A Field Guide to Fairies - Abbey Lubbers

Updated on January 21, 2020
Pollyanna Jones profile image

A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.

Abbey Lubbers
Abbey Lubbers | Source

There are many accounts throughout folklore of the clashes between the fair folk and humans, once land is acquired for use by the Church.

Well known tales describe how men would down tools after a day's hard labour laying foundation stones, only to find their work undone the next morning. Other folktales describe how fairies angered by the trespass on their land, would topple the church bell into a nearby pool to give a clear message that this new place of worship was not welcome!

It is only through the actions of a priest to banish these wild beings that work would be allowed to continue, with the fairies never returning once the bell finally chimes in the finished tower.

Abbey Lubbers are quick to temper!
Abbey Lubbers are quick to temper!

One particular strain of fairy was said to be more stubborn, and would cause disharmony in abbeys, tempting the monks into drunkenness and distraction. Known as 'Abbey Lubbers', these mischevious creatures would take the form of a human helper, sometimes an actual monk or member of kitchen staff. Once settled in, their devilish behaviour would begin, distracting the monks from their simple life and reaping merry havoc.

Infiltrating the abbey, the lubber would be quick to assume the appearance of his kin.
Infiltrating the abbey, the lubber would be quick to assume the appearance of his kin. | Source

The term 'lubber' describes an idle person, who is considered a scrounger. In the days when abbeys were rich and powerful places, an Abbey Lubber was one who existed on alms and doles given out as acts of charity by the abbeys and religious houses. So successful were these spongers, that they were considered professional beggars.

'Abbey Lubber' as an insult, was applied during the Reformation to lazy monks. Some saw them growing fat on tithes, feasting and drinking, despite their vows.

The blame for this behaviour was put on a supernatural influence over the affected monks, particularly on this fairy creature infiltrating their community.

Friar Rush was one such example. The account below is from A Dictionary of Fairies by Katharine Briggs.

Abbey Lubbers would trick their way into the service of monks
Abbey Lubbers would trick their way into the service of monks

Friar Rush

"From the 15th Century onwards, the luxury and wantonness of many of the abbeys began to be proverbial, and many folk satires were spread abroad about them. Among these were anecdotes of the abbey lubbers, minor devils who were detailed to tempt the monks to drunkenness, gluttony, and lasciviousness. The best-known of these tales is that of Friar Rush, who was sent to work the final damnation of a wealthy abbey. He had very nearly succeeded in doing so when he was unmasked, conjured into the form of a horse by the Prior, and finally banished. He took other service, and behaved more like an ordinary Robin Good-Fellow until the Prior again caught up with him and banished him to a distant castle. After their experience with Rush, the friars repented and took to virtuous living, so that their last state was better than their first. Rush worked mainly in the kitchen, but abbey lubbers as a rule haunted the wine cellar. The Abbey Lubber has a lay colleague in the Buttery Spirit, which haunted dishonestly-run inns, or households where the servants were wasteful and riotous or where hospitality was grudged to the poor. There was a belief described by J. G. Campbell in his Superstitions of the Scottish Highlands that fairies and evil spirits only had power over goods that were unthankfully or grudgingly received or dishonestly gained. The Abbey Lubber and the Buttery Spirits must have owed their existence to this belief."

The Abbey Lubber took great amusement from leading the monks astray.
The Abbey Lubber took great amusement from leading the monks astray. | Source

Origins

Friar Rush, became popularised in England during the Elizabethan era, thanks to Thomas Dekker's play, If This Be Not a Good Play the Devill is in It, in which the character made mischief among his fellow monks with rumours, gossip, and saucy tricks.

Friar Rush seems to originate from Saxony, where he appeared as a kobold-like creature; a devil sent to encourage excesses in a simple monastic life.

Also known as Broder Rusche, Bruder Rausch, or Broder Russ, there are accounts of this fairy in Danish, Swedish, High German, and Dutch publications. It was Reginald Scott in his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) that linked the connection between Friar Rush and Hödekin, a kobold of German folklore.

Hödekin, the kobold with the little hat
Hödekin, the kobold with the little hat

Mischevious House Spirits

Meaning "Little Hat", the Hödekin would always wear a felt hat which covered his face, according to German folklore. Whilst the British version is described as a devilish being, sent to tempt and corrupt, this kobold may also have lived amicably with humans.

Thomas Keightley described in 1850 how a Hödekin lived with the Bishop of Hildesheim and was a helpful sprite, keeping a watch at night, and giving warnings of troubles that might come to pass in the future.

Whilst he would perform vigils, protecting people of the town, he was also easily angered. One story describes how a kitchen servant would often throw dirty water and sweepings over him, and after the head cook refused to chastise the boy, the kobold decided to take matters into his own hands. When the boy went to sleep, Hödekin strangled him to death, cut him into pieces, and cooked his flesh in a pot over the fire. Naturally, the cook was horrified by this revenge and rebuked the kobold, which only prompted Hödekin to squeeze toads all over the bishop's meat and punt the cook into the castle moat. It was only after this incident that the Bishop of Hildesheim exorcised the kobold from the premises.

© 2020 Pollyanna Jones

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