Green children and fairy maids- The medieval roots of British fairy traditions

portunes

I have just finished reading Professor Ronald Hutton’s new book The witch.  As is obvious from the title, this is an in-depth study of witches and witchcraft from ancient times up until the close of the witch trials in the seventeenth century.  In fact, it is more of a work of historiography, surveying the research and theories of other scholars, than a pure history of the subject.  Chapter 8 concerns witches and fairies- hence my interest; I have written on this before myself on this about the relationship between fairies and witches and in my book British fairies.

Hutton considers the links between local magicians and healers and the fairies; he also gives an outline of the evolution of British fairy lore as crystallised in its fullest form in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  It is his sketch of the development of the mythology that I wish to examine in this posting.

Medieval fairy faith

Hutton proposes that there were seven key elements to British fairy belief in the middle ages.  These all seem to have been in place by 1200 at the latest, but it is reasonable to suppose that they originate a good deal earlier, perhaps even pre-Conquest (see for this my posting on Anglo-Saxon elves).  The main twelfth century sources are a verse history of Britain composed by Layamon (c.1200), chronicles written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died 1200) and William of Newbury (1136-98- and who is also called Newburgh and Newbridge), De nugis curialium by Walter Map (1140- 1210), the tour of Wales by Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) and Otia Imperialia by Gervase of Tilbury (1150-1228).  These contain various ‘fairy’ stories and accounts of recent supernatural events and encounters.

These key fairy-lore features are as follows:

  • the fairies inhabit a parallel world- several stories illustrate this.  The underground realm of fairyland is visited in the stories of Elidyr and King Herla whilst the Green Children of Woolpit stray into rural Suffolk from there.  A notable feature that is several times mentioned is the curious half-light that prevails in faery; there is neither sun nor moon, but a dim luminosity like torchlight;
  • they have the ability to enter our world and steal children– Ralph of Coggeshall’s story of ‘Malekin’ demonstrates this.  She was stolen by the fairies from a cornfield where her mother was working during harvest; rather like a ghost she could contact the human world but not return to it;
  • there are portals to faery- in the account of Elidyr he enters fairyland by a river bank; in King Herla it is a cave in a cliff; the Green Children follow a long tunnel that leads them out of ‘St Martin’s Land.’  William of Newbury locates a fairy feast under a barrow, a quintessential fairy locale;
  • beautiful fairy women– they dance at night and will sometimes wed humans– but always subject to conditions that are inevitably broken.  The story of Wild Edric epitomises the irresistible beauty of the fairy bride and her unavoidable loss (see later).  In Layamon’s Brut the lovely elf queen Argante takes Arthur to Avalon after the battle of Camlann to heal and care for him.  Readers may also recall the ‘aelfscyne’ or elf-bright women of Saxon myth I have described before in my post on  Anglo-Saxon elves.  Lastly,  there is evidence suggesting that the fairy women could have their own independent sexuality (or be loose and lustful to medieval minds) as well as being beautiful.  There are menacing accounts in thirteenth century sources of elf women visiting men at night as succubi.  The sister of the Green Children grew up, it was said, to have quite lax morals- an indicator perhaps of her fairy birth (although one might equally suggest that her conduct was a reaction to the shock of becoming an orphan and a refugee);
  • green colour- the Green Children at Woolpit emerged into this Middle Earth green tinged and would only eat green beans at first, although their colour faded as their diet changed;
  • the fairies can bless or torment humans- according to the historian Layamon, King Arthur was blessed by elves at his birth (our earliest fairy godmother account). Conversely, Gervase of Tilbury tells of a fairy horn stolen by a hunter in Gloucestershire.  It brings with it bad luck and the man is executed for his theft; and,
  • they may live in human homes- Gervase of Tilbury tells of the ‘portunes’ who closely resemble brownies.  They work on farms, doing any work required however hard; they serve the household but never injure them and, at nights, they enter the house and cook frogs on the fire.

argante

Queen Argante

British tradition

These are Hutton’s seven core aspects of British fairylore.  From the medieval accounts I think we can add at least eleven more:

  • time passes differently in faery- when King Herla returns to the human world he is warned not to step from his horse until a small dog given to him has leaped to the ground.  A couple of his retinue forget this and dismount from their steeds; they instantly crumble to dust for he has been away several hundred years, although to him it seemed but hours.  It is said that he and his company are still riding, waiting for the dog to jump down.  The story of Malekin also has a typical feature: she has been seven years in fairyland, she says, and must remain another seven before she may return home.  Seven is a common magic number in faery measurements of time.  A delay of a year between events is also seen.  King Herla celebrates his wedding and, a year later, visits the king of faery to celebrate his.  The same commitment to meet a year later also appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight;
  • feasting– is a major fairy fairy pastime, as in the stories of King Herla and the account by William of Newbury of a fairy cup stolen from a banquet under a barrow;
  • mischief- although generally benevolent, the portunes do like to play tricks on humans by leading their horses into ponds when they are out riding at night.  A thirteenth century sermon also speaks of  ‘all such ben led at night with gobelyn and erreth hither and thither’.
  • diminutive size– clearly some fairies, such as the fairy maidens and wives, approach normal stature; nonetheless, the portunes are said to be only a half inch high (probably a mistake for half a foot/ 6″) and the fairies in King Herla are described as apes, pygmies, dwarves and half human size.  The fairies met by Elidyr are likewise small, but by contrast the Green Children, the fairies under the barrow seen in William of Newbury’s story and the bearers of the fairy horn in Gloucestershire are all of normal proportions.  At the other extreme, indeed, the fairy maidens seen dancing by Wild Edric described as being taller and larger than human women;
  • marriage subject to conditions- as mentioned above, fairy maids will wed human husbands, but there is always a catch.  In Wild Edric the hero was warned never to mention her sisters; of course, he did, and she promptly left.  Walter Map described the experience of Gwestin of Gwestiniog, who captured a fairy wife at Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons (De nugis II, xi).  She lived with him and raised a family, but he was told never to strike her with a bridle.  Eventually, accidentally, this happened and forthwith she and all but one of the children disappeared.  This is the first of many such stories from Wales;
  • warnings– Gervase describes the ‘grant’ which is a foal-like creature which warns villagers of fire;
  • honesty & keeping promises is vital in fairy morality.  This an element in King Herla (and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); it is also seen in the story of Elidyr, who reported that the supernatural people he met never took oaths and abhorred lying;
  • fairies disappear at will (as in the story of King Herla) and generally remain invisible to normal human sight (as with the changeling Malekin).  This concealment can be overcome in two ways.  A person might apply a magic ointment.  Gervase of Tilbury mentions this in an account of the dracae water spirits of Brittany.  It is a regular feature of later British fairylore and may either have been imported from Brittany or may share the same ‘Celtic’ origin. Alternatively, it may be possible to obtain the second sight through contact with a ‘seer.’  This again is a feature of later lore (see Evans-Wentz for example) but in the life of the hermit Bartholomew who lived on the island of Farne in the late twelfth century the saint is told that he may see swarms of demons by placing his foot upon that of another, so that it seems this technique had a long pedigree;
  • foreknowledge of events- this supernatural power is mentioned in the story of King Herla;
  • a liking of dairy products- in Gerald of Wales’ account of Elidyr’s childhood visits to fairyland, he mentions their vegetarian diet and their preference for junkets.  This later became a significant theme in Elizabethan literature; and,
  • they may need human help, especially at child birth.  Gervase of Tilbury’s story of the Breton dracae also features the theme of the midwife to the fairies, later a regular element in many fairytales.

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All of these characteristics will be recognised in later fairylore and all have been described in previous postings and in my book British fairies.  However, Ronald Hutton suggests that what we would recognise as the British fairy tradition didn’t fully emerge for another 300 years or so, and that it depended upon the assimilation of continental motifs.  He suggests two in particular that were late arrivals in British folk belief:

  • the changeling idea- the idea of substituting a fairy for a human child is, he proposes, an import from Northern Europe.  As we have seen with the story of Malekin, the risk of fairies stealing human children was already well established in Britain at an early date, as was a close affinity between fairies and children- witness the Green Children or the story of Elidyr.  It is not entirely clear then whether we simply lack the evidence of the substituted stock or aged elf or whether this was indeed a last detail borrowed from abroad and added to the established tradition;
  • visiting houses and dairies at night, rewarding the clean and neat and punishing the dirty.  Hutton believes that this derives from continental myths of the good company of ‘the lady’ who could bring blessings to homes.  He may be right in this, but again many of the elements for this belief were plainly already in place- the presence of portunes in some homes and the liking for milk and cream- so that it needed little external influence for the ideas to coalesce; and,
  • fay maids–  Hutton proposes that these beings were inspired by literature.  It is quite true that chivalric romance is full of magical, semi-human women such as Morgan le Fay, but as we have already seen they were well known to British audiences at a much earlier date and may have contributed to Arthurian legend just as well as being derived from it.

On the evidence I have set out, I am inclined to think that the British fairy tradition evolved in recognisable form a good deal earlier than Professor Hutton suggested, although it seems incontestable that continental influences may have helped to refine and emphasise certain themes.

“Cakes & cream”: more thoughts upon the fairy diet

fairy mab fuseli

Queen Mab, by Henry Fuseli

Staying recently on the Devon/ Cornish border, I found an entry in the accommodation guest book from a previous guest.  He had visited a local holy well that is protected by a benign elf, he said, before going on to observe that fairies are veggies and that we should look after the cows grazing on all sides of the cottage.  This set me thinking (about fairies, not cows); what’s the evidence for this assertion?  Are fairies vegetarian, or is this just modern wishful thinking, to fit with prevailing views of fairies as protectors of the environment?

Evidence

There are two very early sources that suggest that fairies avoid meat:

  • the Green Children of Woolpit in Suffolk, when first found in the early 12th century, were pale, their skin tinged green, and for some time after their discovery they would only eat raw green beans, refusing bread and other food;
  • Gerald of Wales (1188) tells the story of Elidyr who visited fairy land in his youth.  He claimed that these little people “never ate flesh or fish” and instead lived upon various milk dishes, made up into junkets and flavoured with saffron.

The fairy preference for dairy products was well known in Elizabethan folk lore.  Queen Mab loved junkets according to Milton (a junket is a mixture of curds and cream, sweetened and flavoured).  Ben Jonson has her consuming cream, too, and Brownies are conventionally rewarded for their housework with bowls of cream or milk.  The fairies are also known to bake cakes and bread and to drink cider and wine.  There is good evidence, then, that fairies prefer a vegetarian diet, though not a vegan one.

Fairy hunting

However, there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the sources.  Elidyr also told Gerald that the tiny beings he met kept horses and greyhounds.  The latter are hunting dogs and the elves were plainly equipped for the chase.  In the poem Sir Orfeo the hero meets the king of fairy when he is out hunting wild beasts with his hounds; the king is also said to hunt wild fowl, such as mallards, herons and cormorants, with his falcons. The Gabriel Hounds of Lancashire are fairy dogs; they are also called Gabriel Ratchets, a ratchet being a hound that hunted by scent rather than by sight.  The pursuit of all this game was presumably for some purpose other than mere sport.  We have to assume that the deer, boars and birds that were caught were all eaten and that these particular fairies were very far from veggie.  The bwca living on the beach at Newlyn in west Cornwall were given a share of the catch by local fishermen and they were doubtless expected to eat those fish. The Highland water horses, the cabaill ushtey and the each uisge, both carry off and consume cattle and children, as does the Welsh afanc.  

Each-Uisge

Each uisge‘ from Villains Wiki

What are we to conclude?  The folklore evidence is not unanimous, but then it seldom is.  There are different sorts of fairy and each will naturally have its own tastes and preferences.  Nonetheless, there is clearly a very old strand of belief that some fairies eat a limited diet excluding flesh, perhaps as an indicator of their otherness or of their sympathetic links to the natural world.

“The Green Islands of the Ocean”- fairy isles

llyn

view of Snowdon from Llyn y Dywarchen

“I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore”

W. B. Yeats, The white birds

Throughout Britain, fairyland has been conceived as a separate country, with its own landscape, rivers, agriculture, buildings and climate.  This belief was especially strong in England and Wales during the Middle Ages (see for example the stories of Elidyr and the golden ball or of The green children of Woolpit).  Steadily, the fairies’ realm tended to shrink, until they were squeezed into the corners of our world.  In some parts of Wales, though, the idea persisted in slightly altered form: Faery moved off-shore, so that it remained credible and occasionally visible, but rarely accessible.

Magical islands have a pedigree in Wales.  Gerald of Wales described a lake atop Snowdon which was notable for its floating islet (Book II, c.9).  Ever rational, he suggested that it was a piece of shore broken off but bound together by roots and buffeted back and forth by the winds at high altitude.  For Gerald, the wonder lay in the topography itself, but in a later tale a fairy dimension was added.  A maiden of the Tylwyth Teg had to separate from her human husband, yet she still contrived to see him from time to time, sitting on a buoyant turf whilst he sat of the shore of Llyn y Dywarchen (Rhys Celtic folklore, p.93).

Floating islands were not unique to inland waters.  In 1896 a sea captain reported seeing an unmarked isle, just below the waves, near to Grassholm in the Bristol Channel.  He said he had heard tell from old people of just such a land, that rose and fell periodically (Rhys pp.171-172).  This was reported in the Pembroke County Guardian and, indeed, it was from Dyfed (Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen) that the stories of supernatural realms offshore came.  These lands were called ‘Green Spots of the Floods’ and the ‘Green Meadows of the Sea’ or ‘Gwerddonau Llion.’   There was also a similar belief from across the channel in Somerset; there the mysterious isles were called ‘The Green Lands of Enchantment.’  Their exact location was not fixed and it is unclear how many enchanted isles were thought to exist between St Davids and the Lleyn peninsula, but there were consistent reports of sightings of verdant lands which appeared and disappeared from time to time.

grassholm-1-vw-copyright

Grassholm

One account stated that an island off Milford Haven was reached by a tunnel.  The fairies used this to attend the markets at Laugharne and Milford (Sikes British goblinspp.9 & 10; Rhys p.161).  Comparable is a lake island at Llyn Cwm Llwch in the Brecon Beacons, which could be reached by a passage leading from a shoreline rock.  However, this rock only opened once a year whilst the ‘garden of the fairies’ amidst the waves was invisible unless you stood in the correct spot (Rhys pp.20-22).  It may be noted too that little clumps of flowers growing in inaccessible spots on the cliffs near Land’s End were known as the ‘sea piskies’ gardens.’

Returning to the coastal isles, they might only be seen by standing on a particular piece of turf- from St David’s churchyard or from Cemmes (? Cemmaes, near Machynlleth, although this is some miles inland and surrounded by hills?)  As soon as contact with the sod was broken, the vision was lost, so that the only sure way of reaching the islands was to sail with a piece of turf on board (Rhys pp.161-72 & Wentz Fairy faith p.147); otherwise, the islands would be invisible to the boatmen.  Such voyages were dangerous, though, as fairy time notoriously passes much more slowly than on land.  Generations might lapse in what seemed like mere days for the island visitors.

The residents of these elusive lands were the Tylwyth Teg, more specifically the Plant Rhys Dwfn– the children of Rhys the Deep.  His wisdom lay in protecting his land with magic herbs and in the strict moral code of honesty and good faith observed by his descendants (Rhys pp.158-160).

Magical islands are not uniquely a Welsh notion: The Reverend Robert Kirk in chapter four of his Secret Commonwealth mentions that faery may be “unperceavable … like Rachland and other enchanted isles.”  The motif of the enchanted isle is ideal for fairyland: it is a place that is periodically visible, familiar but enticing, near but always out of reach.  Only the very fortunate or clever may be able to see it, so that its reality or illusory quality are very hard to prove.

Fairy language

elvsh.

What language do fairies speak?  If we were to ask  J. R. R. Tolkien and his many admirers, we would of course be advised ‘Elvish’- the languages of Quenya and Sildarin that Tolkien forged out of Finnish and Welsh.  These languages are fascinating intellectual feats, but they are modern, academic inventions; they do not reflect our predecessors’ views on the matter.  What does folklore have to tell us about elvish speech?

Local dialect

The normal rule is that fairies will speak the same language as their human neighbours. Reverend Kirk states this explicitly in The Secret Commonwealth (section 5).

“Their Apparell and Speech is like that of the People and Countrey under which they live: … They speak but litle, and that by way of whistling, clear, not rough. The verie Divels conjured in any Countrey, do answer in the Language of the Place; yet sometimes the Subterraneans speak more distinctly than at other times.”

John Rhys relayed a story of a mermaid from North Wales in which the reporter observed sceptically “we do not know what language is used by sea maidens … but this one, this time at any rate, it is said, spoke very good Welsh” (Brython, vol.1, p.82).

This situation is to be expected, in that communication would otherwise be very difficult- if not impossible- and interaction very much reduced.  Most of our fairy tales are founded upon intercourse between humans and fairies, so that mutual intelligibility is vital.  The ability to converse means that humans may overhear or engage in conversations (Wentz Fairy faith pp.96, 101, 10, 110, 140 & 155) and also may hear or even participate in songs (Wentz pp.92, 98 & 112). It follows then that the fairies speak the local language or, even dialect.  They speak Gaelic in the Highlands, Welsh in Wales and English in England- and going further an Exmoor fairy sounds just like a Somerset peasant (Ruth Tongue, County Folklore, vol.VIII, p.117).

Tone of voice

Given a widespread belief that some fairies at least were of smaller stature than the human population, they have voices to match.   Kirk has already implied this, but other sources are clearer on the point.  At Gors Goch, Cardiganshire, little beings came to a farm house at night asking for shelter in “thin, silvery voices ” (Wentz p.155).  The pixies encountered on Selena Moor, near St Buryan, were said to have squeaked with little voices (Briggs, Dictionary, p.142).

Jabbering talk

Much of British fairy-lore depends upon the ability of humans and supernaturals to have contact and to form relationships.  Nevertheless, the fairies’ speech is sometimes said to be incomprehensible or, even, not to resemble human speech at all.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins recorded that Thomas William of Hafodafel, Blaenau Gwent, met a fairy procession and “heard them talking together in a noisy, jabbering way; but no-one could distinguish the words.”  Other witnesses from Wales state the same: “they did not understand a word that was said; not a syllable did they comprehend…” whilst in another couple of encounters we are assured “it was not Welsh and she did not think it was English” (John Rhys, Celtic folklore, pp.272, 277 & 279).

John Aubrey told a tale of his former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, who in 1633 came across a “faiery dance” (a green circle on the grass of the Wiltshire downs) and saw there sprites who were “making all manner of odd noyses.”  They objected to his intrusion and swarmed at him, “making a quick humming noyse all the time.”  Lastly, a nineteenth century account from Ilkley of fairies surprised bathing tells that they were “making a chatter and jabber thoroughly unintelligible.”  The noise, it was said, was “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” (Briggs, Tradition, pp.133-4).  These latter descriptions bring to mind small, insect-like beings, perhaps.

Elidyr’s story

Finally, we must note the very curious tale told of Elidyr by Gerald of Wales.  Elidyr, as a boy, was one day escorted into an underground realm and subsequently spent much time there with the fairies. Years later, as a priest, he told his tale and, in particular, that:

“He had made himself acquainted with the language of that nation, the words of which, in his younger days, he used to recite, which, as the bishop often had informed me, were very conformable to the Greek idiom. When they asked for water, they said Ydor ydorum, which meant bring water, for ydor in their language, as well as in the Greek, signifies water, from whence vessels for water are called ydrie; and dwr also, in the British language, signifies water. When they wanted salt they said, Halgein ydorum, ‘bring salt’: salt is called als in Greek, and halen in British, for that language, from the length of time which the Britons (then called Trojans, and afterwards Britons, from Brito, their leader) remained in Greece after the destruction of Troy, became, in many instances, similar to the Greek.

It is remarkable that so many languages should correspond in one word, als in Greek, halen in British, and halgein in the Irish tongue, the g being inserted; sal in Latin, because, as Priscian says, ‘the s is placed in some words instead of an aspirate,’ as als in Greek is called sal in Latin, emi – semi, epta – septem – sel in French – the A being changed into E – salt in English, by the addition of T to the Latin; sout, in the Teutonic language: there are therefore seven or eight languages agreeing in this one word. If a scrupulous inquirer should ask my opinion of the relation here inserted, I answer with Augustine, ‘that the divine miracles are to be admired, not discussed.’ Nor do I, by denial, place bounds to the divine power, nor, by assent, insolently extend what cannot be extended. But I always call to mind the saying of St. Jerome; ‘You will find,’ says he, ‘many things incredible and improbable, which nevertheless are true; for nature cannot in any respect prevail against the lord of nature.’ These things, therefore, and similar contingencies, I should place, according to the opinion of Augustine, among those particulars which are neither to be affirmed, nor too positively denied.”

From all that we can tell, the clerk in question appears to be concocting his elvish tongue out of elements of Welsh and Irish, with perhaps some awareness of Latin and Greek in the background.  It is not, therefore, to be relied upon very much as an account of traditional beliefs.  A better summary may be to say that, in general, fairies were regarded in many respects as being identical or similar to humans (not just in speech, but also in form, diet, dress and conduct).  Sometimes, however, their otherworldly aspect dominated, and their speech was as alien as their magical abilities.

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have a general interest in languages and linguistics, more details about which can be found on my website.

See too my later posts on fairy names and on more modern evidence from song as well as speech for for the fairy language.