from Chapter 19 ‘Ghosts and Fairies’ in Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971)


Today's children are brought up to think of fairies as diminutive beings of a benevolent disposition, but the fairies of the Middle Ages were neither small nor particularly kindly. Goblins, elves and fairies were part of that great army of good and bad spirits with which the world was thought to be infested, and they conformed to no single set of characteristics. A modern student of folklore has suggested that most medieval fairies belonged to one of four categories: 'trooping fairies', who passed their time feasting and dancing; hob­ goblins or guardian spirits like Puck alias Robin Goodfellow, who performed domestic chores for mortals; mermaids and water spirits; and giants and monsters.  But it is doubtful whether such hard and fast divisions can be made. Popular beliefs varied in different parts of the country and were an amalgam of many different traditions. Ancestral spirits, ghosts, sleeping heroes, fertility spirits and pagan gods can all be discerned in the heterogeneous fairy lore of medieval England, and modern inquiries into fairy origins can never be more than speculative.

It is clear, however, that elves, goblins and fairies were frequently thought of as highly malevolent. The very word  'fairy' was itself used, as we have already seen, to convey the idea of a malignant disease of spiritual origin which could be cured only by charming or exorcism. The Anglo-Saxons had described persons smitten with a supernatural malady as 'elf-shot', and the term was applied to sick animals in Celtic areas until modern times. In 1677 John Webster wrote that the inhabitants of Yorkshire used  'fairy-taken' as a way of describing someone who has been blasted, haunted or bewitched.

Supernatural maladies of this kind were usually thought to require a supernatural remedy. The fifteenth-century witch of Eye, Margery Jourdemain, was reputed to have been able to charm 'fiends and fairies'; and many  cunning folk were prepared to diagnose and treat such cases by charming and incantation." Popular formulae for use against fairies survive in contemporary charmbooks along with recipes against theft, illness and evil spirits.° Catholic formulae were also used. One sixteenth-century wizard stated that the fairies had power only over those lacking religious faith. Others commended  the use of  St John's Gospel or holy water.

For many persons fairies thus remained spirits against which they had to guard themselves by some ritual  precaution. It is  true that the more sophisticated Elizabethans tended to speak as  if fairy beliefs were a thing of the past;  Reginald  Scot, for example, wrote in 1584that Robin Goodfellow was no longer as widely feared as he had  been  a hundred years previous. As he saw it, the fear of goblins had been replaced by the fear of witches. Yet in the late seventeenth century Sir William Temple could assume that fairy beliefs had only declined in the previous thirty years or so. John Aubrey also put them in the fairly recent past:  'When I was a boy, our country people would talk much of them.' Indeed it seems that commentators have always attributed them to the past. Even Chaucer's Wife of Bath had dated the reign of the elf-queen to 'many hundred years ago', remarking sardonically that the fairies had been driven away by the prayers and charity of the holy friars.

The fact that fairy-beliefs seem to have had childhood associations for most commentators makes it harder to assess their vitality at any particular period.  By the Elizabethan  age fairy lore was primarily a store of mythology rather than a corpus of living beliefs, but it was sometimes still accepted literally at a popular level. John Penry, for example, writing three years after Scot, remarked that the Welsh peasantry held fairies in an 'astonishing reverence' and dared not 'name them without honour'. A hundred years later the common people of England were still said to believe in them. The fairy tradition is said to have been neglected in the eighteenth century, but abundant evidence of  living fairy-beliefs was to be assembled by nineteenth-century collectors of  English country folklore. So far as literary references are concerned,  the peak age of fairy allusions appears to be the end of the sixteenth century and  the beginning of the seventeenth. But as a recent scholar has pointed out, this indicates the growth of a literature with popular roots rather than an increase in fairy-beliefs as such. In France the taste for fairy stories did not reach its peak until the very end of the seventeenth century. But in England it was the Shakespearean period which saw the widespread dissemination of the concept of fairies as a dwarf race of mischievous but fundamentally friendly temperament. It also saw the absorption into the fairy kingdom of the household goblin Robin Goodfellow, who had previously been thought of as quite separate from  fairies proper. The older concept  of the fairy or goblin  as a malevolent spirit, however, was not entirely lost. Bunyan's Pilgrim, we remember, was not  daunted by  'Hobgoblin or foul fiend'.

To contemporary magicians fairies were a valuable source of supernatural power. Many magical compilations of the period contained instructions for conjuring them up in order to learn a variety of occult secrets. Such rituals were much the same as those for conjuring spirits in general. William Lilly took part in several attempts to get in touch with the Queen of the Fairies, believing that she could teach anything one desired to know. Village wizards also claimed to work with fairy aid. We have already encountered the Somerset woman, Joan Tyrry, who knew in 1555 whether or not her neighbors were bewitched because the fairies told her so. Other cunning folk whom the fairies were thought to have helped to cure the sick, tell fortunes, find treasure or otherwise perform their magical role included Mariona Clerk (Suffolk, 1499), one Croxton's wife (London, 1549), John Walsh (Dorset, 1566), Margaret Harper (Yorkshire, 1567), Susan Snapper (Sussex, 1607) and a  sixteenth century vicar of Warlingham,  Surrey.  In Elizabethan Wales  there were said to be swarms of soothsayers and enchanters who claimed to walk with the fairies on Tuesday and Thursday nights.  In Cornwall in 1648 Anne Jefferies was believed to live on a diet of sweetmeats brought her by six little people clothed in green. They taught her to prophesy and to carry out miraculous acts of  healing.

Spiritual creatures of this kind belong to the same genre as the witch's familiars or the conjurer's demons. In at least one English witch-trial (that of Joan Willimot in 1619) the accused person confessed to having been given a fairy by the Devil. The name 'Oberon' or  'Oberion'  was  borne by a demon who had  been  frequently conjured  by fifteenth and sixteenth-century wizards, long before the title became associated with the King of  the Fairies. John Walsh, the Dorset cunning man, said in 1566 that there were three types of fairies:  the white, the green and the black; the last-named were the worst, in his mind indistinguishable from malignant devils.

During the seventeenth century fairy mythology settled down into something approximating its modem form. The faries were said to be little people, inhabiting woods or earthen barrows, and organized in a kingdom of their own. Sometimes they came out to dance on grass fairy-rings and allowed themselves to be seen by selected human beings. They were occasionally predatory and might swoop down to snatch an unguarded infant child, leaving a changeling in his place. They might also nip, pinch or otherwise torment a careless housewife or untidy servant-maid. The proper way of propitiating these beings was to sweep the house clean in the evening, leaving out food for them to eat and water and towels with which they might wash; for the fairies depended upon human beings for food, and were fanatics for cleanliness. Thus treated, they might reward their benefactors by leaving money in their shoes, or in the case of Robin Goodfellow, by helping with domestic tasks in return for a bowl of cream. If neglected, they would avenge themselves by washing their children in the beer, stealing milk from the cows and corn from the fields, knocking over buckets, frustrating the manufacture of butter and cheese, and generally making nuisances of themselves.

This practice of setting out food and drink for the fairies had been well known in the Middle Ages and was inevitably condemned by the leaders of the Church, who naturally resented the propitiation of other deities. To ecclesiastics it seemed that people who left out provision for the fairies in the hope of getting rich or gaining good fortune were virtually practicing a rival religion. Elves and fames were either devils or diabolical illusions, declared a number of late medieval writers. This hostility was strengthened by the Reformation, whose  theologians took away the remaining possibility that fairies might be ghosts of the dead. Fairies could only be good or evil spirits, and of the two possibilities the latter was much more likely. The Puritan Richard Greenham was said to have regarded the fairies as good spirits rather than bad ones. If so, he was exceptional among theologians in so doing. It was pointless trying to distinguish good fairies from bad ones, thought Thomas Jackson; the Devil was be hind them all. This was the official doctrine of most Protestant teachers, though like so many other official doctrines its influence upon the people at large was only partial.

On the other hand the Protestant myth that fairy-beliefs were an invention of the Catholic Middle Ages may well have had some effect. Fairies, like ghosts, were said to have been devised by Popish priests to cover up their knaveries. They were 'conceits . . . whereby the Papists kept the ignorant in awe'. This much-echoed view was grossly unfair, not only because fairy-beliefs were older than Roman Catholicism, but because the medieval Church had itself been hostile to fairy mythology. But it was much employed by Protestant polemicists in the century after the Reformation, and found its most attractive poetic expression in Bishop Corbett's The Faeryes Farewell. Most of those who remained sympathetic to fairy-beliefs admitted the Roman Catholic character of the fairy kingdom. 'Theirs is a mixt religion,' wrote Robert Herrick, 'part pagan, part papistical.' Goodwin Wharton, who was tricked by Mrs. Parish into believing that he had extensive relations with the fairies, or 'low­ landers', as she sometimes called them, was told that they were 'Christians, servin.... God that way, much in the manner of the Roman Catholics, believing [in] transubstantiation, and having a Pope who  resides here in  England.'

Various theories have been put forward to account for the persistence of these fairy-beliefs. Those seeking a psychological interpretation point to the existence of Lilliputian delusions still familiar to psychiatrists. Fairy hallucinations were associated with mental illness as early as the seventeenth century. Adherents of the so­ called 'pygmy theory', on the other hand, prefer to think that the belief in fairies reflected folk memory of a dwarf race of human beings who once inhabited Neolithic barrows. Speculations of this kind are fortunately irrelevant to our purposes. We may accept that fairy-beliefs existed and were passed on by succeeding generations to their children at the nursery stage. Our task is to determine the social consequences of this belief as it was thus inherited.

Modern social anthropologists, studying the survival of fairy­ beliefs among the Irish peasantry, have been able to show that such notions can discharge important social functions and help to enforce a certain code of conduct. 'The fairy faith,' it has been said, 'enforces definite behaviour on the countryman.’ In early twentieth­ century Ireland it was believed that no fairy trouble would  come  to those who kept their houses clean and tidy. The same was true in seventeenth-century England :

If ye will with Mab find grace,
Set each platter in his  place:
Rake the fire up, and  get
Water in, ere sun be set.

Wash your pails, and cleanse your dairies;
Sluts are loathsome to the fairies :
Sweep your house; who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her  by the toe.

Herrick's lines were both a programme for the careful  housemaid and a warning of the sanctions accompanying non-performance. The Queen of the Fairies was, as Ben  Jonson  put it,

She, that  pinches  country wenches
If they rub not clean their benches,
And with sharper nails remembers,
When they rake not up their  embers.

It could be a exaggeration to say that seventeenth-century serving­ maid only did their work conscientiously because they were afraid of being tormented by the fairies, but the direction in which fairy­ beliefs influenced those who held them is obvious enough. (The same may also have been true of witch-beliefs: stinking utensils and living quarters were conventionally taken as evidence that animal familiars were present, and men were  warned that  it was dangerous to leave their excrement where their enemies might find it.)

Nor was domestic untidiness the only vice which the fairies punished. They also tormented  servants who neglected  their persons or failed to clean their master's horses. They had a great hatred of lust and lechery, and eagerly pinched and nipped those engaged in unchaste activities. They even upheld the virtues of neighborliness, by lending out household utensils, and insisting upon their prompt return; those who delayed bringing back the spits and pieces of pewter they had borrowed were never helped by the fairies again. The risk of being landed with a fairy changeling similarly reminded men of the need to look after a newborn child very carefully. A moment's neglect might be rewarded by the substitution of a fairy child, who would grow up thin, ugly and  retarded.  The early weeks of infancy were particularly crucial here, for the fairies were thought most likely to act before the child had been baptized or the mother churched. Contemporaries had obvious religious reasons for believing that this was the period  at which  the baby was most vulnerable, but the rule that a child should never be left alone at this time could also be justified on more practical grounds of infant care. The fear of baby-snatching was a real one in some country areas, and it can only have had beneficial  effects.  

In such ways did  fairy-beliefs  help to reinforce some of the standards upon which the effective working of  society depended. They could also operate as a means of accounting for an otherwise unsatisfactory   situation. A parent could disown responsibility for a retarded child by declaring that it was a changeling.  A quack doctor could cover up his ignorance in the same way. In 1590 it was related at the Hatfield Sessions how Thomas Harding of Ickleford, Hertfordshire, a reputed wizard, had told a woman whose four-year­ old child could neither walk nor talk that the brat was a changeling and that the only hope of redress was to put him on a chair on a dunghill for an hour on a sunny day, in the hope that the fairies would come back and replace him by the child they had stolen. Other types of misfortune or misconduct could also be explained by fairy-beliefs. The man who lost his way on the road might  plead that he had been led astray by a will-of-the-wisp; it was well known that fairies specialized in misleading poor travellers. The negligent servant would blame the fairies for interfering with his work : 'when  the maids spilt the milkpans, or kept any racket, they would lay it upon Robin'." When Goodwin Wharton found himself sexually too exhausted to sustain his relationship with Mrs. Parish, he was able to surmise that the Fairy Queen had been with him in his sleep and sucked out the very marrow from his bones in her voraciousness.

Inevitably, moreover, there were the frauds and tricksters, ready to exploit the credulity of their contemporaries. In the mid fifteenth century a band of Kentish poachers stole deer from the Duke of Buckingham's park at Penshurst after blacking their faces and calling themselves the servants of the Queen of the Fairies. The late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods witnessed a series of episodes in which professional tricksters extracted money from their victims under the pretense of investing it with the fairies. Judith Philips, a London cunning woman, was whipped through the City in 1595 after being convicted for extracting large sums of money from gullible clients prepared to pay for the privilege of meeting the Queen of the Fairies. The nefarious couple, Alice and John West, were shown in 1614 to have squeezed £40 out of one client on the promise of forthcoming fairy gold.  An even closer approximation to the fraud portrayed in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist occurred a few years earlier, when Sir Anthony Ashley and his brother were involved in a Chancery suit arising from their efforts to extract money from a dupe in return for their promise to marry him to the Queen of the Fairies.  At the end of the seventeenth century the ingenuous Goodwin Wharton was persuaded by Mrs. Parish into believing that, as a result of a political crisis in the fairy commonwealth, she had managed to get him proclaimed as their King. Every time a meeting was projected between Wharton and his new subjects it had to be postponed on some excuse or other, and he was unlucky enough to be always asleep on the rare occasions when the Fairy Queen did appear. Yet Wharton's faith survived these transparent mishaps, and the extraordinary masquerade was sustained for over a decade. For one striking aspect of fairy-beliefs was their self -confirming character. The man who believed in fairies could, like the astrologer or the magician, accept every setback and disappointment without losing his faith. He knew that he could never count on actually seeing the fairies himself, for the little people were notoriously jealous of their privacy and would never appear to those who were so curious as to go looking for them. Mrs. Parish told Wharton that the fairies had a way of beckoning to any person they wanted to talk to which was 'so quick...that none but those for whom it was intended could see it'. Nor would they ever reappear to those who betrayed their secrets. Joan Tyrry said in 1555 that she would never again see the fairies after having been made to confess her dealings with them before an ecclesiastical court. Everyone knew that a regular supply of fairy gold would dry up immediately its recipient bragged of it to anyone else. It was this elusiveness which made the fairies such admirable vehicles for the confidence trickster. Alice West, for example, impressed upon one of her intended  victims that 'there was nothing so necessary as secrecy, for if it were revealed to any, save them three whom it did essentially concern, they should not only hazard their good fortune, but incur the danger of the fairies, and so consequently lie open to great mishaps and fearful disasters'. When the client subsequently fell lame she was quick to remark that the reason must be that he had been telling tales to someone else. There was an impenetrability about fairy-beliefs which protected them from easy exposure. As Sir John Falstaff put it: 'they are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die'.