The Use and Development of the Faerie Sign in Romance from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Within medieval and early modern romance, faeries frequently take on the appearance and customs of medieval courtly society, but they are also something distinctly other, existing on the fringes of the known world and unbeholden to either human or divine law. Faeries were ambiguous creatures whose appearance and function often defied categorisation. The absence of social or moral restrictions made them dangerous (although potentially rewarding) characters to be around, and so their incorporation into romance served to cultivate a sense of uncertainty amongst its audiences. However, there is also an extent to which faeries in romance conform to certain patterns, both in terms of the conventions that are used to identify them, and their purpose in relation to the shared construction of meaning within a text. The repeated themes and motifs that are used throughout romance to identify faerie characters and otherworldly settings are referred to throughout this thesis using the collective term the faerie sign. By identifying faeries in this way, the aim of this thesis is to focus on a broader range of examples than has been covered in previous studies on faeries in romance. By exploring different iterations of the faerie sign across selected medieval and early modern texts, my aim is to analyse how different authors engage intertextually with its conventions to propagate different meanings and agendas. Through the use of recognisable themes and motifs, the authors of these texts invited audiences to question the nature of the ambiguous otherworldly characters that populate romance (and other genres) and to examine their role in either upholding or challenging the personal, political, and religious values that these stories explored. The broad range of texts that are presented in this thesis will demonstrate how these faerie conventions took shape, and how they have been adapted and subverted from the Middle Ages to the early modern period.
Date of Award29 Sep 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorLaurence J W Publicover (Supervisor) & Cathy Hume (Supervisor)


  • faerie
  • fairy
  • romance
  • Chrétien de Troyes
  • Gawain-poet
  • Spenser
  • Shakespeare
  • Ben Jonson
  • medieval
  • early modern
  • Voyage of Bran
  • Pwyll
  • chivalry
  • otherworld

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