Episode 168: Witches, Demons and Fairies

In this episode, we explore the Elizabethan fascination with witchcraft and mysterious creatures like fairies and demons. Those subjects feature prominently in the literature of the period, and they reveal a lot about the world view of the people who lived in England in the late 1500s. Among the texts analyzed in this episode are Reginald Scot’s ‘Discoverie of Witchcraft,’ Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus,’ Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene,’ and William Shakespeare’s three history plays about Henry VI.


16 thoughts on “Episode 168: Witches, Demons and Fairies

  1. Great episode! Minor correction at 1:45:21: it was Edward IV, not Edward VI, who assumed the throne after defeating Henry and Margaret.

  2. Fascinating! I always assumed “que sera, sera” was French because the movie in which Doris Day sung the song (Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew too Much, with Jimmy Stewart) was set in Paris (as best I recall–I think I watched it in the 1990s). The song was still popular when I came of age in 1960s. Amazing to me that the phrase is Latin and has been around for more than 400 years! Learn something every (Doris) day!

    Also, I was blown away that the “face that launched a 1000 ships” was from Marlowe during Elizabethan times. Has I been asked, I would have guessed it was from antiquity.

    This was another episode where multiple times I had to stop the podcast to let yet another amazing nugget sink in. Thank you Kevin for this wonderful podcast!

    (Ok, while I’m heaping praise, I do have to admit I have one complaint: the missing serial comma in the title. English grammar is so complex–at least to me–and yet use of a serial comma is so simple and helps avoid confusion. Heck, you even had a bonus episode on a legal decision that hung on the absence of a serial comma in a law. I’ll now get off my medium-height horse. 🙂 )

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the episode. With respect to the serial comma, I was a regular user of it as a student and young man, but today I only use where it is needed to prevent confusion. That seems to be more consistent with modern practice. But as long as the meaning is clear, I don’t really have a strong opinion either way.

    • The expression isn’t Latin but (probably) a confusion of Spanish and Italian. The Spanish is “lo que sera, sera”, the Italian “che sarà sarà”.

  3. Hi. What a great action packed episode! I think I’m going to have to listen again because I’m sure I missed something. Two things I would like to say: 1. In Lancashire in North West England the name for a mischievous fairy is a Boggart. It seems to be halfway between a fairy and a ghost as it often haunts old churchyards. Lancashire folklore is full of “Boggart Tales” and a horse that becomes unmanageable is said to have “gone boggart”. 2. I was interested in what you said about the difference between the Elizabeth and James Witchcraft Acts. Elizabeth’s using English Common Law had the concept of a “maleficium” (I think I’ve spelt it right) the idea that before a conviction there had to be proof that a criminal act had been done so a person could not be prosecuted for being a witch but only for doing an “evil deed” by witchcraft. In Scotland which used Roman Law that was not necessary so a person could be prosecuted for being a witch whether or not they had committed any act of witchcraft. It’s interesting that some English Justices ignored James’ law and wouldn’t try a case unless some act of witchcraft was supposed to have happened. Incidentally there was no chance of an accused witch using an alibi as the law said that “spectral evidence” allowed for a witch to be in two places at once. Seems a bit hard.
    Roll on Episode 169!

  4. Geoffrey Chaucer and John of Gaunt are linked via their wives, who were sisters. Chaucer’s son had one daughter, Alice, who was married three times. Her 3rd husband was Suffolk. Suffolk and Alice went off to France to find Margaret, who became the wife of Henry VI. It is said that the two couples were “best friends” more or less. Alice eventually became Margaret’s “jailer.” So it goes.
    Lancastrian Alice Chaucer managed to marry off her son via Suffolk to Elizabeth, the sister of Edward IV and Richard 3. A good try at bringing the red and white roses together. Unfortunately, her grandsons lived short lives.

  5. I really enjoyed the music that was used in the breaks in this episode. Is there anywhere I can find a source for some of them?

    Thanks in advance!

    • They are all stock audio clips. I acquired them many years ago through istockaudio/gettyimages. As far as I know, none of them are available a full audio pieces.

  6. Last episode? There is still so much to learn about how English has evolved since the 1500’s. l look forward to each and every episode. This podcast remains my favourite, thank you Kevin!

  7. Thanks for another great episode! Regarding Robert Greene’s criticism of Shakespeare, I noticed that he used the word “beautified.” In “Hamlet”, Polonius is reading Hamlet’s love letter to Ophelia and stops when it contains the word “beautified”, calling it a “vile phrase”. Is it possible that this was a dig at Greene?

  8. Wow, I’m late to the game; only recently discovered your podcast and I love it! Am only on episode 35 or 36 (Aethelbert and Augustine and the first written laws in the English.) Lots of long car trips to look forward to in the company of your podcast. Thank you!

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