This page dates from around 2002, near the beginning of Alaric's doctoral research. The thesis looks rather different now, so this is just here to show how the project developed.

The Plan

The project works in three parts. These are not necessarily researched in the order given here, but it makes sense to present the proceedures of the project as three (maybe four...) stages:

1. Studying the meanings of elf by closely examining a wide range of attestations, and studying how the meaning of elf overlaps with the meanings of other words denoting (supernatural) creatures: words such as the pretty much lost puca or scinna, and the later and successful borrowing fairy. This stage is, then, like writing an extremely detailed, chronological dictionary entry for elf, and will produce a much clearer picture of its meanings than has previously been available. Alaric traces its history from the beginning of the Germanic languages (the language family including English, German, Gothic, Norwegian, etc.), turning up all sorts of information about pre-Christian and medieval Germanic cultures on the way. If you spot an elf in a pre-1600 text, then Alaric will be deeply grateful if you'd let him know! You can check if he's already found it here.
An especially important part of this section of the research is trying to determine the meaning(s) of elf before Christianity and literacy came to Britain, so as to see how its meaning was changed by Christianisation. Here especially the evidence of other Germanic languages and literatures, such as Old Icelandic, and of Anglo-Saxon names (like Alfred), features in the research.

2. The knowledge gained from this research enables Alaric to interpret the texts in which we find elf more sensitively and effectively than has been possible previously. This improves our understanding of the literature on which we rely in large part for our understanding of the Middle Ages. A prominent example is the Old English medical texts, in which elf occurs several times. Past attempts to understand this presence have been both of limited success, and, Alaric argues, often erroneous. Thus, the detailed study of elf and words of related meaning provides important insights into medieval approaches to disease and healing.
A more literary example is that of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: previous efforts to interpret the role of magic in this text have tended to work from the level of the plot downwards. This is useful, of course, but to work from the level of a word upwards, seeing where and why Chaucer brings elf into his narratives, gives an alternative perspective on Chaucer's own beliefs, and the significance of the Canterbury Tales.

3. Combined, these analyses offer a new understanding of the meaning of elf, and the role of elves, in medieval English literature. From this, it is possible to draw some conclusions about the function in medieval England of the range of superstitions which elf denoted. Sometimes, texts offer a fairly direct window into these matters, such as the records of sixteenth-century Scottish witchcraft trials, or Old English medical texts. To utilise the evidence of both these texts and more literary ones, Alaric employs the idea that the concepts which people and societies use to organise and comprehend their existences, such as gender, class, nationality and religion, are invented by societies, even though they may be imagined to be 'real'. Thus Alaric might be said to be English, but Englishness is not inherent in him; if he had been adopted as a baby by a family in Portugal, he would probably be entirely Portuguese. So Alaric's Englishness is a status which he and his society collectively imagine, and decide to be 'real'. And this 'social reality' certainly has real effects on Alaric's behaviour. Studying this kind of social reality can provide enormous insights into the nature of the society in which Alaric lives. Elves are of course another imagined reality, arguably less grounded in physical reality than differences of gender or nationality. Studying the function of this superstition in the societies which created and nurtured it, and the literatures which societies used to express it, can provide a revealing window into the concerns and preconceptions of those societies. Creating a biography of elf covering over a thousand years can tell us a great deal about what it was like to live in the changing societies of that time.
Supernatural creatures could also be particularly useful concepts to those debating certain social problems, and so they were in England's early Christian period, and later, throughout the high medieval period. Particular issues which Alaric's study of elf and elves relate to are the relationships between male and female genders, and the gradual Christianisation of the English-speaking peoples.

4. The extent to which Scandinavian, Scottish and other Germanic elf-traditions will be studied in their own right is not yet certain. However, not only do the earlier Scandinavian materials provide vital evidence for the character of the pre-historic English elf-tradition, but research so far shows both Old Norse álfr (English elf) and Old Norse ás (Old English os) to have undergone semantic developments very similar to their English counterparts in the centries following the conversion to Christianity. These comparanda offer important evidence for the character of the conversion of the peoples in question, and will feature in the dissertation either as a section in their own right, or by frequent reference during discussions focused on the English tradition. Likewise, the Scottish witchcraft trials, where lore attaching to elf is unusually well-attested, provide important comparanda to the earlier English evidence.

If you have any comments or suggestions regarding this project (or on the clarity of Alaric's description of it!) then do email him! alaric@cantab.net.