In the Miller’s Tale, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the author has carpenter Robyn pronounce this blessing over the student, Nicholas:
“I crouche thee from elves and fro wightes.”
Therwith the nyght-spel seyde he anon-rightes
On foure halves of the hous aboute,
And on the tresshfold of the dore withoute:
“Jhesu Crist and seinte Benedight,
Blesse this hous from every wikked wight,
For nyghtes verye, the white pater-noster!”
Robyn recites a standard formula, seemingly, blessing and protecting the house against both elves and ‘wights.’
What’s a Wight?
What is this strange term that is used as sort of equivalent to elves? A wight (wicht in Scots) can either be a human or some supernatural being, typically of the fairy family. Used to describe people like us, it will be encountered in such phrases as “living wight,” “earthly wight” or “mortal wight.” However, the word can also be found in such phrases as “uneardlie [unearthly] wights” (trial of Stephen Maltman, Gargunnock, 1628).
When applied to supernaturals, the term can encompass ghosts as well as a range of other spirits. For example, Robert of Gloucester (1260-1300) in his chronicle of English history described “As a maner gostes, wiȝtes as it be.”
The main significance, however, is fairies, as is clear from Richard Baxter’s The Certainty of the World of Spirits, published in 1625:
“We are not fully certain whether those Aerial Regions have not a third sort of wights that are neither Angels (Good or Fallen) nor souls of Men, and whether these called Fairies and Goblins are not such.”
What, more than the fact that we are discussing fairies, does the word tell us? Firstly, we might remark that ‘wightling’ means a puppet, so that there may be some sense of a tiny being implied. It does not appear, however, that the word in itself has any sense of either good or bad. Both types of fairy can be called ‘wights.’
Scottish witch suspect Bessie Dunlop, who was tried in 1576, had an intermediary, a deceased man called Thom Reid, who put her in touch with the fairies. One time he introduced her to a group of a dozen men and women whom he told her were “gude wychtis that wynnit [lived] in the Court of Elfame.” Another time he showed her a group of mounted men that were “gude wichtis that wer rydand [riding] in Middil-ȝerd [Middle Earth].” The Reverend Robert Kirk, in the Secret Commonwealth, referred to the fairies as “subterranean wights” and “invisible wights,” beings who caused a nuisance with their pranks but who were not malicious. (Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, c.12 & ‘Succinct Accompt’ c.8)
This situation is summarised in a traditional Scottish rhyme:
“Gin ye ca’ me imp or elf
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye call me fairy
I’ll work ye muckle tarrie;
Gind guid neibour ye ca’ me
Then guid neibour I will be;
But gin ye ca’ me seelie wicht
I’ll be your freend baith day and nicht.” (see my Fairy Ballads)
What’s fascinating about this is the distinction that’s made between “elf or imp,” which are bad, and a “seelie wicht,” a ‘good wight.’ These positive definitions are crowned by a reference in Gavin Douglas’ Aeneid to “hevinly wightis.” When Bartie Paterson of Dalkeith (tried as a witch in 1607) advised a patient to back up the ointment made of green herbs he’d been given with a prayer to Jesus and all “leving wychtis above and under earth,” we have to presume that Bartie believed those wights to be good and, for that matter, godly, beings.
Frustratingly, this neat dichotomy is illusory, because ‘wicht’ can imply a malign fairy just as much as a good one. Wicked wights are as likely to be members of the ‘unseelie court’ as to be benign. Emphasising how slippery and imprecise the usage can be, we have this remark from the trial of Margaret Sandiesoun on Orkney in April 1635 for witchcraft and sorcery. She was reported to have refused to try to cure a sickly child because “he was takin away be the guid wichtis in the cradle.” The baby has been abducted- so calling the fairies ‘good’ is clearly force of habit, and a nervous deference, and bears no accurate relationship to their actual behaviour.
We meet the seelie and unseelie court again in a lecture given by William Hay in 1564 in which he warned that:
“there are certain women who do say that they have dealings with Diana the queen of fairies. There are others who say that the fairies are demons, and deny having any dealings with them, and say that they hold meetings with a countless multitude of simple women whom they call in our tongue ‘celly vichtys’ [seelie wichts].”
For example, in 1661 a midwife from Dalkeith in Midlothian admitted that, when women were in childbed, she would place a knife under the mattress, sprinkle the bed with salt and then pray for God to “let never a worse wight waken thee…” A woman called Margaret Dickson of Pencaitland in 1643 treated a changeling child who had been taken by “evill wichts.” Edinburgh woman Jonet Boyman in 1572 explained to a family that their child had died because the “sillyie wichts” had found it unsained [unblessed] one day and had blasted it. Lastly, Gargunnock folk healer Stephen Maltman appeared before a church court in 1626 and admitted that he had told a woman how to prevent ‘earthly and unearthly wights’ stealing the milk from her cows.
The dual meaning of the term is underlined by the Reverend Kirk, who also wrote in his book about “fearful wights” and “furious hardie wights,” from whom people might protect themselves with iron. Writing around the same time as Kirk, George Sinclair in Satan’s Invisible World Discovered made reference to prayers for protection from an “ill wight.” (Kirk, Secret Commonwealth, chapters 15, 12 & 4)
Lastly, underlining all these negative associations, in 1836 Robert Allan in Evening Hours bravely declared: “O, what care I for warlock wights,/ Or bogles in the glen at e’en.”