Elizabethean Fairy Folklore

The fairies of the Medieval Romances grew out of the Celtic tradition of the Heroic Fairies, the knights and ladies of the MABINOGION, the Daoine Sidh who encountered the Milesians in love or battle; but the poets and dramatists of the Elizabethan age brought a different strand of fairy tradition into prominence. This was partly because the rise of the yeoman class, as the 16th century went on, had brought a spread of literacy and produced a new class of writers, drawn from the country up to town as Shakespeare was drawn, and bringing with them their own country traditions,

The fairy ladies of the romances had become more humanized and sophisticated as time went on, and though Spencer clung to them still, they were perhaps slightly out of date. Classical mythology was a perennial source of allusions familiar to every lettered man, even if he only came from a small-town grammar school. Still, there had been a good deal said and sung about Mars and Venus and naiads and dryads and nymphs; a new source of reference would be a welcome change, and it was at hand in the English countryside.

 There are two main types of fairies which were  novelties in literature: the hobgoblins, with which we may rate the brownie and the puck, and the small, flower-loving fairies such as we find pre-eminently in MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and which became all the fashion for the Jacobean Fairies. These fairy writings came in towards the end of the century, in the hey-day of the drama. Among the prose writers, Nashe in his TERRORS OF THE NIGHT gives us a characteristic picture of the hobgoblin type: The Robin-good-fellowes, Elfes, Fairies, Hobgoblins of our latter age, which idolatrous former daies and the fantastic all world of Greece ycleaped FAWNES, SATYRES, DRYADES, & Hamadryades, did most of their merry prankes in the Night. Then ground they malt, and had hempen shirts for their labours, daunst in rounds greene meadowes, pincht maids in their sleep that swept not their houses cleane, and led poore Travellers out of their way notoriously. Here Nashe, with a journalist's eye, lights on most of the things which became most noteworthy in his period, the brownie labours and the gift of a shirt that brought them to an end, the Dancing in fairy rings, the love of order and neatness and the punishment for untidy ways and the misleading of night wanderers. Shakespeare puts in all of these, except the pinching, which is being forever mentioned in the  asques and poems , but he adds the fairy smallness and their love of flowers, which were to become so characteristic of the Jacobean fairies. The Elizabethans struck a new note in literature there, though it was not new in tradition. It is to be found in Gervase of Tilbury and Giraldus Cambrensis.