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Richard Firth Green, Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church
by Alastair Minnis

Richard Firth Green, Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. xii + 285pp. ISBN 9780812248432 Hardback £44.00. Paper, 2018. £20.99.

 

At the beginning of The Wife of Bath’s Tale (CT III, 857-81),[1] we are assured that, once upon a time and many hundreds of years ago, the land was full of fairies. Following the coming of the friars, however, they are no more to be seen. Women need no longer fear the sexual attentions of elves, who used to lurk behind every bush or tree, ready to leap upon them. But the wily Chaucer proceeds to claim that the situation has hardly improved – one type of sexual predator has been replaced by another. For the supposedly devout friars have now taken over the business of dishonouring women. 

As Richard Firth Green’s splendid book makes abundantly clear, during the Middle Ages the perceived relationship between sinister fairies and ubiquitous friars was a lot more complicated than that. Impeccably researched and cogently written, this is now the go-to book on the subject, a wonderful ‘good read’ which will prove of interest far beyond the sphere of Medieval Studies. Its relevance for early modernists in search of progenitors of Spenser’s Gloriana and her kin is obvious, and anyone who wishes to look beyond the Disney prettifications of J. M. Barrie’s whimsies will find much to make a Tinker Bell blush. The intricacies of the subject are navigated with apparent ease, with no significant source escaping Green’s gaze; it is well-nigh impossible to find any relevant bush or tree which he has not looked behind.   

A short introduction briskly clears away the brushwood by ruling out any pronouncement on the vexed question of fairy taxonomy – whether the various names in various European languages describe one and the same creature or different species, what their size, appearance and system of governance may be, and whence they came. Fairies hail from many countries, and certainly cannot be called ‘Celtic’ in origin (a term which itself is quite problematic). It transpires that ‘the single most informative source for medieval fairy beliefs’ is the De universo of William of Auvergne, a Parisian philosopher and theologian who served as Bishop of Paris from 1228 until his death in 1249. Renowned for his precocious scholarship on the recently-rediscovered Aristotelian corpus, in this case William seems to have drawn on certain ‘traditions of south-central France, where he was brought up’ (6). There is an obvious irony in the fact that William has told us so much about fairies, in the process of denying their autonomous existence – for he believed they were just devils in disguise.

Modestly disclaiming ‘any special proficiency’ in the area of ‘folklore’, Green distances himself from unwary ‘use of customs and beliefs recorded in more recent times to throw light on medieval practices’, whilst affirming that the study of present-day popular cultures can offer us ‘a valuable analogical tool’ in the investigation of the past. After all, in many ways and places the past is still with us. Green notes the fact that, in contemporary Iceland, ‘fear of offending the elves can cause roads to be diverted and housing developments to be relocated’ (7). In my own country of origin, Ireland, farmers have long been wary of felling ‘fairy thorns’, even when they grow in the most inconvenient of places; sometimes a fine example may yet be seen standing untouched in the middle of a large ploughed field. 

In sum, this study is ‘concerned primarily with that class of numinous, social, humanoid creatures who were widely believed to live at the fringes of the human lifeworld and interact intermittently with human beings’ (4). First up is an account of the literal demonisation of fairies by churchmen who believed they were devils, or, at least, the result of devilish illusions. The authors of vernacular writings, particularly romances, could treat the existence of fairies with a certain sangfroid; in such cases ‘magic is above all a narrative issue, a way of telling a story’, as Helen Cooper nicely puts it.[2] But in pastoral manuals, saints’ lives and similar products of clerical pedagogy, we feel the full force of ecclesiastical censure.

‘If fairies are devils’, did ‘it not follow that any belief in fairies as non-devils’ was ‘potentially heretical’?  That inference was not regularly drawn, though Green finds that the beliefs of an unnamed heretic who was bested by a ‘Master Conrad’ (probably the inquisitor Conrad of Marburg) are a mélange of elements of traditional fairy lore. The heretic leads the friar into a luminous mountain cave, which contains a spacious palace presided over by a radiant king and queen who are seated on golden thrones. He invites Conrad to worship this king, whom he identifies as the son of God – whereupon the friar whips out a consecrated wafer he had concealed under his cloak, and the true body of Christ promptly defeats the false one (16-17). Take away the religious contextualisation, and we could be in the Other World of the Middle English romance Sir Orfeo, where the hero confronts a fairy king and queen in a similarly luminescent environment. In Conrad’s escapade, official Latinate discourse has been infiltrated by vernacular lore –as perpetrated in vernacular literature, and also ‘vernacular’ in the sense of deriving from non-learned, populist tradition. (Green deploys the term in both senses throughout his book– on which, more later.)

This yarn, told by a Belgian friar, Thomas of Cantimpré (d. 1272), is particularly sensationalist, yet illustrative of a general willingness on the part of medieval clerics to ‘accept that fairy belief was a potentially serious issue’ (21). Yet Green is convinced that ‘the imagery of fairyland’ did not become regularly ‘entwined with the discourse of witchcraft’ until the early modern period (18), although John Capgrave, writing c.1463, could mention witches and elves – together with Lollard heretics – in the same breath (20-21). Since some devils were deemed worse than others, occasionally fairies were allowed to fall within the category of the not-too-bad; on one reckoning, they had only sufficient malevolence to produce bad weather. The South English Legendary went so far as to suggest that elves might merit pardon at Doomsday. Scholastic writers, and indeed some vernacular ones, balked at such distinctions. But in popular romances the simplistic reduction of fairies to devils was often resisted.

Green is eager to affirm ‘the complexity of vernacular beliefs’, while expressing frustration with the fact that ‘even vernacular materials can be frustratingly circumspect’ (19, 21). Is it even possible, he asks, to ‘delve further into this vernacular consciousness, to discover any direct evidence for the nature and extent’ of fairy beliefs (28)? The ‘extent’ of interest may be measured by the extraordinary popularity of the story of the elf queen Melusine, who barred her husband from intruding on her privacy whilst bathing, lest this should be an occasion on which her lower body had become like a serpent’s. This fetishisation of fairy power and private parts took on several shapes, as when, in the March scene of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Melusine is painted as a fully-formed dragon, flying over the castle of Lusignan. Why that particular castle? Because Jean d’Arras’s romance Mélusine (c.1393) had traced the origins of the great French family the Lusignans back to its founder’s marriage to that same fairy queen. Other dynasties were eager to claim such a line of descent – including the House of Luxembourg, rulers of the Holy Roman Empire and the House of Plantagenet, kings of England. Far from fearing association with fairy legends, those families were eager to enlist their exoticism and disturbing potency. The message to opponents was clear – don’t mess with the descendants of elves.

But was not that ancient union of dragon lady and august forefather in some way sinful? D’Arras assures his readers that, had that been the case, God would have punished the transgression in his own secret way. The story of Melusine, he declares, is a true chronicle, vouched for by authorities in grammar and philosophy. This belief in the factual basis of that bizarre act of origination is one of the most significant features of the late-medieval reception of the yarn. While ‘a modern ghost-story teller’ may seek ‘to exploit the frisson that comes with an audience’s readiness to entertain the possibility that it is listening to a true account’, ‘most people’ treat such a tale as ‘harmless entertainment’ (40-1). Not so of fairies in the later Middle Ages: the historicity of accounts of elvish deeds was assumed, and they were not seen as mere entertainment. The possibility of harm was ever-present. 

At the beginning of the next chapter Green addresses his use of the term ‘vernacular’, explaining that he takes ‘vernacular culture to represent the culture of the laity as a whole, knights as well as peasants’ (42). Here he adopts Peter Burke’s distinction between the ‘great tradition’ of the educated few and the ‘little tradition’ of the rest (by which is understood popular culture), with the proviso that attention must be paid to ‘upper class participation’ in the latter.[3] Green is keen to insist that ‘medieval aristocrats were perfectly capable of entering into the belief system of the little tradition as fully participating members’ (44), a reflex of his desire to assert the classless appeal of fairy legends. But of course, not only the ‘less literate’ members of the clergy were capable of ‘participating’ in vernacular culture, and the scope of the medieval class-system was certainly not confined to layfolk. It is safe to assume that at least some of the shadowy redactors of the fairy romances were churchmen, of whatever status we can only guess at. Further, it may be recalled that Green has identified William of Auvergne as ‘the single most informative source for medieval fairy beliefs’. A lot depends on how ‘participation’ is understood. Here Green is preoccupied with strands of culture wherein fairy tradition is handled positively, which cannot be said of the relevant writings of that Bishop of Paris. This same agenda drives his critique of Jacques Le Goff’s periodisation of vernacular culture, which sees Dark Age repression of the marvellous giving way to twelfth- and thirteenth-century appreciation of ‘the popular marvelous’, with the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries being judged a period of ‘aestheticization’ (47). That last label might ‘possibly apply to later works such as Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, Green declares, but it does not fit the historical progression as he sees it. Rather, official attitudes ‘hardened throughout the Middle Ages, and on the eve of the early modern period things were very much darker than they had been earlier’ (49).

Some romances quietly ignored this Kulturkamph while others seem to be at once reflecting and resisting it, thereby generating ‘a fascinating kind of cultural schizophrenia’ (54-5). Devils were usually regarded as dark and ugly, whereas the bright beauty of fairies was proverbial, and thus they are portrayed in many romances. Further, fairies are ‘evidently highly sexed, and their relations with humans are often frankly voluptuous’, a point Green makes with reference to a steamy scene from the Middle English Partonope of Blois (57). William of Auvergne sought to ruin their reputation as wonderful lovers by arguing that elves were not interested in sexual pleasure as such, but rather sought to ‘pollute’ men and women, seducing them ‘to the foulness of lechery’ out of sheer malice (58). Fairy fecundity was another problem: their intercourse with humans invariably produced offspring, but devils are unable to reproduce– how can these supposed facts be squared?  Thomas Aquinas came up with an answer. Devils are able to collect and deposit human semen in acts of ‘demonic artificial insemination’ (59), a theory that underwent bizarre refinements in early modern accounts of the proclivities of witches.

Given all these issues, some romanciers found it easier to erase the fairy origins of certain problematic characters. Take the case of the widely-disseminated Robert the Devil, which appears in Middle English as Sir Gowther. Fathered by a devil (who had assumed a handsome shape) on a childless duchess, the protagonist of this torrid tale sets about ruining maidens’ marriage prospects, taking wives against their will and killing their husbands, making friars leap off cliffs, burning hermits and poor widows, etc. The catalogue of horrors is long and ostentatiously grim. However, eventually Robert undergoes extensive penance, becomes a good Christian, and rules his lands wisely. How can such salvation be possible for a devil, even a half-devil? The story makes much more sense if, originally, Robert had been a fairy’s son, a creature who resisted straightforward demonisation.

This is the context in which Green offers a fresh reading of The Wife of Bath’s Tale, which begins with the passage quoted at the beginning of this review, where the friars are credited with the elimination of the fairies (51). Within the tale itself, however, Green senses something quite different, and subtly subversive of the mendicants’ suppression of vernacular culture. A knight who has violently raped a maiden is made to endure a rapid programme of moral realignment at the hands of a ‘loathly damsel’ who seems to be a fairy of some sort.[4] Chaucer’s narrative, Green suggests, may be underpinned by an ancient ‘ideological level where masculine violation of natural harmony is subject to the discipline and correction of a magical universe’ (51). So, then, a female fairy acts as a force for good, expiating the violence which results from disruptive desire, and even appropriating  ‘the discourse of learned culture’ by delivering a homily on the nature of true nobility. A restoration of harmony indeed. Against this, however, it may be noted that fairy knights were in the habit of raping women without worrying about the violation of natural harmony, as for instance in the story of Sir Degaré, who is conceived when a ‘joly’ fairy knight appears to a princess who has got lost in a wood, briskly declaring that she will be his ‘lemman’ whether she likes it or not.[5] That serial rapist Robert the Devil comes from the same mould. Perhaps the surprising thing about the rape scene in The Wife of Bath’s Tale is that a human, rather than a fairy, knight is the perpetrator. Furthermore, here the dominant female character, far from playing the standard passive role, is given considerable moral agency (at least, temporarily). However, this is due to her deployment of discourse from the ‘great tradition’ (to return to Burke’s binary). She may be a shape-shifting creature, but she is no prophet in the style of Merlin (yet another fairy’s son) or Morgan le Fay, those denizens of the ‘little tradition’. In sum, Chaucer’s tale may be seen as reflecting that ‘cultural schizophrenia’ (55) which surrounded many uses of elvish matter.

Here we come up against an issue – a highly sensitive one, in this age of #Metoo and heightened awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault – that Green does not quite address head on:[6] in many fairy romances, the dividing line between rape and an acceptable (indeed desired) level of male ardour is by no means clear. So, this is not just a matter of spokesmen for the ‘great tradition’ seeking to besmirch the alluring virility of fairies, though there was plenty of that about. The abovementioned episodes are unambiguous in their description of coercive sex. But other romance scenes are more complicated. Green offers a nuanced reading of the passage in Partonope of Blois which features the hero’s first physical encounter with Melior, his fairy mistress. Despite the fact that the tryst ‘has been stage-managed by Melior herself’, the description ‘comes uncomfortably close to rape’, with the woman saying very ‘mekely’ to him that he should let her be, and asking for ‘mercy’ (57). But, ignoring her words, he takes her virginity, and (an interesting phrasing) gives her his. This may be compared with the corresponding episode in Thomas of Erceldoune. Green briefly states that Thomas ‘sexually assaults the fairy queen’ (27), and speaks of her as having been ‘violated’ (51). In a sense this is true, but there is more to it than that. ‘Lett me be,’ the woman says initially (l. 102), a plea reiterated as Thomas takes her seven times (l. 128).[7] But that protest seems to relate to the fact that the loss of her maidenhood will result in the loss of her beauty (indeed, her body becomes black and gray), and he will have cause to regret his actions (this turns out to be an enforced stay in Elfland). And yet – Thomas asks for her consent (‘yeue me leue to lye the bye’, l. 100), whereupon she alights from her horse and lies down under a ‘grene wode spraye’ (ll. 121-22).

How best to read this? As tacit consent on the woman’s part? And/or fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable? (After all, fairy queens have insight into what the future will bring). What we seem to be dealing with here are instantations of gender-constructing attitudes which regard male sexual aggression and female acquiescence as normative. Therefore, writing about the extraordinary virility of male fairies involved a recognition that these passionate creatures are aggressive in the extreme, quite dangerous to know (the frisson thereby provoked being obvious). The desirability of elf queens, on the other hand, meant the performance of a passivity which is enticingly complicated by their origins in a mysterious other world, and consequent possession of secret powers. No matter how frequent the sex, they remain unknowable and all the more alluring. Plus the fact that they are able to bestow great wealth on their partners – here is sex with exceptional benefits.

Green deals with the problem by finding ‘a brand of male wish-fulfillment’ (57) in that encounter between Partonope and Melior, a response which is echoed subsequently. ‘Liaisons with fairy mistresses are invariably erotic and exciting’, he writes, and no doubt served well the ‘sexual fantasies’ of male audiences (102), constituting a major ‘strand of masculine wish fulfillment’ (103). Although ‘hedged about with prohibitions and taboos’ those moments of intense eroticism ‘offer a vision of frank sexual gratification that lies beyond the reach of stifling patrilineal regulation or ecclesiastical repression’ (101-2).  Here, then, is the route down which Green wishes to direct the discussion. These comments come in a chapter primarily devoted to the activities of ‘incubi’ (a term which seems to have its prime source in Augustine’s City of God), where Green demonstrates convincingly that those (not always unwelcome) night-visitors to women’s beds share many features with fairies, and generally may be identified with them. One incubus-demon with major cultural significance (not least for the genesis of Arthurian romance) was Merlin’s father: the fact that so many of that seer’s predictions (allegedly) came true meant that the church had its work cut out to debunk ‘the myths surrounding his birth’ (92). And the fantasy of incubus visitation may have had its practical uses. ‘Fairy insemination offered medieval women a convenient way to account for any pregnancy that, for whatever social reasons, could not safely be attributed to a specific human father’ (84).

The issue of paternity loomed large in that most important of all mysterious impregnations, the miraculous event which resulted in the birth of Christ. Green devotes his next chapter, arrestingly called ‘Christ the Changeling’, to that very issue, beginning with a fine review of medieval attitudes to, and biases against, ‘changelings’, believed to be fairy children substituted for human ones. These sickly, difficult, and voraciously hungry babies (predictably identified as devils by William of Auvergne) stand in sad contrast to the fine specimens of manhood, the heroes of many a romance, produced by passionate encounters with elvish beauties. Here Green confronts the fact that attitudes to fairies within the ‘little tradition’ were not always positive; to call someone a changeling could be an act of extreme verbal abuse.  But, how exactly could some unfortunate individual be called a changeling in late-medieval England? For the term is not recorded as being in use until the sixteenth century. In a fascinating philological excursus, Green offers the rare word conjeoun (in various spellings) as a synonym.[8]  In seeking to explain its meaning, the Middle English Dictionary uses such words as ‘fool’, ‘a person possessed of the devil’, a ‘lunatic’, a ‘dwarf or very small person’. This, for Green, is like defining ‘bastard’ as a term of abuse and ignoring its root sense, the designation of an illegitimate child (122). Some of the passages he cites in support of his contention are more convincing than others. The most telling is when Herod (in the Chester Three Kings play) insults Christ by calling him an ‘elvish godlinge [little god]’ and an ‘elfe and vile conjoun’ (128). Green bolsters his argument by citing accusations by the plays’ evil characters that Christ is a witch or sorcerer. But perhaps he lets his enthusiasm run away with him in suggesting that ‘we might think of the elvish Christ’ of the drama ‘as representing folkloric resistance to an increasingly authoritarian church as it sought to extend its control over traditional practices and beliefs’ (142).

The next chapter confronts Jacques Le Goff’s resistance to folkloric involvement in the late-medieval ‘birth of purgatory’. Au contraire, Green contends that the imagery of fairyland significantly influenced the cultural construction of that liminal place, positioned between Heaven and Hell, as well as animating descriptions of the Earthly Paradise, some of which bear intriguing resemblances to accounts of Avalon, home of King Arthur, the once and future king. But Fairyland was unique in being a place of the undead, from which humans could return –  much to the surprise of their friends and families. Particularly interesting is Green’s account of St Patrick’s Purgatory, that materialisation of the land of the not-quite-redeemed on Station Island, Lough Derg (in Co. Donegal). Seamus Heaney’s poem Station Island (1984) has done much to remind modern readers of its wonders.    

All of this is well done, and utterly convincing. Controversy returns to the narrative in Green’s concluding ‘Postscript’, where the early-modern reception of Chaucer’s fairy lore is considered. Here Green daringly suggests that ‘one of the reasons for the comparative mildness of the English witch-hunt was an attitude of amused skepticism on the part of the ruling elite toward such popular superstitions as fairy belief’ – an attitude that ‘owes much to the cultural prestige of The Canterbury Tales’ (197).  I’d really like to believe this, but find it difficult to do so. Take the statement, ‘It would be difficult to overestimate the regard in which Chaucer was held in sixteenth-century England’ (198).  Praised Chaucer certainly was, but he was respected rather than imitated by subsequent writers, his ‘pleasant, easy and plain’ words (as John Skelton had called them in the early 1500s) having become hard to understand, and associated with a ‘misty time’ (Sir Philip Sidney’s phrase) which was denigrated as barbarous and uncouth.[9] So, the impact his Canterbury Tales may have had should not be overestimated.

Green is crediting poetry with exerting an implausibly large (to my mind) influence on Realpolitik.  Queen Elizabeth’s self-serving interest in the fairy queen is obvious, but (as Green frankly admits) it is unclear if Chaucer’s writings played any part there. In any case, Chaucer did not say all that much about fairies, if one considers his oeuvre as a whole, though it should be noted that Shakespeare was aware of his predecessor’s input. The Middle Scots poets – assiduous readers and quoters of Chaucer – present Green with a problem, for they quite ignore the Englishman’s elfin material. Witch-hunting was a more serious business in the Scotland of James VI (an obsessive demonologist) than in England, with torture being employed more extensively, and a high execution rate. A woman was burned in Edinburgh in 1576 for ‘repairing with’ the fairies and the ‘Queene of Elfame’ (194). Perhaps the Scots were not reading the right bits of Chaucer. Or perhaps, in England, Chaucer was simply swimming with the tide, a possibility Green accepts: ‘if Chaucer did indeed contribute to what I have called a rhetoric of amused skepticism, he could have done so only in a cultural climate that was already receptive to it’ (205).  The extent of that contribution must remain a matter of debate.  

One of Green’s pieces of evidence for Chaucer’s ‘amused skepticism’ merits a closer look. The Canon Yeoman’s Tale refers to the ‘elvysshe craft’ and the ‘elvysshe nyce loore’ of alchemy (VIII.751, 842). In Green’s view, this text proves that Chaucer ‘clearly regards’ the ‘vocation’ of alchemy as ‘fraudulent’ (197). But the matter is not quite as clear as that. Chaucer seems to be satirising unscrupulous charlatans rather than attacking the science itself (which, after all, was viewed positively by such an authority as Thomas Aquinas). Near the end of the tale comes the extraordinary statement that Jesus Christ himself holds alchemical lore dear, and eventually he may reveal its long-hidden secrets to the right people (1467-71). So, then, this once and future ‘elvysshe craft’ is of considerable potency, and one day will triumphantly emerge from seclusion. Chaucer may not have believed in fairies, but perhaps he believed in that possibility.  

The canon-alchemist and his servant are elf-like inasmuch as they seek seclusion, detaching themselves from the business of everyday life and living on the fringes of society. A similar image of isolation features in the Prologue to Sir Thopas, where the self-fictionalising Chaucer links himself with fairy seclusion and, perhaps, with fairy virility. The poet, Harry Bailly declares,  

 

‘…were a popet in an arm t’enbrace                                                        
For any womman, smal and fair of face.
He semeth elvyssh by his contenaunce,
For unto no wight dooth he daliaunce’.

(VII.701-4)

 

Chaucer’s reluctance to do any ‘daliaunce’, to be sociable, is of course ‘elvyssh’ conduct, and indeed he has the demeanour of an elf. But this is not crushingly uncomplimentary. For Bailly is saying that the portly little poet would make an excellent doll (‘popet’)[10] for any slender and beautiful woman to embrace – to play with, as a child does with a doll, but the sexual innuendo is blatant.  Elvish Chaucer is covert, subtle … and sexually potent, capable of satisfying ‘any womman’ – behaviour reminiscent of the escapades of those ardent fairy knights, who in olden times lurked behind every bush or tree.[11] Not an unflattering self-portrait, though one replete with self-irony. 

On this reading, Chaucer was willing to associate himself with fairies, to the extent that he could make a joke which alluded to their aggressive, unapologetic sexuality. Which is one of the many features of elfin life which Richard Firth Green has presented so vividly, with the skills of the engaging raconteur as well as those of the learned scholar. This is a wonderful book, replete with wonders and open to the wonder that its fairy tales inspire.

Alastair Minnis

Yale University



[1] All Chaucer references are to The Riverside Chaucer, general ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn with a new foreword by Christopher Cannon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 137. Quoted by Green, 33.

[3] Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, rev. edn. (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1994), 23-4.

[4] She emerges from a scene wherein a group of ladies were dancing; the clear implication is that they are fairies, in light of an earlier description of how the elf-queen, with her jolly company, often danced in many a green meadow.

[5] Green seeks to qualify this account by citing a scene in which a human woman embraces her fairy lover ‘with equal ardor’ (or ‘cruelly’, as Green’s appropriate translation of the French has it; Lay de Tydorel, ll. 69-71).

[6] This is quite understandable, given the fact that here we encounter attitudes which were deeply embedded in society, and certainly extended far beyond the sphere of fairy romance – though there, it may be acknowledged, they appear in a particularly acute form. See further Corinne Saunders, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001), and Representing Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, ed. Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

[7] The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune, ed. James A. H. Murray, Early English Text Society, Original Series 61 (London: Trübner, 1875), 7. 

[8] The rarity of this word, particularly if it does indeed mean ‘changeling’, is a real puzzle, as Green acknowledges. He suggests it may have been a taboo word, an insult so terrible that few people dared to utter it – hence the lack of recorded instances. Yet records exist of an array of words used to designate fairies, in several European languages.

[9] Here I refer to Skelton’s Philip Sparrow (ll. 202-3) and Sidney’s Apology for Poetry. Cf. Alastair Minnis, The Cambridge Introduction to Chaucer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 140.

[10] Certainly a more positive term than conjeoun –assuming that we can give credence to the Middle English Dictionary’s definition of that elusive word as ‘dwarf or very small person’.

[11] I offer this thought (partially in play) in ‘Aggressive Chaucer: Of dolls, drink and Dante’, The Medieval Translator, 16 (2016), 357-76. This essay benefitted from a discussion with Richard Firth Green. 

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49.2.10

Cite as:

Alastair Minnis, "Richard Firth Green, Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church," Spenser Review 49.2.10 (Spring-Summer 2019). Accessed October 22nd, 2020.
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