What many people don't know, however, was that communing with fairies was an act that could get you accused of witchcraft during the witch trial era.
Emma Wilby is the scholar of choice for this topic, and her work was cited in my article "When Witches Communed with Fairies." Research for that article urged me to delve deeper into the subject of "Popular Religion" to discover how old beliefs mingled with new, and how the beliefs and practices of the common folk differed from the beliefs sanctioned by the Church.
Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons and Melding of Belief
So, I then began reading "Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context," by Karen Louise Jolly.
She discusses the Christianized Anglo-Saxon era a few hundred years prior to the major witch hunting period, but it’s important for anyone interested in the later witch trials because it explores the cultural tradition that Britain was moving out of during the later years of the Reformation and witch craze.
In Chapter One, Jolly explains that the way scholars have looked at conversion and popular religion has been problematic. We tend to be binary in our thinking, seeing trends and actions through a lens of dualism. It’s this, or it’s that. It’s Christian, or it’s pagan. It’s good, or it’s evil.
Indeed, we know that Bede famously laments his dealings with the Heathens desperately clinging to their old ways despite the admonishment of the Church. That was in the 8th century.
So, if Church leaders had taken Pope Gregory’s earlier advice on how to handle the English, we can suspect that the peasantry had been nominally converted by the 10th century.
However, the way we consider what a conversion ought to look like changes things. Again, is it this or is it that, or is it more than either of those things?
We’re looking at late Saxon England (and, later, Early Modern Scotland, I’ll get to that in a minute) through the lens of us modern people who went from nominally converted, to rigorously reformed, to "Enlightened."
So what we, personally, have experienced and understood Christianity to be is not necessarily what it meant to the people of 10th century England.
The modern pagan who discovers these things often automatically thinks “ah-ha! Proof that they were still pagan!”
This reaction comes equally from contemporary Christians delighting in pointing out thorough Christianization at early periods in European history.
Unfortunately, they will both be disappointed.
Jolly points out that popular religion falls into a grey area. The people on the ground saw their pagan origin charms in a purely Christian context.
The structure of their words may be a pagan inheritance, but it is being said strictly within a Christian context.
So is it pagan, or Christian? Neither, or both? Or is it something more?
Popular Religion in Reformation Era Scotland
Fast forward in time another 600 years to 17th century Reformation Scotland, and we see a similar phenomenon going on.
Cunning folk (practitioners of folk popular magic medicine) were often the targets of witchcraft accusations.
Folk medicine often involved incantations and charms to go along with possible herbal poultices and salves.
In Reformation Scotland, religion at the popular level was now shifting again to a more Puritanical idea that actively looked for remnants of paganism in folk practice and aimed to stamp it out.
Whether there was any intention of pagan religious practice on the part of the person being accused was inconsequential.
Whether their practices had connections to a pagan past or not, they were not conscious of doing anything subversive or outside of the Christian lexicon.
(For more on this see: Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History, by Owen Davies).
When Religion Shifts, the Fae are Scapegoated!
In native European religion, the wights of the land were often neither “good” nor “bad.”
Some “races” of spirits might be more likely to be helpful than others, but typically the human/spirit interaction was dependent on the way in which the human approached the spirit. If the spirit was offended, watch out!
But, if supplicated with an offering, a nice bowl of porridge for instance, a congenial kobalt might be willing to help cobble your shoes while you sleep.
Christianity, with its dualistic worldview, declared that all spirits that were not angels were demons.
Elves still existed, but they were now universally evil (at least as declared by the pulpit, but not necessarily as practiced on the popular level).
Jolly discusses the question of whether late Saxon culture should be considered “Christianized Germans” or “Germanized Christians.”
There was a fusion of two belief systems that resulted in its own new world view that was somewhere in the middle.
It occurred to me, having been thinking of the persecution of cunning folk many centuries later, that the Early Modern period was still emerging from this cultural background.
Of course, the urban centers were experiencing the origins of the Scientific Revolution. And the aristocracy was absorbed in the Protestant Reformation.
But, at the local level, especially in rural areas, the peasantry were living with this fusion of culture that had occurred 600 years prior.
Moving forward through history, the Industrial Age which brought urbanization, the Electronic Age, and now today the age of Globalism have all shifted our views of folk and fairy lore as well.
Yet, despite these shifts, our folk traditions have managed to survive and linger on, even if by a thread. This may be due in part to our collective cultural unconscious that won't let us forget our own deep roots.
It is the nature of society to shift and change. But, as we continue to adjust to whatever life the future has in store for us, I have just one request:
Please stop taking your angst out on the fairies!