Worse than Pagans

Tom Shippey

  • Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church by Richard Firth Green
    Pennsylvania, 285 pp, £36.00, August 2016, ISBN 978 0 8122 4843 2

At the start of ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, Chaucer has the Wife declare that her tale is set long ago, in the days of King Arthur. Back then the land was ‘fulfild of fayerye’, and the elf queen danced with her company in the green meadows. But that’s all over now. The elves and fairies have been driven out by the friars, who have blanketed the country with prayers and blessings. Women can go anywhere in safety, because there is no ‘incubus’ left lurking in the bushes except for the friar himself, and he ‘ne wol doon hem but dishonour’: all he will do is dishonour them (sexually).

The Wife’s joke tells us a few things. One is that in Chaucer’s late medieval milieu at least – educated, metropolitan, sceptical – belief in fairies was a thing of the past. Chaucer mentions fairies several times, in several tales, but never takes them seriously. It’s also clear, though, that stories about fairies, and narrative motifs concerning them, were still familiar. The Wife’s tale is about a knight who is sentenced to death for rape but told by a jury of ladies that he can save himself if he finds out what women most desire. A hag gives him the right answer, ‘sovereignty’, on condition that he promises to marry her, but she is a shape-shifter – a fairy, or one of the other inhabitants of Fairyland, an elf, perhaps, or a corrigan. So all ends happily. The Knight has the sense not only to give the right answer to the jury of ladies, but also to concede it in practice to his new bride, who thereupon changes into a beauty.

The Wife’s initial joke depends on her audience’s awareness that male fairies, or incubuses, had a reputation for being lovers, rapists, sexual predators. They may have disappeared, but the friars on their perpetual rounds of what we might call ‘chugging’, visiting peasant households while the husbands are out in the fields, have taken on the role of the creatures they exorcised. The joke didn’t need explaining, even to Chaucer’s original audience. Everyone knew stories about dangerous male fairy lovers, and dominant female fairy mistresses.

The tenacity of fairy stories, or fairy motifs, is remarkable. Even now, most of us ‘know’ that fairies are masters of ‘heterochronology’: they can freeze or accelerate time, creating many Rip van Winkles. They are very glamorous, which is the reason Icelanders say frið sem álfkona, ‘fair as an elf-woman’, and Anglo-Saxons said ides ælfscinu, ‘elf-fair lady’. But they are dangerous too. Elves are ‘cruel for fun’, Granny Weatherwax says in Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies (1992) – another hardline view, denied by some (Tolkien), maintained by others (Keats). They were thought to be wise, even prescient, which explains names like Ælf-red, ‘Elf-counsel’. The idea that if you go into Fairyland you must not eat or drink, another common trope, has been borrowed by many modern fantasy writers.

For all their tenacity, though, ideas about the inhabitants of Fairyland are also unstable, liable to revision. J.K. Rowling’s ‘house-elves’ are nothing like Tolkien’s ‘High Elves’. Some would say they’re ‘brownies’: they do domestic tasks while everyone’s asleep, they are attached to houses and families, and they can be freed by a gift of clothing, even if it’s only an old sock. How did they come to be called elves, and turn from dancers into drudges? Maybe because the Grimms’ tale of the Wichtelmänner was translated into English as ‘The Little Elves and the Shoemaker’. But who knows? The trouble with stories about non-existent creatures is that there is no check on error or invention.

This instability, as R.F. Green points out at the start of his enjoyable study, means that there is no possibility of creating a ‘fairy taxonomy’, which would set straight all the stories, beliefs and motifs, and reconstruct a long lost original mythology (as Jacob Grimm attempted to do for the Germanic world in his Deutsche Mythologie of 1835). The desire for one was certainly there. Beating Grimm very slightly to the punch, Thomas Keightley brought out his Fairy Mythology in 1828; Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, which appeared nearly a century later, had a similar aim. Since then, books and articles about the ‘fairy faith’ have continued to appear. But there was no ‘faith’, no ‘mythology’. It would have been easier for the medieval Church if there had been.

When it expanded into northwestern Europe, the Church was faced with a fairly organised system of pagan worship, on one hand, and a much more dispersed set of beliefs, practices and stories, on the other. The Church’s treatment of the former was recorded by historians such as Bede in England and Snorri Sturluson in Iceland: it destroyed the gods’ temples or took them over, cut down the holy oaks and replaced them with crosses, and turned the gentry into patrons of churches and collectors of tithes. These campaigns had clear targets. The guerrilla warfare against people who put out food for the Good Folk, or who called in ‘cunning men’ to deal with changelings, was more difficult. As Green shows in great detail, the fairies, along with the other inhabitants of Fairyland – in the mid-19th century Michael Aislabie Denham listed more than 150 species, ‘hobbits’ included – gave the medieval Church more of a headache than has been admitted. The main problem, we might say nowadays, was that they were ‘inadequately theorised’.

What were fairies? Where did they come from? What was their nature? Most important, could they be fitted into the universalist, no-rivals-allowed, Christian worldview? It was no good saying, ‘There’s no such thing as fairies.’ People knew different, clerics and lay alike. Theories about them proliferated, and their variety only demonstrates the intractability of the problem. The Beowulf poet claimed that ettins, elves, orcs and giants were descended from Cain, the first murderer: they were human, then, but damned by hereditary sin twice over. However, the Beowulf poet – or his scribe – seems not to have been sure whether he meant Cain or C(h)am – the son of Noah cursed for mocking his father’s nakedness. A third and gentler view appears in the Icelandic folktale of ‘the unwashed children of Eve’. According to this story, while Adam and Eve and their children still lived in Paradise before the Fall, God paid them a visit. Some of Eve’s children were not fit to be seen, so she hid them, presenting only the clean and tidy ones. God admired them, then asked if there were any more. ‘No,’ Eve lied. God said: ‘Those who are hidden from me, let them henceforth be hidden from men also.’ That’s how there came to be huldu-fólk, the ‘hidden people’ who dwell in the mountains, but the expression must have predated the story and probably inspired it.

In all these versions of their origins the ‘hidden people’ are in some way human, but this raised other questions, like ‘Do they have souls?’ – Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Mermaid’ gives an answer to that one – and ‘How come they are almost immortal?’, or to use Martianus Capella’s term, borrowed by C.S. Lewis, longaevi. Perhaps they weren’t human after all. Once again there was a hardline view: they were spirits, and since they weren’t angels they must be devils, which meant that those who believed in elf queens dancing in green meadows – in the words of a sermon preached in England close to Chaucer’s time – were ‘faithless and worse than pagans’. Another, and again gentler, view was that not all spirits had to be angels or devils. In Lucifer’s great rebellion some angels sided with God, while others sided with Lucifer and turned into devils. But perhaps there had been neutrals, wishy-washy angels who didn’t choose a side. These creatures would have been expelled from Heaven, but maybe only to Earth, where – according to the South English Legendary – they took female shape and can often be seen dancing. At Doomsday they may yet be forgiven.

There is no doubt that for centuries fairies were a ‘contested site’, but Green makes it clear that the contest wasn’t between the clergy and ‘the folk’, the lower orders of society. On the contrary, surviving stories about fairies have often come to us from the aristocracy and their entertainers, such as Gervase of Tilbury, who produced a compilation of them for his master Otto IV and called them Otia Imperialia, ‘Diversions for the Emperor’. One fairy, or perhaps lamia, Mélusine, was proudly claimed as an ancestor by the powerful Crusading family of the Lusignans. Part of her legend was that she left her Lusignan husband because he had broken the taboo against seeing her on a Saturday, when she turned into a serpent. As she left him, she swore she would reappear if the castle of Lusignan was about to fall. Fall it did, in 1376, when it was taken from its English garrison by Jean de France, Duc de Berri. According to Jean d’Arras, who wrote an influential account of the whole legend, he was told the story by his patron, the duc himself, who put in much more detail. In the duc’s version Mélusine appeared to the English commander, a grizzled veteran called John Cresswell, in his bedroom, where he was entertaining a lady called Alexandrine. Mélusine frightened him so much that Alexandrine reproached him: ‘How ofte haue I sene your mortal enemyes tofore your presence that neuer ye were aferd, and now for a serpent of femenyne nature ye shake for fere.’

Some of the story’s details can be checked, and not all of them add up: three days before the castle’s surrender Cresswell was actually in a French dungeon. Nevertheless, Green argues, these are the kinds of details that go wrong even in first-hand accounts when they’re set down years later. There is every sign that both Jean d’Arras and his patron thought they were documenting the truth; and it would have taken a bold clergyman to tell the duc, or the other Lusignans, Lords of Cyprus, that their ancestry was as questionable as their memory.

There are many accounts of educated people trying to check the veracity of fairy stories. The Jersey poet, Wace, is famous for his visit to the enchanted Breton forest of Brocéliande to find out about the stone of Barenton, which made it rain when water was splashed on it. Wace was not impressed, commenting sourly, Fol i alai, fol m’en rivinc: ‘I went like a fool and I came back a fool.’ But the rain-making stone was used by Chrétien de Troyes in his romance Yvain, and he too has his character insist on the truth of the story. That is what romancers do of course, but Jacques de Vitry counted Barenton among the marvels it was legitimate to believe in; the Dominican Thomas de Cantimpré ‘went to great lengths to make this phenomenon seem credible’, including faking his own father’s testimony; and the stone is listed in the Coutumier of Brocéliande forest, a legal document that places the stone within the jurisdiction of the Lord of Montfort and classifies its ability to bring rain by having water sprinkled on it as his personal prerogative.

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Fairy beliefs were not just for common folk, then, nor – another persistent theory – was there anything uniquely ‘Celtic’ about them. ‘There is no reason to suppose,’ Green declares, ‘that the fairy lore appearing in the Evangiles [des Quenouilles] is anything other than homegrown,’ in that case in the Flanders region. (The collection’s title is rather patronising: ‘Distaff Gospels’, tales told by women spinning.) Still, there was a good reason for the Celtic fixation of early scholars: two of the knottiest and best-known bits of fairy lore come from the Arthurian cycle. One concerns the ancestry of Arthur’s prophet, Merlin. In his 12th-century bestseller, Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth told the story of how Merlin’s mother was visited in her convent by a being in the form of a handsome young man, who could appear and disappear at will. He is characterised, on the authority of Apuleius, as an incubus daemon, a spirit who is part-human, part-angelic (a neat compromise between two opposing views). But didn’t his fathering of Merlin contradict the firmly held belief that devils and demons were incapable of creation? The explanation given by Geoffrey, and remembered centuries later by witch-hunters, was that demons could take female shape as succubi, lie with mortals and collect their seed, and then, in male shape as incubi, use that seed to impregnate women. One weakness of the theory was that the resultant children would be (as we would say) genetically human, with no sign of diabolic ancestry. Another was that it didn’t account for the Lusignans’ claim of descent from a female fairy, for as Green remarks, transporting seed was one thing, but ‘portable uteruses were quite another matter.’ Moreover, Merlin’s mother’s story, however glossed by the learned, reads exactly like one of the stories of invisible male fairy lovers, such as the father of Yonec in Marie de France’s lai of that name. Then there was Arthur himself, who was generally believed to have been taken away to the Isle of Avalon by ladies variously described as ‘nymphs’ (Geoffrey) or ‘the fairest of all elves’ (Layamon), and so saved from death. To the serious-minded, this looked like a grave transgression of divine prerogative, and writers were markedly cautious about it, all the way up to Sir Thomas Malory, who evaded the issue – was Arthur dead, or would he return? – by writing carefully: ‘here in thys worlde he chaunged hyslyff.’

Another controversial point, without a Celtic dimension, was the question of changelings. Beliefs about changelings have remained stable into modern times. As Green puts it:

Changelings are fairies who have been substituted for their human counterparts. Usually these are children … Changeling children are generally unattractive, bad tempered, sickly and difficult to raise; often a lapse in parental vigilance … is thought to have given the fairies an opportunity to make the substitution, and this can then be reversed only by performing elaborate rituals.

Whatever the reason behind their existence, medieval beliefs about changelings have been under-reported, according to Green, simply because of a failure to recognise the common word for them: chanjon in French, congeon in Middle English. It seems to have been both a taboo word and a word that, like ‘bastard’, could be used purely as an insult without its root meaning being implied. Some said Edward II was a congeon, a changeling, or, alternatively, a bastard – both accusations could get you into trouble. The word was used of Richard II as well, another less-than-royal king. In Piers Plowman, Dame Study calls the Dreamer a ‘conyon’ – an impostor, Green suggests, pretending to be a proper clerk. The most striking instances of people being described as changelings, however, are to be found in the mystery plays. In the Chester Plays Herod calls Christ an ‘elvish godlinge … elfe and vile congion’, and of course, in a way, he’s right. The Annunciation does have a lot in common with the experience of Merlin’s mother, and Christ is certainly not the son of his mother’s husband, Joseph. The accusation is repeated in the Chester and York plays, while in the Towneley plays the preferred word is ‘mare’ (as in ‘night-mare’, being ridden by a succubus). The famous Second Shepherds’ Play of the Towneley cycle has the sheep-stealer Mak’s wife, Gill, pretend that the lamb they have hidden in the cradle is a deformed changeling: ‘He was takyn with an elfe,/I saw it myself;/When the clok stroke twelf/Was he forshapyn.’ One wonders how the orthodox and learned took these variations on ‘Christ the Changeling’ and ‘the Changeling Lamb of God’. Green is unimpressed by the complex allegorical readings that have long been in favour in the academic world, and suggests that the plays are more subversive than those readings allow. ‘The margins of medieval civic drama offer a rare opportunity for us to hear, however muted and indirect, the raised voices of the common people themselves,’ answering back to the clerical authorities in the terms they themselves understood.

It was also believed that changelings abducted the living, and that they could return from the dead. Both beliefs appear in the well-known Middle English romance Sir Orfeo (a fairy version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice). In this tale Dame Heurodis is not visited but abducted by an invisible lover, the King of Faerie. When Sir Orfeo finds his way into Fairyland to rescue her he sees people frozen in postures of torment, beheaded, strangled, mutilated, in childbirth: people ‘þouȝte ded & naere nouȝt’. This is hard to explain, but according to Thomas of Cantimpré, when fairies snatch a person they leave behind simulacra, or figmenta, to be buried. Sometimes a mourner may see the person snatched, and even recover them. In Orfeo, maybe it is only the simulacra he sees, while the real people, like Heurodis, are enjoying, or enduring, another existence in Fairyland.

Descriptions of Fairyland were quite common across medieval Europe. Green suggests, provocatively, that they presented a ‘third way’ between the broad and easy way to Hell, and the narrow steep one to Heaven, and that they may have influenced the notion of Purgatory. At least one version of ‘St Patrick’s Purgatory’, told by Peter of Cornwall, features a trusting knight who is betrayed again and again by shape-shifters and visions. His vision is presented as a sight of Purgatory, but Green remarks that ‘we are dealing here with a barely Christianised account of the dangerous hospitality of the fairy folk.’ He reinforces the point by giving examples from romances of scribal censorship, the ‘de-fairying’ of lines and scenes that are elsewhere unambiguous.

Did ecclesiastical attitudes change over the course of the Middle Ages? Green notes Jacques Le Goff’s division of attitudes to le merveilleux into three stages: early repression (as in the Beowulf-poet’s hardline view), later reclamation (as in Otia Imperialia or Les Evangiles des Quenouilles) and eventual aestheticisation (when fairies become a literary motif, as in Spenser’s Faerie Queene). Green is unconvinced, however, because he thinks Le Goff privileges le merveilleux savant over le merveilleux populaire. In his view – a rather Anglo-Saxon one – the clerical authorities were not as in control of things as Le Goff makes out. There’s far more fairy material in the romances – many of them, like the anonymous L’Elucidation, little known even to scholars – than has been commonly noted, and there’s even more in the voluminous medieval Latin literature of chronicle, vision and plain old gossip.

A final thought is that Shakespeare, whose most original plays are his fairy ones, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, neither of which has a clear plot source, knew more about fairies than has been noticed. When Titania says, at the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that ‘this same progeny of evils’ in the human world comes from the ‘dissension’ between her and Oberon, she repeats a belief recorded much earlier by the Irish Franciscan Thomas O’Quinn: that trouble in the fairy world brought trouble for humans as well – or for us ‘muggles’, as J.K. Rowling has it. In 1610 Simon Forman, watching Macbeth, was quite sure that the ‘witches’ (as we would label them) were ‘feiries or Nimphes’ and perhaps others thought so too. In Henry V Mistress Quickly of the Boar’s Head Tavern, lamenting the death of Falstaff, cries that the old sinner can’t be in Hell: ‘He’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom!’ She meant ‘Abraham’s bosom’. Or did she? Avalon may have seemed a better bet to the groundlings than wherever the old patriarchs were supposed to have ended up.

By Shakespeare’s time, Chaucer’s ‘amused scepticism’ about fairies had become general among the English elites, and may well have had something to do with the ‘comparative mildness of the English witch-hunt’. Conversely, Chaucer’s presentation of ‘women on top’ in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, and in the sexual autobiography of her Prologue, owes something to the popular tradition of dominant female fairy-mistresses. In the old story of Partonopeus of Blois, well before the Wife of Bath, the hero also yields to his fairy lover: ‘She hathe of me þe soueraynete.’ Perhaps Chaucer took the idea, and the hag’s answer, from that work or a similar one – romances that enshrined strong popular resistance to what Green calls ‘the crooked-rib propaganda of the great [clerical] tradition’. Sometimes le merveilleux populaire contains more sense, as well as more fun, than le merveilleux savant.

The ‘aestheticisation’ of the inhabitants of Fairyland has become mainstream once more, in the proliferation of modern fantasy novels. Many would-be authors wish they had more genuine material to work from. They will find much here. Green has little to say about the developed and still existent Northern traditions of elves and trolls – though it’s well known that you can’t build a road in Iceland without doing an elf survey first – but as a guide to the traditions of Britain and France, his can’t be surpassed. This is cultural history from below, not the usual top-down perspective. It opens up many new avenues for Kulturgeschichte, and for the study of romance, and it is not only original, sensible and deeply researched, but accessible. Not only medievalists will actively enjoy reading it.