Fairies in the Renaissance: Excuses for Human Failure

By Melissa S.

Anxieties in Renaissance times allow us to pinpoint how humans create creatures resembling themselves but with ‘non-human’ Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 6.39.41 PMattributes in order to feel superior and to ‘Other’ unfavorable behaviors. Fairly lore can contribute to this conversation. A “Fairy” is defined as “one of a class of supernatural beings having human form, to whom are traditionally attributed magical powers and who are thought to interfere in human affairs (with either good or evil intent)” (OED). This description, which involved both humanoid and non-human attributes, raises the question of what differentiates those categories. Does having a human-like shape define a human? Or does a creature with magic automatically get categorized with non-humans?
 
Fairies are often further linked to issues of human form, human deformity, and non-physical human spirits in fairyland. The game of blaming any creature but humans is how changeling lore came to be. For example, the changeling, a creature that “could steal human babies and substitute one of their own race” was also a figure that would “never thrive, remaining small, wizened, mentally abnormal, and ill tempered” (Simpson). This changeling creature provided an outlet for parents who had “abnormal” children, in both physical and mental senses, and it provided a non-human agent on which to place the blame. In a time where mothers could be accused of looking too much at an animal if her child came out with animalistic features, the idea of the changeling gave women a way to shake such blame. As Slights – in his article about the changeling in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – calls the changeling a “violator of the shifting but ever-present boundary between human and other worlds” we can even see a shift in blame to a completely different world (Slights 269). To them, fairies are so other that they don’t even live in the same world as we do – making them that much more susceptible to blame.
 
The other anxiety grouped with the fairylore is that of the human spirit and how it could be lost to the other world. As Wilby reports, for example:
Transition into the fairy world was believed to occur either “in body’ (during which, to mortal eyes, the physical body either completely disappeared or was replaced with a fairy or fairy “stock”) or “in spirit.” In the latter case, it was only the spiritual part of the human (which in Christian terms would be called the soul) which went into fairyland, leaving the material body behind, an event which generally occurred when the human was dreaming, sick, or in some kind of trance.     (Wilby 291) 
The clash of Christian beliefs and fairylore created even more tension, and humans wondered what would become of the soul that defined, according to some, their humanity. The long-stereotyped idea of making contracts for your soul came from similar origins and many accounts of fairies will include a trip to fairyland where the human either struggled to make it back or succumbed to the magic – their souls trapped forever there.
 
Overall, fairies were the creation of guilty humans who needed a non-human creature to place blame upon. They – along with witches, spirits, werewolves, androgynous creatures, and other magical creatures – were put on the stage to humiliate and laugh at so that humans could pretend that the actions they portrayed were strictly characteristic of their non-humanness (Wilby 293).
 
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Melissa is a 2014 graduate of Ball State University with a BA in Creative writing. She intends on opening her own childcare business in the near future and hopes to continue to write and publish.
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“fairy, n. and adj.”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 4 March 2014 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/67741?redirectedFrom=fayrie>.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud. “changelings.” A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press, 2003.Oxford Reference. 2003. Date Accessed 22 April 2014.
Slights, William W. E. “The Changeling in A Dream.” Studies in English Literature 28.2 (1988): 259-272.
Swann, Marjorie. “The Politics of Fairylore in Early Modern English Literature.” Renaissance Quarterly. 53.2 (2000): 449-473.
Wilby, Emma. “The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland.” Folklore111.3 (2000): 283-305.
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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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