Cunning folk, also known as folk healers or wise folk, were practitioners of folk medicine, helpful folk magic and divination in Europe from the Middle Ages until the 20th century. Their practices were known as the cunning craft. Their services also included thwarting witchcraft. Although some cunning folk were denounced as witches themselves, they made up a minority of those accused, and the common people generally made a distinction between the two. The name 'cunning folk' originally referred to folk-healers and magic-workers in Britain, but the name is now applied as an umbrella term for similar people in other parts of Europe.
Names given to folk-healers and magic-workers in Europe include:
Main article: Cunning folk in Britain
The term "cunning man" or "cunning woman" was most widely used in southern England and the Midlands, as well as in Wales. Such people were also frequently known across England as "wizards", "wise men" or "wise women", or in southern England and Wales as "conjurers" or as "dyn(es) hysbys" (knowing man or woman) in the Welsh language. In Cornwall they were sometimes referred to as "pellars", which some etymologists suggest originated from the term "expellers", referring to the practice of expelling evil spirits. Folklorists often used the term "white witch", though this was infrequently used amongst the ordinary folk as the term "witch" had general connotations of evil.
Certain Christian theologians and Church authorities[who?] believed that the cunning folk, being practitioners of magic, were in league with the Devil and as such were akin to the more overtly Satanic and malevolent witches. Partly because of this, laws were enacted across England, Scotland and Wales that often condemned cunning folk and their magical practices, but there was no widespread persecution of them akin to the Witch Hunt, largely because most common people firmly distinguished between the two: witches were seen as being harmful and cunning folk as useful.
In England during the Early Mediaeval period, various forms of folk magic could be found amongst the Anglo-Saxons, who referred to such practitioners as wicca (male) or wicce (female), or at times also as dry, practitioners of drycraeft, the latter of which have been speculated as being anglicised terms for the Irish drai, a term referring to druids, who appeared as anti-Christian sorcerers in much Irish literature of the period.
Some of the spells and charms that had been used in the Anglo-Saxon polytheist era continued to be used following Christianization. However, as historian Owen Davies noted, "although some such pre-Christian magic continued, to label it pagan is to misrepresent the people who used it and the context in which it was used."
In England and Wales, cunning folk had operated throughout the latter part of the Mediaeval and into the Early Modern period. In the 15th and 16th centuries, there had been no attempt to illegalise the cunning craft, although private lawsuits had been brought against some of them by those clients who felt that they had been cheated out of their money. This changed with the first of the Witchcraft Acts, the Witchcraft Act of 1542, enacted under the reign of Henry VIII, which targeted both witches and cunning folk, and which prescribed the death penalty for such crimes as using invocations and conjurations to locate treasure or to cast a love spell. This law was repealed no later than 1547, under the reign of Henry's son Edward VI, something that the historian Owen Davies believed was due to those in power changing their opinion on the law: they believed that either the death penalty was too harsh for such crimes or that the practice of the cunning craft was a moral issue that was better for the Church to deal with in ecclesiastic courts rather than a problem that had to be sorted out by the state.
For the following few decades, the magical practices of the cunning folk remained legal, despite opposition from certain religious authorities. It was a time of great religious upheaval in the country as Edward's successor, his sister Mary I, reimposed Roman Catholicism, before Anglicanism was once again restored under Elizabeth I. In 1563, after the return of power to the Anglican Church of England, a bill was passed by parliament designed to illegalise "Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts", again being aimed at both the alleged witches and the cunning folk. However, this law was not as harsh as its earlier predecessor, with the death penalty being reserved for those who were believed to have conjured an evil spirit or murdered someone through magical means, whilst those for whom the use of magic was a first offence faced a year's imprisonment and four stints in the pillory. Nonetheless, this law would have little effect on the cunning folk, as "the attention and focus of the courts shifted away from the activities of cunning-folk and towards the maleficium of supposed witches" - the Witch Hunt that had been raging in Scotland and in many parts of continental Europe had finally arrived in England.
Whilst across England, many people were accused of witchcraft by members of their local communities and put on trial, the cunning folk very rarely suffered a similar fate. It was unusual for a cunning man or woman to actually be accused of witchcraft; in the county of Essex for instance, whereas around four hundred people had been put on trial for witchcraft, only four of those were identifiably cunning folk. However, many of the professional witch-hunters and theologians continued to proclaim the cunning craft as being the same as witchcraft, with them both being caused by the Devil.
With the decline in the witch trials in the latter part of the 17th and early 18th centuries, partly due to the rise of the Enlightenment amongst the educated elite, a new law was introduced, the Witchcraft Act of 1736. Unlike earlier laws, this did not accept the existence of magic, and took the opinion that there never had been any witches, and it, therefore, came down heavier on the cunning folk, who were claiming to perform genuine magical spells. It portrayed the cunning folk as practitioners of "explicitly fraudulent practices designed to fool the credulous" in order to gain money off of them.
The belief in cunning folk and the use of "white magic" to be used for healing and as protection against "black magic" was once widespread in Germany; however, during the early modern period such practices gradually became less accepted by the authorities, partly because the belief in "white magic" was viewed by the church authorities to be contrary to Biblical teachings and partly due to the loss of revenues for certain groups such as barber-surgeons and physicians, as was the case in Rothenburg ob der Tauber in which periodical action was taken against users of "white magic". The usual punishment was banishment rather than execution as was common for others convicted of witchcraft and the use of "black magic" 
In Germany practitioners of folk-magic were almost always female; however, by contrast the Hexenmeister (also a term for a warlock) or Hexenfinder who hunted witches and "neutralised" them on behalf of society was always male.
In Ireland, the female cunning-folk were known as bean feasa ("woman of knowledge"); banfháidh or fáidhbhean ("female seer"); bean bhán ("white woman"), and bean chaointe ("keening woman"). They were known as seers, and would provide traditional herbal cures and perform funeral tasks like preparing corpses. Gearoid Ó Crualaoich described the bean feasa as “an oracular authority for her community regarding the meaning and significance of experiences they fail to understand.” Biddy Early (1798–1872) was a famous practitioner bean feasa.
Male practitioners also existed, primarily providing traditional cures. They were known as fear feasa ("man of knowledge") or lucht pisreoga ("people of traditions").
The names used for cunning-folk in Italy vary from region to region, although such names include praticos (wise people), guaritori (healers), fattucchiere (fixers), donne che aiutano (women who help) and mago, maga or maghiardzha (sorcerers). At times, they were sometimes called streghe (witches), although usually only "behind their backs or by those who either are sceptical of their powers or believe they deal in black magic." Unlike in other parts of Europe, such as Britain, the cunning profession survived the 20th century and into the early 21st, allowing Italian-American sociologist Sabina Magliocco to make a brief study of them (2009).
As in the rest of Europe, the primary role of the Italian cunning-folk was apparently in healing, both through the use of herbs and through spiritual healing. The former required knowledge about various plants and herbs on the behalf of the cunning-person, although the spiritual healing was believed to come from an inner power, known as la forza (power), la virtù (virtue) or il Segno (the sign). Such healing was often in the form of removing the malocchio, or evil eye, which had cursed someone.
Italian cunning craft was, and continued to remain rooted in the country's Roman Catholicism, which is evident from the use of charms and prayers, which often call upon the aid of saints. Such magical practitioners also widely believed that they dealt with spirit beings, both benevolent (who would aid them) and malevolent (whom they would have to combat). The latter included the unquiet dead as well as supernatural witches who were believed to cause harm to people, whilst the former included ancestors, the helpful dead and saints, who could help defeat these malevolent entities. Magical tools were also utilised by Italian cunning-folk, and whilst these varied between both regions and practitioners, these commonly include fiber ropes or cords to bind, knives or scissors to cut away illness, and mirrors and weapons to reflect or scare away malevolent spirits.
Main article: Zagovory
Zagоvory - the use of verbal incantations - arose from Slavic pagan prayers and incantations, whether spoken, whispered or sung. These incantations have been traditionally accompanied by associated rituals, some of which are, or were, physically demanding and strenuous. One example calls for the zagоvory practitioner to have either a full set of teeth, or a knife as a symbolic substitute for teeth that were missing.
The traditions survived into the Christian era, largely through a process of syncretism and Christianization of the traditional rites, in which images of, and lore about, Jesus were added to the existing traditions. For instance, a healing would now be done in the name of Jesus, citing a story from the Bible.
Societal concern about the practice of witchcraft centered on whether someone was using incantations or rites to cause harm. In one case of suspected witchcraft, investigators found a locked box containing something bundled in a kerchief and three paper packets, wrapped and tied, containing crushed grasses. People in Russian and Ukrainian societies usually shunned those said to be witches, unless they felt they needed help against supernatural forces. Impotence, stomach pains, barrenness, hernias, abscesses, epileptic seizures, and convulsions were all attributed to evil (or witchcraft). In Russia, three quarters of those accused of witchcraft were men.
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