Author Thomas Nashe in his satirical pamphlet of 1596, Have With You To Saffron-Walden, Or, Gabriell Harvey’s hunt is up, memorably mocks his victim by describing how:
“more channels and creases he hath in his face that there be fairy-circles on Salisbury Plain.”
In a few words he highlights for us a fact that we simply don’t appreciate today: that the former, unimproved landscape of agriculture- before intensive weed control and fertilisation- looked completely different to what we see now. For Nashe and his contemporaries, evidence of fairies was everywhere. This confirmed the constant presence of the faeries for many; for others it provoked speculation about the processes of Nature that might generate such striking features.
A century after Nashe, naturalist Robert Plot discussed the English Midlands countryside in his Natural History of Staffordshire (1686). He described rings he had seen that were forty or fifty yards in diameter, often encircled by a rim between a foot and a yard wide. These rims might be bare, or might have a russet, singed colour. The grass within could also be brown but was more often dark green.
Some people blamed lightning for the rings; others put them down to fairies. Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) recorded these explanations:
“These [the fairies] are they that dance on heaths and greens as Lavater thinks with Tritemius, and as Olaus Magnus adds, [and that] leave that green circle, which we commonly find in plain fields, which others hold to proceed from a meteor falling, or some accidental rankness of the ground, so nature sports herself; they [the dancing faes] are sometimes seen by old women and children. “
Ludwig Lavater (1527-86), in chapter 19 of his book Of ghosts and spirits walking (translated by Robert Harrison in 1572) was sure the cause was dancing fairies, writing that:
“Olaus Magnus in his third booke and eleventh chapter De Gentibus Septentrionalibus, wryteth that even in these our dayes, in many places in the North partes, there are certaine monsters or spirites, whiche taking on them some shape or figure, use (chiefly in the night season) to daunce after the sounde of all manner of instrumentes of musicke: whome the inhabitants call companions, or daunces of Elves, or Fairies.”
Robert Plot, meanwhile, sought to explain the rings scientifically, suggesting that the rings were caused by deer grazing, by moles or by the concentrated dung of penned cattle boosting growth, but given their occasionally huge size and distinctness, and their tendency to appear overnight, it is unsurprising that others would readily suspect supernatural causation.
Living with the Fairy Presence
The prevalence and visibility of rings in the fields of communities that were predominantly rural was bound to have an effect on their thinking. The proximity of the fairies’ dancing places to homes, and the persistence of the rings in sward, led to much apprehension and many precautions against the ever-present fairy peril.
As I have described in my recent book, Fairy Ballads & Rhymes, proper respect for fairy rings was inculcated into children and cultivators through memorable verses- for example:
“he wha’ spoils the fairies’ ring,/ Betide him want and woe,” but
“he wha’ cleans the fairy ring,/ An easy death shall dee.”
In any case, it was often impossible to plough up the rings, as they would just regrow. Acceptance and caution were therefore the better responses; showing the fairies respect whilst, at the same time, not getting too near, was strongly advisable. Children knew that to run around certain rings too many times (usually seven or nine) would put them in the fairies’ power. In an earlier post, for example, I have discussed the particularly notorious reputation of those rings called gallitraps. The tiny fairy girl shown below may look charming and harmless, but don’t be fooled: there may be malice behind those eyes…
I discuss faery rings and other faery places in my recent book, Faery, which- I’m pleased to say- became available to UK buyers from April 1st 2021. For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021).