the “re-enchantment” of the present


For many people, up to the end of the seventeenth century, dragons and fairies were part of everyday life. Dragon skins hung in some parish churches and ploughing regularly turned up elf arrows, little-worked flints of great delicacy. The geographer Sir Robert Sibbald included several examples in his great account of the natural history of Scotland, Scotia Illustrata, published in 1684. At that date “Britain” was, by contrast, a largely mythical concept, a political allegory useful to the Stuart monarchy. After 1707, the situation was reversed. With the Act of Union, Britain became a legal entity, while dragons and fairies had begun their slow fade into myth. Writing in 1699, the naturalist Edward Lhuyd, to whom Sibbald had just shown off his collection of elf arrows, had no hesitation in dismissing them as man-made, “just the same as the chip’d flints the natives of New England use to head their arrows with”. The shift of belief was seen by most historians as a sign of social and intellectual progress, a notion which in itself, as John Aubrey observed, represented a change in attitudes towards the past.

more from Rosemary Hill at the TLS here.