“Fairies’ ca­pac­ity to im­peril eter­nal souls by se­duc­ing them into car­nal sin made them dan­ger­ous to hu­mans”

A new project that ex­plores fairy sum­mon­ing rituals in the 15th–17th cen­turies – of­fer­ing in­sights into their in­flu­ences on con­tem­po­rary life – is now un­der way at the Univer­sity of Ex­eter. Samuel P Gil­lis Ho­gan (left), who is lead­ing the study, ex­plains

BBC History Magazine - - History Now / News - Samuel P Gil­lis Ho­gan is a PhD re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Ex­eter. Read more about his project, ‘Fa­mil­iar with Fairies: A Study of Late Me­dieval and Early Mod­ern Fairy Con­jur­ing Texts’, at his­tor­i­cal­mag­icblog.com

How were fairies de­fined dur­ing this pe­riod? While many peo­ple imag­ine Tinker­bell-like pix­ies, this sweet and sani­tised im­age of the fairy is a Vic­to­rian con­struc­tion. Late me­dieval and early mod­ern ideas of fairies were pretty neb­u­lous and var­ied, but there were some com­mon themes.

Fairies in this pe­riod tended to be dis­cussed with a blend of won­der and trep­i­da­tion. They were gen­er­ally, though not al­ways, as tall as a hu­man. They were also su­per­nat­u­rally at­trac­tive and could se­duce young women and men, im­per­illing their eter­nal souls. What role did fairies play in daily life? Fairies were a fea­ture of me­dieval cul­ture and served var­i­ous func­tions. Noble fam­i­lies some­times claimed de­scent from fairies, in which cases the fairy of­ten served as guardian of the fam­ily, as was the case in the sto­ries of the leg­endary Melu­sine. Fairies also served a lit­er­ary func­tion, in courtly ro­mances and bal­lads.

Yet they were not al­ways so be­nign. Fairies’ ca­pac­ity to im­peril men and women’s eter­nal souls by se­duc­ing them into car­nal sin made them dan­ger­ous to hu­mans, as did their role as spir­its of ill­ness and mad­ness. There are also folk­loric ac­counts, since the 12th cen­tury at least, of chil­dren be­ing spir­ited away. Why and how were fairies sum­moned? Some peo­ple at­tempted to con­jure fairies to ac­quire med­i­cal knowl­edge, such as the prop­er­ties of herbs. Then there are sev­eral texts where the sum­moner aims to con­jure fairy women in or­der to sleep with them. Fairies were also sum­moned to find buried trea­sure, sup­ply rings of in­vis­i­bil­ity, re­veal the fu­ture and much more.

Many texts spec­ify what the spirit will do or say once it ap­pears, and how the ma­gi­cian should re­spond. Since God is of­ten in­voked, a num­ber of rituals in­clude pe­ri­ods of pu­rifi­ca­tion through sex­ual ab­sti­nence, fast­ing and prayer in prepa­ra­tion, so that God will deem the ma­gi­cian wor­thy of his aid in sum­mon­ing and bind­ing the spirit. Most rituals or­der the fairy to ap­pear in a form that is nei­ther fright­en­ing nor se­duc­tive, since both could en­tice the ma­gi­cian out of his pro­tec­tive cir­cle, leav­ing him vul­ner­a­ble to the dan­gers of the fairy or de­mon. Sev­eral rituals to con­jure Oberon, king of the fairies, di­rect him to ap­pear in the shape of a young child.

In this new project I’ll be study­ing manuscripts con­tain­ing in­struc­tions on how to con­jure and ex­or­cise fairies, in ad­di­tion to In­qui­si­tion and court records that deal with peo­ple who os­ten­si­bly used magic to con­jure fairies.

Un­der­stand­ing the sources from which sum­mon­ing texts drew their ideas about fairies and their ca­pac­i­ties al­lows us to con­tex­tu­alise these rituals. It also helps us un­der­stand the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween lit­er­ary, folk­loric and learned sources dur­ing this pe­riod.

ABOVE: A 15th- cen­tury im­age of the spirit Melu­sine breast­feed­ing her son and (left) fly­ing from a win­dow LEFT: A 17th-cen­tury edi­tion of a book on Melu­sine

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