EVER SINCE FOLKLORE studies became recognized as a discipline, towards the end of the nineteenth century, its practitioners have identified an early modern British belief in a connection between alleged witches and the terrestrial, human-like beings commonly called elves or fairies. This is especially apparent in the records of Scottish witch trials, and the latter have long been an important source for the study of British fairy tradition.1 This importance has been reinforced in recent years by Carlo Ginzburg, who made them a major prop of his argument that an ancient shamanistic sub-stratum of ideas underlay the concept of the witches’ sabbath. He drew attention to confessions by some of the accused that they had gone to visit the fairies, and especially their queen. These he deemed to be trance experiences and analogous to the claims of Continental Europeans to travel with the ‘Lady’ or ‘ladies’ by night. He concluded that, with the Scottish evidence added to that from the Alps, Italy and south-eastern Europe, ‘we can now recognize the distorted echo of an ecstatic cult of Celtic tradition’, dedicated to nocturnal goddesses.2

Ginzburg’s hypothesis has been ignored by most experts in the Scottish trials and Scottish fairy lore but has influenced two British authors who represent the main exceptions to the lack of impact made by his ideas concerning witchcraft on English-speaking scholars. The first was Emma Wilby, who has followed his approach, and that of associated scholars such as Éva Pócs and Gábor Klaniczay, in two books. One, published in 2005, considered the relationship between fairies and magic in early modern Britain, to argue that both witches and service magicians at least in many cases drew their ideas and practices from envisioned encounters with a spirit world.3 They did so, she suggested, in altered states of consciousness similar to those employed by shamans, and by drawing on a pre-Christian animist concept of the world from which most of the spirits with whom they dealt, and especially fairies, descended. She was careful not to refer to this concept as ‘pagan’ (any more than Ginzburg himself had done), emphasizing that early modern commoners generally had a cosmos populated by supernatural figures of both Christian and pre-Christian origin.4 She also avoided any attempt to prove continuity between ancient shamanism and early modern beliefs, preferring cross-cultural comparisons, mostly with shamans in modern Siberia and the Americas. These, she suggested, had much in common with British witches and service magicians, although she conceded that the evidence for trance states among those was very limited.

Her second book, in 2010, was an extended case study which applied her ideas to the most sensational individual witch trial in Scottish history, that of Isobel Gowdie at Auldearn on the Moray Firth in 1662: it is the one that has given the word ‘coven’ to the world as the most common term for a group of witches. Gowdie had made unusually detailed and lurid confessions of her activities as a witch, including a succession of malevolent misdeeds and night flights and a relationship both with the Devil and the fairy queen and king. She had usually been presumed mad by previous scholars but Wilby argued for an interpretation of her as a service magician and storyteller inspired by visionary encounters with spirits, real or not. In the process, Wilby made an excellent reconstruction of the local social and cultural context within which Gowdie operated, and incidentally a particularly good case that she and her friends might actually have been Satanists engaged in malefic magic.5 Wilby acknowledged the strong likelihood of the presence of false confession and false memory syndrome in her testimony, and she had also become aware of how controversial Carlo Ginzburg’s ideas were among experts, especially in Britain and America. None the less, she felt that the latter needed to acknowledge the possibility that some kind of visionary experience lay behind Gowdie’s claims, and that it was related to shamanistic practices, perhaps even as a member of a local ‘cult’.

Thus far the effect of Emma Wilby’s ideas on experts in early modern British history has been muted, and it is true that they are highly speculative readings of records which could be interpreted in other ways.6 There is, for example, no hard evidence that Isobel Gowdie was either a magical practitioner or a storyteller, or had visionary experiences of any sort. If she had the latter, it is still possible that she was a psychotic fantasist, whose delusions were strongly conditioned by prevailing cultural motifs. None the less, for most of the time, what Wilby has striven to do is to persuade scholars who have hitherto ignored the possibility that visionary experience may lie behind British witchcraft confessions and the work of magical practitioners to accept it as one feasible interpretation of the evidence.7 It is suggested here that she has succeeded in making this case.

The second British scholar to be influenced by Carlo Ginzburg’s ideas was Julian Goodare, who had already established himself as one of the leading experts on early modern Scotland. He distinguished his own arguments from those of both Ginzburg and Wilby, noting that nobody had adopted the former’s theories in full, and refusing to imitate Ginzburg’s ‘plunge into the archaic past’, while disagreeing with some of the latter’s suggestions, but thought that the ideas of both had value. He asserted that ‘deep folkloric beliefs or mythic structures mattered to the way in which the common folk conceptualized witchcraft’, and credited Ginzburg with drawing attention to that idea.8 His main personal illustration of it came in 2012 – to highlight a Scottish text of the mid-1530s, which spoke of fairies and stated that ‘some say they hold meetings with a countless multitude of simple women whom they call in our tongue seely wights’. The latter expression signified blessed or lucky beings, and recurred in Scotland until the nineteenth century. Goodare interpreted it as meaning a class of superhuman entity similar to but distinct from fairies. From this and other mentions of them in Scottish sources, and analogy with the Sicilian belief in the ‘ladies from outside’, he hypothesized the existence in early modern Scotland of a ‘cult’9 of ‘shamanistic magical practitioners’, mostly female, who claimed to commune with these beings and were sometimes called ‘seely wights’ themselves. He suggested that they claimed to make that communication by flying at night with the ‘wights’, in the manner of the followers of the Continental ‘Lady’, and that in reality they engaged in trance states and ecstatic visions. The influence of both Ginzburg and Wilby on this reconstruction must be plain, as must that of the work of Éva Pócs and Gustav Henningsen, but its form was Goodare’s own.10 Not enough time has passed at the present point of writing for reactions to it to be registered among colleagues, but Goodare himself has subsequently followed it up with another essay in which he speculated how the ‘cult’ of the ‘wights’ might fit into the wider picture of early modern Scottish culture, especially with regard to fairy belief and visionary experience.11 The work of these scholars therefore cumulatively poses some important questions for the history of early modern Britain: what was the relationship between service magicians and accused witches, and fairies; was that relationship the same all over Britain; and can its development, and that of ideas concerning fairies in general, be traced over time? It remains to be seen how far the approaches taken in the current book can provide answers.

Fairies and Magicians

The book’s general technique of narrowing circles of perspective can be applied to the first question posed above. A global survey reveals that in every inhabited continent, service magicians were often (though apparently not necessarily) believed to derive at least some of their ability and knowledge from dealings with superhuman beings, the latter most commonly in spirit form. Likewise, witches were commonly thought to co-operate with evil spirits in their works of destruction.12 The ‘classic’ shamans of Siberia were therefore an extreme example of a widespread pattern, in their reliance on assistant spirits to carry out their service magic. It will be clear from preceding chapters, also, that European service magicians likewise often claimed to gain their powers and knowledge through communion with spirits. This was true of followers of the ‘Lady’ or ‘ladies’ from their first appearance in the ninth century, across their range. The man who said that he had learned his magical craft in the Venusberg, and the Scandinavians who confessed to doing so by communing with trolls or forest spirits, may also be remembered. On the other hand, in most parts of Europe there is an apparent absence of evidence that most service magicians identified themselves, or were identified, as coming by their reputed skills by this means. Indeed, there were some marked regional traditions that derived the powers of such figures from other sources. The ‘dream warriors’ of the south-east, including the benandanti, provide a striking example of one, in which special ability was attributed to being born with a caul. None the less, in the ‘dream warriors’ own region there was also a parallel kind of practitioner, to whom Éva Pócs has given the name of ‘fairy magicians’.13 These were found all over south-eastern Europe, from Greece through the Balkans to Slovenia, Croatia, Romania and (possibly) Hungary, and reputedly learned their skills, especially healing, from local beings who may be equated with the British fairies. Those beings, often taking the form of groups of beautiful women, were believed to cause many of the problems that their human pupils cured, but could also give good fortune and abundance. Some of the magicians who interacted with them were formed into societies, and most were female; many were believed to travel with these spirit patronesses at night, making them look like a south-eastern extension of the tradition first recorded in the canon Episcopi, and its longest recorded survival, perhaps together with Gustav Henningsen’s Sicilian donas. Much of the information on these people consists of folklore collected in modern times, but there are stray references to them in early modern records from Dalmatia and Croatia, functioning as healers and witch-finders.14 However, it is worth repeating that even within their region they represented only one variety of service magician, and that most of Europe seems to have lacked collective traditions of their kind. Moreover, fairy-like beings were only one sort of superhuman entity to whom magicians could reputedly turn for aid: in Spain and Portugal, the most common kind of person offering magical services was believed to be empowered by particular saints.15

The European record is therefore patchy, but Britain looks like especially promising ground for a connection between magicians and fairies. For a long time, it has been noted by scholars of fairy lore, and the occasional historian interested in the subject, that British service magicians often claimed to be instructed by these beings.16 A connection between such beings and accused witches has also long been recognized, as stated above. It is worth laying out the (now mostly well-known) evidence for these relationships, to align it with the questions posed earlier. Starting in Scotland, such a connection appears in the very first trial for witchcraft to leave a detailed indictment, that of Janet Boyman of Edinburgh, probably in 1572. She said that she had learned healing skills from a rite taught by a fellow service magician which had called up the ‘good neighbours’, a normal pseudonym for fairies, and with them gained knowledge of the ways of the ‘seely wights’, which enabled her to protect people against them. Unhappily, her cures were clearly not sufficiently effective, and she dabbled in political prophecy as well, and was arrested.17 In 1576 an Ayrshire woman, Elizabeth Dunlop, confessed that a man called Tom Reid, who had died in battle almost thirty years before, had introduced her to the ‘good wights’ of the ‘court of Elf-home’, where she saw another man whom she knew to be dead. Reid’s mistress, the elf queen, visited her at her home. From Tom and his superhuman companions, Dunlop said she had learned healing with herbs and the ability to see the future and trace lost or stolen goods; which ended disastrously when men whom she had identified as thieves denounced her to the authorities in self-defence.18A dozen years later Alison Pearson, from Fife, stated that she had learned the arts of healing by observing a group of green-clad superhuman men and women, who were sometimes fair-looking and merry, and sometimes fearsome. She had learned much more of these arts from a dead male cousin of hers, who told her that the same beings had carried him out of the human world.19 Her mistake was probably to include an archbishop of St Andrews among her medical clients, so that his political enemies turned upon her.20 When the first great wave of Scottish witch trials began in 1590 it was alleged that Lady Foulis, in Cromarty, had consulted a local magician about a means to kill some of her relatives, and was advised to talk to fairies on a local hill.21 That same year Isobel Watson at Stirling claimed to have taken service with them as midwife to their queen, befriending a human man who may have been a ghost, and learning how to heal from them. She also, however, said she was aided by an angel.22 In 1597 the trial took place at Edinburgh of Christian Lewinston, who testified that she had learned witchcraft from her daughter, who had herself been abducted and taught by fairies.23 In that year Isobel Strachan attributed her magical skills to the teaching of her mother, who had learned them in turn from an elf-lover.24 Andrew Man, who boasted of working healing and protective (but also blighting) magic on humans, animals and farmland, was tried at Aberdeen in 1598. He spoke of two superhuman helpers, the queen of Elf-home, who had known him since visiting his family when he was a child, and an angel called Christsonday, whom he thought to be the son of God and seemed at times to identify with Jesus. The two beings were associates, but Man’s magical powers appear to have derived from the queen. He said that he had seen dead men in her court, including the famous Thomas the Rhymer, reputed to have been her lover in legend, and King James IV, who had been killed at Flodden Field.25

In 1615 Janet Drever was accused on Orkney, in the Northern Isles of Scotland, of keeping up a relationship with the ‘fairy folk’ for twenty-six years. The following year, Elspeth Reoch appeared in the same court, with the relation that she had been given the ability to gain access to hidden knowledge concerning human affairs, and power to heal with herbs, by two mysterious males. One had identified himself as a ‘fairy man’, a kinsman of hers killed in a quarrel.26 Another healer from the far north, Catherine Caray, said she had met a ‘great number of fairy men’ with their leader in nearby hills at sunset.27 Two years later John Stewart, a wandering juggler and fortune-teller, was tried at Irvine in Ayrshire for using magic to sink a ship. He told the court that he had gained his skill in divination by weekly visits to the fairies, and especially their king, and had seen many dead people with them, as all who died suddenly went to Elfland.28 In 1623, a Perthshire woman, Isobel Haldane, replied to interrogators that she had been given healing abilities and the power to predict people’s deaths during a stay in a fairy hill to which she had been magically transported from her bed. She had also, however, been enabled to curse, and was reported to the authorities for using this resource on a man who had caught her stealing grain. Examined with her was her friend Janet Trall, another well-known magical healer, who said she had been taught to heal and blight by a company of fairy folk that had likewise carried her off from her bed.29 In 1628 a popular healer operating near Stirling, Stein (Steven) Maltman, ended up in court because he was suspected of transferring the sufferings of his clients to other people. He said that he acquired his techniques from fairies, but also emphasized his devotion to ‘God and all unearthly creatures’ and the fact that the fairies caused many of the ills that he cured.30 Back in Orkney in 1633 Isobel Sinclair was accused of having boasted of gaining the ‘second sight’ by being six times ‘controlled with the fairy’.31 In 1640 one John Gothrey appeared before the presbytery at Perth and told it that he had likewise been kidnapped by fairies, and taught healing spells with them by a little lad who claimed to be John’s own brother, stolen by the fairy folk as a baby.32 At Livingston, west of Edinburgh, in 1647, Margaret Alexander testified to having befriended the fairies thirty years before and having an affair with their king: she learned a healing technique but also magic with which she murdered two people.33 That same year Janet Cowie was tried at Elgin on charges of harming several people with witchcraft, and accused also of explaining away her frequent absences at night as jaunts with fairies.34

Isobel Gowdie claimed to have visited the fairy queen and king in their realm within some nearby hills, though not to have acquired any powers from them: perhaps significantly, she never referred to herself as a service magician.35 A male magician at Duns in the south-east, tried in 1669 and called Harry Wills, said he had spent nineteen days with fairies at the start of his career, and retained a female spirit who came to him at night to advise him.36 In 1677 one of two men accused of cattle-rustling at Inveraray in Argyll claimed to have the power to recover stolen goods, gained by befriending a people whom he had first seen dancing inside a hollow hill, which represented the court of their king.37 Margaret Fulton, one of the Renfrewshire women accused of multiple murders by witchcraft in 1697, declared with reference to her magical dealings that her husband had ‘brought her back from the fairies’.38

Most of the people whose stories are recorded here ended up sentenced to death for the crime of satanic witchcraft, as in Scotland the crucial element in such a conviction was confession to the making of a pact with a demon; and fairies could very easily be assimilated to demons by magistrates. Indeed, the Devil himself, or his minions, often made appearances in these narratives, and the fairies themselves were often credited with satanic behaviour such as demanding a renunciation of Christianity. Conversely, Christian elements – in addition to those mentioned – peeped out of accounts of the actual service magic provided by the accused: their spells were often uttered in the name of the Trinity, or involved water taken from a well formerly dedicated to a saint. It seems likely that the cases cited make up the great majority of those surviving from Scottish witch trials that mention fairies.39 Despite their number, they are still a small minority of the total number of trials from which records exist; but it is also possible that they represent the majority of cases in which service magicians were accused of witchcraft, and that makes the connection between such practitioners and fairy lore much closer. The service magicians concerned seem mainly to have been those who stepped outside the normal bounds of their kind, by making enemies, failing clients or becoming embroiled in political rivalries. Certainly there are other sources that reinforce the sense of association between human magicians and fairies in Scotland. A study of trials of magic held in local church courts found that people denounced for selling magical services claimed that their skills were fairy-given all across the central Lowlands from Angus and East Lothian to Ayrshire. It concluded that all social classes resorted to these magicians and that they were safe from prosecution if their clients prospered.40 A genteel commentator in 1677 complained to a correspondent that the ‘white devils’ known as fairies ‘to this day, make daily service to severals in quality of familiars’.41

On the other hand, it would not be safe to assume that all early modern Scottish service magicians, or even perhaps the majority, claimed a fairy origin for their abilities. Julian Goodare has shown that when people accused of witchcraft confessed to receiving powers from a superhuman entity other than an unambiguous demon, they spoke of a range of such beings, including angels, ghosts and (often) vaguely defined ‘spirits’.42 Something of a case study of the range of sources claimed by Scottish service magicians for their powers may be provided by one particular and specialist branch of the genre, the Gaelic seers or predictors of future events. In the later seventeenth century, they became a focus of deliberate research by British scholars interested in gathering evidence for the reality of a spirit world, and the records thereby gathered have been collected and published.43 The seers too were regarded at least by some as gaining their powers from the fairy realm. A writer from the eastern Highland region of Strathspey in the 1690s said that the main Gaelic name for them indicated somebody who conversed with ‘the fairies or fairy-folk’ while a correspondent of his agreed that some said that the second sight was gained from ‘those demons, we call fairies’.44 Yet, when the seers and their associates were consulted, a range of beliefs for the origin of the ‘sight’ was manifested, including inheriting it, achieving it spontaneously, or inducing it by looking through the knot of a tree or the blades of shears, or placing hands or feet over those of an existing seer. Some practitioners offered to sell it to enquirers, and others confessed that nobody had any real idea whence it came.45

None the less, the connection between fairies and the gift of magical ability was clearly very strong, and it is time in this context to consider Julian Goodare’s ‘seely wights’. He started his essay on them by quoting a popular Scottish verse, published in 1826, which warned that to refer to fairies directly was to invite their hostility, but to use a flattering circumlocution such as ‘good neighbours’ or ‘seely wights’ would win their favour. So, by 1800 the latter expression was recognized as simply another one for fairies, and ‘good neighbours’ was certainly used as such in the early modern period: but was ‘seely wights’? The term occurs twice in the trial records cited above, where it could very well have that connotation, so if the ‘wights’ are to be distinguished from fairies, as a related but different kind of being, everything hangs on the earliest source for them. That is the text from the 1530s, by a theologian at Aberdeen University called William Hay, and it is unhappily a far from straightforward one. It starts by declaring that there are certain women who say that they have dealings with Diana, queen of the fairies. This is apparently a repetition of the oft-rehearsed and by now very old clause in the canon Episcopi, updated linguistically by calling Diana’s retinue ‘fairies’. It goes on to gloss this by saying that there are others (in the context, presumably other women) who say that the fairies are demons and that they have no dealings with them. This is actually to repeat the canon again, but to put the author’s condemnation of Diana and her spirits as a demonic delusion into the mouths of contemporaries. Transplanted to sixteenth-century Scotland, this could work well as a declaration that some women – who in this context could well be service magicians – claimed to have dealings with the fairy kingdom, which as shown is well established in the early modern records. It would also be credible to declare that other commoners had internalized the official message that such beings were likely to be demonic. A third sentence is added, however, and this is the problem, for it seems to state that ‘they’ (presumably the women who will not deal with fairies) themselves gather together with an ‘innumerable host’ of uneducated or common women whom ‘they call in our language seely wights’.46 Literally read, this means that the women who will not deal with fairies assert that instead they attend huge meetings with other women which have nothing disreputable, or supernatural, about them: but they give those other women a name always elsewhere associated with fairies.

Clearly something is wrong here, and our ability to determine what it is must be severely compromised by the fact that we have no idea from whom Hay obtained his information, and how garbled it had become in transmission to him. Julian Goodare chose, as said, to read the passage to mean that the women who condemned dealings with fairies insisted they themselves dealt with a different kind of fairy-like being called seely wights. He also presumes that Hay received his data, directly or indirectly, from a member of the ‘cult’ of these ‘wights’, and hypothesizes at length on ways in which he could have interviewed one.47 I am inclined to think that Hay was repeating things that he had been told by others and did not fully understand, and that ‘seely wights’ was actually an expression used for fairies by women – probably service magicians – who claimed to deal with them and denied that they were demons. Readers may choose between our differing readings, or decline the task as inevitably inconclusive.48

What of England and Wales? Here there are also many examples of service magicians claiming to have learned their skills from fairies.49 They are recorded in Somerset around 1440, Suffolk in 1499 (conjoined with ‘God and the Blessed Mary’), Somerset again in 1555 (with the ‘help of God’ added), Dorset in 1566 (where a male magician contacted them in their homes inside prehistoric burial mounds) and Yorkshire in 1567.50 As for Wales, in 1587 an author called for the suppression of ‘swarms’ of magicians there who claimed ‘to walk, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at night, with the fairies, of whom they brag themselves to have their knowledge’.51 A rare and now famous English case of somebody accused of witchcraft for dealings with fairies was that of Susan Swapper, a reputed service magician at the Sussex port of Rye, in 1609. Her alleged encounters began in what we can now regard as the classic manner, with a group of green-clad people coming to her to offer aid and teach her a healing skill; after which she went on to meet their fairy queen. In her case, however, the relationship turned into a hunt for treasure, and so, through the operation of local factional politics, into a witch trial, though one ending in a pardon.52

The same tradition continued through the seventeenth century. During the late 1640s a maid in a Cornish household, Ann Jeffries, established a considerable reputation for herself as a magical healer, which was associated with her claim to have conversations with fairies (and her profound Christian piety). Her career was ended because she added political prophecies to her repertoire that were unfavourable to the current government.53 In the middle of the century a man was accused of witchcraft in the north of England after attempting to cure people with a white powder. He told the court that he obtained it from fairies living in a knoll under the rule of their queen, and the jury acquitted him because his cures seemed generally to work.54 A London woman called Mary Parish provided a range of magical services in the later seventeenth century, and claimed to have befriended the fairies, and especially their king and queen, entering their realm through a hillock on Hounslow Heath. She led her aristocratic patron, Goodwin Wharton, a merry dance in the 1680s by offering to introduce him to them and reporting each time a colourful new impediment that prevented it. As usual, her charms had Christian references.55 A writer in 1705 recorded the story of a Gloucestershire woman tried for her claim to predict the deaths or recovery of sick people, who maintained that she learned these results from fairies who visited her at night.56 As in Scotland, therefore, the linkage between service magic and fairies seems very strong, though again it does not seem universally associated with providers of such magic, and may not, indeed, have been a characteristic of the majority. Once more, also, most of the known cases of it concern women, who represent eight of the ten English instances described above; it is not clear, however, whether this fact results from a special tendency for female service magicians to identify with fairies, or because most such magicians were female, or because female magicians were more likely to get into trouble, and so enter the record. Certainly in England and Wales, and possibly in Scotland, the association of fairies with human magic faded away in the eighteenth century. By the end of that century, service magicians were believed to be empowered by the books they possessed or the humans who instructed them, and there does not seem to be a single recorded case thereafter of one who made the claim to knowledge transmitted by fairy folk. Perhaps the latter had simply ceased to seem so credible.57

The early modern period appears therefore to have been a heyday, and perhaps the heyday, of the association, and it is now worth enquiring what was actually going on in it; especially in view of the concentration instigated by Carlo Ginzburg on ‘shamanistic’ practices. As absolutely none of the people accused of witchcraft or known as service magicians in sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Britain carried out a rite technique like that of Siberian or Sámi shamans, the term used by Ginzburg must be taken in the broadest sense of the root word ‘shaman’: of somebody communicating with non-human beings, usually spirits, while in an altered state of consciousness. Excitingly, there are records from seventeenth-century Scotland that refer to such states in the terms still most commonly used for them. The presbytery of Alford, in the north-east, questioned a beggar reputed to be ‘a seducer under pretence of lying in a trance or having converse with familiar spirits’.58 A higher ecclesiastical body, the synod of nearby Aberdeen, received complaints ‘that some under pretence of trances or of spirits commonly called the fairies, hath spoken reproachfully on some persons’ (presumably by accusing them of offences).59 These sound very much like service magicians or seers hired to divine answers to clients’ questions, and it would be convenient had these sources made clear that to converse with spirits or fairies meant employing the method of trance, rather than making the two activities sound like alternative methods of divination; but they do not. Likewise, from the late seventeenth-century Hebridean Isle of Tiree came an account of a woman who lay as if dead for a whole night while her spirit (as she reported) visited the Christian heaven.60 This sounds like a classic ecstatic trance, of the shamanic kind, but she was not a shaman, or even a service magician, but a religious mystic. When the carefully collected accounts of Highland seers from the end of the century are studied, none of them shows the practitioners concerned as entering an ecstatic trance, or any kind of trance that an observer could notice. Instead their flashes of perception come spontaneously and unbidden.61 When an interviewer specifically asked the notorious seeress (and witch-finder) Janet Douglas, in 1678, if she underwent any alteration when the ‘sight’ came on her, she insisted that she was ‘in the same temper’ as before, ‘without any trouble, disorder or consternation of mind’, and remained so when the vision passed.62

It therefore matters greatly in this context that absolutely none of the people who confessed to dealing with fairies in Scottish trials for witchcraft or English trials for witchcraft or magic spoke of doing so while in trance, or of engaging in spirit-flight. On the contrary, they seem very much in their own bodies, and the contact is often made by the fairies appearing to them while they are in bed, in a house or a garden, or walking out of doors, and (once awake) fully in possession of their faculties. Often also it happens at a special place out of doors such as a holy well or (mostly) a hollow hill. A few claimed to have been transported from their beds to fairy land, but they are taken in body not spirit and they walk back, or are left exhausted on the ground near home. This does not mean of course that they were not in some kind of altered mental state when they thought themselves to be having such experiences, but this seems impossible to prove, and there is a range of other explanations. Some may have been making up their stories to promote their reputations as magicians, while others, in Scottish witch trials, may have been submitted to mental or physical torture to extract satisfactory confessions; and both groups would have used local folklore to fill out what they said. If the possibility of altered consciousness is admitted (and it surely must be), then there are many other kinds of that which might have operated instead of shamanistic trances. Julian Goodare has made an excellent consideration of these, with respect to Scottish witch trials in general, and included sleep-walking, sleep paralysis, hallucination and fantasy.63 In addition, to be perfectly just, one might admit the final possibility that some of the people concerned actually met non-human beings.

What emerges as certain from all this is that all across Britain, from Orkney to Cornwall, and throughout the early modern period, service magicians were often believed to gain their powers and knowledge from fairies, and claimed to do so. They reported a variety of means by which they did this, which probably reflected different personal dispositions and experiences, and of which ‘shamanistic’ trance was only one. This in itself works against the idea of a ‘cult’ among them that practised such methods, although small local groups which did, on the lines suggested by Emma Wilby, remain possible, if completely unproven. Julian Goodare was probably closer to the early modern reality when, having adopted Ginzburg’s term ‘cult’ for the ‘seely wights’, he considered Janet Boyman’s one of ‘craft’, as used by her for her kind, as an alternative, and then went on to look at that of ‘tradition’. He suggested that rather than being an organized group with a membership structure, the followers of his ‘wights’ had just a shared occupational identity: and that is exactly what service magicians in general did have, and they were certainly a ‘craft’ and a ‘tradition’.

Nor do the resemblances between the Scottish fairies and the Continental followers of the ‘Lady’ seem close enough to establish a common descent rather than representing converging traditions of separate origin. Scottish fairies were certainly believed to ride together like the retinue of the ‘Lady’, and Bessie Dunlop, Janet Trall and Andrew Man claimed to have seen them do it; but Scottish service magicians did not claim to ride with them as Continental equivalents had allegedly done with Diana or Herodias. Scottish fairies had a dominant female figure, but she was usually paired with a king. A common means of locomotion for the Scottish beings seems to have been in the wind, which the confessions listed earlier repeatedly recorded as being used both to blight people and to carry them off; and this tradition spilled over the English border.64 Unlike the ‘Lady’, moreover, the British fairies operated both by day and by night. It may be suggested, therefore, that Carlo Ginzburg’s ideas have had a distorting effect on the study of perceived relationships between fairies and magicians in Britain, both by producing an overemphasis on ‘shamanistic’ states of consciousness in the making of the relationships and by encouraging historians to think in terms of ‘cults’. On the other hand, it can also be proposed that they have had an extremely beneficial effect in drawing renewed attention to the importance of those relationships, and that both Emma Wilby and Julian Goodare have compounded it with valuable work; and all three deserve acknowledgement for that.

Where do Fairies Come From?

There is, however, one further way in which Carlo Ginzburg’s ideas may be examined, and although both Wilby and Goodare understandably declined to adopt it, it is amenable to the methodology of the present book: to look at the apparent continuities between the ancient and early modern worlds, with respect to British fairy belief, and see how strong they are. It may be presumed that the prehistoric British would have believed in spirits, as defined at the opening of this book, because traditional cultures always do. Some would have been intrinsically associated with natural environments such as forests and bodies of water, and probably others with domestic spaces such as the hearth, to judge from the abundant evidence for this from the literate ancient world and indigenous peoples on other continents. It is probably safe to refer to the early modern British fairies as spirits, because they very frequently had an ability to appear and vanish, and transcend normal physical limitations. Contemporaries generally regarded them as such. On the other hand, in some accounts they seem to be physical beings who achieve by the use of magic feats impossible to humans.65 To refer to them as ‘nature spirits’ is more questionable, because they do not represent natural phenomena such as trees or water, and do not seem to live more ‘naturally’ than most pre-modern humans. They have instead a parallel, regal and aristocratic society, with industries and furnishings, which is based underground rather than on the surface of the earth.66 It can be argued that the (widely used) recent identification of fairies with the natural world reflects a modern literary image of them in which they function as representatives of an older land being reshaped by urbanization and industrialization. If so, then such a perception may actually distort an understanding of medieval and pre-industrial attitudes. So, to restate the question, how far back can they be traced?67

It is generally accepted that the term ‘fairy’ arrived in Britain from France only in the later Middle Ages; before then the beings to whom it was to be applied were known wherever English and Scots were spoken as ‘elves’. They retained this name thereafter, of course, as an alternative to fairies. The Anglo-Saxons certainly believed in elves, and certainly feared them for maliciously afflicting humans and their animals with physical ailments. A few texts attempted to demonize them, but there are hints in others that they were models of seductive female beauty. There is no unequivocal evidence that they were regarded as sources of knowledge for magicians – the earliest certain sign of that is from the fifteenth century – but a possible link with diviners or prophets. No clear sense of a coherent tradition emerges from the texts, which may be a reflection of reality or just a consequence of the patchy survival of evidence.

The likelihood that no coherent view of elves was in fact held in Anglo-Saxon England is, however, increased by reference to authors from the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries who describe encounters between humans and non-human beings which could not easily be fitted into conventional Christian concepts of angels and demons: above all Gerald of Wales, Ralph of Coggeshall, Gervase of Tilbury, Walter Map and William of Newburgh. These include several motifs (scattered across various anecdotes) that were to be enduring components of fairy lore. The first is a belief in a parallel world with human-like inhabitants who have their own ruler and society and are in some ways superior to people. The second is the ability of such beings to enter our own world, and sometimes to steal human children away from it, while humans could sometimes enter their realm. The third is that portals between this otherworld and our own exist in particular places such as lakes, woods, natural hills or prehistoric tumuli. The fourth is a belief in beautiful supernatural women, who dance in secluded areas at night, and who can be wooed or abducted by mortal men, but who almost always return to their own realm. The fifth is that such non-human beings are often associated with the colour green. The sixth is that they can give blessings to people who entertain them or otherwise treat them graciously, but also torment them, notably by leading them astray at night. Associated with this is the seventh, a tradition of human-like creatures who live in or come into homes, where they make themselves useful to the human occupants or play mischievous tricks on them.

What is missing in these accounts is any sense of a coherent belief system to contain and explain the stories being repeated by the authors. There is nothing about any of them that suggests they were strictly the preserve of the social elite. The medieval intellectuals who collected them and grouped them together were struggling to create a category for them, specifically because none seemed to exist already either in Christian cosmology or established folk belief. A similar lack of definition exists in a parallel stream of literature from the same period between 1100 and 1250, chivalric romances featuring encounters between human characters and beings who have sumptuous lifestyles, mirroring those of the contemporary human social elite, and wield apparently superhuman powers. In particular, these beings function as lovers, advisers and protectors for the knights and ladies with whom they make relationships, and sometimes as predators upon, or seducers (and seductresses) of, them. By the twelfth century they were represented in literary works composed across north-western Europe from France to Ireland.68 Whereas the scholarly texts discussed above were dealing with encounters that were believed to have taken place, the romances were uninhibited works of fiction. Those written in French supplied the genesis of the word ‘fairy’ itself, associated with the term fai, fae or fay, applied to female representatives of the beings described above. Little attempt was made to define those beings within a theological framework, or indeed to explain who they were at all or to explore their motivation: they were usually just assumed to be mysterious. At times it was explicitly stated that they were human beings who had learned powerful magic, while at others they appeared essentially to be superhuman; but in most cases they were not assigned to either category, and the problem was not considered in the tale.

None the less, they are important to this investigation. For one thing, they represent, as said, the linguistic root of the whole concept of the fairy. The word fai or fay itself originally functioned more often as a verb than a noun, to denote the making of something magical and strange, in both Old French and the English texts into which the French themes were transposed. Its derivation or parallel development ‘faierie’ was evolved to refer to uncanny events and phenomena, rather than creatures, and only began to refer to a type of being in English in the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, it enabled the eventual creation of such a type. Furthermore, among the kinds of ‘fay’ found in the romances of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries are some who would later populate the category concerned: enchantresses who capture humans who wander into their hidden realms or abduct them to those, and Auberon, a king of a forest realm who is possessed of great magical powers. Such entities also feature in the priest Layamon’s reworking of the legendary history of Britain. He recounts how King Arthur was brought up by them, and endowed with magical qualities, and returned to their domain of Avalon, ruled by a queen, at the end of his reign. Layamon’s use of English for his history enabled him to cross the romance with the vernacular genres, by giving those beings the native name of elves.

By the middle of the thirteenth century, therefore, the materials for a fairy tradition were present, in a popular tradition of elves, as blighting and perhaps as healing and seductive beings; an elite literary one of beautiful, wealthy and powerful fays; and a third category of diverse human-like creatures who overlapped with the first two types but did not really fit into either, and seemed to span elite and popular culture. What did not yet exist was an actual tradition that combined and systematized most, at least, of these forms. Throughout the late medieval and early modern periods, indeed, references continued to supernatural beings, inherent in the British landscape, which had vague, functional identities and no known relationship to each other. The ‘puck’ was known from Anglo-Saxon times as a name for a spirit who led nocturnal wayfarers into pitfalls, while the bug (a term with a variety of related words) featured from the later Middle Ages onwards as another entity of the night, distinguished by striking terror into people. In the fourteenth century the term ‘goblin’ arrived, probably from French, for a similarly unpleasant and hazily characterized nocturnal sprite, whose activities overlapped with both puck and bug. None the less, by the end of the thirteenth century moves were being made to put a systematic structure of belief around at least some such figures.

Two closely related texts, the South English Legendary and the Metrical Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, defined elves as spirits in the shape of beautiful women who danced and played in secluded places, and with whom humans could have sex, but at their peril. By the early fourteenth century, a preacher’s manual, Fasciculus Morum, could condemn as a devilish illusion a widespread belief in elves who took the form of beautiful women dancing at night with their queen or goddess, whom the author equated with the Roman Diana: the canon Episcopi tradition was starting to influence English views of nocturnal beings. The belief concerned, according to the manual, included the detail that these elves could carry off humans to their own land, where heroes of the past dwelt.

Meanwhile, in the romances, classical influences were providing another framework for systematizing the fays. In a French one composed around 1300 and later translated into English as Arthur of Little Britain, the ancient goddess Proserpine was made ‘Queen of the Fayrye’ and featured as the helper and would-be lover of the hero. This was the classic role of a fay, underlined by the fact that she tended to appear at night and on the edge of a forest. The Middle English Sir Orfeo, of about the same date, undertook a similar makeover in its retelling of the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In this version Orfeo has to retrieve his wife, not from a pagan underworld as before but from the land of a nameless ‘King of Fayré’ (or ‘Fare’ or ‘Fairy’), who takes the role of the Roman god Pluto as ruler of a realm of the human dead, though in this case of those who have met untimely ends. Even so, it is a fair, green land, where the king reigns over splendid non-human beings in state with his queen and sometimes invades the human world with a retinue to hunt beasts or abduct people. It is a well-rounded picture of a fairyland. These steps made possible the leap taken by the end of the fourteenth century, when Chaucer could speak, famously, of how in the days of King Arthur ‘the elf-queen, with her jolly company, danced full oft in many a green mead’. He was taking a composite image of a fay, from the high medieval romances (and especially those of Arthur and his knights) and giving it the definite article that established her as an archetype that was becoming a personality in her own right. Thus concepts are still fluid, but a set of associations is crystallizing around the words ‘fairy’ and ‘elf’ which is defining an increasingly familiar place and set of characters. This process is equally visible in a contemporary English romance by Thomas Chestre, Sir Launfal, a reworking of a twelfth-century Old French tale. It is a classic plot of how a mysterious and beautiful fay gives her love and aid to a true knight, but the contrast between the two versions is striking: in the earlier, the nature of the heroine is left undefined, and she dresses in royal purple, while in the latter, she is explicitly the daughter of ‘the King of Faërie’, and dressed in the distinctive fairy colour of green. At its close, the later version indeed has her take the hero back ‘into the faërie’ with her.

By the fifteenth century, the literary construct of the fairy kingdom was both fully formed and truly pan-British. The famous Scottish romance Thomas of Erceldoune, dating from somewhere between 1401 and 1430, tells of how its genteel human hero became the lover of a lady from ‘the wild fee’. She takes him to her own land (entered through the side of a hill), where she turns out to be the wife of its king, and returns him to the mortal world with gifts, of truth telling and knowledge of the future: the tradition associated with so many later service magicians was already established in Scotland. By the end of the century the concept of this kingdom was a recurrent motif of Scottish poetry, and firmly linked to the label ‘fairy’. Over the same period, Welsh literature absorbed the motif as well. Buchedd Collen, which is late medieval and represents a saint’s life written in the style of a romance, has its hero encounter Gwyn ap Nudd, the traditional lord of Annwn, the medieval Welsh underworld or otherworld. Gwyn has now become ‘King of the Fairies’ as well as of Annwn, and when the saint sprinkles him and his sumptuous court with holy water, all vanish leaving green mounds behind. By the mid-fifteenth century, also, English records survive which provide direct insights into popular culture, and the concept of the fairy realm had got there as well. From the 1440s and 1450s come reports of a vagrant claiming to be ‘Queen of the Fayre’ in Kent and Essex; a gang of disguised poachers in Kent calling themselves ‘servants of the queen of the fairies’; and of course the female service magician in Somerset, who claimed to have obtained magical powers from ‘spirits of the air which the common people call feyry’.69 The imported French word had already come to signify among English commoners, apparently in general, the beings that were known in their own language as elves.

During the late medieval period, also, further additions seem to have been made to British beliefs concerning the sort of beings who were now getting this name. There seems to be no certain record in any British medieval text, for example, of the tradition well attested in France and Germany during the high Middle Ages, that terrestrial spirits not only stole human children but substituted sickly or difficult offspring of their own (‘changelings’) for them. This belief does, however, appear unequivocally in a school handbook of model Latin translations published in 1519, and becomes a regular feature of first English and then British fairy lore thereafter. Another innovation was the appearance of ‘Robin Goodfellow’ as a particular name for a fairy-like being. This is first recorded as used by one of the correspondents of the Paston family in 1489, and in 1531 William Tyndale allotted this character a role, of leading nocturnal travellers astray as the puck had been said to do since Anglo-Saxon times and the goblin since the later medieval period. Reginald Scot, writing in 1584, aligned him with another long-established type of magical being, the household spirit who performs helpful practical tasks in exchange for reward: in his case bread and milk. Scot also, however, referred to Robin Goodfellow in another place as a ‘great bullbeggar’, who was once ‘much feared’, suggesting a more hostile nature for him: the attributes of such characters had not yet become precisely fixed.

It may be argued, therefore, that the concept of fairies which prevailed in early modern Britain formed between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, with the fourteenth representing the decisive period in its gestation. By 1400 it had become a stock component of most types of literature, across the island, and was also an established feature of popular belief, certainly in England and probably elsewhere. Although it drew on older images and ideas, its appearance was a distinctively late medieval phenomenon. There is a slight possibility that it had existed earlier in popular culture, while not making an impact on literature, but the tales about contacts between humans and magical beings recorded by writers between 1100 and 1250 seem to have reflected traditions and experiences which spanned the whole of contemporary society. The absence in those stories of such a generally shared construct, of a supernatural kingdom with recognized rulers and characteristics, is striking, and the evolution of one seems to be visible, through successive stages, in the succeeding period. The French word ‘fairy’ was transmitted to Britain through the medium of romances, and attached to the idea of a kingdom, before either word or concept appeared in popular belief, and the two were firmly linked by the time that such an appearance occurred. The idea of the kingdom itself was based firmly on distinctively elite forms such as chivalric romance and classical mythology. This sequence of development would explain, incidentally, why it came to be found throughout the parts of Britain penetrated by French literary forms – England, Wales and Lowland Scotland – but not the Gaelic cultural province. The Highlands and Western Isles had a widespread belief in beings very similar to fairies or elves – the sithean – but never gave them monarchs.70 It would also explain why nothing like the early modern British fairies is found in ancient European mythologies, and why they seem so different from the indigenous spirits of wood, water or the home also found in British folklore from the early modern and modern periods.

If these suggestions are correct, then the fairy kingdom was as much a late medieval development as the concept of the satanic conspiracy of witches, and may (almost certainly) join the wandering nocturnal hosts of the dead and (possibly) the nocturnal retinue of the Lady, as products of the Middle Ages rather than survivals from the ancient world. In this case, Carlo Ginzburg’s idea that the British fairy queen and the Continental Lady and wandering dead were all surviving fragments of the same prehistoric ‘substratum’ of pagan shamanism is no longer tenable. Emma Wilby’s emphasis on British fairy belief as a remnant of an ancient animist cosmos is still ultimately sound, as the Anglo-Saxon elves must surely have derived from that, but it misses out the vital component of development in beliefs concerning such beings during the medieval period.

Fairies and Witches in Scotland and England

A pair of unanswered questions remains concerning the role played by fairies in early modern British witch trials, centred upon the differences between the two kingdoms: why did fairies feature more often in witch trials in Scotland and why were they so much more strongly associated with dead humans there? It may be suggested at once that there is no easy answer to either; but a consideration of both may throw up some interesting viewpoints on early modern British cultures. The second is more swiftly treated. It is plain from the confessions that the people who were described as being with the fairies had suffered untimely, and often violent, deaths, making them Scottish equivalents of some versions of the Germanic ‘furious army’. Three possible reasons may be proposed for this. The first is that the tradition of the ‘furious army’ crossed the North Sea to Britain. This is possible, but there is no actual evidence for it, and the two traditions are not very alike and may have different points of origin. The second is that an association between elves and the dead was a feature of prehistoric northern Britain, and carried through into the early modern period. This is also possible, and might be given some greater plausibility in that both Scottish and Irish folk tales collected in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries show a common belief that people who had died prematurely had been taken by the fairies.71 We may be looking here at a primeval Gaelic myth. On the other hand, the people taken in these later stories are almost always young women, and a seventeenth-century source from the southern Highlands states that young mothers were abducted in particular to act as nurses in fairyland.72 The idea that the fairies played host to a much larger cross-section of the untimely dead was found, as shown, across the early modern Lowlands and, as will now be demonstrated, before then in England as well.

The third possibility is that the association between the fairies and the dead was rooted in the same medieval romances from which the word ‘fairy’ and the concept of a fairy kingdom developed. Its earliest manifestation there was in the belief that after his last battle King Arthur had been taken to the land of the fays, which developed out of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history in the 1140s. By the time of Sir Orfeo and Arthur of Little Britain, the fairy kingdom was (as has been said) identified with that of Pluto and Proserpine, classical rulers of the dead. This may have been partly because of the Arthurian tradition of the fays as hostesses to dead or lost heroes, and partly because of the idea, already apparent in the high medieval texts, that the home of fairy-like beings was underground, like Pluto’s realm. At the other end of the fourteenth century, Chaucer could likewise make Pluto and Proserpine monarchs of ‘faierye’.73 By contrast, the earliest Scottish texts to speak of fairyland, such as Thomas of Erceldoune, do not place any dead humans or Graeco-Roman deities there. That connection was only apparently made in the late fifteenth century, when once again the Orpheus legend enabled the identification of the fairy king and queen with Pluto and Proserpine, in the version of the story composed by the Dunfermline notary and schoolmaster Robert Henryson.74 His contemporary and fellow poet William Dunbar could likewise make Pluto ‘the elrich incubus / In cloak of green’.75 The association was firmly established by the early sixteenth century, when elite poetry could portray the court of the fairy monarchs as a desirable destination on death, where heroes and great medieval poets now resided.76

There is, therefore, a sustainable argument that the common source of the linkage between fairyland and the human dead lay in high medieval romance, and that it was transmitted across Britain, through that medium, in the course of the late Middle Ages. It took longer to reach Scotland, but having done so it not only became a literary motif but put down deep roots into popular culture, and may have lingered there in subsequent centuries in the reduced form of the idea that fairies abducted young women by making them seem to die, which spread to Ireland. In England, by contrast (according to this theory), it never became more than a literary concept, unlike that of the fairy kingdom, and vanished before the end of the medieval period. At least so the argument would run; but it is no more capable of proof than the other two, and by no means incompatible with them. It is possible, for example, that the Gaelic cultural province had a different and native tradition that the sithean carried off young women; or that Continental images of the hosts of penitent dead influenced the portrait of Pluto’s kingdom in Sir Orfeo. There is ultimately no decisive solution to the puzzle.

The other issue, of why fairies feature more in Scottish than in English witch trials, requires more extended consideration. A simple answer to it would be that Scots making accusations of witchcraft tended to think of demons as fairies and English equivalents tended to think of them as animals; but things are not quite as straightforward as that and, even if they were, the question would still be begged of why that was so. It will be confronted in the last chapter of this book. Another superficially easy solution might be that fairies were associated especially with service magicians, and the Scots tended to prosecute such magicians more frequently for witchcraft. It is not, however, clear that that was the case, and, if it were, the difference would seem to be one of slight rather than dramatic dimensions. A third prima facie answer is that the local Scottish political and social elites who controlled the nature of criminal trials came to regard fairies or elves differently from English equivalents. This can be tested from good evidence, and a conclusion reached upon it, and that exercise will now be undertaken.

In England, attitudes to such beings in the late medieval and early Tudor period took two forms, neither of which dominated the other. One, most prevalent in literary fiction, treated them as imaginary figures, representing varying mixtures of hedonistic pleasure, ideal beauty and menace. Those texts that dealt with apparent reality sometimes considered the possibility that the beings concerned could be demonic, but the overall tendency was to question their existence or to admit to doubt as to how they should be classified.77 Pre-Reformation Scottish attitudes were very similar. The first recorded, in Thomas of Erceldoune, suggested that the land of the ‘wild fee’ was subject to the Devil, who seized anybody who ate the fruit of a certain tree there and sent a fiend every seven years to carry off an inhabitant to Hell as tribute. It was made clear, however, that the ‘fee’ were not fiends themselves and that they had no affection for their satanic overlord.

In Scottish poetry of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, fairies were viewed in various different ways. ‘King Berdok’ made them creatures of whimsy, having a tiny hero who lives in a cabbage stalk or cockle shell, and woos the daughter of the ‘king of fary’.78 William Dunbar associated ‘ane farie queyne’ with ‘sossery’ (sorcery), but also explored images of fairy-like beings with a mixture of anxiety and attraction.79 Sir David Lindsay likewise repeatedly made his characters refer to the fairy queen or king in passing, with sentiments either of affection or fear; so attitudes to them varied even in the work of one writer, or indeed within a single poem.80 The Scottish Reformation does seem to have altered this situation decisively, towards a negative view. In a now famous poem by Alexander Montgomerie, from about 1580, the host of the ‘King of Pharie’ and the ‘elf queen’ includes overtly demonic figures such as incubi.81 Montgomerie’s monarch and patron was James VI, a formidable writer himself, who in the next decade condemned all apparent manifestations of the fairy realm as devilish delusions designed to ensnare souls: a perfect theoretical justification for the identification of fairies with demons that had been made, and would be made, in witch trials.82 After that it had to be more or less official orthodoxy to make that identification in Scotland. It cannot be concluded with certainty that views might have been more variable had better media for them existed there: had not Scots poetry apparently declined in the early seventeenth century or had a flourishing theatrical tradition developed in the period. None the less, the indications are not promising. In 1567, for example, a comic play was performed at the Scottish royal court, and it already made ‘the Farie’ an alternative destination to Hell.83 Post-Reformation Scottish culture does not seem friendly to fairies, and the hostility crossed confessional divides, as Montgomerie was a Catholic and so was the monarch for whom the play was performed in 1567, Mary Queen of Scots.

In England, by contrast, the Reformation provoked an intense new interest in fairy mythology, expressed in a great range of source genres. It was one aspect of a general increase among the English in interest in the nature and operation of superhuman entities during the period from 1560 to 1700, also manifesting – for example – in a new level of interest in demonology and angelology. It is especially significant for present purposes that this did not result in any consensus, let alone orthodoxy, concerning the nature of fairies or even their existence, but in a wide variety of attitudes expressed with more or less equal freedom.84 It is easy to find English writers between 1598 and 1675 who agreed with the Protestant Scots that fairies were demons pure and simple. William Warner included ‘elves and fairies’ among the spirits of Hell.85 John Florio, Thomas Jackson, Robert Burton, Thomas Heywood, William Vaughan and Henry Smith all likewise summed them up unequivocally as demons, or (more rarely) as deceiving phantasms produced by demons.86 A comedy staged in about 1600 included an evil enchanter who conjured them as servitor spirits.87Subsequently a much greater writer of comic drama, Ben Jonson, twice turned to demonic fairy-like figures for material. In The Divell is an Asse, he made the puck, the tormenting trickster figure of traditional folklore, into one of Satan’s lesser demons; though he also cast doubt on some charges of witchcraft by saying that women hanged for it took the blame falsely for the puck’s own misdeeds.88 In The Sad Shepherd, however, he brought on a thoroughly evil and malicious human witch, with true magical powers and servitor demons such as ‘Puck-hairy’, who also associates with ‘white Faies’ and ‘span-long elves’.89 It seems difficult to position these authors in any particular religious or cultural group: demonic fairies were certainly not specifically a belief of godly Protestants in England.

The evil conjuror in the comedy raises the question of how far fairy-like beings actually did feature in ceremonial magic in the late Tudor and Stuart periods, and it admits of a clear answer: while they were associated with service magicians working for a popular clientele from the early fifteenth century, they did not have the same position in elite ritual magic. The latter long remained true to its ancient and early medieval roots, calling on spirits who were in origin pagan deities and spirits or Judaeo-Christian angels. However, five manuscripts of this kind of magic, from the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, do include directions for the invocation and control of fairies, treating them as a distinct sub-class of spirits, while a published treatise includes extracts from a sixth.90 The purposes for which their services are to be obtained are generally whatever the magician wills, in common with other invoked spirits. This inclusion of fairies as such is new in texts of ritual magic, and must reflect the new intensity of interest in them in English society at large, something borne out by the records of individual learned magicians. John Dee recorded in his diary for 1582 that a ‘learned man’ had offered to ‘further my knowledge in magic . . . with fairies’, while Simon Forman subsequently noted down data concerning the powers of the fairy king.91 A woman accused of malefic witchcraft in 1618 claimed that her teacher of magic had offered ‘to blow into her a fairy which should do her good’.92

For those who wished to regard fairies as minor devils, their ancient reputation for afflicting humans with illness and misfortune made a very good fit; not least because it persisted into the early modern period without any necessary assimilation to Christian theology. William Shakespeare’s ‘no fairy takes, nor witch has power to harm’, is only the most famous of a number of casual references to it in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature.93 It also remained a live issue in everyday life, to which the persistence of charms against the ills which fairies were held to cause, and the mention of cunning folk who specialized in curing them, bear witness.94 Likewise, the apparently only recently imported belief that a human child could be stolen from its cradle and a changeling substituted is well attested in the English literature of the age.95 Autobiographical and legal records make clear that this had also become a genuine dread within English popular culture, although there is less evidence of one in Scotland or Ireland, even though it was to be very prevalent there in later periods.96

Thus far the fairy could be perceived as the object of a cultural consensus among literate English people, with mainstream authors demonizing the figure and magicians ignoring the exercise even as they ignored or discounted attempts to demonize the other beings they invoked. At this point, however, things begin to get more complex. Even people who were ready to class fairies as demonic often thought that they were somehow different from demons in general. The Elizabethan Mirror for Magistrates described a witch as commanding ‘fiends and fayries’, while a comedy from the 1580s includes a conjuration of ‘Robin goodfellow, Hobgoblin, the devil and his dam’.97 In the 1610s a character in a comedy by John Fletcher asked the protection of Heaven against ‘Elves, Hobs and Fayries . . . fire-drakes and fiends, and such as the devil sends’.98 In each case it is not clear how far all the places or beings described are to be equated or distinguished, and indeed ten years after writing that passage, Fletcher penned another play which described ‘Faeries’ cautiously as ‘demi-devils’.99 Most curious in this respect is an Elizabethan play, Grim the Collier of Croydon, which features Robin Goodfellow as a minor demon, sent from Hell to torment humanity, who none the less only acts against sinners and villains, while aiding the virtuous in their work and ambitions. The hero hails him gratefully as ‘one of the honestest merry devils that ever I saw’.100

There was, moreover, a completely different tactic used in England during the same period for the condemnation of a belief in or an affection for fairies and related beings, and it was one which more or less ruled them out as features of witch trials: that they were non-existent, being the products of a deluded and foolish human imagination. It was given especial potency in that it featured mainly as a Protestant polemic against Roman Catholicism, as fostering fairy lore as part of its general encouragement of ignorance and superstition. In 1575 the annotator of Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar called any literal belief in fairies a ‘rank opinion’ inculcated by ‘bald Friars and knavish shavelings’ to delude the common people.101 It was developed by a pamphleteer in 1625 with the assertion that householders were induced to leave out food and drink overnight for the fairy folk so that wandering friars could secretly consume it; and it recurred in other anti-Catholic polemics of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.102 Other Elizabethan and early Stuart authors declared, more generally, that belief in such beings should not persist in a land enlightened by the Gospel.103

Credulity was also undermined by authors of comedies that, while not disowning the fairy tradition in general, hinged plots on impersonations of fairies and similar beings, such as bugs and goblins, by human beings, or on pretended conjurations of them. Sometimes this action is undertaken by villains, and sometimes by heroes and heroines, but the aim is always to persuade gullible victims to part with their wealth or act against their natural inclinations. Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Jonson’s The Alchemist are the most famous of a series of these works.104 As scholars of them have long recognized, they were accompanied by well-publicized instances of real confidence trickery in which criminals attempted to part victims from possessions or sums of money on the pretence of introducing them to the fairy queen, and sometimes the king as well, who would allegedly grant them riches or other favours. There are three such cases listed in pamphlets and legal records between 1595 and 1614 alone.105 They must have further encouraged scepticism.

In addition, moreover, even the cultural elite among the post-Reformation English were capable of discussing fairies in positive and even admiring ways. To do so they drew on the medieval literary tradition of royal and aristocratic fays, who acted as protectors and advisors to heroic knights and lovers to noblewomen. This was kept very much alive by the enduring popularity of medieval romances in the post-Reformation period: indeed, the impact of these may have been enhanced by their publication in printed versions. Beyond doubt the most influential of these was Lord Berners’ translation of Huon de Bordeaux, which introduced many English people to the magician king Auberon, Anglicized as Oberon.106 By 1593 or 1594 this story had been made into a play, and in 1594 Oberon ‘King of Fayries’ became a gentle, kind and wise commentator upon the action in a new dramatic work by Robert Greene.107 Almost immediately, Shakespeare took him to much more enduring glory in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and thereafter he appeared in the work of Ben Jonson and the poet Robert Herrick, as well as that of lesser authors, keeping the same admirable character.108 The Elizabethans produced at least one brand new romance in the medieval tradition, Christopher Middleton’s Chinon of England, where the fairy king and his followers act as hosts, guides and helpers to the chivalric hero.109 More often they transplanted the spirit of the romances into new forms of literature, most famously in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Shakespeare redeployed the medieval tradition of combining the fays of romance with classical deities, to produce his king and queen, Oberon and Titania. As many have noted, he also made his fairies explicitly noble in nature, having Oberon clearly distinguish them from ‘damned spirits’ and they intervene to aid mortals despite the misbehaviour of the latter. The stealing of a human child is turned into an act of compassion for its dead mother, and, famously, Robin Goodfellow, crossed with the puck, is turned into a courtier of Oberon, whose tricks amount to no more than harmless mischief, used against those who do not treat him with respect.110

There was much about the fairies of the romance tradition that early modern elites could find attractive. They were, after all, natural monarchists and aristocrats, who led lives of opulence, leisure and frivolity unqualified by the ills that afflict mortals.111 As such, their appeal could indeed extend well beyond the elite: one did not need to be rich, beautiful and leisured to dream of a land in which all inhabitants were. Thus fairies could play a benevolent role in a popular chapbook like Tom Thumbe, which features a tiny human champion, brought up in poverty, who has the ‘Fayry Queene’ as his godmother and patroness.112 These traits could also make them obvious counterparts in allegory to real royalty, above all Elizabeth I. Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, from the 1590s, is of course the best-known work in this genre, at once flattering Elizabeth by making her the implied sovereign of his fairy land and keeping her from centre stage in the story, to avoid any close comparisons. Thomas Dekker could allow himself to be more precise in the next reign, in a Protestant allegory in which Henry VIII is Oberon and Elizabeth his successor Titania, fighting and defeating the hosts of the (Catholic) Whore of Babylon.113 Elizabeth herself regularly encountered people costumed as fairy monarchs (usually queens) and their retinues during her progresses during the 1590s, provided by aristocratic hosts to praise and entertain her with songs and dances. At other times she was saluted in poetry with a fairy theme. Spenser’s work may have encouraged this device, but it had first been employed long before, in 1575, and probably simply reflected the high profile of fairies at the time and the dramatic potential of having a supposedly superhuman monarch flatter a genuine one.114

Ben Jonson carried on the tradition into the next reign, composing a similar entertainment to greet James VI’s queen and eldest son when they visited Althorp House on arrival in England. He subsequently went further, to have Henry, Prince of Wales, himself personify Oberon in a court masque, with a retinue of Arthurian knights who have been ‘preserved in Faery land’.115 At all levels of English literature between 1550 and 1640, the inhabitants of that land could function as embodiments of hedonism, leading lives of joy unaffected by mortal cares, and summed up by their addiction to song and dance. As such they were a gift to poets writing English equivalents to classical pastoral lyrics, and in fact when translations of actual Greek and Roman texts were made in the period, nymphs and equivalent beings such as naiads and dryads were routinely rendered into English as ‘fairies’.116 They were also welcome to playwrights who wanted to introduce a musical interlude to relieve a plot.117 A subset of this tradition among authors of the period was to treat a belief in fairies and similar spirits, or indeed the actual existence of such beings, as a feature of a vanished and better time of honesty, simplicity and innocence: in this manner they had become by the year 1600 inhabitants of the recalled or imagined world of Merry England.118 John Selden summed up such a feeling with the comment that ‘there never was a merry world since the Fairies left dancing’.119

Yet another positive view of them expressed in England during the period developed from the older tradition of the household helper spirit, who, usually in return for a reward such as food and drink, would perform useful tasks overnight for the human inhabitants of a home. This particular refinement held that fairies rewarded people who performed their own household tasks neatly and punctually but punished the dirty and the lazy, often by pinching them while they slept so that they awoke bruised. This could certainly be a means of encouraging servants to better performance, but was a general incentive to cleanliness and diligence among those who carried out housework. It has a clear relationship with the Continental tradition, discussed in an earlier chapter, of troops of spirits who visited clean and orderly houses at night to bless them, but like the changeling motif it seems to appear late in Britain. It had done so by 1600, and rapidly became a fairly frequent literary motif.120 It also, however, came to represent a genuinely popular belief, remembered by John Aubrey in the Wiltshire countryside of his youth in the 1630s. It included the detail that fairies would leave coins overnight in the shoes of those who performed especially diligent housework, which sounds like an actual custom carried out by employers or members of families.121 One of the spirits who allegedly helped out with household jobs was Robin Goodfellow, who became from the 1590s a figure of morality, inspecting and commenting on the follies of the human race.122 By the 1620s he had developed into an ethical hero, son of King Oberon, who went about using his superhuman powers to aid people who had suffered wrong, and punish the wrongdoers.123

All these images illustrate how richly diverse were the ways in which the English regarded fairies in the late Tudor and Stuart periods, and especially between 1570 and 1640. Even in the case of individual authors the consequences could be complex and even contradictory: Shakespeare made them imposing and benevolent in one play, ridiculous in another, a vehicle for human fraud in another, and a danger comparable with witches in a fourth. None the less, this very diversity of attitude prevented the development of any consensus that they were either demons in themselves or delusions conjured by demons; and so of any clear role for them in witch trials of the Scottish sort. This was despite a common association of fairies with service magicians in both kingdoms. The contrasting attitudes of monarchs are significant: in Scotland King James condemned belief in them as submission to demonic tricks, while in England Queen Elizabeth was happy to be compared with their queen and to be saluted by players in their guise. Even more striking is the transformation wrought in James himself on inheriting Elizabeth’s crown: within a few years he could preside with apparent equanimity over an English court entertainment in which his son personified a fairy as a noble and admirable being. Nothing could sum up so dramatically the different impact made by the respective national post-Reformation cultures on what had been a relatively coherent late medieval construct of the fairy kingdom.

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