Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church

Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church

Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church

Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church


In Elf Queens and Holy Friars Richard Firth Green investigates an important aspect of medieval culture that has been largely ignored by modern literary scholarship: the omnipresent belief in fairyland.

Taking as his starting point the assumption that the major cultural gulf in the Middle Ages was less between the wealthy and the poor than between the learned and the lay, Green explores the church's systematic demonization of fairies and infernalization of fairyland. He argues that when medieval preachers inveighed against the demons that they portrayed as threatening their flocks, they were in reality often waging war against fairy beliefs. The recognition that medieval demonology, and indeed pastoral theology, were packed with coded references to popular lore opens up a whole new avenue for the investigation of medieval vernacular culture.

Elf Queens and Holy Friars offers a detailed account of the church's attempts to suppress or redirect belief in such things as fairy lovers, changelings, and alternative versions of the afterlife. That the church took these fairy beliefs so seriously suggests that they were ideologically loaded, and this fact makes a huge difference in the way we read medieval romance, the literary genre that treats them most explicitly. The war on fairy beliefs increased in intensity toward the end of the Middle Ages, becoming finally a significant factor in the witch-hunting of the Renaissance.


For many pious Christians, as for the inquisitors of Joan of Arc,
this was a distinction without a difference. Fairies were demons,
plain and simple.

—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

On Trinity Sunday sometime around the year 1400 a sermon was preached in England containing an extended denunciation of popular superstition. Palmists, dream readers, pythoners, nigromancers, astrologers, and the makers of wax effigies were all quickly dismissed, and then the preacher turned to those who believed in fairies:

There are also others who say that they see women and girls
dancing by night whom they call elvish folk and they believe that
these can transform both men and women or, leaving others in
their place, carry them with them to elfland; all of these are mere
fantasies bequeathed to them by an evil spirit. For when the devil
has won over the soul of such a person to believing such things, he
transforms himself otherwise, now into the form of an angel, now a
man, now a woman, now other creatures, now in dances and other
games, and thus by the weak faith of their souls such wretches are
deceived. But those who believe in the aforesaid things, or stub
bornly defend them, or propagate them, especially when they shall
have learned the truth, are faithless and worse than pagans,
and four times a year they are cursed by the Lord and his holy
church…. They should know that they have forsaken the faith of
Christ, betrayed their baptism, and incurred the anger and enmity
of God.

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