" Brown bread and herring cobb! Thy fat sides shall have many a bob! "
But beyond such playful malice, they had no desire to extend their resentment.
The constant attendant upon the English fairy court was the celebrated Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, who, to the elves, acted in some measure as the jester, or clown of the company,—(a character then to be found in the establishment of every person of quality,) or, to use a more modern comparison, resembled the Pierrot of the pantomime. His jests were of the most simple, and at the same time the broadest comic character—to mislead a clown on his path homeward, to disguise himself like a stool, in order to induce an old gossip to commit the egregious mistake of sitting down on the floor, when she expected to repose on a chair, were his special enjoyments. If he condescended to do some work for the sleeping family, in which he had some resemblance to the Scottish household spirit called a Brownie, the selfish Puck was far from practising this labour on the disinterested principle of the northern goblin, who, if raiment or food was left in his way, and for his use, departed from the family in displeasure. Robin Goodfellow, on the contrary, must have both his food and his rest, as Milton informs us, amid his other notices of country superstitions, in the poem of L'Allegro. And it is to be noticed, that he represents these tales of the fairies, told round the cottage hearth, as of a cheerful rather than a serious cast; which illustrates what I have said concerning the milder character of the southern superstitions as compared with those of the same class in Scotland—the stories of which are for the most part of a frightful, and not seldom of a disgusting, quality.
* Dr. Jackson, in his Treatise on Unbelief, opines for the severer opinion. " Thus are the Fayries, from difference of events ascribed to them, divided into good and bad, when as it is but one and the same malignant fiend that meddles in both ; seeking sometimes to be feared, otherwhiles to be loued as God, for the bodily harmes or good turnes Bupposed to be in his power."—Jackson on Unbelief, p. 178, edit. 1625.
Poor Robin, however, between whom and King Oberon Shakspeare contrives to keep a degree of distinct subordination, which for a moment deceives us by its appearance of reality, notwithstanding his turn for wit and humour, had been obscured by oblivion even in the days of Queen Bess. We have already seen, in a passage quoted from Reginald Scot, that the belief was fallen into abeyance; that which follows from the same author, affirms more positively that Robin's date was over.
" Know you this by the way, that heretofore Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin were as terrible, and also as credible to the people, as hags and witches be now; and, in time to come, a witch will be as mnch derided and condemned, and as clearly perceived, as the illusion and knavery of Robin Goodfellow, upon whom there have gone as many and as credible tales as witchcraft, saving that it hath not pleased the translators of the Bible to call spirits by the name of Robin Goodfellow, as they have diviners, soothsayers, poisoners, and cozeners, by the name of witches." * In the same tone Reginald Scot addresses the reader in the preface—" To make a solemn suit to you that are partial readers to set aside partiality, to take in good part my writings, and with indifferent eyes to look upon my book, were labour lost and time ill employed; for I should no more prevail herein, than if a hundred years since I should have entreated your predecessors to believe that Robin Goodfellow, that great and ancient bull-beggar, had been but a cozening merchant, and no devil indeed. But Robin Goodfellow ceaseth now to be much feared, and Popery is sufficiently discovered, nevertheless witches' charms and conjurers' cozenage are yet effectual." This passage seems clearly to prove, that the belief in Robin Goodfellow and his fairy companions was now out of date, while that as to witchcraft, as was afterwards but too well shown, kept its ground against argument and controversy, and survived " to shed more blood."
We are then to take leave of this fascinating article of the popular creed, having in it so much of interest to the imagination, that we almost envy the credulity of those who, in the gentle moonlight of a summer night in England, amid the tangled glades of a deep forest, or the turfy swell of her romantic commons, could fancy they saw the fairies tracing their sportive ring. But it is in vain to regret illusions which, however engaging, must of necessity yield their place before the increase of knowledge, like shadows at the advance of morn. These superstitions have already served their best and most useful purpose, having been embalmed in the poetry of Milton and of Shakspeare, as well as of writers only inferior to those great names. Of Spencer we must say nothing, because in his Faery Queen, the title is the only circumstance which connects his splendid allegory with the popular superstition; and, as he uses it, means nothing more than an Utopia, or nameless country.
* Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft, book vii. chap. ii.
With the fairy popular creed fell, doubtless, many subordinate articles of credulity in England ; but the belief in witches kept its ground. It was rooted in the minds of the common people, as well by the easy solution it afforded of much which they found otherwise hard to explain, as in reverence to the Holy Scriptures, in which the word witch being used in several places, conveyed to those who did not trouble themselves about the nicety of the translation from the Eastern tongues, the inference that the same species of witches were meant as those against whom modern legislation had, in most European nations, directed the punishment of death. These two circumstances furnished the numerous believers in witchcraft with arguments in divinity and law which they conceived irrefragable