Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Devil's brood, Devil's dictionary

I learnt about an intriguing piece of trivia from a radio panel game the other week. Apparently, Henry III signed a law decreeing the death penalty for anyone found killing, wounding or maiming fairies.

One of the few things I knew about Henry III was his reputation for immense piety which, at first glance, sits rather oddly with this rather heathen-sounding belief in fairy folk. But then again, maybe the pious are more susceptible to tales of the supernatural from outside their formal belief systems as well as inside them. King James I/VI was almost as famous for his credulous fascination with witchcraft as he was for the eponymous Bible he commissioned and it's now mainly obsessive Christians who literally believe in the spiritual threats posed by ouija boards, "Satanic" rock n' pop, energy drinks, Harry Potter and yoga.

Alternatively, could Henry's legendary piety have been a cover for a supernatural skeleton in the family cupboard?
According to Gerald of Wales, the counts of Anjou were descendants of the devil. In some distant time a count of Anjou married a beautiful, mysterious woman named Melusine. Many years later, after realising that his wife never attended mass, he forced her to remain in church during the eucharist. As she could not bear the holy ceremony she flew screaming out of the window, revealing her demonic origin. Notorious for their violent disputes - often among themselves - the legend was an explanation for this 'unnatural' behaviour. The story also inspired Alfred Duggan to call his - not particularly good - book about Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II and their offspring Devil's Brood.

Superstitious nonsense, of course, but I was briefly fascinated by the possibility that the Henry might have believed in his faery/diabolical ancestry. Weird, but not completely unbelievable for a medieval monarch, schooled to accept weird shit like the Divine Right of Kings, and even closer to plausibility when you consider that Japanese Emperors have claimed descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu right up to modern times.

Just when I was getting to enjoy this Game of Thrones-style mashup of Plantagenet history and supernatural fantasy, some doubts began to creep in. According to Melanie J Firth:
Did you also know that there is actually an ancient law stating that it was a capital offence to kill a faery? King Henry III passed this law in 1153. It stated that even just causing injury to a faery was punishable by the death penalty. 
... Just for the record, Henry’s law above has never been repealed.
In a country archaic enough to possess a House of Lords, with seating for the Lords Spiritual on the bench of bishops, it's almost possible to believe that you could still be tried for GBH to Tinkerbell. Sadly, Henry III would have had some difficulty in passing such a law in 1153, given that he wasn't born until 1207. A bit more light Googling of this suspiciously-dated statute failed to pin it down, then revealed that this "fact" was propagated because the radio researchers didn't recognise a joke, rather like those journalists who occasionally get caught out recycling unchecked headlines from The Onion as real news:
On occasion I'll find an interesting fact on my nerd calendar, "Jeff Kacirk's Forgotten English", and Wednesday, June 19th was just such a day. The entry on that date discussed statutes for odd crimes in England, the weirdest being the "one signed by Henry III specifying death for maiming a fairy". I got all excited and wondered why they didn't include the statute number or a date, at least. A little investigation only frustrated my attempts. Was it such an archaic law that no one had heard about it? Where could I find more information?

Twitter. Obviously. But don't get your hopes up, people because THE CALENDAR IS A LIIIIIIIIIIIIIE. According to @WolfeSelma (who I think might be my common law Twitter-wife), the story about Henry III was just a joke written by Ambrose Bierce, an American satirist, in his 1906 book Devil's Dictionary--and the calendar had tried to pass this off as fact. That makes me so angry that if I ever meet Jeff Kacirk, I'm going to throw boiling coffee at him. I'll scald out the calumnies.

Bierce's entry for "Fairy" comically defines the mythical creature and then says: "In the time of Henry III, of England, a law was made which prescribed the death penalty for "Kyllynge, wowndynge, or mamynge" ["killing, wounding, or maiming" in pseudo-Middle English] a fairy, and it was universally respected".

So much for expecting properly checked facts from The Unbelievable Truth. It's back to More or Less for me...