Janet Hadley Williams
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The elrich poems
The supernatural and the textual
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Verse in Older Scots includes humorous poems that have been described as elrich – ‘connected with supernatural beings or elves; uncanny’. The poems in this tradition, products of the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, are all concerned with other worlds – of fairyland, heaven, hell, paradise or nonsense. Their inhabitants can be elves, fairies, ghosts, brownies, giants, devils, spirits, warlocks or witches. Activities might include shape-shifting, cursing, magical trickery, visions, nightmares or conjurations. The viewpoint can be enigmatic, threatening, dreamlike, disorienting, a reversal of the natural order. Time is beyond precise date: when a giant is offspring of an acorn or the king and queen of fary have authority. The humour in these poems can be dark, even sadistic, drawing on the medieval church’s ever-present fear of evil spirits. Narratives can resemble nightmares. Devils, or the Devil himself, can tear sinful souls into rags, chillingly proclaim a sentence of eternal damnation or order a dance in Hell. In other poems, humour can have a lighter, dreamlike comic incongruity, often a childlike delight in the ghoulish. However great the supernatural threat, cumulative tension is always dissolved and the everyday world reasserted.

This chapter examines the textual challenges these poems present to those investigating the supernatural in early modern Scotland. Agile study is needed to make sense of these difficult texts, which have lost their immediate context and suffered textual changes, deliberate and inadvertent, because they survive only in manuscripts compiled long after the poems themselves were composed.

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