This paper analyzes how literature produced during the early modern period fictionalized the identities of witches and cunning folk. Cunning folk were magic practioners who could be paid to do tasks such as tell one’s fortune, locate treasure, heal the sick, locate witches, settle disputes and conjure. During the years of the witchcraft trials in England and Scotland cunning folk’s identities become more complicated due to the similarities cunning folk bear to that of the figure of the witch. It would be expected that cunning folk receive the same treatment of witches during the early modern period due to their analogues practice of magic (despite difference of intent). However, cunning folk are able to escape the deadly fate of witches. I will analyze the role that the evolution of print and mass amount of literature produced played in constructing a fictional identity of cunning folk and witches. I will then look at what this fictionalized identity revealed about gender, class, and religious tensions of the early modern period. I will examining a multitude of literature produced during the late Middle Ages to the early modern period such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and The Tempest, John Lyly’s Mother Bombie, Thomas Heywood’s The Wise Woman of Hogsdon, and William Perkins A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft.

In my first chapter I will introduce my research question and method for examining it. In my second chapter I will outline the historical context of the witchcraft trials in England and Scotland. The historical stage that cunning folk and witches share during the witchcraft trials is valuable to understand as the fifteenth through seventeenth century experienced a multitude of social upheaval and natural disasters. In my chapters three and four I will examine historians and scholars of literature who have already contributed significant research to the field of witches and cunning folk. Since my argument is informed by many of these scholars, understanding their research gives credibility and insight to my argument.

From here I move into the richer analysis of cunning folk and witches. In chapter five I examine the historical process of the criminalization of magic. Before the witchcraft trials in England and Scotland magic did not receive the same harsh treatment under the laws of secular and ecclesiastic courts. The historical occurrences and social changes that resulted in the creation of legal action against magic practioners reveals how elites in society viewed magic. Chapter six is an analysis of how print expanded rapidly during the early modern period and caused the public to become more literate and influenced by the ideas being circulated in the new culture of print. From here I analyze specific texts that include cunning folk and witches in chapter seven. I do in depth textual analysis of these works to outline how cunning folk were written about in plays and literature produced for elite and middle-class British subjects. In chapter eight I then look at how the Protestant Reformation affected the conceptualization of cunning folk. I specifically look at the Protestant clergy man, William Perkins, work A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, produced during the mid-seventeenth century. My final chapter concludes my essay and attempts to address areas for further research.


Hettinger, Madonna

Second Advisor

Schaer, Robin


History; English


European History | History of Gender | History of Religion | Medieval History

Publication Date


Degree Granted

Bachelor of Arts

Document Type

Senior Independent Study Thesis



© Copyright 2019 Katarina E. Padavick