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Literary Criticism Medieval

Elf Queens and Holy Friars

Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church

by (author) Richard Firth Green

series edited by Ruth Mazo Karras

University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Initial publish date
Sep 2016
Medieval, History
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    Publish Date
    Sep 2016
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    Publish Date
    Jul 2018
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In Elf Queens and Holy Friars Richard Firth Green investigates an important aspect of medieval culture that has been largely ignored by modern literary scholarship: the omnipresent belief in fairyland.
Taking as his starting point the assumption that the major cultural gulf in the Middle Ages was less between the wealthy and the poor than between the learned and the lay, Green explores the church's systematic demonization of fairies and infernalization of fairyland. He argues that when medieval preachers inveighed against the demons that they portrayed as threatening their flocks, they were in reality often waging war against fairy beliefs. The recognition that medieval demonology, and indeed pastoral theology, were packed with coded references to popular lore opens up a whole new avenue for the investigation of medieval vernacular culture.
Elf Queens and Holy Friars offers a detailed account of the church's attempts to suppress or redirect belief in such things as fairy lovers, changelings, and alternative versions of the afterlife. That the church took these fairy beliefs so seriously suggests that they were ideologically loaded, and this fact makes a huge difference in the way we read medieval romance, the literary genre that treats them most explicitly. The war on fairy beliefs increased in intensity toward the end of the Middle Ages, becoming finally a significant factor in the witch-hunting of the Renaissance.

About the authors


  • Winner, Winner of the 2017 The Mythopoeic Society Scholarship Award for Myth and Fantasy Studies
  • Winner, Winner of the 2020 Haskins Medal from the Medieval Academy of America
  • Winner, Winner of the 2018 Medieval Institute Otto Grundler Book Prize
  • Unknown, Winner of the 2018 Medieval Institute Otto Grundler Book Prize
  • Unknown, Winner of the 2017 The Mythopoeic Society Scholarship Award for Myth and Fantasy Studies
  • Unknown, Winner of the 2020 Haskins Medal from the Medieval Academy of America

Contributor Notes

Richard Firth Green is Academy Professor of The Ohio State University. He is author of several books, including A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Excerpt: Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church (by (author) Richard Firth Green; series edited by Ruth Mazo Karras)

IntroductionFor many pious Christians, as for the inquisitors of Joan of Arc, this was a distinction without a difference. Fairies were demons, plain and simple.—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted WorldOn Trinity Sunday sometime around the year 1400 a sermon was preached in England containing an extended denunciation of popular superstition. Palmists, dream readers, pythoners, nigromancers, astrologers, and the makers of wax effigies were all quickly dismissed, and then the preacher turned to those who believed in fairies:There are also others who say that they see women and girls dancing by night whom they call elvish folk and they believe that these can transform both men and women or, leaving others in their place, carry them with them to elfland; all of these are mere fantasies bequeathed to them by an evil spirit. For when the devil has won over the soul of such a person to believing such things, he transforms himself otherwise, now into the form of an angel, now a man, now a woman, now other creatures, now in dances and other games, and thus by the weak faith of their souls such wretches are deceived. But those who believe in the aforesaid things, or stubbornly defend them, or propagate them, especially when they shall have learned the truth, are faithless and worse than pagans, and four times a year they are cursed by the Lord and his holy church. . . . They should know that they have forsaken the faith of Christ, betrayed their baptism, and incurred the anger and enmity of God.This attack is not entirely original, for it draws heavily on an early fourteenth-century preachers' manual, the Fasciculus Morum (which had also included tournaments and jousts in its list of fairy activities), but it will serve as a useful introduction to the subject of this book: fairyland as a contested site in the struggle between the official and unofficial cultures of the Middle Ages.
As this quotation implies, the default position of the clerical elite when it came to fairyland was one of unrelieved antagonism (though in practice, as we shall see, not all churchmen were as implacably hostile as our preacher), and the official record is the story of an ever-increasing demonization of fairies and infernalization of fairyland throughout the course of the Middle Ages. Vernacular culture on the other hand might make remarkable efforts to adjust its beliefs to the orthodoxies of the church, either consciously engaging in what Carlo Ginzburg has termed "cultural compromise formation" or unconsciously echoing what Antonio Gramsci would have regarded as the church's dominant hegemonic discourse. Thus we should not be surprised to encounter fairies who swear by the Virgin Mary, who are eager to attend mass, or who anticipate salvation on Doomsday. The history of this aspect of medieval popular culture and its systematic suppression is accordingly far from straightforward, and it is made all the more difficult by the nature of the evidence, which overwhelmingly reflects the views of the clerical elite. An analysis of the kinds of evidence available to us and suggestions for ways we might read them will occupy the first two chapters of this study. Fundamental to my approach is the assumption that the beliefs of those for whom fairies were a living presence were sincerely held and that we should do them the courtesy of taking their beliefs seriously. I will argue that this makes a great difference to the way we approach the medieval literary genre that has most to tell us about fairies—that of the popular romance.
The last three chapters will offer readings of various aspects of fairy belief, but from the outset it is important that I establish what the reader should not expect to find there. First, I will have nothing to say on the vexed question of fairy taxonomy. Are fairies different from elves? or goblins? or dwarves? or pucks? or brownies? and how do they relate to French netons or luitons? or German Nixen or Kobolde? Moreover, are they of human stature or smaller? Are they ruled by a king, or a queen, or even a trio of queens? And what color are they? In my view all such questions are unanswerable, and any attempt at a totalizing definition will prove illusory. For instance, while some fairies were small (such as the pygmies in Walter Map's story of King Herla), others must have been human sized or they could hardly have had love affairs with mortals. It is not a matter on which we can properly legislate. Simon Young has shown convincingly how little agreement there is about the meanings of terms for fairies collected by folklorists in nineteenth-century Cornwall, concluding that "there is enormous blurring in lore and very often taxonomic categories misrepresented the beliefs of a given area"; if this is true of a single well-documented English county in a recent century, what hope can there be of our reconstructing a coherent fairy taxonomy for the whole of the European Middle Ages with the far scantier evidence that is available to us? As Young writes, "anyone who studies history has to constantly remind themselves that those people living hundreds of years ago did not structure their experience as we do."
Even in the Middle Ages fairy taxonomy seems to have been problematic. Thomas of Cantimpré, for instance, tries to categorize fairies in the final section of his midthirteenth-century book of moral instruction, De bonum universale de apibus [On the Universal Good of Bees] but the enterprise quickly falls apart. Turning from his admirable bees, he sets out, under the headings of 'wasps,' 'cockroaches,' 'hornets,' and 'beetles' [vespae, blattae, crabrones, and buprestes], to describe the depredations of various kinds of demon. Wasp demons, he says, cause tempests, and cockroach demons cause bad dreams, but when he turns to what we might call 'fairies' (under the heading of 'hornets'), we discover that these too can cause tempests and bad dreams. Hornet demons, he says, can be divided into four classes: neptuni, who swim in water; incubi, who roam the earth; dusii, who live under the earth; and spiritualia nequitie in celestibus, who inhabit the air. This is already an eccentric classification since for Saint Augustine (as for most of the medieval commentators who followed him), incubi and dusii were clearly one and the same thing. Moreover, none of these terms is likely to have been used at the level of popular speech, nor is his classification likely to have represented any kind of popular taxonomy. Neptuni is evidently a commonization from the Roman god, and it is just possible that some such term was in popular usage, if only as a folk etymology for the French neton. On the other hand, there does not seem to have been anything particularly aquatic about netons, and whatever wassergeister Thomas of Cantimpré may have had in mind were probably called something quite different in common speech. The word dusius may well be the Latin form of a Gaulish word current in Augustine's day, but it seems to have died out in European vernaculars by the thirteenth century. Incubus, probably the most widely used general scholastic term for 'fairy' in the Middle Ages, derives etymologically from the sense of being weighed down (incubitus) or smothered in sleep. The closest equivalent in English for this specialized sense would have been 'nightmare' (in French cauchemar and in German nachtmahr), but incubus underwent semantic generalization early—though not, as Thomas of Cantimpré would have it, to 'earthbound spirit' but rather (as we shall see in Chapter 3) to 'fairy lover.' Finally, when he comes to 'the wicked spirits of the air' (evidently Thomas has no specific name for them and must resort to Ephesians 6:12), he starts out by describing demonic tempests (not obviously different from those caused by the vespae) and then falls back on the general category of illusions (which turn out to include blattae-like dreams and incubi-like seductions!). After all this we should not be surprised to find that Thomas seems to have completely forgotten about the beetles (buprestes) with which he started out. In the end he simply gives up and launches into a recital of miscellaneous marvels, some of which he claims to have experienced personally. At least the taxonomy supplied by John Walsh, a Devonshire cunning man, in 1566 has the virtue of simplicity: "[he] saith that ther be .iii. kindes of Feries, white, greene, and blacke . . . Wherof (he sayth) the blacke Feries be the woorst." Incidentally, the question of fairy coloring is its own mare's nest. In addition to white, black, and green (green is sometimes mentioned—as with the green children of Woolpit—but it is by no means universal), we also have gray (in The Merry Wives of Windsor), red (in an account from Thomas Walsingham), and polychrome (as with Tristram's fairy dog Petitcriu). Perhaps the key to all this is the innate volatility of fairies: they can be any size (or shape) they wish, and, as in Petitcriu's case, their color is inherently unstable.
No attempt, whether medieval or modern, to impose a logical order on spontaneous local traditions can ever be totally satisfactory (though those who still feel themselves in need of such answers can always turn for help to Katharine Briggs or Claude Lecouteux). My own solution to this problem, however, is functional: for the purposes of this study I am concerned primarily with that class of numinous, social, humanoid creatures who were widely believed to live at the fringes of the human lifeworld and interact intermittently with human beings. In this they differed from those solitary creatures who inhabited the wilderness (giants and the like) or the social creatures who lived among humans (the various kinds of household spirit). Of the multitude of potential terms for these creatures in both Latin and the vernacular, few, if any, seem to have had a generally agreed and fixed meaning, but they were most commonly referred to as 'elves' in English (at least down to the middle of the fifteenth century) and in French as fées. The equivalence of these two terms in learned usage is nicely illustrated by a spell "Pur faies" from a thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman medical treatise that begins, "Conjuro vos, elves." From the middle of the fifteenth century they were increasingly referred to as fairies in England, but other terms for them (wodwoses, pouks, goblins, or hobs, for example) were sometimes used. Whatever the name, I shall treat as fairies all creatures who behave in the way I have just described.
A second issue that will not detain me in this study is the Celtic origins of fairy lore. As far as I can see just about every region in medieval Europe had its fairy traditions. Fairies are to be found from Iceland to Sicily and from the Pyrenees to the Ruhr, but the notion that Wales, Scotland, and Ireland have a particular claim on them is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the English-speaking world. Two main factors seem to be responsible for this view. In the first place, stories concerning King Arthur, many of which are filled with fairy lore, have proved to be among the most enduring of all medieval legends; since they clearly arose among Celtic speakers, particularly the Welsh, we tend instinctively to locate the source of all medieval fairy beliefs in Wales. On the other hand, had the legend cycles of Huon of Bordeaux or Godfrey of Bouillon, both of which contain prominent fairy elements, attained a postmedieval reputation comparable to King Arthur's, we might now have a very different notion of the epicenter of European fairy beliefs. Second, fairy traditions have survived more tenaciously in Celtic-speaking countries, perhaps most notably Ireland, than anywhere else in the English-speaking world; since Irish fairies have a firm place in modern popular culture, we tend to assume that they somehow preempt similar beliefs elsewhere. The fairy beliefs of the Nordic world, particularly Iceland, have proved to be just as long-lived, however, and only their far greater cultural distance from English speakers has made them appear more tangential. No doubt other factors—the relative prominence of Celtic scholars among English folklorists, for instance, or the literary prestige of writers such as W. B. Yeats and J. R. R. Tolkien (whose elves are unmistakably Celtic)—have reinforced the impression that fairies are primarily a Celtic phenomenon.
It is not even necessarily true that texts in Welsh and Irish contain the earliest medieval literary references to fairies, at least not if we go by manuscript date rather than the hypothetical dating of the material itself. At one point in the Latin epic Waltharius, for example, when Walter of Aquitaine is defending himself in a pass in the Vosges against the Burgundian King Gunther and his men, one of his enemies, a man named Ekivrid, taunts him with the implication that he is a fairy: "You seem just like a woodland sprite [saltibus assuetus faunus] to me" (line763). This is evidently a clever Latin pun on Walter's name (woud heer or woudt-her = 'faunus agrestis'), and he "is saying in effect 'So you're called Walthere, are you? Well you really (quippe) do seem to be Walt-heer, the wood-sprite, by the incorporeal way you've been avoiding arrows and lances." There could hardly be anything less ostensibly Celtic than this poem about Germanic heroes, set in the Vosges mountains and quite possibly written in Switzerland, and yet the Waltharius can hardly be later than the tenth century and may well have been composed in the ninth; moreover, at least one of its manuscripts can be dated to the mid-eleventh century—earlier than the Irish Book of the Dun Cow and considerably earlier than the oldest manuscript of the Welsh Mabinogion. One might of course argue that such Celtic legendary material predates the manuscripts that record them, but this is an argument that can be applied to the Germanic materials as well.
As an illustration of the distortion that the Celtic fallacy can cause, we might consider Dorena Allen's otherwise excellent article "Orpheus and Orfeo: The Dead and the Taken." Having noted in postmedieval Celtic folklore examples of those 'taken' by the fairies (something we shall explore more fully in Chapter 5), she expresses surprise at coming across this motif in a thirteenth-century Belgian writer, Thomas of Cantimpré, and concludes, quite unnecessarily, that "we must have tales of Celtic origin with which, in ways too fortuitous to be discovered, [a Flemish narrator has] become acquainted, and to which [he has] given a local coloring." Thomas spent much of his early life near Cambrai, some fifty miles northwest of the Ardennes forest, an area with a strong fairy tradition: Partonopeu de Blois is set in the Ardennes, and so too is the episode in Reinbrun in which the hero rescues his father's friend Amis from fairy captivity. Judging by his name, Jean d'Arras, the author of the fairy romance Mélusine, came from a town near Cambrai, and this Jean seems also to have been one of the collectors of old wives' tales that make up Les Évangiles des quenouilles. There is no reason to suppose that the fairy lore appearing in the Évangiles, or in any of these romances, is anything other than homegrown or that when Thomas of Cantimpré reports stories of neighbors taken by the fairies he is merely giving "local coloring" to imported Celtic material. The single most informative source for medieval fairy beliefs, cited many times in this book, is William of Auvergne's De Universo, and it is quite clear that this Parisian scholar draws heavily on the traditions of south-central France, where he was brought up. One danger of an overconcentration on the Celtic connection is that fairy allusions from other areas tend to be missed; for instance, the Cambridge lyric "Heriger, Bishop of Mainz," from early thirteenth-century Germany, is about a fortune-teller who attends a mysterious feast deep in the woods, and yet scholars have rarely noted its obvious fairy associations. My point is not, of course, that Celtic traditions were unimportant in this respect (we shall be using the Breton forest of Brocéliande as a test case in Chapter 1) but simply that they were not the fons et origo of all medieval fairy lore. The fairies with whom I am concerned in this book are pan-European, and the questions they raise should not be quarantined to the margins, either geographical or cultural, of medieval society.
A further disclaimer concerns the role of folklore. I have not been professionally trained as a folklorist, nor can I lay claim to any special proficiency in this area. In one regard, like, I suspect, many of my medievalist colleagues, I am wary of the use of customs and beliefs recorded in more recent times to throw light on medieval practices. Folklore, as Antonio Gramsci was quick to point out, is far from static, and the notion of a popular culture so deeply conservative that it is possible to treat any given nineteenth-century custom not only as a potential medieval relic but also as evidence for actual medieval practice seems to me highly dubious. On the other hand, the modern folklorist does have one enormous advantage over any medievalist who sets out to construe earlier popular culture: she can question her informants and attempt to expose what it is they think they are doing and why they are doing it. While projecting back the results of such investigations to the Middle Ages can never constitute proof, it does offer us a valuable analogical tool. Valdimar Hafstein, for instance, compares a thousand-year-old vision in the Þáttr Þiðranda ok Þórhalls of "many a hill . . . opening, and every living thing, both small and large, . . . packing its bags and moving" in the face of impending Christianization to stories of elves being displaced by new roads and housing developments in late twentieth-century Iceland, and concludes that "urbanization is as anathema to modern day elves as Christianity was to their pagan forebears." Looking at the present through the lens of the past, Hafstein sees elf belief as deeply conservative—rooted in nostalgia for an imagined authentic Iceland threatened by modernization. However, if we reverse the polarities, if we consider medieval beliefs in the light of the modern experience, a further dynamic emerges—one that has more the look of spontaneous resistance than of nostalgic resignation; after all, even in present-day Iceland fear of offending the elves can cause roads to be diverted and housing developments to be relocated.
This view of the political significance of folkloric beliefs is one propounded by the Marxist Antonio Gramsci, whose views have admittedly not always been welcomed by folklorists. Writing in Mussolini's Italy, Gramsci evidently regarded whatever challenge contemporary folklore was able to offer fascism as fragmented and incoherent compared with "the philosophy of praxis" (that is, the version of Marxism that he himself espoused), but at the same time he remained an astute observer of popular resistance to the dominant culture particularly as a historical phenomenon, as his account of the nineteenth-century Tuscan preacher Davide Lazzaretti demonstrates. As Kate Crehan writes, "while Gramsci could be harsh on the blinkered parochialism of subaltern culture, at the same time he was fascinated by it and believed that much could be learnt from it" (p. 119). My reading of the subversive role of fairy beliefs in the medieval polity owes much to his insights.
Concentration on the political significance of fairyland means that this book makes no claim to provide a comprehensive survey of all fairy phenomena in the Middle Ages. It treats here only in passing, if at all, many of the activities that were commonly associated with fairies: their modification of the weather; their association with great wealth; the trouble they might cause benighted travelers; their ability to induce or ward off sickness; their influence for good or ill on harvests; their skill at prognostication—to name but a few. Diane Purkiss has stressed the way fairies preside at and govern "the big crises of mortal life: birth, childhood and its transitions, adolescence, sexual awakening, pregnancy and childbirth, old age, death . . . the borders of our lives, the seams between one phase of life and another." Of course in the Middle Ages a very different kind of institution, the Christian church, claimed to have jurisdiction over these areas too, and the last three chapters will examine the consequences of its attempts to discipline rival folkloric beliefs. Not that all ideas about fairyland were heterodox—the church had no argument with those prepared to accept that fairies were demons—but wherever it felt obliged to exercise authority it exposed a further aspect of the operation of what R. I. Moore has characterized as a persecuting society. Of course clerical regulation of those who believed that fairies were non-demons was of a different order from its attempts to discipline Cathars, Jews, lepers, and homosexuals. Not only were fairy beliefs so ubiquitous that they could not be quarantined in ghettos and leprosaria or made the targets of self-serving crusades, but they also touched (as we shall see) the higher levels of secular society (and even penetrated the church itself), so that focused persecution was infeasible. However, as Foucault has taught us, social regulation can take different forms, and there are clear signs that many of those who participated in the discourse of fairyland in the Middle Ages felt themselves under surveillance. Moreover, from the fifteenth century onward, as education began to close the cultural gap between clerical and secular authorities, the control of vernacular belief became more and more exacting, culminating in the terrible witch hunts of the early modern period.
Accordingly the last three chapters of this book will examine the church's attempts to regulate fairyland in three critical domains. Chapter 3 follows its campaign to marginalize popular attitudes to copulation, pregnancy, and childbirth and in particular its demonization of one especially prominent fairy lover, Merlin's father. In Chapter 4 we see how a motif popularly associated with child rearing, that of the fairy changeling, disturbed the sensibilities of both churchmen and patresfamilias, and how it resisted their attempts to suppress it; here we focus particularly on the representation of the changeling in the mystery plays. In Chapter 5 we consider fairyland as the resort of old heroes such as King Arthur and some of the ways in which the church responded to the scandalous notion of a deathless survival in Avalon; an exploration of the role played by Avalon in the twelfth-century 'birth of purgatory' concludes this study. In a brief Postscript I discuss fairy lore as an important target for sixteenth-century witch-hunters and associate the comparative leniency of English witch-hunting to a discourse of skepticism that can be traced in part to the prestige of Geoffrey Chaucer, a celebrated fairy unbeliever.

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