In a late thirteenth-century French poem on confession unearthed by Richard Firth Green, the priest is instructed to ask, "Do you not believe...in the goblin, in the household of Herlequin, in witches, and fairies?" For medieval people across Europe, Green argues in this delightfully rich and persuasive book, the answer was frequently yes.
Fairies may seem a familiar theme for scholars of medieval English literature like Green. James Wade's Fairies in Medieval Romance (2011) devotes substantial attention to them, but they are also discussed in Corinne Saunders' Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance (2010) and Helen Cooper's The English Romance in Time (2004). Green's focus, though, is rather different. He is interested primarily in what medieval people believed about fairies, and only secondarily in how fairies appear in literary texts. Fairies may serve useful literary functions in terms of satisfying readers' escapist fantasies, creating an atmosphere of wonder, and performing necessary plot functions with magical ease. But if we take belief in fairies seriously, as Green wants us to, we need to allow for the possibility that many texts about fairies were written to explore their nature and existence. He argues that a set of common beliefs about fairies were found across Europe, rather than being confined to the Celtic fringes of the British Isles; and that belief in fairies was shared by all classes of secular people, not just the illiterate peasantry. The struggle between these secular masses and the Christian clerics who first pronounced that fairies were demons, then promoted them to devils and called belief in them heretical, is central to the book's thesis.
Chapter 1 of the book gives a preliminary sketch of medieval fairy beliefs, and chapter 2 shows us how this demonisation worked. Green carefully demonstrates that "incubus" is, in many cases, nothing more than a disapproving clerical synonym for what secular culture called a fairy--or maybe an "elf," "goblin" or "faun." He refuses to get drawn into fairy taxonomy, but defines as fairies "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" (4). By reading "incubus" simply as "fairy," he opens up a wealth of texts describing the deeds of incubi, which offer new evidence about medieval fairy belief and the struggle to suppress it. Indeed, the breadth of sources the book presents were, for me, its greatest pleasure and achievement: there is Latin learned and clerical literature of various kinds, from demonologies to pastoral manuals to chronicles and encyclopedias; there is travel literature; vernacular romance (of course) and hagiography, mystery plays and ballads, and much, much more.
From this mass of material Green draws out many common threads of the medieval fairy tradition. Chapter 2 discusses how the clerical tradition tried to fight back against the inconvenient popular perception that fairies were not demonic spirits or illusions, but sexual, fecund, mortal and prescient. Chapter 3 discusses liaisons with fairies, sometimes unwelcome but often imagined as delightful, as the four spells for conjuring fairies in Folger Library MS Xd 234 suggest. Chapter 5 includes some interesting material on common traditions about individual fairies and fairy associates: Green argues, for example, that the name Sibyl, which we normally read as a prophet, suggested a fairy to medieval audiences, and he identifies Herla/Herlequin and the mysterious Onewyn as humans who, like Arthur, spent time in fairyland.
The main focus of chapter 5, however, is Green's argument that the idea of fairyland influenced the medieval conception of purgatory. He describes the tradition of fairyland as a peripheral zone around a centre (often a castle) entered by crossing a boundary from the human world (often a hollow hill), a perilous journey through this uncanny peripheral zone, and a final perilous crossing (often over water) into the centre, and shows that this was found in many medieval accounts of purgatory. Tellingly, one thirteenth-century description of purgatory even included the distinctive fairyland taboo on eating food. Green's presentation of a serious struggle between the belief that humans could live on in a fairy otherworld and official Christian cosmology also helps to makes sense of what the monks of Glastonbury were up to in 1191. By announcing that they had found Arthur's grave, they were asserting and providing evidence to support the Church line.
The discussion of fairy changelings in chapter 4 may turn out to be the book's most influential contribution. Green first discusses medieval beliefs about changelings--that they were fairy children substituted for human children, sickly, difficult, and voraciously hungry for milk. He goes on to show that the term "changeling"—"changon" in French and "cangun"/"changon" or "conjeoun" in English--was a common term of abuse, either seriously meant or merely insultingly misapplied, rather like the term "bastard" today. The Middle English Dictionary does not record "changeling" as the meaning of "conjoin," but only the derived senses of "fool," "lunatic" or "brat," but Green's presentation of the evidence was, for me, entirely persuasive. As he does throughout the book, Green traces the idea across time, language and text type--from legal case to chronicle, Ancrene Wisse to Of Arthour and of Merlin--from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The chapter culminates in an analysis of Christ's presentation as a changeling in the York, Chester and Towneley plays, showing that the villains of the cycles use these terms to discredit and mock Christ.
I must confess to being less convinced by Green's extension of this argument, to assert that this "elvish Christ" represents "folkloric resistance to an increasingly authoritarian church" (142). Similarly, Green makes a clear connection in his postscript between Chaucer's amused scepticism towards fairies and the tameness of the witch hunt in early modern England. I was not persuaded that Chaucer had a direct influence on England's early modern elite in this regard. Occasionally, too, Green seemed to be pushing too hard for a single, coherent set of fairy doctrine: belief in the weather-changing powers of the spring in Brocéliande discussed in chapter 1 does not always seem to equate to belief in fairies, and I was not sure that the idea of fairies' mortality was quite as securely established in popular tradition as Green wanted to claim. But these are very minor reservations.
This book has much to say to scholars of English, Latin and other European literatures as well as historians of religion and ideas, and is written with beautiful clarity. It is engaging and fun, communicating a strong sense of enjoyment of the textual treasures Green has assembled. Other readers will find their own favourites, but by way of an encouragement to buy this book or order it for your library, I must direct you to my own, on page 112. There, you will learn what protective magic you might achieve by putting a baby into a sieve with its father's underwear.