If I keep reading about London and its people, I’m going to have to stop describing ourselves as “nonsense”.
People were more afraid of curses than the police – see the man who poisoned a neighbor’s cow and confessed when told a curse was cast on him, or the woman in 1762 who confessed to a murder that she had escaped simply because her boyfriend told her that the place where she had dumped the body was haunted.
Curses, magic, ghosts – at the risk of sounding like a cynical unbeliever, our history is full of nonsense.
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But nowhere have I felt more distant and bewildered by Londoners of the past than when I learned that they believed – on a literal level – in fairies.
According to Martin Latham, author of Londonopolis: a Curious and Quirky History of London, London is the global access point for fairy tales and observations.
The Elizabethan era saw the children of London leave them food and water, as they now do for Santa Claus.
Belief in fairies was, to be fair, socially useful: they provided free babysitting for children in the form of terrifying threats.
The carefree children were kept from drowning by stories of being dragged away by mischievous fairies, and discouraged from stealing unripe fruit from trees (which was not only a crime but would lead to an upset stomach. ) by the fairies who supposedly watched among the leaves.
The adults were also kept in line by the fairies; adulterers and maids fleeing their chores would, according to the stories, be pinched in black and blue.
In the Fairies from 1635, a description of the daily life of fairies, special attention was paid to lazy maids.
“And if the house is dirty, Or flat, flat or bowle, Up the stairs we crawl nimbly, And find [them] sleeping.
“Then we pinch their arms and thighs, No one escapes and no one spies.
“But if the house is swept away, And uncleanness kept, We hire the house and the maid, And surely she is paid.”
But aside from the threat of pinching, fairies were useful to adults and children alike.
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If a maid spilled something, the excuse would be “Robin jogged me” – Robin Goodfellow being well known as “the Artful Dodger of the fairies” – and all of the missing items were explained not by her. own negligence, but with a fairy having borrowed this.
Which is a lot nicer than admitting you’ve lost another fork.
But the downside to this genuine, literal belief in fairies was that Londoners were all the more vulnerable to scams.
In 1595, “crafty woman” Judith Phillips was whipped across town for taking money from people on the promise of meeting the Fairy Queen.
15 years later, another fraudster went much further and tried, in essence, to pimp the Fairy Queen: Sir Anthony Ashley tricked people into making him pay to marry her.
Fast forward to 1917 and the belief in fairies was still present in London.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, known primarily for his stories about a detective who bases everything on ruthless rationality, was completely convinced that fairies were real and based an entire book pleading for their existence on fake photographs.
Elsie Wright, 16, and Frances Griffiths, nine, of Bradford faked the photos and found themselves trapped in the lie.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that they admitted that the photographs had been faked using cutouts of images from children’s books.
Maybe as a person living in 2021 I am spoiled by the technological advancements in photo editing, but dear Lord, how could anyone have thought they were real?
Seriously, this reputation we have as hard-line, super-rational, and pragmatic is crumbling in front of us.
What nonsense we come from. What a beautiful nonsense.