Publication of Twilight of the Godlings

My new book Twilight of the Godlings: The Shadowy Beginnings of Britain’s Supernatural Beings is published today by Cambridge University Press. Twilight of the Godlings is the first book published since the Second World War to delve deeply into the question of the ultimate origins of the supernatural beings of British folklore – the ‘godlings’ of the title, but better known to most of us as fairies or elves.

Over on the Cambridge University Press blog FifteenEightyFour I’ve written a brief introduction to the new book, whose text is reproduced here:

Everything You Know About Fairies Is Wrong: Introducing Twilight of the Godlings

“In th’olde days of the king Arthour

Of which that Britons speaken great honour,

All was this land full fill’d with faerie …”

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath reflects that fairies used to be plentiful in England, but have now been banished by the prayers of friars. Historically, folklorists have been much preoccupied with the decline of belief in fairies, perhaps because the departure of the elves and fairies is itself a recurring theme in English literature, from Chaucer to Tolkien. But the question of where the fairies came from in the first place has been an even more fraught discussion. In the 19th century, the deeply racialist idea that fairy lore was a dim ‘race memory’ of indigenous ‘pygmy’ peoples who once lived in the British Isles became popular, and still sometimes surfaces even today. By the early 20th century, the richness of Irish fairy lore had convinced most folklorists that fairy belief either came from Ireland or belonged to the shared ‘Celtic’ heritage of Ireland and Britain, lost in the mists of time. Then, in the mid-20th century, the leading folklorist Katharine Briggs argued that fairies were, in all likelihood, the half-remembered ancestral spirits of the prehistoric dead. There the argument largely rested – not because everyone agreed with Briggs, but because the meagre evidence seemed to be exhausted and the question lay veiled in mystery, beyond the capacity of historians and folklorists to address it.

Twilight of the Godlings challenges the view that the question of where Britain’s traditional supernatural beings came from is unanswerable, or inaccessible to history; and the book breaks the long silence on this question that has largely prevailed since the 1960s. It does so, in the first instance, by questioning the assumptions adopted by earlier scholars. One of those assumptions is that fairies are a distinct and fairly stable category of supernatural being with definable characteristics; I, on the contrary, argue that the specific characteristics of fairies are mostly unimportant, because they are just one member of a larger family of ‘godlings’ in European religion and folk-belief: ‘small gods’ (to borrow a phrase from Terry Pratchett) who rank below the deities worshipped in public cult and stand somewhere between the human and the divine. They are earthly beings, not heavenly; physical, not wholly spiritual. But they are also profoundly ‘other’: not quite human, and possessed of powers beyond our own. Another assumption I reject is that there is anything specifically ‘Celtic’ about fairies. Small gods exist in many cultures, and while constant cultural exchange can of course take place, the small gods of each region have their own distinctive history.

It is always tempting to view folklore as something timeless, and somehow immune from history; a tissue of deep cultural memories embedded in the collective consciousness from time immemorial. The reality, however, is that folklore is constantly on the move and always changing, adapting to new cultural conditions and reconstructing and re-assembling itself. However, certain religious and cultural roles and niches do survive in the longue durée of human history. One of these is the niche for ‘small gods’ – those spirits of nature, fate and destiny that allow human beings in agrarian societies to make sense of the fortunes and misfortunes of everyday life (among other things). The cast of characters may change, but the niche they occupy remains. Thus, for example, the fauns, nymphs, lares and penates, divine Mothers and genii cucullati of Roman Britain occupied this niche two thousand years ago. This does not mean they are the ancestors of the fairies in any straightforward sense, but they were indeed their predecessors.

One of the central mysteries of the study of fairy belief is how and why it survived Christianisation, and whether fairies can be said to be ‘pagan survivals’ in any sense. Central to the argument of Twilight of the Godlings is that the ancestors of fairies were, in all likelihood, culturally constructed in parallel with the process of Christianisation in the early Middle Ages rather than survivors of what came before. While folkloric survival is not impossible, in most cases a careful examination of claimed ‘survivals’ reveals them to be something else; a form of creative reinvention based on contemporary needs and circumstances. While Britain’s fairies are not Christian, therefore, they are largely cultural constructions of a Christian world whose genesis lies in the interaction of elite and popular culture. Twilight of the Godlings attempts to peel back the veil of accreted folklore to reveal the influence of texts like Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies on learned speculations about almost human beings, which in turn filtered down to the level of popular belief.

Medieval folklore, insofar as it can be reconstructed, seems to have reassembled some of the small gods of the pagan Roman past – such as fauns, nymphs, Parcae and heroes – and put them back together, fused with learned speculation about strange races and monsters. This sort of half-understood Classicism merged with popular understandings of beings of Germanic folklore, such as elves, to produce a whole menagerie of supernatural beings before the Norman Conquest. In the later Middle Ages the distinct identities of many of these beings became lost, and ‘elves’ became an imperfectly understood catch-all term which, in the south of England, was replaced in the fourteenth century with a word borrowed from French: fairy. The medieval history of British fairy belief reveals a process of cultural scrambling, forgetting and reinvention rather than survival.

It is not really true, of course, that everything you know about fairies is wrong; your ideas about fairies and fairy lore are as much a legitimate part of the constantly changing stream of folklore as anything else. However, much of what we think we know about the origins of Britain’s fairies is indeed wrong. They are not ‘Celtic’ (I argue that they, are rather, the offspring of Rome), and Irish folklore is of limited usefulness for understanding Britain; they are not pagan (in the sense that they were constructed in parallel with Christianisation); and they are not survivals of a remote historical period, in any meaningful sense. Fairies are characters in the grand drama of popular religion, constructed at need to fulfil the human need for explanation, for mystery, and for magic.

I will be launching Twilight of the Godlings at the Cambridge University Press Bookshop in Cambridge on 5 April.


Literary jam inspired by The Cambridge Book of Magic

This evening a literary ‘jam’ of original poetry and creative writing took place at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, inspired by The Cambridge Book of Magic, a 16th-century manuscript of ritual magic I edited and translated back in 2015. A couple of years ago I reflected on the surprising impact of The Cambridge Book of Magic, but I had not imagined it might become a source of literary inspiration. Sadly I was not able to attend the event, but I look forward to seeing some of the writing inspired by the manuscript.


‘Treasures of the Abbey of St Edmund’ at Moyse’s Hall Museum

This evening I spoke at Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds about treasures of St Edmunds Abbey: those lost before and during the dissolution, those which survive but are dispersed around the world, and those which can be found in Bury and indeed at Moyse’s Hall itself. I am grateful to all those who attended the talk and to Dan Clarke and the team at Moyse’s Hall for inviting me to speak on this subject.


Magic and politics on the Ecclesiastical History Society podcast

In the latest episode of the Ecclesiastical History Society’s podcast I speak to Angela Platt of Royal Holloway University of London about magic and politics in British history, medieval and early modern belief in magic and my book Magic in Merlin’s Realm.

You can listen to the podcast here.


‘Magic and Politics in British History’ at Queens’ College, Cambridge

This evening I spoke to the Erasmus Society at Queens’ College, Cambridge on the subject of ‘Magic and Politics in British History’, which was the subject of my books Magic as a Political Crime (2017) and Magic in Merlin’s Realm (2022). The Erasmus Society is the College’s History society and the talk was attended by both students and fellows. It was followed by a stimulating discussion and I was afterwards kindly invited to dine with the President and Fellows.


Writing Baltic paganism in early modern England / Baltų pagonybė anglų tekstuose ankstyvaisiais Naujaisiais amžiais

Stephen Batman’s translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus (1582), which was among the first English texts to mention the religions of the Baltic peoples

My article ‘ “Of divels in Sarmatia honored”: Writing Baltic Paganism in Early Modern England’ has just been published in The Pomegranate, the international journal of Pagan studies.

The persistence of Paganism in the Baltic region (especially Lithuania) long after its official conversion to Christianity in 1387–1413 was a matter of widespread concern in early modern Europe, including England, challenging the narrative of Christianity’s triumph in northern Europe. England had a long history of engagement in the Baltic, and early modern English authors displayed an interest in surviving Baltic Pagans, while English Jesuits laboured in Lithuania to bring Pagans to Catholicism. This article examines the language used to portray Baltic Paganism by English authors and translators, arguing that Poland-Lithuania’s status as a European power meant Lithuanian Pagans received a somewhat more sympathetic treatment than other indigenous Pagans, such as the Sámi of Scandinavia and Native Americans. Early modern English responses to Lithuanian Paganism thus illuminate the complexity of European Christian attitudes to living Pagan religion in northern and eastern Europe.


‘Of divels in Sarmatia honored’: baltų pagonybė anglų tekstuose ankstyvaisiais Naujaisiais amžiais

Prūsijos, Latvijos ir Lietuvos baltai buvo vieni paskutiniųjų Europos pagonių, o jų atvertimas į krikščionybę tapo Viduramžių Europos cause célèbre, lėmusiu Kryžiaus žygius ir militaristinius vienuolių ordinus prie Baltijos jūros. Anglijos įsitraukimas į Kryžiaus žygius, o vėliau ir ekonominiai ryšiai su Baltijos regionu lėmė didesnį susidomėjimą baltų pagonimis Reformacijos laikotarpiu, XVI amžiuje. Šis straipsnis tiria angliškas reakcijas į baltų pagonis XVI–XVIII a. Keliama hipotezė, kad Lietuvos pagonys susilaukė atlaidesnio vertinimo nei kitos anglų sutiktos ikikrikščioniškos religijos.

[vertė Saulė Kubiliūtė]


‘The Catholic Conundrum’ in History Today

My article ‘The Catholic Conundrum’ has just appeared in the February 2023 edition of History Today, exploring the phenomenon of the survival of Catholicism in early modern England. The article pays particular attention to the relationship between Catholics and the government, and the paradox of a government that simultaneously needed Catholics and subjected them to intense persecution. The article is based on my book with Alan Dures, English Catholicism 1558-1642, which was published by Routledge in 2021.


Film review: Mr Landsbergis

Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s epic documentary film Mr Landsbergis (2021) is over four hours long, and without commentary apart from that provided by the questions Loznitsa asks Vytautas Landsbergis, the Lithuanian music professor who – some would say – brought down the Soviet Union. The film tells the story, through remarkable archive footage, of the first nation to declare its independence from the USSR, beginning the cascade that ended with the abolition of the Soviet Union in December 1991. That nation was, of course, the Republic of Lithuania – illegally annexed and occupied by the USSR in 1940 under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – which fiercely resisted occupation and never surrendered its claim to exist as a sovereign nation. The film tells how, as the thaw of Perestroika began, Lithuanians began to talk openly of independence and discuss how best to achieve it.

Although Landsbergis provides the film’s only commentary, the film is not so much his personal story as that of Lithuania in the years 1988-1991; rather than a story told by Landsbergis, it is a story told by the footage itself, intercut with Loznitsa’s questions to the former Lithuanian leader.

Close to the start of the film, Landsbergis offers a searing moral analysis of the Soviet Union (and, indeed, the Russian Federation that succeeded it):

It is may be one of the greatest mistakes humankind has ever made, and that mistake is all too evident within Russia and the former USSR: the belief that power over something is the supreme value; power over the little people, but first and foremost power over territories, over domains. And such an organisation, which calls itself ‘a state’, exists solely to expand its territory and remain invincible. They proclaimed this in their anthems and wherever else they pleased. ‘Invincible, everlasting, we shall rule forever, and Lenin will live forever’. All this nonsense is forever, and you must forget about everything else, because ‘everything else’ is evil; and if you serve evil, even in your mind, then you are already an enemy. Whose enemy? Our enemy. And since we are the people, that makes you an enemy of the people. If you think differently, if you don’t toe the party line, you aren’t just an enemy of the state, you are an enemy of the people … This is a fundamental lie. And this Empire of Lies, which still flourishes today, is founded on such complete falsehoods.

The first half of the film chronicles the period from the foundation of Sąjūdis (the Lithuanian independence movement) in 1988 to Lithuania’s declaration of independence on 11 March 1990. Loznitsa is unflinching in portraying the internal divisions within Sąjūdis over the best way to advance its agenda within the new atmosphere of Perestroika. The fear that Gorbachev might be replaced by a more hardline leader, and that Perestroika would come to an end, was clearly an ever-present fear; and Lithuanians were rightly concerned about Gorbachev’s motives. Was the new climate of free expression just a trap so that those most actively opposed to the Soviet occupation would publicly expose their identities? These were not unreasonable concerns, but the momentum for independence was also unstoppable.

Central to the Lithuanian independence movement was the insistence that an independent Lithuania would not be a new state, but simply the reinstatement of the Republic of Lithuania created in 1918 and illegally occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940. It was this occupation – and the role of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – that set the Baltic states apart from the other constituent nations of the USSR; and indeed the United States had never recognised the USSR’s annexation of the Baltic republics. However, the crucial event for advancing the Baltic independence movements occurred not in Vilnius, Talinn or Riga but in Moscow, where an official investigation into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact concluded not only that the pact really had existed (something hitherto denied by the regime) but that it had been one of Stalin’s crimes. While damnatio memoriae of Stalin was nothing new, the nullification of the pact had profound political consequences for the Baltic states. What possible reason for the occupation could there now be, if the USSR itself now repudiated the original basis of that occupation?

Gorbachev turned instead to economic arguments in an effort to retain the Baltic nations in captivity. On his visit to Lithuania, he is shown arguing with Lithuanians and assuring them that it was only in the Soviet sphere of influence that the Lithuanian economy could survive. Yet the moral bankruptcy of the late Soviet Union emerges even in his own words: ‘You couldn’t have said this before, could you? You know what would have happened to you’, Gorbachev remarks to one Lithuanian who challenges him, chillingly reminding all Lithuanians of the deportations to Siberia. The idea that the Soviet Union could admit its crimes and wallow in its own moral bankruptcy while at the same time asking Lithuania to remain part of the Union was a defining illusion of the period; Gorbachev, and Soviet officials like him, were incapable of imagining a world without the Soviet Union. What they failed to see was that, with the adoption of intellectual freedom under Perestroika, Communist ideology was being dissolved; and without Communist ideology, the USSR could not exist. The archive footage of the People’s Congress of the USSR, struggling to acclimatise itself to the concept of free discussion and flailing against historical necessity, is some of the most fascinating in the film.

Lithuania’s outlook as an independent country was indeed dire, economically and politically. There was little appetite for the break-up of the Soviet Union in the West; the end-game of Glasnost and Perestroika, as Margaret Thatcher’s government saw it (for example) was some sort of modernised, westernised USSR becoming a trading partner of the West – not the apocalyptic scenario of the USSR’s total collapse, with all the dangers that entailed. Decades of Soviet policies of centralisation left Lithuania economically crippled and scarcely ready to support itself. There was no guarantee that anyone would recognise a self-declared Lithuanian state; what Lithuania was doing, no-one had ever done before. In purely material terms – which were the only terms in which Soviet ideology encouraged people to think – Lithuania’s defiance of the USSR was madness.

Yet the message of Loznitsa’s film is perhaps precisely this – that history, at least sometimes, is not determined by purely material considerations, but by the human spirit. Just three months after Mr Landsbergis was released, Loznitsa’s own country of Ukraine proved this to be true by resisting Russia’s full-scale invasion, against all odds. Yet the situations of Lithuania in 1990 and Ukraine in 2022 were also very different. On the one hand, Lithuania confronted the Soviet Union without an army and without arms, with nothing but nonviolence to fall back on. On the other hand, the Soviet Union of 1990 was a diffident power uncertain of the reason for its own existence, unlike the monstrous engine of extreme nationalist ideology that is the Russia of Vladimir Putin. It was this Soviet diffidence that created the window for Lithuania’s assertion of its own independence, although the months that followed 11 March 1990 must have been terrifying; Lithuania was free in spirit, but the Soviet Army remained. Tanks and armoured vehicles prowled the streets threateningly, and the fledgling government found itself forced out of government buildings as Moscow attempted to impose direct rule.

Moscow’s attempted economic blockade of Lithuania ended in farce when it was undermined by the corruption of Soviet officials themselves, while a military parade through Vilnius in November 1990 to mark the 73rd anniversary of the October Revolution was similarly shambolic, serving only to expose the firmness of Lithuanian opposition to the USSR. Yet a hardening of Soviet attitudes came with the realisation that 1991 would see Lithuania create its own currency, opt out of the Soviet economy, and redouble its efforts to achieve formal diplomatic recognition from foreign governments. The USSR’s ‘special operation’ in January 1991 was calculated to crush Lithuania and occupy it once more. Lithuanians had no means of resisting beyond forming large crowds around key buildings and putting up makeshift barricades. As Landsbergis describes the events of 13 January 1991,

[The Soviets] probably thought that the crowd would disperse. Obviously. They were very well equipped and had military superiority. They fired into the air or at the ground, but then started firing straight ahead when the crowd didn’t disperse. Tanks were used to crush people. People should have run away when they saw the level of violence. But they did not budge, they kept blocking the way, dragged people out from under the wheels, all the while cursing the attackers as fascists …

The Lithuanians’ refusal to budge – the act of physical disobedience that cost 14 people their lives that night – made it impossible for Gorbachev to continue the operation. This was not how it was supposed to happen, and the Soviet leader was desperate to preserve some shred of plausible deniability and salvage his reputation as a peace-loving reformer. However, the film makes clear how close Lithuania came to losing everything in August 1991 when hardliners attempted a putsch against Gorbachev – Soviet commanders in the Baltic were willing to seize control of the independent republics (where Soviet troops were still stationed, of course).

Loznitsa’s decision to concentrate solely on the story of Lithuania means that the wider Baltic context is missing from this film – which makes it unusual, since the story of the Baltic independence movements is often told together. Furthermore, there are some aspects of the story emphasised more than others – and the events at the TV Tower of the night of 13 January 1991 are not covered in much detail. There are numerous points in the film when it would not be clear what is going on to someone unfamiliar with modern Lithuanian history, and there is no captioning of prominent individuals who appear in the film so we know who they are. This may be because the film was aimed at a Lithuanian audience (although Loznitsa interviewed Landsbergis in Russian) and therefore the audience would be expected to know. Or it may be that Loznitsa made the directorial decision that such niceties as captioning would interrupt the flow of the film. Either way, the film is a monumental achievement in the compilation and interpretation of archival film of a crucial event in 20th-century European history, interpreted by the man who was at the centre of those events.


A return to fiction: Shades of Rome

My second collection of supernatural tales, Shades of Rome: Ghostly Tales of Roman Britain has just been published. The collection follows on from my first foray into short fiction, Yellow Glass and Other Ghost Stories, published in 2020. Unlike the first collection, however, all of the stories in Shades of Rome are united by a theme: namely, the archaeology of Roman Britain, whose uncanny side emerges in these tales of archaeological horror.

The collection includes a preface, ‘Britain’s Roman Uncanny’, which explores the place of Roman Britain in supernatural and weird fiction, and why this period of history exerts such a pull. The seven stories themselves are inspired by Britain’s Roman remains – long-abandoned sacred springs, disturbing curse tablets, troubling altars – as well as by our behaviour in encountering the relics of the past; both a ‘nighthawk’ (an illegal metal detectorist) and an overreaching billionaire who rebuilds a Romano-British temple suffer unexpected consequences in these stories.

I hope that these stories will bring ‘a pleasant terror’ to readers as well as bringing to life the archaeology of Roman Britain, which still has the power to fire the imagination…


Article in The Catholic Herald about the Harpole Treasure

My article ‘Excellent Women’, about the remarkable Harpole Treasure from Northamptonshire, has appeared in the January 2023 edition of The Catholic Herald magazine. The article explores the possible context for this 7th-century burial and its potential significance for understanding the spread of Christianity in early medieval England, and Mercia in particular.