The Cunning Dutch

I’ve mentioned briefly that Le Mumz comes from a mix of cultures – as many people do these days, especially in America.  One of the interesting bits of our history involve the excommunication of our relatives from Holland, which prompted their move to the U.S.  The most common excommunicated population of Dutch citizens were those of Jewish descent… but this was not the case in our family.  Because none of us can do anything the easy or simple way, we had to flee Holland because of…


Yes, ladies and gents.  Witchcraft.  Now, to set the record straight, I’m not talking about the whole eye-of-newt cooking course, nor the flying-ointment-smeared fashion plate.  Those sorts of witches existed only in the minds of the accusers, which really says more about them than the accused, in my mind.  But our family – the Van der Heidens – were primarily cunning folk, and that’s what I want to write about today.

Cunning Tradition

The broad definition of a cunning man or woman would be one who studies the art of folk healing, medicine, and magick, as well as divination.  Humans the world over have had some sort of healing and magick traditions for as long as we’ve had communities, but to be considered specifically one of the cunning traditions, one must practice a form of healing and magick specific to Europe.

Despite many modern misconceptions, the various terms for cunning folk are not synonymous with witches or witchcraft: some cunning traditions may include religious components in portions of their practices, but those elements appear in addition to the dominant focus and purpose of the cunning practice: healing, charms, folk magick, and divination; witchcraft, both medieval and modern, is rather the opposite, as its primary focus is on religion and ritual, and any knowledge of herbalism, divination, and folk healing methods is not required.  Even the earliest communities made a very clear distinction between their folk healers, who used their powers for good, and what they called witches, who were believed to be in league with darker forces; modern witchcraft, meanwhile, is a New Age religion combining common folk practices such as charm-making with different occult, pagan, and esoteric themes.  In the past, people believed healers and witches to be two very separate things, and there was no such thing as a “good witch” during the Inquisition, which is when most of the distinctions between these types of practices became publicly necessary.

Another huge misconception about folk healers is that the major witch hunts which took place across Europe and North America were the result of some sort of shady plot concocted by the rising medical profession and Christian leaders, meant to eradicate female healers and wise-women from the market in order to make room for the male-dominated medical profession, but this is incorrect: besides the fact that the cunning tradition has never been solely the realm of the female (and in some countries was a path only able to be pursued by men), there’s the fact that most witch hunts began as political maneuvering or ambitious land grabs between power-hungry rivals – feuding families hurling accusations or using one another as scapegoats in order to win arguments that had spanned generations – and the influence spread, feeding into people’s fears, superstitions, hatred, and fictions, fueling mounting hysteria until things became entirely unmanageable and out of control.   While many would think nothing of throwing their irritating neighbor or the mentally ill old widow from down the street to the witch-hunters of the Inquisition, ridding one’s village or town of their resident midwife, herbalist, match-maker, crop and livestock specialist, and fortune-teller would do far more harm than good.

The Cunning Folk of the Netherlands

The Dutch had two primary cunning traditions: the duivelbanner (“devil-banisher”) was a man skilled in the arts of exorcism and the banishment of evil powers, such as curses placed on the afflicted by witches and warlocks, while the toverdokter (“magick-doctor”) was one who treated illnesses and wounds with the use of herbs, set bones and mended torn muscles, created charms and amulets, and practiced animal husbandry and divination; this latter group tended to pass their knowledge on from generation to generation, keeping the tradition itself within the same family.

Initially, the cunning traditions of the Netherlands were highly respected across Europe, and knowledge of herbs in particular was considered important to daily life as a way to not only resolve a health situation but also improve overall mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.  Books were published well into the mid-16th century detailing herbs, their uses, and various formulas for remedies.  However, by the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Inquisition combined with the growing popularity in Holland for the rationalist philosophies and experimental sciences of René Descartes led to a less tolerant view of homegrown cunning traditions.  Folk medicine was pushed out of urban areas and into rural towns and remote villages, where it continued until the passing of a law in the late 18th century which proclaimed that magick of all kinds was impossible and the supernatural was the work of the devil; as a result, those who continued to practice their cunning traditions were labeled as either frauds (which could result in a fine or jail sentence) or heretics (punishable by a fine, jail term, excommunication, and / or death).

Nevertheless, the cunning traditions of the Dutch toverdokters continued to be heavily practiced by what were then called “natural healers” whose work – which combined folk medicine, herbalism, homeopathy, and anthroposophy – was considered illegal until the 1990s, at which point a law was established to formally accept once more the practices that had never truly been eradicated – the argument now being that modern doctors play god themselves, while “natural healers” have been given gifts by god which allow them to take away pain using the creations of god’s world, and, therefore, their healing powers must be attributable to god.

*  The Van der Heidens of our family were probably the victims of a land-grab rather than actual belief that they were doing anything at all related to devilry.  As stated above, one simply didn’t throw out the village healer… unless a more powerful political opponent existed.  And the family rumor is that it all came down to a wealthy neighbor who wanted the farm.  Yup.  Out of Holland and in America, all because of a couple of heifers.  Shit.


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