- Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church by Richard Firth Green
This engrossing and eminently readable book makes a significant, and original, contribution to scholarship on the medieval Church through its rehabilitation of the lived reality of medieval people with regard to belief in fairy lore. Green thus is able to bring together fields that are usually separated: medieval romance, and attitudes expressed by clerics in the Middle Ages. Elf Queens and Holy Friars joins a myriad recent studies that have enriched knowledge of vernacular beliefs and of 'religion' that existed outside of texts, creeds, and official Church doctrines. The brief 'Introduction' suggests that fairy beliefs were fluid and controversial even in the medieval era, and disavows sundry [End Page 208] ideas that have been floated with reference to such beliefs, including the 'Celtic origins' (p. 5) hypothesis, and the rituals that people performed to draw on fairy power at dangerous times of life. Green's interest is political; his study uses Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault, and traces the 'policing' of fairy beliefs by the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the high Middle Ages. Chapter 1, 'Believing in Fairies', addresses C. S. Lewis's challenge to 'imagine what it would feel like to witness, or think we had witnessed, or merely to believe in' fairies (pp. 11–12). Green details the clerical connections between fairies and demons, and notes the learned middle ground that posited 'neutral angels' (p. 25). He also sketches the less judgemental treatment of fairyland and fairies in literary texts, and rejects the modern view that 'the fairy machinery of medieval romance [… is] a convenient narrative device' (p. 33). Learned writers including Gervase of Tilbury, Walter Map, and William of Newburgh also gave some support to the 'popular' beliefs and practices regarding fairies.
Chapter 2, 'Policing Vernacular Belief', demonstrates that the perceived gulf between learned and popular culture in the medieval era does not really work for fairy beliefs. Green summons evidence to show that penalties and penances for fairy beliefs and practices became more severe over the centuries (Burchard of Worms, who died in the early eleventh century, sentenced those who believed in fairy lovers to ten days on bread and water, but the late fifteenth-century Malleus Maleficarum condemned them to death). Green traces a 'campaign of cultural repression' (p. 66) of fairy lore, which, he contends, makes certain of the claims regarding Celtic elements in romances tenable if not provable. Romances were texts in which half-fairies like the magician Merlin existed, and which resisted the official clerical position. Chapter 3, 'Incubi Fairies', opens with an analysis of the various terms for fairies, and explains how clerics consistently express the view that relationships with fairy lovers will end badly, where in vernacular romance 'liaisons with fairy mistresses are invariably exotic and exciting' (p. 101). Chapter 4, 'Christ the Changeling', is especially interesting in that it makes plain how theologically orthodox Christian dogmas might shade into versions of fairy beliefs. Changelings are usually male, and when examined by the learned the beliefs of peasants are generally dismissed, in favour of a 'medical' view. The term for 'changeling', conjoun, appears in diverse contexts (for example, legal texts and romances), and in the Chester and York play cycles, Christ is called a changeling. Green examines all the 'uncanny' terms used for Christ and biblical characters associated with him, such as Abel, and demonstrates that the popular understanding of orthodox doctrine has many connections with fairy beliefs.
Chapter 5, 'Living in Fairyland', examines liminal places such as Avalon in the Arthurian legend, and related speculative ideas such as William of Auvergne's consideration of 'whether the fairy horde might be made up of those who had been lost in battle' (p. 158). This segues into a discussion of [End Page 209] the emergence of Purgatory, a term first used around 1170, which begins with Jacques le Goff's account of the subject. Green argues...