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Publication of Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic

My book Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic: Sixteenth-Century Ethnographic Accounts of Baltic Paganism is published today by Arc Humanities Press.

Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic is the first translation into English of the key Latin texts written between around 1450 and 1580 about the religion, culture and language of the Balts, at a time when paganism was still a living reality in the Baltic region. The Union of Krewo and the formal conversion of Lithuania to Christianity in 1387 created a vast domain ruled by the Lithuanian Jagiellonian dynasty. It therefore became imperative for the scholars of Europe to understand Lithuania and the Lithuanians, who had become in a short time one of the major powers of Catholic Christendom. Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic brings together the writings of ten authors of diverse nationalities (Polish, Lithuanian, German and Italian) who were all trying to make sense of the Baltic peoples in the context of the Renaissance ethnography of the time. These authors, who displayed genuine curiosity about Baltic beliefs and customs even while they condemned pagan ignorance, preserved valuable information about Baltic cultures (although it is important to treat these sources, largely written by outsiders, with caution). The book includes the entire texts of Jan Łasicki’s On the Gods of the Samogitians and Jan Malecki’s Little Book on the Sacrifices and Idolatry of the Old Prussians, as well as extracts from larger works that discussed Baltic religion and society.

Understanding Lithuania and the pagans of the Baltic posed particular conceptual challenges in a late medieval Europe dominated by monotheistic faiths. The problem of understanding the pagans of the Baltic foreshadowed the even greater challenge of engaging with the indigenous peoples of the New World after 1492. Encounters with Baltic pagans and other pre-Christian societies in the Old World prepared Europeans to encounter the global reality of human cultural and religious diversity in the sixteenth century. In 1410, under the patronage of Władysław II Jagiełło, the Polish scholar Paweł Włodkowic became one of the first to argue for the ‘natural rights’ of pagans before the Council of Constance, in the context of the pagan Samogitians’ right to be free of the oppression of the Teutonic Order. The Latin texts translated in Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic could be read by learned individuals throughout Catholic Christendom, and embodied a complex set of responses to Baltic religion that ranged from admiration and nostalgia to condemnation and disgust. Either way, however, Renaissance Europe was fascinated by a real or imagined pagan Baltic world.

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‘Merlin, Magic and the British’ on The Rest is History

Today I featured on Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook’s popular history podcast, ‘The Rest is History’, to talk about the relationship between politics and the occult in British history. The interview focussed on some of the stories in my new book Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain.

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Contract signed with Cambridge University Press: Twilight of the Godlings

The fairy dance by Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach (1895)

I have just signed a contract with Cambridge University Press to publish my next major book, entitled Twilight of the Godlings: The Shadowy Beginnings of Britain’s Supernatural Beings.

Britain has passed through many religious transformations over the past two millennia, including the introduction of Roman religion, the arrival of Christianity, the introduction of Germanic paganism and the final process of Christianisation in the early Middle Ages. Yet historical, linguistic and archaeological evidence reveals that belief in ‘godlings’ – those lesser earthbound spirits of nature, of the home, and of human destiny – has remained a constant throughout the island’s recorded history. From the highly localised deities of Roman Britain to the elves of the Anglo-Saxons and the fairies of late medieval England, Britain’s ‘small gods’ have presided over a twilight realm of belief and ritual co-existing alongside the authorised religions of its rulers. Twilight of the Godlings delves deep into the tangled roots of British folklore by tracing the history and mythology of Britain’s folkloric beings from the pre-Roman Iron Age to the late Middle Ages, arguing that we must cast aside many common cultural assumptions about the ‘Celtic’ origins of fairies and the likelihood of folkloric survivals over many centuries. Setting aside the cherished idea that Britain’s folkloric beings are the decayed remnants of pagan gods and goddesses, Twilight of the Godlings argues that this class of beings has always been part of popular religion. The godlings survived because they fulfilled particular needs, regardless of religious change, and while their names and identities altered, their essential importance remained.

Twilight of the Godlings will be the first book for many years to revisit the once hotly-c0ntested question of the ultimate origins of Britain’s fairies, drawing on the latest research and interpretations and the resources of history, archaeology and linguistics. The book reaches the conclusion that the key to unlocking the secrets of Britain’s godlings is understanding the nature of popular Christianity and the legacy of the Classical world.

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Publication of Magic in Merlin’s Realm

Publication day is finally here for my book Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain, which is a complete history of the entanglement of politics and magic in Britain’s history. The book has been a long time in the making; I wrote a first draft as long ago as 2017, a project arising from my earlier book Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England.

Display of Magic in Merlin’s Realm at the Cambridge University Press Bookshop, Cambridge

The new book is, I hope, a major contribution to British political history, because its aim is to transform our perception of the importance of belief in magic to politics. In much the same way as we now accept that religious belief played a major role in political decision-making in the past, so Magic in Merlin’s Realm argues that political decision-making in the Middle Ages and beyond cannot be truly understood without reference to people’s belief in occult forces.

As Dr Frank Klaassen has observed, ‘the evidence presented by [Francis Young] unequivocally demonstrates that politics in pre-modern Britain cannot be fully understood without some attention to the notion and practice of magic and the occult sciences in general such as alchemy and astrology. The author has also brought together a tremendous amount of scholarship in this volume which is commendable in its own right

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Lithuania and Britain at the Oxford Lithuanian Society

This evening I spoke via Zoom to the Oxford Lithuanian Society and Oxford University Lithuanian Society on the subject of ‘Lithuania and Britain: An Entwined History’, tracing some of the key historical connections between the two countries. The event celebrated Lithuania’s Restoration of the State Day (16 February) and featured a screening of the film Jump as well as a brief visit from the Lithuanian ambassador, Renatas Norkus. I am grateful to the Lithuanian Society for inviting me as a guest speaker, and for the opportunity to introduce my proposed project of writing a book-length history of Lithuania and Britain, for which I have started a Kickstarter in the hope of crowdfunding a Lithuanian translation. This will allow the book to be published in both Lithuanian and English.

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‘The Last Witch-hunt’ at the SPGS History Conference

Today I was one of the speakers at St Paul’s Girls School‘s annual history conference, on the subject of ‘The Last Witch-hunt: John Stearne in Ely, 1647′. The talk dealt with the end of Matthew Hopkins’ and John Stearne’s infamous witch-hunt of 1644-47 in the Fenland town of Ely, exploring the reason why the witch-hunt came to an end (beyond Hopkins’ death in August 1647) and why witch-hunting became unfashionable.

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‘Bogies, witches and fairies of East Anglia’ for Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education

Today I contributed a lecture on ‘Bogies, witches and fairies of East Anglia’ to a course for Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, ‘Tales of the Unexpected: Local Histories of English Magic and the Supernatural’. The course will features a live question and answer session with the course tutors on 17 February.

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‘Lore of the Land’ in BBC History Magazine

My article ‘Lore of the Land’, exploring the importance of folklore to British national identity, has just been published in the February edition of BBC History Magazine. The article argues that, for all its diversity, Britain’s folklore is a factor that unites the whole island, with figures like Arthur and Merlin shared between the nations of Great Britain. From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Michael Drayton and J. K. Rowling, there has been a tradition of writers weaving legendary narratives for Britain as a whole, making a shared folklore and legendary tradition one of the cornerstones of what it means to be British.

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Review: The Fairy Tellers by Nicholas Jubber

My review of The Fairy Tellers by Nicholas Jubber has just been published in the February 2022 edition of BBC History Magazine. This fascinating book explores the stories of some of the earliest recorded tellers of the world’s most famous fairy tales.

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Review: Fearsome Fairies: Haunting Tales of the Fae, edited by Elizabeth Dearnley

Elizabeth Dearnley (ed.), Fearsome Fairies: Haunting Tales of the Fae (London: British Library Publishing, 2021), hardback, 336pp.

The first ‘proper’ supernatural short story I ever read and enjoyed, when I was perhaps 11 or 12 years old (sadly not included in this collection) was a story about fairies: ‘The Child That Went with the Fairies’ (1870) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. My father had tried to introduce me to the short stories of M. R. James and Arthur Conan Doyle, but to no avail – probably because I was primarily interested in fairies, not ghosts. I collected books of fairy tales, and I was particularly fascinated by Irish folklore – so Le Fanu was a perfect author with whom to begin my journey into classic supernatural literature.

When the British Library first began publishing its ‘Tales of the Weird‘ volumes – themed collections of little known 19th- and 20th-century weird short fiction – my first thought was the earnest hope that they would bring out a volume dedicated to that small (or perhaps not so small?) sub-genre of weird fiction about fairies. As it turns out, the British Library has gone one better and brought out a rather beautifully designed stand-alone volume dedicated to these stories, and edited by Elizabeth Dearnley. Fearsome Fairies is surely a landmark collection dedicated entirely to the weird fairy fiction of the last 150 years, which brings fairies out of the shadows and into the mainstream of the history of weird and supernatural fiction.

Aside from the 12 stories themselves, the book features an expert introduction, background to the authors, and poems and quotations selected by the editor to accompany each story. Dearnley even includes the Cottingley Fairy photographs, emblematic early 20th-century approaches to the fairies, as an appendix. The book features such well-known favourites as Arthur Machen’s weird classic ‘The White People’ (1904), M. R. James’s whimsical ‘After Dark in the Playing Fields’ (1924), and the unavoidable J. M. Barrie, whose portrayal of fairyland has gained him (perhaps undeserved) notoriety as one of those Victorian authors who supposedly turned the fairies ‘twee’. Yet, as Dearnley argues, Barrie’s fairies are still imbued with a subtle menace – and, like all fairies, theirs is a world apart that represents separation from the world of human beings and, ultimately, irrecoverable loss. By the end of Barrie’s ‘Lock-out Time’ (1906), as Peter Pan faces the eternally locked and barred nursery, is the true horror of fairyland really any different from Algernon Blackwood’s much more overtly serious and openly frightening presentation of the Fairy Ride in ‘The Trod’ (1946)? Fairyland is loss, separation and despair concealed by the glamour of magic, like the strikingly memorable portrayal of a fairy lover in Le Fanu’s ‘Laura Silver Bell’ (1872) – who is seen by the eponymous Laura as a handsome gentleman, and by others as a ragged, gaunt, and ill-favoured black-clad stranger.

While the settings of the stories range from New York City to Scotland and Wales, it is Irish themes that predominate – perhaps understandably, given the widespread 20th-century belief that fairy lore was a ‘Celtic’ (and often a specifically Irish) phenomenon. Charlotte Riddell’s ‘The Banshee’s Warning’, Le Fanu’s ‘Laura Silver Bell’ and Margery Lawrence’s ‘The Case of the Leannabh Sidhe’ all draw on Irish folkloric themes. The surprise of Blackwood’s protagonist to find himself hearing of fairies in ‘stolid, matter-of-fact England’, as opposed to Ireland ‘where it would have been natural’ (p. 262) reflects the prejudices of the time. Margery Lawrence’s tale is the longest in the book, and one of the most fascinating. It will be entirely new to most readers, as it was to me, and while its author was interested in Spiritualism, the tale manages to break free from the expectations we may have of trite parlour-room Spiritualist literature to produce a changeling story of depth, fascination and genuinely disturbing terror. As with many of the authors in the collection, Lawrence succeeds in convincing us that the otherworld she presents really might exist.

The fairies of Fearsome Fairies are the otherworlders of our darkest imaginations: seductive, attractive, magical, yet drawing us ultimately into a realm where the soul is lost. The fairies are not mere bogies, monsters of the existential abyss; nor are they ghosts, mere simulacra of the dead: the fairies represent an alternative society. They are social supernatural beings, almost (but not quite) human, and they embody another way of being. A world where there is magic, but where – at the same time – that which is human about us must be laid aside, sacrificed, or surrendered. The fairy other is an object of both longing and terror, often simultaneously. Blackwood captures this distinctive fairy horror in ‘The Trod’ (p. 270):

He had experienced all this before … And even as he realised all this, the strange, eerie sensation vanished and was gone, as though it had never been. It became unseizable, lost beyond recapture. It left him with a sensation of loss, of cold, of isolation, a realisation of homelessness, yet of intense attraction towards a world unrealised.

Dearnley’s collection is certainly not representative of the full range of portrayals of fairies in 19th- and 20th-century literature – it does not include, for example, a specimen of the problematic (not to say racist) literature derived from ‘pygmy theory’ that represented fairies as a race of troglodytes still surviving in remote parts of the country. But that, I suspect, is because the real purpose of this collection is not to explore all literary responses to the fairy theme but rather to present those stories that are most reflective on the nature of that theme. Who are the fairies, and why do they continue to matter? Why would authors in the 19th and 20th centuries have continued to write about them? In this revelatory collection, the editor shows that – even after Disney got hold of Tinkerbell – the finest authors of supernatural, macabre and weird fiction continued to present compelling visions of the fairies and of fairyland throughout the 20th century. And their fairies were very, very scary.