Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Fairies and the Devil in Early Modern England

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Fairies and the Devil in Early Modern England

Article excerpt

In 1593, Thomas Churchyard, one of the least golden writers of the golden age of English poetry, published an account of a fantastical dream with "many significations". After meeting a fairy queen and enjoying a sumptuous banquet, the dreamer encountered a "troop of dames" who began to dance. Their revels were quickly dissolved, however, and the true nature of the dancers was revealed:

All hand in hand they traced on,

a tricksy ancient round:

And soon as shadows were they gone,

and might no more be found.

And in their place came fearful bugs,

as black as any pitch:

With bellies big and swagging dugs,

more loathsome then a witch.

The "hellish hags" held their circle, and turned their attention on the unfortunate dreamer. In a scene that echoed the first book of Spenser's Fairie Queene (1590), the spirits told him that he was abandoned by God and would be punished horribly for his many secret sins. Then they vanished into hell, "where foul fiends full far from bliss,/in torments still remain". The dreamer was left alone to contemplate his past misdeeds and gaze heavenwards in the hope of mercy.1

Churchyard's poetry has been mercifully neglected. But his portrayal of fairies as demons in disguise touches on a larger theme in the English Reformation: the attempt to reorder the world of spirits to conform to Protestant interpretations of scripture, and the resulting elimination, or reimagining, of beings such as fairies, hobgoblins, and imps. By the late sixteenth century, it was well established among reformed Christians that such "doubtful spirits" were figments encouraged by the Roman Church. In The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), Reginald Scot famously attributed the various creatures - or "bugs"-of popular belief to the influence of Catholic superstition.2 From a rather different perspective, the minister Henry Holland wrote in 1590 that "the fairies, the goblins [and] the hegs ... came unto the church with the rotten mist of popery".3 This image was echoed in 1603 by Samuel Harsnett, the future archbishop of York, who placed fairies and imps in the "popish mist" that "had befogged the eyes of our poor people".4 For these and many other late Elizabethan writers, the bugs of folklore belonged to the unreformed past - but their vestiges lingered unhealthily in the present. Thus, Holland claimed that fairies were "put to flight from amongst us not many years past", and hoped that "the remnants of these diabolical delusions be discovered and cut off" by the continued preaching of God'sword.5

If the fairies of traditional belief were not what they appeared to be, what was their true nature? The reformation of spirits radically simplified the supernatural world, but also introduced elements of deception. A strictly biblical model of the cosmos could not accommodate the activity of saints, ghosts, and "doubtful spirits"; it also needed to explain historical sightings of such entities, as well as reports of their continued appearances. In the case of fairies, at least two broad approaches were available: they could be dismissed as delusions or idle tales, or reinterpreted as demons. In her work on fairies in the 1950s, Katherine Briggs suggested that the latter course was often favoured.6 More recently, Diane Purkiss has claimed that for "godly Protestants, fairies were demons";and Peter Marshall has argued that "fairies were given an inevitable demonological twist" in the hands of reformed writers.7 In the context of witchcraft, Emma Wilby has noted the involvement of fairies in allegations of maleficium and the similarities between fairies and demons in some accounts of the witch's pact with the Devil.8

For early modern English Protestants, the range of possibilities was fluid. It was conceivable that fairies were sometimes figments of the imagination and sometimes demons in disguise. Moreover, the Devil could be involved in both phenomena. This was because Satan was believed to operate through both indirect and direct methods, and was prone to deceive the mind at least as often as the eyes. …

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