisation of witches delineated by the antiquarian John Brand. According to Brand, anyone who practised some form of “magic” conformed to one of the following three types, depending on their motivation: “white witches” who used their magical powers to do good; “black witches” who acted for purely maleficent reasons; and “grey witches” who were a mixture of white and black, “for they can both help and hurt” (Brand 1849, 4). Accordingly, Brown pigeonholed charmers as “white witches.” However, I believe that the use of colour epithets was a misleading–though simple and convenient–way to describe magical practitioners in educated discourse. I have come across very few examples of these colour epithets being used within popular discourse, either in the West Country or anywhere else, and have certainly not come across any instances of the term “grey witch.” Though there were a few charmers who did exploit their position and charge for their services–one Bennett, for example, the village carpenter of Ilmington, Warwickshire, who charmed for thrush in the early 1840s, apparently took a fixed fee from each patient (Potter 1913, 241)–I believe they were the exception not the rule.
For ailments which did not require immediate attention, such as ringworm, erysipelas and King’s evil, charmers could often only operate effectively at certain times of the day or night. A ringworm charmer of Stamfordham, Northumberland, obliged his patients to come to him before sunrise, when he used to take some earth from his garden and rub the part affected while repeating certain unrecorded words (Henderson 1879, 140). In East Cumbria, those suffering from eczema and erysipelas could only be charmed between sunset and sunrise, and had to undergo treatment three nights in succession (Penfold 1907, 54). It was vital to the efficacy of some charms that the patient’s name be known. This was obviously no problem when treating humans, but could lead to complications when the patient was an animal. As one charmer explained, “you must know the Christian name, and, if it be an animal, you do give him one” (Eyre 1905, 168). For the animal with no name the future looked grave unless its owner showed a little inventiveness. The Cornish charmer, Tony Cleverdon, recounted the following cautionary incident concerning one Farmer Colly’s mare:
“O, Tony,” says he, “master’s mare is brooding streams,
and I be sent over to you to beg you to stop it.” “Very
well,” I said, “I can do it just as well here as if I came
down and opened the door: just tell me the name of
the beast, and I’ll proceed.” “Name,” says he, “why,
there’s no name that I know by, we allus call her the
black mare?” “No name?” Says I, “then however can I
charm her? Why the name’s the principal thing! Fools!
Never to give her a name to rule the charm by! Be off!
Be off! I can’t save her” so the poor old thing died in
course (Hawker 1870,178).
Nearly a century after the above events, a Dorset farmer had a more fruitful, “charming” encounter. His cow being very ill with redwater,(3) he was persuaded to visit a local female charmer, a friend’s mother-in-law. Upon meeting her, the following conversation ensued:
“What is her name?” she enquired. “I don’t know” he
replied. “What is her colour?” she asked. “Red” was
the reply. “Give her a name,” his mother-in-law said.
“Ruby, because she’s red,” he said (Lang 1969, 223).
Ruby was charmed, and within a couple of days was on the mend and passing clear water once more.
As is evident from Tony Cleverdon’s story of Farmer Colly’s mare, some charmers could effectively operate their charms from a distance. As was observed in Breconshire, it was not always necessary that the patient see the charmer, but he or she must be given the name and description of the person and the disease (Hartland 1913, 506). William Pearson, a Kendal grocer and general dealer in the first half of the last century, knew of a man in his neighbourhood, a landlord and shopkeeper, who was able to charm burns without actually seeing the sufferer (Pearson 1863, 16). Lady Rosalind Northcote knew of a charmer, living near Exeter, who could stanch blood and prevent thorns from festering:
He cured a woman a little while back without even
seeing her. She fell on one hand into a bundle of furze
and went to his house for help. He was out at the time,
but was told of the occurrence on his return and said
something which cured her (Northcote 1900, 217).
Another nineteenth-century Devon charmer, an old spinster with one eye and eyebrow higher than the other, who lived at Lew Down, Devon, was in great demand for stanching blood. The wounded person would send her a handkerchief soaked in their blood, and on receiving it she stroked the kerchief three times, muttered a stanching charm,(4) and meanwhile the flow of the patient’s blood ceased. The Revd Sabine Baring-Gould remarked that it was by no means unusual to meet the postman for Bratton Clovelly coming to Lew Down or going back to Bratton, with his right hand extended to the uttermost holding a kerchief that was to be blessed, or which had been blessed (BaringGould 1925, 143-4). This handkerchief method was practised by “Old Ann” of Delabole, Cornwall, who, in two instances, cured a woman of “wildfire” (shingles) and another suffering from a sore leg (Paynter 1929, 29). A blacksmith of St Austell, Cornwall, also charmed for eczema in the same way (Hammond 1897, 350). By the 1950s, the widespread ownership of telephones meant that those charmers still operating, and able to effect cures at a distance, were even more accessible to sufferers. A Dartmoor farmer told the folklore collector Lois Deacon, around 1952, that a charmer had cured his bullocks of ringworm by telephone (TDA 91:199). Around the same period, an official inspecting a farm near Bridport, Dorset, was surprised to see a cow being led backwards out of the farmhouse. It transpired that the cow had redwater, and that they had asked the charmer to come and cure it, but the charmer was ill in bed, so the cow was taken to the telephone to hear the charm (Lang 1969, 222).
Charming and Religion
The Cornish antiquarian Joseph Hammond discovered at one of his wife’s mothers’ meetings that “there was not a Cornish woman present who did not regard [charming] as quite a natural and proper thing to do.” As a result of this popular attitude, he found that the “humbler class” would talk about charms quite freely (Hammond 1897, 350-1). Similarly, the Revd Rundle, vicar of Godolphin, Cornwall, observed that people “would not talk about ghosts till they were quite sure they would not be laughed at,” but would openly confess their belief in healing charms (“Superstition in Cornwall,” 173). There was obviously little doubt in the popular mind that charming was a legitimate activity sanctioned by God. “Charming is quite right, of course,” said an old man of Weobley, Herefordshire, to Ella Leather, “there’s charmin’ in the Bible, and it’s a good thing” (Leather 1912, 70). A similar opinion was voiced by a Dartmoor farmer’s wife, who “evidently considered them as prayers to God; indeed, one day she asked me whether the Bible did not tell us to pray for God for healing” (TDA 27, 65). A Shropshire blacksmith’s wife (who possessed a charm for toothache) stated, “it’s our Saviour that does it, not us-same as stopping blood,” and went on to say that it was necessary to have “faith in Him, have faith that He will stop it” (Burne 1883, 181).
Although charms were considered to be legitimate Christian prayers and blessings for healing purposes according to popular reasoning, those with moral and spiritual authority did not always look upon them in such a benign light. Many clergymen certainly did not agree with one old Wiltshire charmer’s opinion that “it can do no harm if it does no good” (Heath 1880, 332). In 1817 the Revd Richard Lyne, Rector of Little Petherick, informed his congregation that “to use charms of any kind, for the relief of bodily or mental disorders … or for any other purpose, is an abominable thing, contrary to the gospel of Christ, and therefore injurious to true religion” (Lyne 1817, 3). He went on to notice:
only such considerations as such well disposed
persons seem to me to be misled by, and which are these
1. That only scripture words, or only very good words,
are used in their charms.
2. That many cures have followed upon the use of them
in this way.
3. That many persons have died, or still remain uncured,
who would not be charmed. These are very ancient and
inveterate excuses for this wicked practice (ibid., 22).
In Lyne’s opinion, “if cures are certainly wrought by charms, it must be by agency of the Devil, with a curse, and not a blessing” (ibid., 25). Over sixty years later, Revd Rundle also dismissed similar arguments justifying the use of charms:
it had been stated there may be a great deal said in
favour of actual good being done by them because they
generally ended with an invocation of the All-holy Trinity,
thus showing a certain amount of faith. His experience,
however, was that there was no such kind of faith
displayed: they said “If you could cure he, you can cure
me” (“Superstition in Cornwall,” 173).
These nineteenth-century criticisms hark back to the vehement and widespread attacks on charmers and blessers by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century protestant writers such as William Perkins and Conrad Platz. According to them, the belief that holy words had an inherent efficacy was an outright rejection of the second commandment (Clark 1993, 66-8). For Perkins, charmers were to be condemned along with witches:
by Witches we understand not those onely which kill
and torment: but all Diviners, Charmers, Juglers, all
Wizzards, commonly called wise men and wise women;
yea, whoseover doe any thing (knowing what they doe)
which cannot be effected by nature or art; and in the
same number we reckon good Witches, which doe no
hurt, but good, which doe not spoile and destroy, but
save and deliver (Perkins 1610, 255).
As is apparent from a number of the examples cited in this article, fasting was an important element of the charming tradition. During the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, both the Catholic and Methodist traditions resorted to fasting and prayer to heal the sick and the possessed (MacDonald 1982; Rack 1982). As Keith Thomas has observed, while Protestantism rejected outright the Catholic ritual of exorcism, “it seemed that the Protestant remedy of fasting and prayer might well be developed into a ritual claiming something very near mechanical efficacy” (Thomas 1971, 571). Although by the eighteenth century the Anglican church had rejected the practice, it survived in both the Methodist tradition and in folk medicine.
Both held great store by the power of fasting spittle. It was probably Bridget Bostock’s use of fasting spittle which led John Wesley to conclude there was “no room to doubt” her curative powers. Wesley himself thought it a sovereign remedy for many diseases (Rack 1982, 140-2). The use of fasting spittle has a long history. Pliny was said to have espoused its medicinal properties for curing snake bites, boils and cricks in the neck, and Vespasian is said to have cured a blind man with it (Hazlitt 1995, 561-2; Elworthy 1895, 418-21). Its Christian legitimacy, however, derived from its curative use in the Bible.(5) There was, it seems, a big gulf between the interpretation of the Bible in popular and in official religion.(6) In the popular mind, these charms were prayers, their holy power often being strengthened by fasting and the application of fasting spittle. Though Christian orthodoxy maintained there was a difference between charms and prayers, according to popular concepts the two were not mutually exclusive. In popular religion the Bible was imbued with the power to heal not only the soul but also the body. As in Methodism, popular conceptions of religion often held to the literal truth of the Bible. If fasting spittle worked in the Bible, therefore, it must also work in general, as long as it was applied by a “gifted” charmer and both parties had faith. Furthermore, it did not matter that the apocryphal narratives within some of these charms were not actually in the Bible, because they were nevertheless, in a sense, biblical. This point is well illustrated by the following reported conversation between a parson and one of his parishioners, Dame Grey:
Well Dame Grey, I hear you have a charm to cure the
toothache. Come, just let me hear it; I should be so much
pleased to know it.
Oh, your reverence, it’s not worth telling (long
coaxing talk ensues). Well, your reverence, you have been
very kind to me, and I’ll tell you: it’s just a verse from
Scripture as I says over those as have the toothache:-“And
Jesus said unto Peter, What ailieth thee? And Peter
answered, Lord I have toothache. And The Lord healed
Well, but Dame Grey, I think I know my Bible, and I
don’t find any such verse in it.
Yes your reverence, that is just the charm. It’s in the
Bible, but you can’t find it! (N&Q 1, 293).
Considering the confusion educated people created between humble charmers with their simple “religious” healing charms and the shrewd cunning-folk with their occult talismans and amulets, it is not surprising that the former were still occasionally anxious to dissociate themselves from the latter when conversing with the ignorant educated enquirer. Thus, one Sussex folklorist recounted how she managed to obtain a charm for burns from a noted charmer only “after she had assured me more than once that there was no harm in using it, for it was only a blessing, and had nothing to do with witchcraft” (Latham 1878, 35). The old Lew Down charmer interviewed by Sabine Baring-Gould similarly protested that “she had no intercourse with Satan, and that all her operations were honest and performed through the grace of God, and by justifiable charms” (Baring-Gould 1925, 143).
The Healing Touch and Seventh Sons and Daughters
So far the discussion has centred on those charmers who operated using archic wordcharms, but there were several other types of healer, most of whom fitted similar descriptions and subscribed to the same conventions though they did not use verbal formulae. These charmers possessed innate healing powers, and usually charmed for ailments for which there was no traditional written or oral healing charm. One such person was Bridget Bostock, of Coppenhall, Cheshire, who became something of a national newspaper sensation in 1748.(7) She was described by one correspondent to the General Evening Post as “an old shrivelled creature seated in an elbow-chair, in a most dirty attire, and her petticoats not reaching above half-way down her legs.” She cured for blindness, deafness, lameness, rheumatism, King’s evil, hysterical fits, falling fits, shortness of breath, palsy, dropsy, leprosy and cancers, but refused to treat syphilitic cases. All she had to do to effect a cure was to stroke the affected area with her fasting spittle and pray for the sufferer. She did not pretend to cure all disorders and took no money for her cures, though others made money out of her reputation. In 1748 so many “people of fashion” were applying to her, that several poor locals had made a comfortable subsistence holding their horses.
Mr Blatchford, sexton of Bridestowe, Devon, in the 1880s, was not only in possession of several written healing charms but also possessed his own innate healing ability to charm (TDA 17, 120). Blatchford first discovered his curative powers when very young. Just after birth, “before he had been washed or dressed,” he was made to stroke some afflicted person and cured them, and he believed that if this had not happened then his gift would never have been revealed. Anyone who desired to be healed had to be “strook” by Blatchford an odd number of times over the ailment (wens for example), it being necessary that this operation took place on a Tuesday–the day on which Blatchford had been born. Furthermore, it had to take place an odd number of times–seven or nine Tuesdays following the first stroking. Blatchford was not always successful, but when he was, he was paid in kind.
We have already seen the element of fasting in the healing procedure of Bridget Bostock and some wart-charmers; we also find it requisite to the successful charming of shingles (Swyno’r ‘Ryri in Wales). The sufferer had to go to the charmer fasting, and likewise the charmer had to operate fasting. A contributor to the Montgomeryshire Collections recalled being taken as a boy to a respectable farmer’s wife in Powys to undergo the following treatment:
The charmer blew gentle breathings on the sore vesicles
first, then a series of wee tit-spittings in like
manner–repeating the same as many times as were thought
necessary … my smarting was finally soothed when
she applied a lotion which she called “hufen” (none
other than genuine thick cream). A cure was the result
but the scars remain to this day (Pearson 1915, 191).
This charmer derived her gift for charming in consequence of one of her ancestors having eaten eagle’s flesh. The healing power remained with the descendants of the eagle-eater for the limited period of nine generations. Charlotte Burne also knew of a man and a woman living at Redbrook, Flintshire, who inherited the power to charm shingles from an eagle-eating ancestor (Burne 1883, 186). Also, in the last century, the father of a game-keeper named Price at Stanage Park, Radnorshire, ate eagle’s flesh; consequently Price’s “touch” was much sought after by shingles sufferers (Howse 1949, 205).
Another example of a charmer with innate healing powers was that of a nineteenth-century healer of the King’s evil, who lived at South Molton, Devon. He acquired his curative power because as a new-born baby he had been placed out in the snow before being washed for the first time. This man’s grandson declared that any new-born baby could have the same power if treated in this way. Every Wednesday morning for nine weeks, his grandfather would visit the sufferer before he or she had washed, eaten or drunk, and would strike the affected area lightly nine times with his hand. He would continue this treatment each week, even though the disease disappeared before the nine weeks had passed (TDA 85, 218).
The belief that healing powers were naturally conferred upon a seventh son, especially a seventh son of a seventh son, and sometimes a seventh daughter, was widespread in Europe (Black 1883, 136-7; Hand 1971, 265-9). The concept of the seventh son has not been found before the sixteenth century in England, but by the mid-seventeenth century a number of such practitioners had gained notoriety and wealth, but also censure (Thomas 1971, 237-40; Bloch 1973). During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many village seventh sons and daughters were still called upon to exercise their healing touch, usually for the cure of King’s evil, but also for other ailments such as whooping-cough (Burne 1883, 186). In Somerset, a ninth son was also thought to possess the ability to charm (Page 1893, 31). During the mid-nineteenth century, three sisters of Devonport, one an eleventh daughter, one a ninth, and the other a seventh, were all able to touch for the King’s evil, though both parties had to be unwashed and fasting (Smith 1990, 338). Although some exploited their genealogical gift for financial gain, most observed the traditional payment rules of the charmer. As John Lloyd Page observed, “the `toucher’ must make no charge for his services, though a present would not be refused” (Page 1893, 32). The three Devonport sisters would accept no money from the patient, but relatives and friends could “show gratitude.” Around the middle of the last century, an old man named James Broom, a seventh son, lived and charmed for the King’s evil at Taunton, Somerset. One man recalled being taken to see him at sunrise on the first three Sundays in May. Broom was in such demand that eight or nine people were waiting their turn to be cured at that early hour of the morning. He spat on his hand and rubbed it across the lump whilst reciting “something.” In performing this ritual, Broom appeared to be in very great pain, and groaned a good deal. He refused to make any charge or accept any money, saying that a present was acceptable instead (Clark 1896, 205).
One of the entrepreneurial class of seventh sons was James Leech, who showed considerable business acumen by advertising his services in the Manchester Mercury and Harrop’s General Advertiser, Tuesday 24 May 1764:
This is to Inform the Public.
That James Leech, of Warrington, in the County of
Lancaster, Yeoman, having had the good Fortune to be Born
the Seventh Son of a reputable Family, residing formerly
at Cogshall, in the County of Chester, being sufficiently
convinced of his Ability in perfectly curing the unfortunate
Disorder of the King’s Evil, shall be glad to relieve
anyone who may labour under the same, at a reasonable
Expense. In Testimony of which, he has Cured
of this Disorder, Elizabeth Herpard, of Plumbly; Mary
Frith, of Fraudly; and Peter Lawton of Camberbach; all in
the County of Chester, to whom any Person or Persons
may apply, if they Please, for the Truth hereof.
A rather more humble seventh son was an Irish boy who ran errands in the office of a N&Q correspondent, who recalled:
He occasionally came late, for which he varied his
excuses. At last its frequency occasioned me to speak very
sharply, when he replied, “I wouldn’t help it sir, I’m
sure I wouldn’t; I’ve only bin on an act o’mercy. ” “What
act of mercy?” “Ye see, sir, I’m a seventh of a seventh,
an’ I touches for sickness” … it was necessary that he
should touch fasting; that his hand should be crossed
with silver (generally a shilling), though from the very
poor a fourpence would suffice, and from the rich
half-a-crown was necessary (N&Q 7 :260).
The boy admitted that he earned more from his “practice” than he did from his situation in the office.
Not all seventh sons were comfortable with their birthright or, indeed, were aware of it. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the brother of a Mr Tyson, bank-keeper at Hawkshead, Cumbria, being known as a seventh son was sought out by a woman working at Coniston Copper Mines in order to have her arm healed. Tyson’s brother apparently had little faith in his own powers, but as the woman was persistent he consented to apply his healing touch (Cowper 1899, 316). A Devonshire man recounted how, after the birth of his seventh daughter in succession, the news soon got about and within a fortnight he had received two applications from troubled mothers requesting that the baby lay her hand on their child’s arm or leg. They argued that it would not harm his child and might cure theirs of King’s evil (Baring-Gould 1908, 79).
While not being able to effect cures themselves, there were people who were in possession of healing object-charms for which they had custodial responsibility, and which could be borrowed gratis by those in need of their curative powers. In the north of England, especially east of the Pennines, the touch of Irish objects, usually sticks and stones, was held to be efficacious against snake-bites and bee- and wasp-stings. This belief has a long history.
Writing in the early eighth century, Bede made the following observation in his description of Ireland:
almost everything in this isle confers immunity to poison,
and I have seen that folk suffering from snake-bite have
drunk water in which scrapings from the leaves of books
from Ireland have been steeped, and that this remedy
checked the spreading poison and reduced the swelling
(Bede 1968, 39).
In October 1884, William Egglestone visited a seventy-eight year old woman, living near the Old Abbey of Blanchland, Northumberland, who owned a famous Irish stone, a water-worn flint, lentiform and of a dark colour blotched with white. The charm had been in the house when she married into it and had been the property of her husband, who had inherited it from his father. During her time it had been lent “all up and down” to people bitten by adders (Egglestone 1889; Webb 1969). An Irish stone in the possession of a lady living near Stamfordham, Northumberland, was never permitted to touch English soil, and had to be carried to the patient in a basket (Henderson 1879, 166). Even in 1970 an Irish stick was still more or less in use in Farndale, Yorkshire: “The owner, not an elderly woman, was a little bashful about the stick but pleased that someone was still interested. It had been handed down in the family” (Hudlestone 1970, 143). The contributor of this information makes the apposite point that the relative redundancy of this stick was due not only to improvements in modern medicine, but also to the fact that modern mechanised farming methods made the likelihood of contact with adders increasingly unlikely.
Old beads seem to have been imbued with the power to cure eye complaints, and were known as rammer-beads in Scotland(8) and “kenning” or “kinning” stones in the southwest of England. A family from Great Torrington, Devon, had in its possession one such “stone” which had been handed down through the family. It was kept (in 1899) in a small wooden box, carefully wrapped and tied up in a piece of linen. The stone, a good sized bead with a bit of string through it, had to be kept from touching any wooden substance or it would lose its power (TDA 31, 110). Another Devon custodian was a Miss Soaper, an old lady who lived in the parish of Thrustleton, who possessed a bluish-green kenning-stone, which was “much resorted to by people troubled with sore eyes” (Henderson 1879, 145). A Cornish kinning-stone, seen by the Revd A. H. Malan, was described as a translucent, blueish-white globular crystal, about one-and-a-quarter inches in diameter and pierced by a hole containing a boot lace for suspension. It had apparently been in the same family for generations, and was highly valued by the present owner, who “was willing to lend it to anyone to do good” (Courtney 1890, 144). Another Cornish kinning-stone, an orange-coloured cornelian bead, was deemed so valuable that it was included in the custodian’s will (Adams 1919, 132). Finally, a woman living (in 1911) near Guilden Morden, Cambridgeshire was in possession of a “bloodstone,” an old marble-shaped bead inlaid with five wavy lines, two white and three orange, and hung on a piece of red silk with three knots in it. To effectively stanch blood, some drops of blood had to be allowed to fall on it, and then it was hung low down on the back over the shoulders and next to the skin. As the blood dried on the “stone,” so the flow of blood would cease. The “stone” had been bought for the large sum of three guineas by her great-grandfather to cure her father’s nosebleeds, and had been lent out several times whilst in her possession (Williams 1912, 349).
Charmers in the Medical Market Place
Those ailments for which people resorted to charmers could also, of course, have been treated by doctors and veterinaries. That people’s first choice was often the charmer was a consequence not only of the strong faith in the curative powers of charmers, but also of a general lack of confidence in orthodox medicine. The experience of people badly scalded or burned serves to illustrate this point. Such injuries require immediate attention and so someone had to be called in quickly. A traditional healing charm existed for this condition, and so the charmer was often called in before the doctor. Charmers cost little, if anything, and in many cases they lived nearby and were easily accessible. The doctor and antiquarian Alfred Hayman Cummings remembered being sent for to see a child in the district of Truro, who had been scalded. Cummings recommended that the child be removed to the local infirmary, but the advice was declined since the mother had just had the child charmed by a charmer living hard by “and was quite sure no ill effect would therefore ensue” (Cummings 1875, 239). From an account of an inquest held at the Green Man Inn, Mendlesham, Suffolk, in 1893, Elizabeth Wade stated that her deceased child had pulled a cup of boiling soup over herself and badly scalded herself:
She did not send for a doctor, but at once sent for an old
woman living in the neighbourhood … The old woman came
at once, and said some strange words over the child, and
passed her hands across the injured parts. Witness, under
these circumstances, did not consider the attendance of a
medical man necessary. Medical evidence was given to the
effect that the child’s life could not have been saved any
way (Knowlson n.d., 130. My italics).
The lack of faith in the orthodox medical profession and the enduring belief in the abilities of charmers were revealed during the inquest in 1851 of a child named James Clifford, the son of a labouring man of Northwood Green, Gloucestershire. He had died from severe burns to the bowels, face and hands. It was stated that the parents carried the child two miles to an old one-legged widow named Hampton who applied some ointment and muttered a charm. In court, the parents expressed their conviction that she could do more good with the charm than any surgeon. A surgeon, Mr Humble, was of the opinion that the child could have been saved had he been called in. The jury found that the deceased “died from exhaustion, neglect, and improper treatment,” but were of the opinion that it did not amount to a criminal act (The Times 20 January 1851, 5).
Similar reasons for consulting charmers have been recorded by modern French ethnographers. Jeanne Favret-Saada and Jose Contreras found that people disliked doctors because they were not as sympathetic to their problems as charmers were, and the whole experience was considered too impersonal. Doctors were also thought to be over-confident in the powers of their “science.” Charmers were more popular because they were less expensive too; as was explained to Favret-Saada, “to the charmer, we give what we want,” whereas they had to pay the doctor whatever he or she demanded. Charmers were also consulted when the doctor’s treatment was too slow or when the ailment, such as eczema, was difficult to treat with modern medicine (Favret-Saada and Contreras 1981, 51). Similarly, Dominique Camus found that in eastern Brittany, people went to charmers before consulting doctors because charmers were always available when needed and clients knew that neither the charmer nor the cure was expected to take a long time to act. Charmers also shared the same social background as their clients, which put them at their ease (Camus 1990, 12-13).
The charming tradition outlived most other aspects of folk medicine, and charmers remained in demand in parts of the country until the 1970s. Unlike cunning-folk, charmers were a feature of folk medicine, not 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, so the role of cunning-folk became increasingly redundant also. Charmers, however, continued to function as a residual aspect of folk medicine.
From the early-twentieth century onwards, though, there was a diminution in the range of ailments for which people consulted charmers. The tradition of charming for toothache, ague, burns, scalds, pricks, adder-bites, sprains and scrofula declined, but charming for warts and other skin problems remained fairly popular. In 1907 Henry Penfold remarked that “of the superstitions mentioned … the only one that shows signs of continued existence is the charming of skin diseases” (Penfold 1907, 63). Theo Brown found that the commonest charmers still operating in Devon during the 1950s and 1960s were those who charmed for warts, ringworm and bleeding (Brown 1970, 41). Jimmy Moore, one of the last popular Cornish charmers and still operating in the 1970s, cured for ringworm and warts (Deane and Shaw 1975, 121). It also seems that in the post-war period a significant proportion of the requests made to charmers concerned livestock.(9) Indeed, the longevity of this remnant charming tradition in the West Country may be related to the predominance of dairying in the region.
Medical advances and improvements in healthcare over the last seventy years have undoubtedly contributed to the decline of charming. Environmental and agricultural changes have also led to the reduction of some of the problems which charmers used to charm for. The ague, or malarial fever, had been largely eradicated by the Second World War owing to the widespread drainage of wetland areas and the spraying of anopheles mosquito colonies (MacArthur 1951; MacDougall 1979). Modern farming methods have also reduced the likelihood of contact with adders, their numbers having declined owing to habitat loss (Crofts and Jefferson 1994, 2:19). But the decline of the charming tradition cannot be fully explained by such “progressive” factors; as we have seen, certain aspects of the English charming tradition could adapt quite well to twentieth-century society. In western England, until the 1970s, charming co-existed alongside modern medicine and occasionally complemented it. Improved transport and the telephone made charmers even more accessible. It would seem that the decline of the English and Welsh charming tradition probably has as much to do with changes in our rural culture and communal structures, as it does with medical advances and notions of intellectual progress.
N&Q–Notes and Queries
TDA–Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art.
(1) For example, in the nineteenth-century Conjuror, Jones of Llangurig, charmed for the toothache (Howse 1949,198).
(2) The same observation has been made concerning modern Irish healers. See Nolan (1988-9, 49).
(3) Redwater is caused by a tick biting the animal and injecting a parasite into its bloodstream which breaks down the red corpuscles of the blood, which causes it to get into the urine.
(4) The charm employed was Ezech. 16.6.
(5) For example, John 9:6: “he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay.”
(6) For a discussion of the wider divergence between popular and orthodox religion, see Smith (1971) and Obelkevitch (1976).
(7) A collection of contemporary accounts of Bostock were compiled by W.H. Chaloner (1948). See also Rack (1982, 1403)
(8) The name derives from “amber,” of which some of these beads were made.
(9) Ringworm was particularly problematic in dairying areas because the fungus can quite easily be caught from contact with cows, and hand-milking obviously increased the risk of contagion. Redwater was presumably cured using a charm for stanching blood. Josep Perez also found from his study of charmers in Lower Saxony, that the charming tradition has largely become restricted to curing livestock (Perez, 1988).
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