The early centuries of the Middle Ages, when the legends were in making, give all the impression of a dream. Among rustic populations, deeply submissive to the Church and of a gentle spirit (the legends themselves attest this), we would gladly assume a high degree of innocence. Surely it must have been God’s own time, this. Nevertheless, in the Penitentiaries, where the most ordinary sins are noted down, strange and dishonouring forms of depravity are mentioned too, of rare occurrence under the reign of Satan.
This is due to two causes–utter ignorance, and the habit of living in common, which brought near relatives into the closest contiguity. They seem to have had scarce an inkling of our morality. Their own, in spite of ecclesiastical prohibitions, appears to have been that of the Patriarchs, of the remotest antiquity, which looks upon marriage with strange women as wicked, and only allows the kinswoman to be a lawful bride. Allied families formed only a single household. Not daring as yet to disperse their dwellings over the wastes that surrounded them, tilling merely the outlying demesne of a Merovingian palace or of a monastery, they retired every night together with their beasts under the roof of a vast villa. Hence inconveniences similar to those of the ergastulum of classical antiquity, in which slaves were herded promiscuously. More than one of these communities still existed in the Middle Ages, and even later. The Lord of the Soil recked little of what resulted from the arrangement. He regarded as forming a single family this tribe, this mass of human beings “getting up and going to bed together,”–“eating bread off one platter and meat out of one pot.”
In this indiscriminate way of living, woman met with very little care or protection; the place she occupied was an extremely humble one. True, the virgin, the ideal woman, rose higher from century to century, but the woman of real life counted for mighty little in these rustic communities, these massed aggregates of men and cattle. Such was the unhappy but inevitable outcome of a state of things which could only change for the better when the common habitation was subdivided, when at length men plucked up courage to live apart, in separate hamlets, or to settle as isolated cultivators of fertile lands at a distance, and build huts in clearings of the forest. The separate hearth created true family life; the nest made the bird. Henceforth they have ceased to be chattels–they are living souls. . . The wife and mother has come into existence.
A touching moment. At length she has a home; she can therefore be pure and holy at last, poor creature. She can brood quietly over a thought, and undisturbed, as she sits spinning, dream dreams while he is abroad in the forest. The hut is wretched enough, damp and ill-built, and the winter wind whistles through it; but to make up for all defects it is silent. There are dim corners in it where her dreams can find a lodgement.
She is an owner now, possesses something of her very own. Distaff, bed, chest is all the household has, as the old song says.1 But soon a table will be added, a bench, or a couple of stools.
A poorly appointed house! but its furniture includes a living soul. The firelight heartens it; the consecrated bush of box guards the bed, to which is often added a pretty bunch of vervain. The lady of this palace sits spinning at her door, watching a few sheep the while. They are not rich enough yet to keep a cow; but this will come in time, if God blesses the house. The forest, a bit of pasture land, a hive of bees that feed on the heath are their livelihood. They do not grow much wheat yet, having no certainty of reaping a crop so long in growing. This life, poverty-stricken as it is, is yet less hard upon the wife. She is not broken with fatigue, made old and ugly before her time, as she will be when the time of farming on a large scale has arrived. And she has more leisure too. Beware of judging her in any way by the coarse literature of the Noels and Fabliaux, the silly laughter and licence of the broad tales composed at a later date. She is alone, without neighbours. The evil, unhealthy life of dark little shut-in towns, the prying into each other’s affairs, the pitiful, perilous scandal mongering–none of this is begun yet! There is no old harridan yet, coming creeping at dusk down the narrow, gloomy street to tempt the young wife and tell her someone is a-dying of love for her. The serf’s wife we are describing now has no friend but her dreams, no one to gossip with but her beasts or the forest trees.
They talk to her–we know not what about. They awake in her things her mother told her, her grandmother–old, old things that for century after century have been handed on from woman to woman. Harmless memories come back of the ancient spirits of the country, a gentle, genial family religion, which in the common life just quitted and its noisy promiscuity, had doubtless lost most of its force, but which now returns like a ghost and haunts the lonely cabin.
A strange, dainty world of fairies and elves, made to appeal to a woman’s soul. Directly the great stream of invention that produced the saintly legends runs dry and stops, these other legends, older and equally poetical, but in a totally different way, come to share their vogue with them, and reign softly and secretly in gentle hearts. They are the woman’s especial treasure, which she fondles and caresses. A fairy is a woman too, a fantastic mirror in which she sees her own self, only fairer and daintier than the reality.
What were the Fairies? What we are told is that in old days, queens of the Gauls, proud and fantastic princesses, at the coming of Christ and His apostles, were wickedly impertinent and turned their backs. In Brittany they were dancing at the time, and never stopped. Hence their cruel sentence; they are doomed to live on till the Day of Judgment.2 Many of them are reduced to the tiny dimensions of a rabbit or a mouse; for instance, the kowrig-gwans (fairy dwarfs), who at night-time, at the foot of old Druidical stones, ring you round with their elvish dances; or to take another example, the lovely Queen Mab, who makes her royal coach out of a walnut-shell. They are a trifle capricious, and sometimes mischievously disposed–and what wonder, considering their unhappy destiny? Whimsical and tiny as they are, they possess a heart, and crave to be loved. Sometimes kindly, sometimes the reverse, they are full of fancies. At the birth of a child they come down the chimney, endow the babe with gifts good or bad, and fix its fate. They love good spinsters, and spin divinely themselves. To spin like a fairy, the goodwives say.
In the Fairy Tales, disencumbered of the absurd ornaments the latest editors have dressed them out in, is found the people’s very inmost heart. They mark a poetical period between the coarse promiscuity of the primitive villa and the licence of the days when a rising bourgeoisie produced the cynical fabliaux.
These Tales have a historical side, recalling the great famines–in the ogres and so on. But as a rule they float in a higher ether than common history, soaring on the wings of Fantasy through the realms of eternal Poesy, expressing the desires of men’s hearts, which are ever the same and have an unchanging history of their own.
The longing of the poor serf to get breathing time, to find rest, to discover a treasure that shall end his wretchedness, recurs again and again in them. More often still, by a nobler aspiration, this treasure trove is a soul to boot, a treasure of sleeping love that must be awaked,-as in “The Sleeping Beauty”; though often the charming heroine is found hidden under a mask by reason of a fatal spell. Whence that touching Trilogy, that admirable crescendo,-Riquet of the Tuft, Ass’s Skin, Sleeping Beauty. Love will take no denial; under all these hideous disguises, it pursues, and wins, the hidden fair one. The last of these three tales reaches the true sublime, and I suppose no one has ever been able to read it without tears.
A very real and very genuine passion underlies it, that of unhappy, quite hopeless love, one that cruel Nature often sows between pure souls of too widely separated ranks, the poignant regret of the peasant woman that she cannot make herself fair and desirable, to be loved of the knight; the stifled sighs of the serf, as looking down his furrow, he sees riding by on a white horse a too, too charming vision, the beautiful, the adored, mistress of the castle and the lands he tills. It is like the Eastern fable, the melancholy idyll of the impossible loves of the Rose and the Nightingale. But there is one great difference; the bird and the flower are both beautiful, equal even in beauty. But here the inferior being, so low placed in the scale of rank, confesses humbly, “I am plain and homely, a monster of ugliness!” The pity of it! . . . But all the same, with a persistency and a heroic power of will unknown to the East, and by the very ardour of his longing, he breaks through the silly obstacles in his way. He loves so truly he is loved in turn, this monster; and Love makes him beautiful.
There is an infinite tenderness in it all. This soul of enchantment turns her thoughts to others besides herself; and is eager to save all nature and all society as well. All the victims of those rough days are her especial favourites–the child beaten by a cruel stepmother, the youngest sister scorned and ill-treated by the others. She extends her pity even to the lady of the castle herself, compassionating her for being in the hands of the ferocious baron, Blue Beard. She commiserates the brutes, and comforts them for the misery of still wearing the shapes of animals. They must be patient, a brighter time is coming; one day their captive souls will take wings and be free, lovable and beloved. This is the other side of Ass’s Skin and other similar stories. Here at any rate is evidence of a woman’s tender-heartedness. The rude field labourer is brutal enough with his beasts; but woman is different, she sees something else than beasts in them. She judges them as a child does, observes the human and spiritual elements in them, ennobles the whole animal world with her sympathy. Oh, Happy spell! Lowly as she is, and convinced of her own plainness, yet she has invested all Nature with her beauty, and the charm of her personality.
But is she so plain, this little peasant wife, whose dreaming imagination feeds on all these fancies? I have described her life, how she keeps house, how she spins as she watches her sheep, how she trips to the forest and gathers her little bundle of firewood. No very hard work is hers as yet; she is not the repulsive-looking countrywoman of a later time, disfigured by unremitting labour in the wheat fields. Neither is she the heavy citizen’s dame, fat and indolent, of the towns, who formed the subject of so many appetising stories amongst our forefathers. Our heroine is timid, and has no sense of security; soft and gentle, she is conscious of being in God’s hand. On the mountain crag she sees the black and lowering castle, whence a thousand dangers may at any moment descend. She fears and honours her husband; a serf elsewhere, by her side he is a king. For him she keeps the best, living on almost nothing herself. She is slim and small, like the pictured saints in church windows. The meagre fare of those days is bound to make fine-strung creatures, but having only a frail vitality. Witness the enormous infant mortality.These palefaced blossoms are nothing but nerves. At a later date this will break out in the epileptic dances of the fourteenth century. At present in the twelfth and thereabouts, two weaknesses are connected with this condition of semi-starvation: at night, somnambulism, and by day, hallucination, dreamy reverie, and the gift of tears.
All innocence as the woman is, still she has a secret–we have said so before–a secret she never, never confesses at church. She carries shut within her breast a fond remembrance of the poor ancient gods,3 now fallen to the estate of spirits, and a feeling of compassion for them. For do not for an instant suppose, because they are gods, they are exempt from pain and suffering. Lodged in rocks, in the trunks of oaks, they are very unhappy in winter. They greatly love heat, and prowl round the houses; they have been surprised in stables, warming themselves beside the cattle. Having no more incense, no more victims, poor things, they sometimes take some of the housewife’s milk. She, good managing soul, does not stint her husband, but diminishes her own portion, and when evening comes, leaves a little cream behind in the bowl.
These spirits, which no longer appear except by night, sadly regret their exile from the day, and are eager for lights. At nightfall the goodwife hardens her heart and sallies out fearfully, bearing a humble taper to the great oak where they dwell, or the mysterious pool whose surface will double the flame in its dark mirror to cheer the unhappy outlaws.
Great heavens! if she were discovered! Her husband is a prudent man, and has a holy terror of the Church’s anger; he would most certainly beat her, if he knew. The priest makes fierce war on the poor spirits, and hunts them out of every corner. Yet surely they might be let live in peace in the old oaks. What harm do they do in the forest? But no! Council after Council launches its anathemas against them. On certain days the priest even goes to the oak, and mumbles prayers and sprinkles holy water to drive away the evil spirits.
What would become of them if there were no kind soul to pity them? But she is their protection; good Christian as she is, she yet has a warm corner in her heart for them. None other is to be trusted with sundry little intimate secrets of her woman’s nature, innocent enough secrets for a chaste wife like her, but which the Church would be sorely scandalised if it heard. They are her confessors, to whom she does not fear to make these touching feminine confidences. She thinks of them as she lays the Yule log on the fire. It is Christmas, but it is the old Feast of the Spirits of the North as well, the Feast of the Longest Night. The same of the Vigil of May Night, the pervigilium of Maia, when the mystic tree is planted. The same again, the fires of St. John’s Eve, the true festival of life and flowers and new-born love. Above all, the childless wife makes it a duty to love these feasts, and observe them piously. A vow to the Virgin might not perhaps be successful; she is hardly in full sympathy with such a case. Whispering low, the anxious wife prefers to address her prayer to some old-world deity, adored as a rustic god of yore, and whom such-and-such a church has been good-natured enough to make into a saint.4 Thus bed and cradle, the tenderest mysteries a chaste and fond soul broods over, all this is still the province of the gods of ancient days.
Nor are the spirits ungrateful. One day she wakes, and lo! without her putting a hand to anything, the household tasks are done. She is struck dumb, crosses herself, and says nothing. When her man is gone to work she asks herself what it means, but can find no answer. It must be a spirit. “What is he? what is he like? . . . Oh! how I should love to see him! . . . But I am afraid. . . . They say folks die who see a spirit.” Meantime the cradle moves, rocks all by itself. . . . She is lost in wonder, and presently hears a tiny, soft, soft voice, so low she might almost think it spoke within her own breast. It says, “Dear, dearest mistress, if I love to rock your child, ’tis because I am a little child myself.” Her heart beats wildly, but soon she gathers better courage. The harmless innocence of the act makes the spirit seem harmless too; he must be good and gentle, one God must surely tolerate at least.
Henceforth she is no longer alone. She plainly feels his presence, and he is never far from her. He rubs against her skirt, she can hear the rustle he makes. He is for ever on the move about her, and evidently cannot quit her side. If she goes to the stable, there he is again. And she is almost sure, the other day, he was in the butter-firkin.5
What a pity she cannot catch him and have a good look at him. Once, all of a sudden, when she stirred the live embers, she thought she saw him dancing an elfin dance among the sparks. Another time she all but captured him in a rose. Small as he is, he works away, sweeping and tidying and sparing her a world of trouble. All the same he has his faults. He is volatile and over-bold, and if he were caught he would most likely escape. Also he sees and hears too much. Sometimes he repeats in the morning some little word she has said quite low, low down, at bedtime, after the light was out. She knows for certain he is very indiscreet, and most inquisitive. It troubles her to feel herself followed about everywhere; she complains how annoying it is, and likes it all the while. Sometimes she will threaten him and send him about his business. At last she is really alone, and quite reassured at the thought. But next moment she feels on her cheek a light caressing breath, a touch like a bird’s wing. He was under a leaf, the rogue. . . . He laughs, and his sweet voice-no mockery in it now-tells her his delight in having stolen a march on his modest, modest mistress. Now she is really angry; but the rascal only trills, “No! no! little mistress, darling little mistress, you are not angry–not at a thing like that!”
She is ashamed and dares say no more. But she has her suspicions he loves her over-well. Her scruples are awaked–and she loves him all the more. At night she thought she felt him in bed, that he had slipped in between the sheets. She was afraid, offered a prayer to God, and pressed close to her goodman’s side. What is she to do? She has not the heart or the courage to tell the priest. So she tells her husband, who laughs at first in sheer incredulity. Then she confesses a little more–that Robin Good-fellow is a sly fellow, sometimes too bold by half. . . . “What matter? he is so wee!” Thus her husband himself reassures her.
Are we also to be reassured, we who can see more plainly? Yes! she is still perfectly good and innocent. She would shudder to imitate the great lady up yonder in the castle, who under her very husband’s eyes, has her court of lovers and her page. Still we must allow the elfin lover has made good progress already. Impossible to have a less compromising page than one who can lie hid in a rose. And there is much that is love-like about him too. Few can be more encroaching; so tiny he is, he can slip in anywhere.
He slips even into the husband’s heart, pays court to him, wins his good graces. He looks after his tools, works in his garden, and of evenings for his reward, behind the child and the cat, crouches in the chimney corner. His little voice makes itself heard, for all the world like a cricket’s, but he is seldom seen, except when a struggling beam of light falls upon a particular crack where he loves to lie. Then they catch a glimpse, or think they do, of a sharp, whimsical little face; and cry, “Ah, ha! little one, we saw you.”
All very well to tell them at church they must beware of evil spirits, that one they think quite harmless, one that slips into the house like a puff of wind, may really and truly be a demon. They take good care not to believe a word of it. Why! his littleness is proof enough of innocence; and certainly they have prospered more since he came. The husband is as sure of it as the wife, perhaps surer. He is firmly convinced the dear, frolicsome little Brownie makes the happiness of their home.
Note 1: “Three steps towards the bench,Three steps towards the bed, Three steps towards the chest, And three steps back again.” (Old French Song of the Dancing Master)
Note 2: The authorities of all dates have been brought together in M. Alfred Maury’s two learned books, Les Fees, 1843, and La Magie, 1860. Consult also, for the North, Grimm’s Mythologie.
Note 3: Nothing can be more touching than this fidelity to the old faith. In spite of persecution, in the fifth century, the peasants used still to carry in procession, under the form of poor little dolls of linen and flour, the deities of the great old religions–Jupiter, Minerva, Venus. Diana was indestructible, even in the remotest corner of Germany (see Grimm). In the eighth century some pagan processions are still performed. In some humble cabins, sacrifices are still made and auguries taken, etc. (Indiculus paganiarum, Council of Leptines in Hainault). The Capitularies threaten death in vain. In the twelfth century Burchard of Worms mentions the various prohibitions and declares they were all unavailing. In 1389 the Sorbonne once more condemns the remaining traces of Paganism, and about 1400 Gerson (Contra Astrol.) mentions Astrology as an actual superstition still obstinately surviving.
Note 4: A. Maury, Magie, 159.
Note 5: ‘This is one of the little glutton’s favourite biding-places. The Swiss, who know his likings, to this day make him presents of milk. Their name for him is troll; among the Germans he is called kobold, nix; among the French, follet, goblin, lutin; among the English, Puck, Robin Goodfellow. Shakespeare makes him oblige sleepy maidservants by pinching them black and blue to wake them in the mornings.