"Now Mother Melldrum kept her winter in this vale of rocks, sheltering from the wind and rain within the Devil's Cheese-ring"
The Cheesewring, near Minions, Cornwall
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeThe Cheesewring, near Minions, Cornwall - Credit: Jim Champion

The "cunning folk" were the professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic active from the fifteenth century to the early twentieth century. They practiced folk magic, also known as "low magic."  Such people were frequently known as "wise men" or "wise women." 

Certain Christian theologians and church authorities believed that the cunning folk, being practitioners of magic, were in league with the devil.  Laws were enacted across England, Scotland and Wales that condemned cunning folk and their magical practices, but widespread persecution was not prevalent as the cunning folk were seen as useful.  Witches, in contrast, were seen as harmful and evil, and subjected to Witch Hunts. 

The Witchcraft Act of 1542 targeted both witches and cunning folk, and prescribed the death penalty for such crimes as using invocations and conjurations to locate treasure or to cast a love spell. The law was however repealed in 1547. 

For the following few decades, the magical practices of the cunning folk remained legal, despite opposition from certain religious authorities. In 1563, Parliament passed a law against "Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts."  The death penalty was reserved for those who were believed to have conjured an evil spirit or murdered someone through magical means.  The ensuing Witch Hunts largely ignored the cunning folk.  In Essex, for example, while about 400 people were tried for witchcraft, only four of these were cunning folk.