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The meanings of elf and elves in medieval England
By Alaric Hall
PhD Dissertation, University of Glasgow, 2004
Abstract: This thesis investigates the character and role of non-Christian belief in medieval societies, and how we can reconstruct it using written sources. It focuses on Anglo-Saxon culture, contextualising Anglo-Saxon material with analyses of Middle English, Older Scots, Scandinavian and Irish texts. We lack Anglo-Saxon narratives about elves (ælfe, singular ælf), but the word ælf itself is well-attested in Old English texts. By analysing these attestations, it is possible to discover much about the meanings of the word ælf— from which, I argue, it is possible to infer what ælfe were believed to be and to do, and how these beliefs changed over time. Using methodologies inspired by linguistic anthropology (discussed in Chapter 1), I develop these analyses to reconstruct the changing significances of non-Christian beliefs in medieval English-speaking societies, affording new perspectives on Christianisation, health and healing, and group identity, particularly gendering.
The body of the thesis, chapters 2–9, is in three parts. Because of its historiographical prominence in discussions of Anglo-Saxon non-Christian beliefs, I begin in Chapter 2 by reassessing Scandinavian comparative evidence for elf-beliefs. I also show that it is possible to correlate the meanings of Old Norse words for supernatural beings with other Scandinavian mythological sources for world-views, providing a case-study supporting similar approaches to Anglo-Saxon evidence…
By combining detailed linguistic and textual analyses in a suitable comparative context, I reconstruct aspects of non-Christian belief which are marginalized in our early medieval sources, and detect how they changed over time. Such beliefs illuminate various aspects of medieval culture, including social identity, health and healing, the sources and use of supernatural power, and Christianisation. My methods, meanwhile, provide paradigms for taking similar approaches to studying belief and ideology in other areas of medieval Europe.