In his book Religion and the decline of magic Keith Thomas astutely observed that “Fairy faith has a social function, enforcing certain conduct” and that “Fairy beliefs could help to reinforce some of the standards upon which the effective working of society depended” (pp.730 and 732).
There were two main targets for these warnings- children and servants/ wives. The two groups shared subordinate social positions and could be the subject of rebukes and punishments. One vehicle for such chastisement was supernatural.
Then, as now, children from time to time needed to be told what was best for them. A fairy threat to enforce this, especially in situations when adults might be absent, was a valuable support to parents. A variety of risks and dangers were given fairy personality in the hope of instilling an awed respect and nervous caution. The perils given terrifying character included:
- rivers– for example ‘Peg Powler’ on the river Tees, who might drag incautious children from the banks under the waves;
- ponds– similar drowning dangers, as well as that of lawn-like mats of pond weed, were given identities: Jenny Greenteeth in Lancashire and Cumbria, Grindylow in Yorkshire, Nelly Longarms and the widespread Rawhead and Bloodybones. In East Anglia the ‘freshwater mermaid’ was especially well known. There are records of these perilous creatures in the River Gipping in Suffolk and in ponds, pools and meres at Fordham, Cambridgeshire and in Suffolk at Rendlesham and most notably at the Mermaid Pits, Fornham All Saints;
- unripe fruit in trees– to discourage theft and upset stomachs, infants were warned of Awd Goggie, Lazy Lawrence and the Colt Pixy in orchards; Churnmilk Peg and Melsh Dick guarded Yorkshire nut groves and the Gooseberry Wife, in the form of a huge caterpillar, lay in wait amidst the fruit bushes on the Isle of Wight;
- domestic store rooms– dangers in the home were protected by Tom Poker in Suffolk and Bloody Bones elsewhere.
Bogies also had the function of getting children to behave themselves and to go to bed. Amongst these so-called nursery bogies were Tankerabogus, Mumpoker and Tom Dockin.
Adults undertaking domestic duties would be chastened by fairy retribution too. The so-called ‘buttery sprites’ existed as the grownup equivalent to the creatures deployed to terrify children. A range of chores were policed by supernatural means. This theme is comprehensively summarised in the Fairies fegaries of 1635:
“And if the house be foule/ Or platter, dishe or bowle/ Up stairs we nimbly creepe/ And finde the sluts asleepe:/ Then we pinch their arms and thighs/ None escapes nor none espies./ But if the house be swepte/ And from uncleannesse kept/ We praise the house and maid/ And surely she is paid:/ For we do use before we go/ To drop a tester in her shoe.”
Servants were warned not to sit up late gossiping but to keep their houses tidy, floors and hearths swept and the embers raked up, dairies spotless and decked with mint, the shelves dusted, the benches wiped down and their pewter well scoured. Those “foul sluts” who neglected their chores did so on pain of physical punishment: they would be pinched black and blue all over, whilst the obedient and dutiful would be rewarded with a coin in a shoe or pail (see for example Thomas Churchyard, A handful of gladsome verses, 1592 or William Browne, Britannia’s pastorals, Book 1, song 2). Neglect of the proper domestic offerings to fairies- clean water, milk, bread and the like- led to infliction of the same penalties.
In summary then, fairy beliefs were not just a source of entertainment or explanation of puzzling events; they had a regulatory function.