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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.

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Publication of Witchcraft and the Modern Roman Catholic Church

My short book Witchcraft and the Modern Roman Catholic Church has just been published in Cambridge University Press’s Elements Series, as part of a sub-series dedicated to the theme of magic. The book deals with the Catholic church’s relationship with the idea of witchcraft since the Second Vatican Council, both in the developed and the developing world, focussing on official and semi-official responses to witchcraft and belief in witchcraft. It examines the treatment of witchcraft in Vatican documents, the differing views on witchcraft found in the writings of practising Catholic exorcists, and the relationship between Catholicism and witchcraft in the developing world (especially Africa).

The chronological scope of the Element runs from the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s to the present day, and the Element is divided into four main sections. The first of these deals with the historical background to Catholic belief in witchcraft. The second approaches modern Vatican documents, including documents by popes, documents issued in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and liturgy, especially the liturgy of exorcism and norms related to it. The third section deals with attitudes of exorcists throughout the world, drawing on exorcists from around the world and with a variety of perspectives, ranging from virtually denying the possibility of its existence to a position which is quite concerned about the possibility of witchcraft as a form of spiritual evil menacing the faithful.

Finally, the fourth section of the element looks at the issue of witchcraft in the developing world, contrasting some of the attitudes that are expressed centrally in Rome (and indeed in European dioceses) with the approach to witchcraft adopted on the ground in developing countries, where belief in witchcraft remains a major aspect of daily life for many Catholics. This section looks at the approaches adopted by popes when visiting the developing world towards the issue of belief in witchcraft. It approaches the phenomenon of Catholic witch-hunting authorised or partially authorised by the local clergy, and it concludes by looking at the affair of Emmanuel Milingo, the archbishop of Lusaka who in the 1990s was recalled to Rome for his use of exorcism and preaching on witchcraft, and looks at how the events surrounding Milingo crystallised the contrast between the western church and the church in the developing world.

This contrast is a theme that runs through this Element, which is about witchcraft but is also about the asymmetries within the global Catholic church and the way in which an issue like witchcraft, which divides Catholic bishops and clergy in their responses to it, may show the cracks and the conflicts that are latent within the global Catholic church.

You can watch a video abstract for the Element here.

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Article on the Depraedatio abbatiae in The Journal of Breckland Studies

My article ‘The Depraedatio abbatiae as a source on the uprising against St Edmunds Abbey, 1327-9′ has just been published in Volume 4 of The Journal of Breckland Studies, published by the Breckland Society. This special issue of the journal, delayed by the pandemic, is focussed on Bury St Edmunds and its abbey, and my article takes a detailed look at a document known as ‘the depredation of the abbey’ which gives the monks’ account of the tumultuous events of 1327-29, when the town of Bury St Edmunds rebelled against the abbey and plunged the town into civil war.

The focus of the article is on the strategies employed by the author of the Depraedatio to smear the townsfolk of Bury as allied with the devil, while portraying the monks as aided and protected by St Edmund. The author returns repeatedly to demonological tropes when describing the behaviour of the townsfolk (and the Franciscan friars who supported them), culminating in a terrifying vision of a demon in the cellar of Moyse’s Hall that is surely worthy of any ghost story by M. R. James!

The article concludes that, while the Depredatio is an unreliable source for the events of 1327–29, as an artefact created in the years following the uprising, it may be a more valuable source than hitherto recognised regarding the uneasy peace after the abbey regained control of Bury.

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Film review: Sengirė

‘[The Lithuanians] had forests they used to call sacred, in which it was sacrilegious and carried the penalty of death to touch them with iron … They think that the god of the forests, and the other gods, are in the woods in this way, as the poet has it, “The gods also have dwelt in the woods.” They also placate snakes and serpents …’

Jan Długosz, c. 1480

Sengirė (released under the English title The Ancient Woods) is a 2017 film by Lithuanian director Mindaugas Survila. The term ‘nature documentary’ hardly does the film justice, although it certainly uses the cinematographic techniques of nature documentary-making. The film reportedly took four years to film, which is easy to believe, relying as it must have done on cameras discreetly hidden in animals’ dens or areas known to be frequented by particular species – and the film’s performers, the wild fauna of Lithuania, cannot have been particularly tractable and co-operative. Unlike most nature documentaries the film is without music or commentary; the soundtrack is simply the sound of the forest. The story is told only through the editing of images; and the absence of overt narrative or narrative cues invites (and perhaps compels) the viewer to read their own story into the film.

Lithuania’s relationship with its (sadly dwindling) forests is an intense one. It is not an exaggeration to say that the forests are the reason Lithuania exists. They are the reason the Lithuanian language survived as an island of extremely conservative Indo-European linguistic development; they are the reason Lithuania survived the Mongol onslaught on 13th-century Eastern Europe, and were able to take advantage of the chaos to build their own vast empire; they are the reason German crusaders were unable to invade and subdue Lithuania; and they are the reason Russia, whether under the Tsars or under Stalin, never fully succeeded in dominating Lithuania or breaking the will of its people. In modern times, Lithuania’s forests have been the refuge of its defiant partisans, but for centuries the forests were sacred. Depending which author we rely on, the forests seem not only to have been the dwelling of innumerable gods – gods of moss, of bees, of specific species of tree – but also in and of themselves divine, to the point that the Lithuanians would execute anyone who trespassed in a sacred forest or, worse, attempted to fell trees there.

The conversion of Lithuania to Christianity between 1387 and 1417 involved the deliberate felling of sacred forests and trees, although we know that such beliefs lingered even into the late 18th century. But what was it like to experience the forest as sacred? This, to me, seems to be the question with which Sengirė is wrestling. In what way is the forest sacred? How can this sense of the forest’s sacredness be conveyed to a cinematic audience? How do we recover a sense of that sacredness? How did we ever lose it? All of these questions, to my mind, crowd around the film. Because many of the characters we encounter are Lithuania’s sacred animals – the snake (in this case an adder), which was at the heart of medieval Lithuanian animism, attacks, poisons and then slowly digests a dormouse. But even the gods are subject to death; later in the film, ants swarm over the carcass of a dead adder.

We also meet other gods of the forest: the bison, which performs extraordinary feats of tossing a huge branch on its horns, the majestic elk, the precious bees, and the storks that have come to represent Lithuania itself. And we meet the god of the heavens, Perkūnas, as a thunderstorm breaks over the summer woods. There are humans in Survila’s forest too, taciturn, contemplative and unspeaking, as if to remind us that what seems timeless is indeed subject to human whims. The film begins and ends with human interaction (albeit minimal) with animals; a group of deer eating chopped up turnips in front of a farmstead at the forest edge.

The sacred forest can be cut down, the gods can be killed; but the question that Sengirė leaves us with, it seems to me, is whether the fragility of the forest makes it any less divine. In the 14th century, Lithuanians embraced the Christian faith when they saw Polish soldiers hewing sacred oaks, unsmited by the gods; the timeless forest was timeless no more. But in the 21st century our yearning is for more time to appreciate this beauty. The viewer doesn’t want Sengirė to end, because we don’t want the timeless beauty of nature to end, in denial as we are about our reckless destruction of it all. The forest’s fragility makes it divine; it lies outside our realm of eternal plastic, cold metal and unyielding tarmac. It is no longer rendered divine by ancestral familiarity, but by profound alienation and difference.

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Film Review: Baltic Tribes

Baltic Tribes (Latvian title Baltu Ciltis) is a 2018 Latvian drama-documentary that follows the exploits of a hapless Danish merchant named Lars in the opening decades of the 13th century, as he ends up visiting all of the pagan peoples of the medieval Baltic. The film is partly narrated by Lars himself and partly by a second narrator who presents significant historic sites (accompanied by CGI reconstructions) and facts about Baltic history and religion. Lars begins his journey in the declining Prussian port of Truso, where he witnesses a Christian priest beheaded for accidentally gathering firewood in a sacred forest. He then travels into the land of the Galindians, where he trespasses on Galindian hospitality and is wounded. After journeying to the Lithuanian capital at Kernavė he heads into Latvia and encounters the Livonian Swordbrethren, arriving eventually at the city of Riga, but he is captured by Oselians in a raid and taken into slavery. Sold eventually to Samogitians, he ends up participating in the Battle of Saulė (1236) where he is killed.

Imagined Baltic gods © HighOctane Pictures

Baltic Tribes is a very well-produced film with excellent and creative cinematography and strong production values. The film’s second narrator is perhaps its most jarring feature (at least in the English-language version of the film), intruding on the narrative to impart historical and cultural information. The quality of that information, however, is generally impressive, and accompanied by wonderfully creative Terry Gilliamesque moving medieval illuminations that, among other things, imagine how the Baltic gods might have been depicted in a medieval manuscript. The film has an impressive array of historical and archaeological consultants, including Prof. Juris Urtāns, Prof. Marek Jagodziński (the leading authority on the medieval emporium of Truso), and Prof. Vykintas Vaitkevičius (the leading authority on the sacred sites of Lithuania).

The film makes a good attempt to portray Baltic religious rites in a way faithful to the surviving texts, even making clear when the depiction of a rite was based on the descriptions of medieval and early modern authors or on folklore and tradition. All texts describing the Baltic tribes are problematic on account of their Christian and generally hostile provenance, and they have to be treated with a great deal of caution. For instance, several texts claim that some Baltic tribes practised human sacrifice and no mention of this – probably false – claim is made in the film. On the other hand, the film does portray the Galindians as polygamous (another contentious claim), while the portrayal of licentious Midsummer rites is based on recent Lithuanian and Latvian folk traditions rather than any evidence we actually have for how the pagan Balts celebrated the Summer Solstice.

The film does a good job of portraying the complexity of the relationship between the Livonian Swordbrethren and the Latgalians, but there are times when Baltic Tribes ventures into highly speculative territory – such as the suggestion that Baltic earth and sea goddesses are of Finnic origin. The character of Lars experiences doubts about the relationship between Christianity and paganism and about his own Christian identity, although he never goes so far as to abandon Christianity. ‘Everything was permeated with the divine, and I wondered if I was truly the greatest being on earth, or merely a part of something greater’, Lars reflects after his experience of Midsummer Rituals in the Daugava River, presumably in an effort to convey the mentality of Baltic animism. Similarly, the narrator assures us at one point that Balts did not literally worship sacred trees, stones and lakes but that ‘Natural objects served as a material mediator through which perception was connected to revelation’. The fact is that we simply cannot know why and how these people worshipped what they did, as not a single source survives that is written from the pagan perspective.

Reconstruction of Kernave © HighOctane Pictures

Perhaps my main concern about the film is with its title and main premise – the idea that the Balts are best understood as a collection of tribes, who are portrayed in the film as living in a ‘state of nature’ where the imperative is to ‘kill or be killed’. On the one hand, the film’s focus on the tribes helpfully emphasises the diversity of the Balts in the period before the Northern Crusades really took hold, in contrast to the modern survival of only two Baltic languages. On the other hand, however, the approach to the Balts as ‘tribes’ reinforces an outdated historical perception of the Baltic region (derived originally from the Crusaders themselves) as inhabited by barbarians – which is what the film’s Balts essentially are, regardless of how sympathetically they are at times portrayed. While the testimony of the historical sources is mixed, later sources informed by humanist historiography tend to portray Baltic peoples as highly moral, with well-structured societies.

It is the political structure of Baltic societies that is the missing element of Baltic Tribes, which concentrates on anthropological, ritual and experiential details but does not, ultimately, do justice to the sophistication of Baltic political organisation. In part this is down to the period the film chooses to portray; we really know very little about the region in the early 13th century. Yet it is clear that great centres like Kernavė could not have existed without the sophisticated political organisation that later created King Mindaugas and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Baltic Tribes leaves the viewer wondering how these tribes could possibly have not only held off wave after wave of Crusaders but also (in the case of the Lithuanians) managed to establish the largest polity in medieval Europe.

Overall Baltic Tribes, while most impressive, does not altogether reflect how I would choose to tell the medieval religious history of the Baltic peoples, but it nevertheless makes a valuable contribution to enhancing well-informed public knowledge of Baltic religion inside and outside the Baltic states. The accuracy of the film’s portrayal of Baltic paganism contrast favourably, for example, with the paganism of the 2019 Latvian film The Pagan King, which mingles elements of Norse, Sámi and even megalithic religion but includes nothing that really resembles Baltic paganism – which is better historically attested than most other forms of Northern European pagan belief. I would thus recommend Baltic Tribes for those interested in Baltic paganism, as long as they are prepared to pay close attention to the film’s own caveats about the evidential value of some of our knowledge.

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‘England’s Other Westminster Abbey’ for the Churches Conservation Trust

This afternoon I delivered the Churches Conservation Trust‘s weekly lunchtime lecture on the theme of ‘England’s Other Westminster Abbey: Bury St Edmunds and its Royal Shrine’. The talk examined the role of St Edmunds Abbey as the centre of a royal cult, comparing it with Westminster Abbey and the Abbey of St Denis near Paris, and addressing the question of why Westminster Abbey survived as a great royal church while Bury suffered dissolution and ruin.

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St Edmund and the Baltic Crusade

St Edmund, king and martyr established an early reputation as a crusaders’ saint. In 1190 Richard I dedicated his crusading fleet to Edmund’s patronage, and in 1211 Richard de Argentyne founded a church dedicated to St Edmund at Damietta in Egypt. While St Edmund never rivalled St George as a crusading saint, he became particularly associated with crusading fleets because he was sometimes invoked as a protector of mariners. The crusades in the Levant were not, however, the only crusades in the medieval world, and throughout the 13th and 14th centuries nobles from throughout Christendom undertook a reyse (seasonal campaign) with the Teutonic Knights, the crusading order based in Prussia and Livonia (modern Latvia and Estonia). The aim of the Teutonic Knights was to conquer and convert the pagan Lithuanians who continued to resist Christendom, and whose tactics of guerrilla warfare made it impossible for the Knights to establish an occupation.

The dwindling of Levantine crusading opportunities in the late Middle Ages meant that reysen to the Baltic became increasingly popular with English and Scottish nobles who were keen to gain military experience. From the 1350s onwards it became fashionable for the wealthiest magnates to kit out crusading fleets and travel to Königsberg, the Prussian capital, before proceeding into the heathenesse of Lithuania. There has hitherto been no indication that the cult of St Edmund was in any way involved in the Baltic crusades, but there is one hint that a northern crusader did have St Edmund in mind as a patron.

While the best known of these reysen is that undertaken by Henry, earl of Derby (the future Henry IV) in 1390, the largest English reyse was in fact equipped by Thomas Woodstock, duke of Gloucester in 1391. By this time Lithuania was in fact a Christian country, but still at war with the Teutonic Knights, who made use of crusading as a spurious excuse to attract foreign support for their cause. There is no direct evidence that Gloucester’s crusade was placed under the patronage of St Edmund, but it is suggestive that the bishop of Winchester, William Wykeham, issued prayers in support of Gloucester from Esher on 20 November 1391 – St Edmund’s Day:

Almighty and merciful God, Lord of lords, who teaches the hands of the just for battle and their fingers for war, be pleased to accept the prayers of your devoted people; let him subject those he wishes to subject, and with those whom he wishes, give him victory.

Since, therefore, the renowned and illustrious prince, the Lord Thomas, duke of Gloucester, placing his hope in the Lord, is about to go on pilgrimage to foreign and distant parts to fight the enemies of the Cross of Christ, on account of devotion, we attentively beseech your devotion (and all the saints of God be had in devotion), since he has now absorbed heavy labours and expenses in his journey, that you have the aforesaid Lord Thomas, duke of Gloucester, in your masses and other prayers (exhorting you likewise in the Lord) as a pious proposal.

The bishop went on to offer an indulgence of 40 days to those who prayed for the duke. By the time the prayers and indulgence had been issued the duke had already departed (at the end of October), and as it happened he never reached his destination, being tossed about by storms on the North Sea for six weeks until landing in the north of Scotland. However, although St Edmund is not mentioned in Bishop Wykeham’s prayers, the date of the prayers’ issue may be an indication that Gloucester dedicated his crusading fleet to St Edmund. Wykeham did not issue the prayers to coincide with Gloucester’s departure, and unless the month it took the prayers to be issued was merely an administrative delay, the day chosen for their promulgation was surely significant. By 1391 St Edmund’s Day was one of the most significant in the calendar of the English church, and a holy day of obligation when everyone was required to attend mass. Furthermore, most of Gloucester’s followers came from East Anglia and the fleet departed from the Suffolk coast, making a dedication to the East Anglian saint most fitting.

So it seems that St Edmund never got the chance to be a patron of crusaders in the Baltic, although Thomas of Woodstock may well have wanted him to be…

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Launch of English Catholicism 1558-1642

This evening Alan Dures and I launched our new book English Catholicism 1558-1642 at Culford School, where Alan Dures taught between 1977 and 2002, and where I was a pupil between 1992 and 1999. The event took place in Culford’s Old Hall and Workman Library and was attended by many former students and staff. Both I and Alan spoke to introduce the book, explaining the reasons for a second edition and highlighting some of the book’s main themes. Many of those who attended the launch purchased signed copies of the book.

I am grateful to Culford’s Headmaster Julian Johnson-Munday and to Samantha Salisbury and Sean Collier for organising and hosting the event.