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Magic and Medieval Fairies

 Richard Firth Green on October 12, 2016Speculation & Exploration  
Magic and Medieval Fairies
By: Richard Firth Green

When Samuel Gillis Hogan first invited me to use this blog to introduce members of the Societas Magica to my new book on medieval fairies, Elf Queens and Holy Friars (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), my first reaction was a rather odd one: it was to wonder what fairies, my fairies at least, had to do with magic. A moment’s reflection was enough to show me that while for most of my contemporaries fairies are considered archetypically magical--that is to say, Harry Potterish--creatures, for the last ten years or so I have been thinking of them as normal, almost mundane, inhabitants of the medieval imaginary. R.G. Collingwood in his posthumous Philosophy of Enchantment is at pains to show how everyday experience is flooded with magical thinking (indeed, if it were not so, he argues, magic would be incomprehensible), and it is just this kind of magic, magic taken for granted, as it were, that I had come to associate with medieval fairy beliefs.

If one accepts, as I am convinced that many non-lettered, and some lettered, people did in the Middle Ages, the premise that communities of humanoid creatures might be living on the fringes of the inhabited landscape and interacting with human beings from time to time, then there is nothing particularly irrational, let alone fantastical, in most medieval accounts of their behavior. Indeed, fairies provided a useful way of accounting for events that small closely-knit, traditional communities, might have found difficult to explain otherwise: the birth of an exceptional child (whether exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally clever, or at the other extreme afflicted with an exceptional disability), might be put down to the fairies, so too might an unattributed pregnancy (a priest’s bastard might be more acceptable to the community passed off as a fairy child); sudden, inexplicable wealth might be taken as a fairy gift, or the unexplained disappearance, whether of a child or an adult, as a fairy abduction; unexpected illnesses, too, or unpredictable meteorological disturbances, or failed harvests, all these might be attributed to fairy intervention. We, with the benefit of scientific hindsight, might regard this as magical thinking, but I can’t help feeling that our dismissal of medieval fairy believers as irrational is just one more instance of what E.P. Thompson called the “monstrous condescension of posterity.”

Of course, there are some elements of medieval fairy belief that are less easily rationalized; fairies, just like humans, might make love (or indeed war), and equally they might hunt, dance, wear beautiful clothes, or amass treasure, but unlike fairies, humans cannot change their shape, or size, or color, or make themselves invisible. But even the morphological instability of fairies is amenable to a rational explanation: how otherwise might fairy believers confute the skeptics who demanded physical proof of their existence? Or explain away the inconsistencies that must inevitably have arisen in stories about them that had been transmitted orally?

My attempt to characterize the quotidian nature of medieval fairy beliefs here has unfortunately marginalized Collingwood’s further point about the emotional foundations of all magic: “magical practices,” he writes, “are not utilitarian activities based on scientific theories whether true or false, but spontaneous expressions of emotion whose utility, in so far as they have any utility, lies in the fact that they resolve emotional conflicts in the agent.”  From this perspective, too, medieval fairy beliefs can be seen as magical. To take as an example the belief in fairy changelings (a belief often said, incorrectly, as I hope I show in my book, to be post-medieval): for utilitarians such a belief represents a pre-scientific method of accounting for children born with certain kinds of disabilities (“failure to thrive” is commonly cited); Collingwood, on the other hand, would no doubt have stressed the way it helped assuage maternal guilt, even offering mothers the comfort of believing that their “real” children were enjoying a pampered existence in fairyland.  The fantasy of a sexual encounter with a radiantly beautiful fairy queen, or seduction by a handsome fairy prince, offers another illustration of Collingwood’s emotionally-driven magic, as do certain kinds of voyages to fairyland.

It is only when we move from belief to practice, to human attempts to harness fairy agency, that we begin to approach what most of us would regard as magical activity (though Collingwood himself would have characterized this as a perversion of true magic). We know a fair amount about the activities of cunning men and women in the early modern period--of their claims to be able to enlist the help of fairies in curing diseases, or recovering lost objects, or finding hidden treasure, but much less is known about their medieval prehistory. This is not a topic I take up in any detail in my book (and I hope it is one that some members of the Societas Magica may find intriguing enough to investigate in the future), but I should like to make one tentative observation here. In general, the gender dynamics of popular fairy beliefs in the Middle Ages are complex, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they show a decided female bent (Morgan la Fée is a far more commonly cited figure than Oberon, for example). Whether this is because these beliefs have been recorded for us by witnesses who are commonly male, and hostile, is a more complex question. However, when we turn to the practical manipulation of fairy powers, the gender division becomes even more striking. To oversimplify somewhat, when undertaken by educated men this manipulation is regarded as a quasi-legitimate branch of natural philosophy; when undertaken by women, and uneducated men, it is dismissed as mere sortilege or witchcraft.

Two pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s great collection of Canterbury Tales exemplify this dichotomy perfectly. His swashbuckling Wife of Bath tells a story about an aristocratic rapist who is taught a lesson by a shape-shifting fairy, whereas his landowning Franklin tells of a reluctant woman tricked into making a sexual assignation by someone who employs the arts of a university-trained magician. Ironically, the Franklin mislabels his tale a ‘Breton lay,’ a term far more appropriate to the Wife of Bath’s tale (Breton lays were packed with fairies, and the greatest exponent of the genre was Marie de France, a female poet). Even more ironic, however, is the fact that it is not the transformative power of his Wife of Bath’s fairy that Chaucer calls ‘magyk natureel,’ but the spurious trickery of his Franklin’s university scholar. We see much the same masculine bias in medieval romances such as Partonope de Blois or Lancelot do Lac, where the supernatural powers of formidable fairies like Melior or Niniene are attributed to the training of male magicians (her father in Melior’s case, and Merlin in Niniene’s). The arcane early-modern spells, recently printed for us by Frank Klaassen and Katerina Bens, intended to help fantasizing males get beautiful fairies to sleep with them, might be argued to represent the apogee of this tradition!
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