21 July 2017


Richard Firth Green. Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church. University Of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Nearly all human cultures have conceived of liminal beings that straggle the divide between mortal and immortal, matter and spirit, good and evil, habitat and wilderness. In western culture these beings have been given names such as fairies, elves, trolls, boggarts etc., in Islamic culture they are the djinns, and other cultures have their equivalents.
Green argues that belief in such beings was a pervasive part of medieval popular culture but it was a belief that the church was undertaking a culture war against. Unlike today’s popular beliefs in ghosts or aliens, these beliefs were seen as profoundly subversive of the church’s authority; it had no room for such beings, so it set about literally demonising them. Green argues that many of the demons that the church inveighed against were actually fairies, and this allows us to reconstruct these beliefs from studying a variety of literary sources ranging from romance, Arthurian legends, sermons, mystery plays and so on. Green argues that these works do not just represent poetic fancy but represent a living folklore.

It is the liminal nature of the fairies that troubles, and the church found particular problems with the supposed mortality of the fairies, who were envisioned to have lived long lives but to eventually die, and to the idea that they were material enough to have sex with and beget children on mortals. And above all that they came from a realm that was neither heaven nor hell. All of this was dismissed as an illusion brought about by the nasty old demons. The fairy world may appear glamorous, full of glorious castles and beautiful maidens, but it is really a false enchantment and that the castles are actually dirty hovels and the maidens are just ugly demons.

Green argues that fairyland became incorporated into the idea of purgatory, a belief in which may have developed as a means of Christianising fairyland. Not noted by Green however is a better fit, limbo, the realm of the virtuous pagan dead and unbaptised children. In early Christian times, when Christians still had pagan loved ones, limbo was presented in very positive terms. Though exiled from the divine presence, those in limbo live in the best possible world achievable by unaided human reason, it is a secular paradise. By the later medieval period views on it were essentially darkening, as there were no more 'virtuous pagans' to worry about. So Purgatory now replaces this as a post-mortem half-way house.

This is a book by a professor of English dealing in medieval texts and no concessions are made to the non-specialist, in that it is illustrated by many quotations in Middle English, preserving not just the original spelling but the original lettering, such as the thorn and eth [đ and Þ for 'th']. While this preserves the authenticity of the original it does not make for easy reading, which is a pity because this is a book which should be of great interest to folklorists and to a wider readership.

Superficially these beliefs may seem to the products of a remote past, but Green argues that they persisted to inform the witchcraft trials and many of the demonic encounters reported there are really encounters with the fairies. The global nature of such beliefs suggests that they may have originated before the great human diaspora out of Africa and are hence tens of thousands of years old. It is unlikely that such deep seated beliefs can be eradicated in a few centuries.

Green notes that tales of alien abduction reflect earlier beliefs about incubi and succubi, and of course those who follow this blog know how much the modern UFO lore derives from these earlier beliefs. The same goes for ghost lore or cryptozoology, and though fairies as such have been trivialised almost out of existence as the gossamer winged fays of Victorian picture books and as portrayed in the Cottingley photographs, their companions still live on. The hidden folk still are a powerful part of Icelandic life, and djinns are an integral part of Islamic culture.

Beyond this the tradition lives on even in secular form, sometimes barely visible, for example in the way that the disappearance of Madeline McCann and popular reactions to it echo tales of untended children taken by the 'others'. Fairyland lived on as Cockaigne, Fiddlers Green, the spiritualist Summerland and in numerous Utopian visions, even the other worlds of UFO contactees and near death experiences. Enchantment is secularised into “false consciousness”.

At and even deeper level we can see fairyland as a metaphor for the whole of the natural world, the Church’s culture war in effect the demonization of that natural world and of the people living in it. Recent events show where such ideologies lead, so maybe it is time to re-embrace fairyland as an act of defiance. 
  • Peter Rogerson.

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