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.

 

 

 

Enchanted gardens (with fairies at the bottom)

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Cicely Mary Barker, The pine tree fairy, c.1940, Laing Art Gallery

I recently caught the end of an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, near to where I live in East London.  The theme of the show was ‘The enchanted garden’  but there was, unexpectedly, a strong fairy theme alongside the pictorial  paean to English garden paradises.

Amongst the pictures displayed were several of the original flower fairy illustrations by Cicely Mary Barker, which were a delight to see.  They were much larger than I might have anticipated.  There was also ‘A fairy’ by Lucien Pisarro and the delightful ‘Jorinda and Joringel’ a painting illustrating a scene from one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales by Mark Lancelot Symons, a painter who produced a number of fairy works and who deserves greater attention.

pisarro

Lucien Pissaro, The fairy, 1894

The convention is for us to imagine fairies in the countryside- dancing in meadows and on high moors- and leaving fairy rings behind- or secreted in woodland glades.  This is all perfectly correct: these are the secluded places where traditional fairy sightings have occurred and they have been reinforced in our imaginations by writers like William Shakespeare.  In the last century and a half, though, writers have also moved the fairy folk into (urban) back gardens.  They have become, perhaps, the outside equivalent of the domestic brownie.

Most famous for this must be Rose Amy Fyleman (1877-1957) whose first published work, There are fairies at the bottom of our garden, appeared in May 1917. She brought Faery right into the lives of her readers, imagining the fairy court assembling to dance behind the gardener’s shed and casting the imagined little girl reading the poem as the fairy queen herself.

Fyleman was not alone though in relocating fairies so much closer to home, nor was she the first to make the move.  English poet Philip Bourke Marston (1850-1887) repeatedly swapped between the ideas of fairies and flowers in gardens in poems such as Flower fairies, Garden fairies and Before and after the flower birth.  It’s never entirely clear whether they are real fairies or the spirits of flowers, for their silver laughter and singing are described, as are their “sudden scents.”

“Flower fairies- have you found them,
When the summer’s dusk is falling.
With the glow-worms watching round them,
Have you heard them softly calling?”

American poet Madison Julius Cawein (1865- 1914) also wrote extensively on fairy themes; in ‘Fairies’ he imagines Puck in a garden, travelling “Down the garden-ways … on a beetle’s back” whilst in Unmasked he too realises that the blooms outside his house are really fairies in disguise.  Lastly, another US poet, Arthur Peterson, in a verse entitled Halloween 1916 assembled Puck and the “blithe fairies”, who are the spirits of the summer flowers, to dance together to mark the coming of autumn with its frosts.

“… we came unto a garden,

Bright within a gloomy forest…

And I saw, as we grew nearer,

That the flowers so blue and golden

Were but little men and women,

Who amongst the green did shine.

But ‘twas marvellous the resemblance

Their bright figures bore to blossoms…”

Symons, Mark Lancelot, 1887-1935; Jorinda and Jorindal

Mark Symons, Jorinda and Joringel, Reading art gallery

Flower fairies- origins and meaning

gorse-flower-fairy

During the last hundred years or so, fairies have become intimately associated with flowers.  What I want to do in this post is to consider the evidence for such links in traditional folklore beliefs and to discuss how the idea has arisen that fairies are ‘nature spirits’ or ‘guardians of nature’ and have a particular mission to supervise the growth of flowers and other plants, in which work they may resemble bees or ants and are certainly of diminutive dimensions.

Shakespeare

Without doubt, one link in the chain connecting fairies to flora is literary.  Shakespeare perhaps initiated the trend with a the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  One is required to “hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear” (II, 1).  Of course, we have fairy Peaseblossom in the same play (III, 1) and Oberon’s well-known directions to help Puck find Titania:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight…” (Act II, 1)

In The Tempest Ariel, who sings “Where the bee sucks., there suck I”  The floral motifs are prominent, indicating a closeness to nature generally and the evidence of small statute is also present.  Robert Herrick and Michael Drayton took the matter of scale to extremes, though for reasons of pure fancy: I don’t believe that they sought to reflect any genuine traditions known to them.  British fairies are of a range of sizes, often adult height, quite often the size of children, much more rarely very small (the medieval English ‘portunes’ of just half an inch in height are an exception).

titania-sleeping

Richard Dadd, ‘Titania sleeping,’ 1841, The Louvre 

Herrick imagined a fairy loaf of bread as “A moon-parch’t grain of wheat” washed down with “A pure seed-pearle of infant dew/ Brought and besweetened in a blew/ And pregnant violet” (Oberon’s feast).  Drayton likewise envisaged a fairy palace “The walls of spiders’ legs are made … The windows of the eyes of cats” (Nymphidia).  The conceit of miniature fairies was sustained into the next century by other poets.  For example, in The flower and the leaf John Dryden imagined that a faint track “look’d as lightly press’d, by fairy feet” and William King, like Herrick, surveyed a fairy supper:

“What may they be, fish, flesh of fruit?/ I never saw things so minute./ Sir, a roasted ant is nicely done,/ By one small atom of the sun./ These are flies’ eggs in moonshine poach’d/ This a flea’s thigh, in collops scotched.” (Orpheus and Eurydice)

rowan

Tiny fairies

Increasingly, then, the convention prevailed that fairies were minuscule, but neither in literature nor in folk tales was there any deep attachment to plant life.  As described when discussing fairy clothes, fairies most often were attired in green, which may well be symbolic of growth, but there is still scant suggestion of any special purpose as ministers of Mother Nature.  There are quite a few indications of fairies inhabiting trees.  There is the Old Lady of the Elder Tree whom I have mentioned in discussing my book  The Elder Queen; from the Outer Hebrides comes a story of a fairy maiden who inhabits a tree on a knoll, once a year appearing to dispense ‘the milk of wisdom’ to local women (L. Spence, British fairy origins pp.101 & 186); also from the Highlands and Western Isles we hear a report of ‘tree spirits’, green elves who are often seen in woodland (Spence p.100).  This is about as good as it gets in British tradition.  Lewis Spence in chapter VI of British fairy origins examined the theory that fairies derived from ‘elementary spirits’ and summed up “all nature spirits are not the same as fairies; nor are all fairies nature spirits.” (p.110)  He further stated that “it is a notable thing that in Great Britain and Ireland the nature spirit remains to us in vestigial form only.  To make a list of British nature spirits as known in our islands today is very … difficult… I can think of no genuinely English earth or tree spirits.” (p.113)  He blames homogenisation into “the common hill-fairy, the standard elf of folk-lore.” (p.114)  On the matter of flowers, s I have described before, there are flowers that are believed particularly to repel or to attract fairies, but the surviving stories do not conceive of fairies living within or overseeing the growth of any flowers.

elder

How then do we explain the rapid ascendancy of the flower fairy?  I think that occult science and mystical philosophy are the source; flower fairies are a product of the thought of Paracelsus and Pseudo-Dionysus.  They are nature spirits, part of a ‘celestial hierarchy,’ and are derived from a system of thought very different to native custom.  I shall examine this theme further in due course.

Further reading

Other posts on the natural associations of fairies cover such issues as wood elves, fairy plants and ‘eco-fairies.’

 

‘Peaseblossom and mustard seed’- fairy plants

okun

‘Mother mushroom and her children’ by Edward Okun.

A range of plants have fairy associations, both good and bad.  It is convenient to divide them into three broad types for our discussion.

Trees

We commonly conceive of elves and fairies living in woodland, whilst certain specific tree species have strong links to fairies.  Thorn trees are magical throughout Britain and Ireland.  For instance, Northumbrian fairies are said particularly to prefer dancing around thorns.  From across the border comes a Scottish story of a man ploughing a field who made a special effort to protect an old hawthorn, known to be a fairy meeting place- by leaving an unploughed circle of turf around it- was rewarded with a fairy banquet and a life time’s luck and wisdom in consequence.  I have mentioned before the Old Lady of the Elder Tree as well as the special status of oaks as places for dancing or even as homes.  In The discovery of witchcraft of 1584 Reginald Scot listed the many different types of fairies with which mothers would scare their children (Book VII, chapter XV).  He included “the man in the oke,” a supernatural whose characteristics and habits are now almost entirely lost to us.

rowan

Rowan trees, in contrast, repel fairies.  Rowan set over your door will allow you to watch the fairies riding past without being drawn into their procession and a rowan cross worn about your person will prevent the fairies seizing you.  Both gorse and holly acted as protective barriers to fairies around a home, although it has to be confessed that they keep out humans just as well!

cowslip

Flowers

Today we tend to think immediately of flower fairies, but there is a much older and richer lore of flowers associated with fairies.  Fairy blooms include yellow flowers such as cowslips, broom, primroses and ragwort; the stems of the latter are used like witches’ broomsticks.  Blue bells are protected by fairies, and lone children picking them in woods risk being abducted. Fox gloves are known in Wales as menyg ellyllon, elves’ gloves.  The fairies also favour red campion, forget-me-not, scabious, wild thyme and, more unusually, tulips.

A strange tale from Devon describes how pixies near Tavistock loved to spend their nights in an old woman’s tulip bed and the flowers thrived from their beneficial presence.  When she died her flower bed was converted by the next residents in the cottage to growing parsley and the pixies blighted it.  An unknown plant was used by Dartmoor fairies to heal a servant maid they had previously lamed for refusing to put out water for them at night.  In a similar dual role, it is said that foxglove juice can expel a changeling and cure a child who is suffering from ‘the feyry’- that is, one who has been elf-struck.

The primary protective plant against fairies is St John’s Wort, although verbena is also effective.  I have discussed two other very important fairy plants separately: fern seed can confer invisibility whilst four-leaf clovers can dispel glamour.

primrose

Fungi

The link between fairies and the fairy ring where they are alleged to dance is very well established, but the associations go deeper.  Fairy butter (y menyn tylwyth teg) is a fungus found deep underground in limestone crevices and elf food (bwyd ellyllon) is a poisonous toadstool.  In Northumberland, fairy butter is a soft orange fungus found around the roots of old trees.

The linking of fungi with goblins and elves is well known and of longstanding. Perhaps it partly derives from the dual nature of the mushrooms- they may be edible or poisonous. They are, of course, linked to fairy rings and indicate where the elves have been dancing. One of these is the ‘Fairy Cake Hebeloma’, which is poisonous; another is the highly edible Fairy Ring Champignon.  The sudden appearance of toadstools may seem magical and mysterious.  Their red colouring (for the traditionally red and white spotted fly agaric toadstool) may link them to red fairy clothes whilst their diminutive size may also explain the connection. Robert Herrick in his poem Oberon’s feast imagines “A little mushroom table spread” for the tiny fairy diners and in The fairies’ fegaries “Upon the mushroome’s head/ Our table cloth we spread.”

Puff balls have been called ‘Puck’s fist’ and, in his Fairy mythologyKeightley suggests that ‘Elf’s fist’ was an old Anglo-Saxon name for the mushrooms found in rings.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins relates a Breconshire belief that gifts of fairy bread by the Tylwyth Teg, if not eaten immediately in darkness, will prove to be toadstools in the daylight.

BAL4208

Further reading

In other postings I examine the magical properties of fern seed, I look closely at fairy rings, I discuss the use of clover in the famous green fairy ointment and I consider the ‘flower fairy‘ cult.