A Medieval Faeryland Underground

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry– April

There is a fascinating glimpse of medieval English views of faerie to be found in a very unexpected place, a Middle English poem called A Disputison By-twene A Cristenemon and a Jew (A Disputation between a Christian and a Jew), which seems to have been written in South West England in the late 1300s.  The religious subject matter sounds unpromising and, given the date and period, the content is what we might expect- a sectarian attack on the Jewish faith and an attempt to convert the fictional Jew of the story (which is successful).

What interests us is that the two disputants are imagined to visit the Jewish heaven.  As the author essentially knew nothing of the Jewish faith (apparently not a disqualification from writing the text), he substituted the next best thing- his ideas on fairyland.  What is depicted, therefore, is how Faery was imagined in the late-fourteenth century.

So, in verse 10, we read that:

fforth heo wenten on the ffeld, To an hul thei bi-heold.

The eorthe cleuet as a scheld, On the grounde grene.”

(They went out into the fields to a hill they saw.  There the green ground broke open before them) .  This idea of a hill opening up to reveal the underground dwelling place of the fairies within, and in particular splendid halls and places of feasting, is very common to British literature and folklore.  In this case they are spared any long entry through tunnels or passages.  Instead, it is a short and comfortable stroll from the earth surface to their destination.

Sone fond thei a stih; thei went ther-on radly;

The Cristene mon hedde ferly, What hit mihte mene.”

(Soon, they found a path and followed it quickly, the Christian man wondering the while what it all might mean.)

After that stih lay a strete, Clene I-Pavet with grete.

Thei fond a maner that was meete, With Murthes ful schene, 

Wel coruen and wrouht, With halles heighe uppon loft.

To a place weore thei brouht, As paradys the clene.

(The path led them to a street, well surfaced with gravel.  They next came across a fine manor-house, full of pleasing delights, very well made and carved and with high halls.  They were brought to a place that seemed as pure as Paradise to them.)

In this hall there are birds singing joyfully and many rich furnishings of expensive cloths and precious metals.  The Christian man is especially impressed by the “Wyndouwes i the walle, Was wonderli I-wrouht.” (Well wrought windows in the walls)  He’d never seen as fine a place on the earth surface, certainly.

Outside this mansion there are wonders too.  “Ther was erbes growen grene, Spices springynge bi-twene” the like of which he’d also never seen.  A thrush was singing sweetly in the garden, amongst the fair flowers that were blooming.  In fact, he sees King Arthur’s round table there: “Hit was a wonderful siht.”  The relationship of Arthur to fairyland is well-established and is something I’ve examined before.

The pair are then invited to dine at a nunnery, where there are fine ladies and squires, all dressed in most fashionable and expensive clothes, and the two visitors agree to stay there and hear tell of adventures.  They wash and go to sit down at tables laid with clean, fresh cloths and:

Riche metes was forth brouht, To alle men that good thouht ;

The Cristen mon wolde nouht, Drynke nor ete.

Ther was wyn ful clere, In mony a feir Maseere,

And other drynkes that weore dere, In Coupes ful gret.

Sithe was schewed hem bi, Murthe and Munstralsy...”

(Rich foods were served, but the Christian man would neither drink nor eat, even though he was offered wine in fair goblets and other drinks in great cups, and there was mirth and minstrelsy in the hall.)  This, of course, is a classic idea: don’t eat the food whilst you’re in Faery or else you’ll never be able to get back.

After this, the story reverts to its anti-Semitic polemic, but it has nevertheless given us a fascinating little glimpse into late medieval fairyland.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry- January

Further Reading

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.

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “A Medieval Faeryland Underground

    1. The pictures are a little book called Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry- it was a little devotional book made for the duke so, given the time period, the artists’ names are lost to us. I found a small art book containing the pictures second hand about 30+ years ago, but I’m sure there must be modern versions.

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