Mischievious Fairy Folk

At this time of year the healing, red-stalked Herb Robert is in bloom, and according to tradition, you should be careful how you treat it. For to wantonly destroy the flower, which is under the protection of Robin Goodfellow, the household protector who was also known as 'Puck', (derived from the Old English Pucelas, 'wild men of the woods'), is to court disaster. Treat the flower well and it will help you to staunch wounds; treat Robin well and he will help you with your housework. So was the belief of the country folk in the centuries up to and perhaps into the nineteenth century.

Reginald Scot, in 1584 recorded that 'grandam's maids were wont to set a bowl of milk before…Robin Goodfellow, for grinding of malt or mustard, and sweeping the house at midnight'. Robin, like the Irish Phouka and Welsh Pwca was a helpful domestic sprite, hobgoblin or guardian spirit much like the house-elf Dobby in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Like a brownie, he would clean houses and such in exchange for some cream or milk.

The practice of leaving out food and drink for the fairies had been well known in the Middle Ages though it had been condemned by the Church and the fairies described as akin to devils. But wariness of these little folk, which had first been documented in the thirteenth century was very real, and Robin Goodfellow, as the ever present household spirit, was especially feared. It was believed that if you annoyed him, he could turn against you. Reginald Scot had heard that 'he would chafe exceedingly if the maid or good-wife of the house, having compassion of his nakedness, laid any clothes for him besides his mess of white bread and milk, which was his standing fee'.

It seems that in later years, Robin Goodfellow would give rewards of money for the bread and milk and to those who kept their house in order, rather than doing chores for them. In 1688, John Aubrey recorded that housewives 'were wont to please the Fairies (that they might do them no shrewd turns) by sweeping clean the Hearth, and setting by it a dish whereon was set a mess of milk sopped with white bread; and did set their Shoes by the fire, and many times on the morrow they should find a threepence in one of them. But if they did speak of it they never had any again'.

By the seventeenth century, Robin's status was similar to that of the Queen of the Fairies, known as Mab. But she did not help with housework or give rewards. Like the Irish fairies, which were still feared in the nineteenth century, she expected all to be in order before the housewife or servants retired to bed. If this were not so then the offenders would be pinched! The seventeenth century poet Robert Herrick wrote

'If ye will with Mab find grace,
Set each platter in his place:
Rake the fire up, and get
Water in, ere sun be set.
Wash your pails, and cleanse your dairies;
Sluts are loathsome to the fairies:
Sweep your house; who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe'.

Robin Goodfellow, would do more than pinch those who upset him. He would knock over buckets, steal milk from the cows and corn from the fields and spoil the beer, cheese and butter making amongst other things. Titania in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream asked Robin to confirm his tricks:

'…are you not he, That fright the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk; and sometimes labour in the quern,
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometimes make the drink bear no barm;
Misleed night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck.'

Robin Goodfellow, according to a seventeenth century ballad was the son of Oberon, the King of the Fairies and a 'young wench'. Half-human and half-faerie, he was a trickster who was able to shape-shift. His first exploit was to change himself into a horse, induce a fool to mount him, and throw his mount so that he almost broke his neck. Then Robin, still in disguise, went through to the middle of a ford and vanished, so that his rider found himself with nothing but a pack-saddle between his legs. Similarly, the Irish Phouka would also turn into a horse and lead people on a wild ride, sometimes dumping them in water.

Robin, in disguise is also reputed to have attended weddings as a musician and made the candles go out whilst he pinched the guests, causing much confusion. If hungry he would change into the guise of a bear and frighten all away so they left the food for him to enjoy. Shakespeare had Robin confirm the usefulness of shape-shifting for playing tricks-

'I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon, and make him smile,
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal…
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And `tailor,' cries, and falls in a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips, and laugh…'

Most disturbing of Robin's tricks must have been his changing into a Will O' the Wisp and leading night time travellers astray. Being misled by a Puck was known in the Midlands as being "pouk-ledden." The Welsh Pwca would also lead travellers with a lantern and then blow it out when they were at the edge of a cliff. In the fens there are tales of the times before drainage when 'will-o'-the-wikes' led travellers off the causeways and into the peat-bog to their deaths.

But times have changed and where I live in the Fens, close to a meandering road called Robin Goodfellows Lane, I can say that people no longer talk of the hobgoblins or the fairies. But there is nothing new in referring to the fairies as being a thing of the past. In the fourteenth century, Chaucer's Wife of Bath explained that the fairy folk had been driven away by the prayers and charity of the holy friars. Similarly, in 1584 Reginald Scot described belief in fairies as popular in his grandmothers day, and one hundred years later John Aubrey said the same. But has this belief ever completely gone away? As I finish this article, and put away my very modern books on fairies I would like to add that, though I do not leave out offerings for Robin Goodfellow, I do find that if I try to keep my house in order I feel more in 'control' of things and I would never deliberately damage Herb Robert or any flower!

© Maureen James 2004