Reading Minor White Latham’s Elizabethan fairies recently, I was struck by his argument that Tudor and Stuart conceptions about the race and colour of fairies might have been quite different our own assumptions. I’ve argued before that there’s a good deal of evidence of ethnic diversity in Faery Let’s not forget, for example, that in Midsummer Night’s Dream the fairy court has connections with the far east, Titania and Oberon disputing over a boy “stolen from an Indian king” whose mother was a “votaress” of Titania’s, the pair sitting together gossiping in the “spiced Indian air, by night.” Likewise, Milton in Paradise Lost imagined a “Pygmean race beyond the Indian mount.” African and Asian fairies ought not to surprise us at all, then, but Latham goes considerably further than this.
Masks for masques
The Tudors and Stuarts loved performing as faes in masques and plays, and to do so they put on masks. For example, in George Gascoigne’s 1565 comedy The Buggbears there’s reference to spirits played by actors in “visars like devills,” to going “a-sprityng with this face and that” and “buggbears with vysardes.” Latham’s argument is that the colour of these masks reflects conceptions about what he calls the ‘complexion’ of the fairies. A very good starting point for an exploration of this argument is Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.
In the Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare returned to a fairy theme for comic effect. Fairies often appeared on the English stage as a vehicle for cheating or tricking characters, and that is their purpose in this play. A plot is hatched to make a fool of Falstaff by dressing up some children as fairies and scaring him. Mrs Anne Page decides her daughter Nan, her young son and three or four more of his age group shall “dress / Like urchins, ouphs and fairies, green and white,” holding candles and rattles (IV, 4). Nan is to be the fairy queen in a white silk dress and it’s very evident from the line quoted above that the others will be wearing green and white too. Mrs Page’s friend, Mrs Ford, then says “I’ll go buy them vizards.” In a slightly later scene (IV, 6), in which the women go over their plans again, it’s agreed that the children should be “mask’d and vizarded.” They’ll be in disguise, then; their faces will be covered. As a consequence, when Falstaff is confronted by Nan as the fairy queen (V, 5) and she calls forth “Fairies, black, grey, green and white” there’s a good deal of support for Latham’s suggestion that these colours relate not to their clothes (which we already know about) but to the colour of their masks (faces).
Support for Latham’s contention comes from the text of a masque performed for Queen Elizabeth at Woodstock in 1575. The entertainment began with the monarch being approached by the ‘Queen of Fayry’ who presents herself by declaring that her love for Elizabeth had drawn her out of her woodland retreat and “caused me transforme my face/ and in your hue to come before your eyne/ now white, then blacke, your frend the fayery Queene.” Black and white were the colours of the English queen, but at the same time it did not appear to be considered odd that her supernatural counterpart might have a black face.
Red, black & white spirits
In light of these examples, I’d return to other evidence I cited for you in an previous post on red and white fairies, and argue more confidently that those citations weren’t descriptions of clothes but of skin colour. There are further examples to consider.
Reginald Scot in his Discourse concerning the nature and substance of devils and spirits mentions “white spirits and black spirits, grey spirits and red spirits” (c.33); in Macbeth the three witches meet with Hecate and “Like elves and Fairies in a ring” summon up “Black spirits.” The 1618 masque at Cole-Orton featured a character asking Puck about “ye faries, those little ring-leaders, those white and blew faries.” In his play, Monsieur Thomas, John Fletcher has a character attempting to conjure spirits of earth and air, whom he addresses thus: “Be thou black or white or green, be thou heard or seen.” (c.1637, Act V, scene 9) Lastly, Joan Willimot, accused of witchcraft in 1618, had a fairy woman called Pretty as her spirit guide, who would advise her on those who had been cursed. She told Joan that the Earl of Rutland’s son had been “stricken with a white spirit.” This is very suggestive of a white fairy, akin to those ‘white ladies’ who are often seen haunting springs or old houses.
All in all, it seems to me that we have pretty strong evidence for the fact that English people of the early modern period conceived of their fays as being quite alien in appearance- red, green, blue, grey, jet black and snow white.
An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse. See my books page for more information.