Monday 22 February 2010
Away with the Fairies
Fairies are now largely perceived as innocent and whimsical creatures but it was not always so. In 1324 Bernardo Gui, a Dominican friar and full-time hunter of heretics, published The Inquisitor’s Manual, one of the earliest witch-hunting guides, in which he instructed his fellow professionals to question suspects “on the subject of fairies who bring good fortune, or is said, who run around at night.”
So, any congress, or alleged congress with fairies was likely to result in an accusation of witchcraft, particularly in France. The association was a transitory one, though, as the inquisitors moved on to more malign associations, linking witchcraft with diabolism But even so fairies still made their way into witchcraft trails, though often associated with Devil Worship.
There is no doubt that there were fairy cults scattered across Europe in the high Middle Ages, though the object of devotion was a benign Fairy Queen, not Satan. In 1430 during her trail at Rouen Joan of Arc was asked if she knew anything about those who “went or travelled through the air with fairies.” She denied direct experience but acknowledged that she was aware of the practice, and that what she called “sorcerie” took place in her region on Thursdays.
There are other less elevated examples than this. The one that strikes me as being manifestly unjust and unfair is the case of Alison Piersoun of Byrehill, who lived in sixteenth century Scotland. She was visited, so the story goes, by one William Sympsoune, a dead relative, who took her to see the elves and the fairies. They taught her to prepare healing ointments and potions with such skill that news of her skill began to spread. No less a figure than Patrick Adamson, Archbishop of Saint Andrews, the principle see of the Scottish Church, sent for her after he fell ill. But no sooner was he cured than he refused to pay for his treatment, attributing Alison’s skill to the Devil. She was duly arrested, tortured and burned as a witch.
I have little doubt that if anyone is with the Devil it is this appalling cleric, who would rather see a wise woman suffer and die than pay his bill.