Tag Archives: Fairies

They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die: Speech and Silence in Medieval Fairy Narratives Kalamazoo 2008

I’m going to be doing a link-post to others who are blogging Kalamazoo, and maybe add some general impressions of my own, in a bit. I’ve uploaded my paper on medieval fairies, and speech and silence in Sir Orfeo, Thomas of Erceldoune, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight “‘They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die’: Speech and Silence in Medieval Fairy Narratives” here. Mostly I’m smug that I aimed for a fifteen minute paper, and I nailed it, even though it meant reducing about twelve thousand words to three thousand.

Bridget and Michael Cleary

Bridget Cleary, Sex, Death, Fairies and Other

This is the third in a series of posts about fairies as other. I promised, in my first post, to concentrate on fairies as other, particularly in the context of sex and death, because, as MacAllister Stone notes “other is all about sex and death.” Last time I looked at the tragic death of Bridget Cleary, burned because her husband Michael thought Bridget was the victim of a fairy abduction. This time I want to look at the story of Bridget Cleary in the context of sex and death.

Bridget and Michael Cleary
In Bridget Cleary we have a woman who is seen as other, an outsider in her community because of her differences, differences which are particularly marked for a woman in nineteenth century Ireland where an assertive, opinionated and financially independent woman without children is very much seen as an anomaly. In the March 29, 1895 >Cork Examiner special report on her death, the reporter, having interviewed locals, describes Bridget as
“a bit queer” in her ways, and this they attribute to a certain superiority over the people with whom she came into contact . . . Her attire . . . is not that of every woman in the same social plane (Bourke 2000, 43).

Bridget was perceived as an outsider, “a bit queer,” even by another outsider.

The attention paid to Bridget Cleary’s clothing and body in the descriptions of her “cure,” in the careful details about the extent of her clothing in the court testimony (presumably, as Bourke suggests, to remove any thought of sexual impropriety) underscore the sexual subtext of the situations. Bourke observes that despite the “prudery” in the eye witness accounts

the violence meted out to Bridget Cleary before her death has an unmistakeably sexual character. On Thursday, when he used a metal spoon, and again, on Friday, when his weapon was a burning stump of wood, Michael Cleary’s actions amounted to a kind of oral rape. On both occasions Bridget Cleary was pinned down and prevented from struggling free, while a substance was forced into her body. . . . [the inquest revealed signs of injury to her mouth and throat] The violence used in holding Bridget down was certainly not sufficient to kill her, but its scale and ferocity would have been enough to terrify her, and to show her and anyone watching just who was master (Bourke 2000, 120).

Michael Cleary may very well have felt he needed to assert himself, not only against the uncanny malice of fairies, but as a man with an assertive, financially independent wife, a wife who may well have had a lover. Most of all, he may have felt it was imperative to assert himself given community pressure regarding his relationship with a wife who had not born him any children, which would have been very much seen as a failing by the community. One reason Bridget was taken by the fairies might have been her childless state; the unvoiced assumption being that since she had no children, that there was some sort of sexual failure, a situation that wasn’t helped in the least by the fact that Michael was nine years older than Bridget and that they spent most of the first few years of their marriage apart except on weekends (Burke 2000, 96).

The standard academic way to refer to fairies taking mortal women is to call it fairy abduction, or, more commonly, fairy rape, particularly in medieval texts. Corinne Saunders, writing about Middle English romances that involve fairy abductions and rapes points out that “What is most striking in all these works is the association of the otherwold with sexual violence or desire for possession of the woman’s body” (Saunders, Corinne J. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. 233).

Both Bridget Cleary and Heurodis are perceived as victims of a fairy rape.The fairy king threatens to tear Heurodis limb from limb if she doesn’t come willingly, and tells her that she’ll be taken to the otherworld even if they take her in pieces. Bridget is mistreated physically, dosed with “cures,” verbally abused, then doused with human urine before being burned. The overt physicality of the way Bridget Cleary was treated, the man-handling of her, is an inversion of the customary fairy threat to a mortal victim; with Bridget Cleary, we see mortals abusing what they think is a fairy changeling, though she is a mortal woman—her sex is a huge part of the reason she is treated his way.

Women who are assertive, and independent, who dress better than their peers, women who are financially independent, women who have no children, forthputting women who approach men, fairy mistresses and otherworld women like Rhiannon, these are other. They are potentially dangerous to the community, because they disrupt the natural order, or the perceived natural order. These women who like Heurodis are in the right place and the right time, and who, like Bridget, go to the forbidden liminal areas, are just as disruptive as the ostensible external agency, the fairies, who take them. It’s bad enough to have a child or lover taken by the otherworld, but what’s worse for those left behind are the mortals who go off with their fairy wooer, quite happily, and the abducted mortal women who choose to stay in the otherworld, rather than return to their mortal husband and children.

Bridget Cleary was perceived as dangerous and engaging in risky behavior; Michael Cleary objected to her going to the rath, and did all he could to “bring her back.” Underlying his frantic, desperate efforts, almost certainly, was the fear that Bridget might not want to come back. In court testimony from Johanna Burke, Bridget is said to have told her husband, shortly before he set her on fire, “Your mother used to go with the fairies, and that is why you think I am going with them.” Michael Cleary asked Bridget, “Did my mother tell you that?” She said, “She did; that she gave two nights with them” (Folklore 1895, 375). There’s a very definite sexual connotation to “she gave two nights with them,” particularly given the numerous references to fairies taking mortal lovers in medieval literature and folklore.

Otherworld folk are not shy about making sexual conquests. Rhiannon is very much seeking Pwyll as her spouse when she comes to the gorsedd in the first branch of the Welsh Mabinogi, Pwyll Pendeuvic Dyfed. The fairy queen in Thomas of Erceldoune is more than willing to take Thomas as her lover, keeping him mute but with her in the otherworld for seven years, before returning him to the tree where she found him, saving him from becoming a human sacrifice. She leaves him with an unwelcome gift, the ability to prophesy, thus converting him from dangerous other, to magical other with a redemptive gift for the community.

In Sir Orfeo, Heurodis returns from the fairy otherworld because Orfeo rescues her, and both return to Orfeo’s kingdom. At the end we are told Orfeo leaves the kingdom to his faithful steward since Heurodis has no children and Orfeo has no heir. We rarely hear or read of otherworld folk having progeny, and when we do hear about fairy offspring, say the child of the Grey Selchie, the offspring are the result of liasons between mortals and fairies, or other otherworld residents, and the children usually come to a bad end. Pwyll’s otherworld bride Rhiannon is scorned by Pwyll’s people because she is childless. Later, when Rhiannon has a child, the child mysteriously disappears. Rhiannon is typical in being less than fecund; otherworld folk are seemingly sterile, and, perhaps consequently, obsessed with taking fertile mortal women, and young children. Just as with other Others, say Gypsies, or whatever a given community’s racial/ethnic minority is, or queers, in stories about fairies and otherworld intruders it’s a case of “They want our women, and our children, and our women want sex/more sex/better sex, and so they voluntarily go with these Others, and leave us, and sometimes, they refuse to come back.”

I think that fear—the fear that Bridget wants to be with the fairies, with the other, is what’s underlying the Bridget Cleary horror. It’s interesting to note, as Bourke does, that in the spring of 1895 that the Irish papers, and some of the English papers too, were carrying stories about the “witch burning” in Clonmel, Oscar Wilde was on trial for sodomy. It’s also the date of the first attested use of “fairy” to mean queer. Both the OED and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang cite the following reference from theAmerican Journall of Psychology as the first use of fairy to mean queer, or as the OED has it ” A male homosexual”:

“The Fairies of New York” are said to be a similar secret organization. The avocations which inverts follow are frequently feminine in their nature. They are fond of the actor’s life, and particularly that of the comedian, requiring the dressing in female attaire, and the singing in imitation of the female voice, in which they often excel” American Journal of Psychology VIII (1895): 216.

I’ve been looking at the connection between fairy and queer for a long time, and I think there are a couple of reasons for fairy being used to mean queer. First, I think it works because there’s an association between fairies and an absence of progeny despite their overt eroticism, and the assumption, for many, that being queer has to do only with sex, that it’s all about sex, and that it’s sex without fear of progeny, just like real fairies.

Next time, I’m going to look again at medieval fairies as ways of dealing with other, and sex, and death.

Here are some references to match my citations.

  • “The ‘Witch-Burning’ at Clonmel.” Folklore. Vol. 6, No. 4. (Dec., 1895): 373-384. JStor link.. This is an anonymous article that reprints the newspaper coverage of the court testimony.
  • Thomas of Erceldoune. Scroll down to the Appendix for the text as printed by Francis Child, as part of the versions of Child Ballad 57 “Thomsas the Rhymer.” You can find Murray’s 1875 edition of the romance here.
  • Ford, Patrick K. trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
  • Bourke. Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000. This really is the best study; there’s another slightly more recent book that’s vastly inferior.
  • Saunders, Corinne J. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001.
  • Sir Orfeo with text and ms. page images from the Auchinleck ms.
  • Anne Leskaya and Eve Sedgewick’s annotated Middle English edition of Sir Orfeo.
  • A .pdf of a lightly modernized Sir Orfeo from the Norton Anthology of English Literature

MS. Cotton Nero A. x, fol.90v.

Medieval Fairies as Other

MacAllister Stone has been posting a series about the roles of the other in spec fic. You can find Part I Magical Negroes, expendable queers, and other well-worn tropes here, Part II here, and Part III, or, The Magical Other here. Part IV is likely to appear some day in the future, but I wanted to pick up on two observations MacAllister makes that particularly intrigued me because they deal with the role of fairies as the other in medieval literature. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot.

First, MacAllister defines Other as

a term to describe the phenomenon of the outsider, particularly in fiction, who represents some kind of threat to the community—but often, also serves as the agent for the community’s salvation/redemption.

The best example of medieval fairy other I know of is the c. 1400 Middle English anonymous poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight rides into King Arthur’s hall on New Year’s day, while the court is at table. He rides a horse that, while elaborately caprisoned and saddled, is entirely green, as is the equally expensively garbed and very large knight. The knight has green hair, green skin, and green clothes, bears a giant axe in one hand, and a holly bob in the other, and is shockingly uncanny, and other.

Indeed, the courtiers recognize the Green Knight for what he is, immediately:

For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene
He ferde as freke were fade (ll. 147-49).

[Cawley translates line as 149 "He behaved like an elvish man" (Everyman 1962, 56). Vantuono has "He acted like an elvish knight" (12 l. 149). Tolkien's translation reads "as a fay-man fell he passed" (1982, 23). Garbáty glosses "were fade" as "were fey"-"He fared as man (that) were fey" (Garbáty 1984, p. 260).]

The courtiers identify the Green Knight, quite correctly, as an otherworld intruder, clued in to his origins in part by his color. Keep in mind that other than being large and very green, the Green Knight is in no way monstrous; he is in fact quite a handsome figure. Having identified the intruder as what Professor Carnicelli called “a big green fairy,” they then begin to contemplate the meaning of his arrival “For vch mon had meruayle quat hit mene myȝt / Þat a haþel and a horse myȝt such a hwe lach, / As growe grene as þe gres” (ll. 233-35).

Al studied þat þer stod, and stalked hym nerre
Wyþ al þe wonder of þe worlde what he worch schulde.
For fele sellyez had þay sen, bot such neuer are;
Forþi for fantoum and fayryȝ e þe folk þere hit demed (SGGK ll. 232-240).

To the courtiers and serving folk, waiting in the hall, the Green Knight is not just clearly other, he’s fairy other. They’re not an unsophisticated audience, either; they’ve seen other sellys, other marvels, but he is very very different, and quite clearly a magical creature; “for fantoum and fayryȝ e þe folk þere hit demed” (SGGK l. 240).

MS. Cotton Nero A. x, fol.90v.

They are cautious and silent, wary of risking the dangers of speech with something so different. Consequently, they’re not terribly surprised when the Green Knight issues his bizarre challenge and invites any of the knights to take the axe he carries and strike off his head, in return for the promise to allow the Green Knight to return the favor a year and a day later. Nonetheless, when Gawain takes him up on the challenge, and the Green Knight picks up his severed head where the courtiers have been kicking it around under the table, and rides off, they’re pretty sure that Gawain is for it when he has his rendezvous to receive the Green Knight’s return blow in a year and a day at the mysterious Green Chapel. The court watches on All Souls Day the following November 1 as Gawain departs in search of the Green Knight and the Green Chapel. They lament that Gawain is to be “Hadet wyþ an aluisch mon, for angardez pryde” (l. 681 ).

The courtiers have good reason to assume the worse; not only because the Green Knight can happily survive decapitation, but because, well, he’s a fairy. Fairies and otherworld folk in general are dangerous in the extreme, prone to kidnap mortals simply because the mortals were in the wrong place at the right time, like Hereudis in Sir Orfeo. She falls asleep under an ympe tree, a grafted fruit tree, in her own orchard around noon, and sees the fairy king and his knights. The king tells her:

“Loke, dame, tomorwe þatow be
Riȝt here vnder þis ympe-tre,
& þan þou schalt wiþ ous go
& liue wiþ ous euermo;
& ȝif þou makest ous ylet,
Whar þou be, þou worst yfet,
& totore þine limes al {f.300vb}
Þat noþing help þe no schal;
& þei þou best so totorn
Ȝete þou worst wiþ ous yborn” (Sir Orfeo ll. 165-74).

Notice that the king explicitly threatens her; if she does not make the assigned rendezvous, and go with the king to the fairy otherworld, she’s to be torn limb from and still be taken by the fairies. Despite the best efforts of Orfeo, and his hundred knights, the next day Heurodis is taken from them by the fairies. Despondent, Orfeo resigns his crown, turning his reign over to his steward, and exiles himself as a wanderer with a harp in the wilderness. In his exile he manages to see the fairies engaged in fairy pursuits, including a group of women hawking, with Heurodis a silent member of the party. He follows them “in at a roche,” into the otherworld. There, in the otherworld, he sees a chamber of horrors, filled with other mortals taken by the fairies.

. . . Of folk þat were þider ybrouȝt
& þouȝt dede, & nare nouȝt.
Sum stode wiþouten hade {f.302ra}
& sum non armes nade
. . .
& sum lay wode, ybounde,
& sum armed on hors sete
& sum astrangled as þai ete
& sum were in water adreynt
. . .
Wiues þer lay on childbedde,
Sum ded, & sum awedde;
& wonder fele þer lay bisides
Riȝt as þai slepe her vndertides.
Eche was þus in þis warld ynome,
Wiþ fairi þider ycome.
(ll. 389-92; 94-97; 99-404).

These are mortals taken in various liminal states. They were not quite dead, nor quite alive, not quite sactified, not quite unfit. These are explicitly, despite the assertions of some, not dead people; they are, the poet tells us, “folk þat were þider ybrouȝt / & þouȝt dede, & nare nouȝt” (ll. 389-90). They are maimed, and wounded, headless, armless, some bound and mad, some armed on horseback, some strangled, some drowned, or burned. There are examples of special liminal cases, too, like wives taken in childbed, as well as those, like Heurodis, taken as they slept in the heat of the day.

Keep in mind that these fairies are the same fairies that, when Heurodis first sees them,

“Al on snowe-white stedes;
As white as milke were her wedes,
Y no seiȝe neuer ȝete bifore
So fair creatours ycore (ll. 145-48).

The fairies who abduct Heurodis are no more monstrous than the Green Knight is, yet they still threaten Heurodis, and take mortals at will. Indeed, their strikingly beautiful appearance marks them as other just as much as the Green Knight’s color does. The actions of the fairies, however motivated, or rule-based they may be, appear arbitrary and unmotivated to the mortals of the communities where the fairies intrude. Fairies are capricious, unknowable, and, given the threats made to Heurodis, and the Green Knight’s ability to suffer decapitation in good cheer, quite possibly malicious in intent. Certainly they are “other,” with all its connotations of dangerous, incomprehensible, and alien. Both the fairies who kidnap Heurodis, and the Green Knight fit MacAllister Stone’s definition of other: they are outsiders, and they represent a threat to the community.

I’m going to skip forward about fifteen hundred years in my next post, to look at a fairy otherworld intrusion in nineteenth century Tipperary, Ireland, in 1895, and the burning of Bridget Cleary. My third post is about Bridget Cleary, too, in the context of fairies, sex, death and the other.

In the meantime, here are some links for the curious: