Elves in Anglo-Saxon England

Elves in Anglo-Saxon England

Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity

Alaric Hall

Elves and elf-belief during the Anglo-Saxon period are reassessed in this lively and provocative study.
Anglo-Saxon elves [Old English ælfe] are one of the best attested non-Christian beliefs in early medieval Europe, but current interpretations of the evidence derive directly from outdated nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarship. Integrating linguistic and textual approaches into an anthropologically-inspired framework, this book reassesses the full range of evidence. It traces continuities and changes in medieval non-Christian beliefs with a new degree of reliability, from pre-conversion times to the eleventh century and beyond, and uses comparative material from medieval Ireland and Scandinavia to argue for a dynamic relationship between beliefs and society. In particular, it interprets the cultural significance of elves as a cause of illness in medical texts, and provides new insights into the much-discussed Scandinavian magic of seidr. Elf-beliefs, moreover, were connected with Anglo-Saxon constructions of sex and gender; their changing nature provides a rare insight into a fascinating area of early medieval European culture.

Shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award 2007

ALARIC HALL is a fellow of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

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Table of Contents

A Medieval Scandinavian Context
The Earliest Anglo-Saxon Evidence
Female Elves and Beautiful Elves
Ælfe, Illness and Healing (1): the `Elf-shot' Conspiracy
Ælfe, Illness and Healing (2): ælfsiden
Anglo-Saxon Myth and Gender
Believing in Early Medieval History
Appendix 1: The Linguistic History of elf
Appendix 2: Two Non-elves
Works Cited


A work of great value. COSMOS

Clearly written, richly documented, and carefully argued. It should find a welcome reception among folklorists with historical and philological interests. JOURNAL OF FOLKLORE RESEARCH
A confident, well-substantiated and textured piece that will be an asset to several areas of medieval scholarship. EARLY MEDIEVAL EUROPE
Makes a definite contribution to the field of Anglo-Saxon, early medieval and cultural studies. Hall admirably brings to the surface the relevant linguistic and textual evidence that allows him to reconstruct beliefs about "elves" in the British Isles in the early Middle Ages in a way that is satisfying both in the realm of traditional philological study and in the light of more recent cultural histories. ANGLIA

A book that should be read by all medievalists. An important achievement. [.] Most significantly, the book's methodology deserves both admiration and wide emulation. THE MEDIEVAL REVIEW

Helps illuminate Anglo-Saxon social attitudes towards the supernatural, health and gender, and shows how texts can be as important in the shaping of social realities as they are in recording them. HISTORICAL JOURNAL
Fine excavation of the meaning of Anglo-Saxon elfdom. 9/10. FORTEAN TIMES
Highly recommended. THE CAULDRON

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