By Lisa Smith
The modern goblin might be mean and ugly, but early modern goblins were a different breed: helpful, if mischievous, creatures. The shift began in the eighteenth century when goblins went extinct.
Augustin Calmet, a Benedictine monk, included two chapters on goblins in his Dissertation (1746), where he provided evidence of goblins from “unexceptionable witnesses”. Typical goblin behaviour included looking after horses, helping in the house, or working in the mines. John Brand (1777) also noted goblins’ helpfulness, “provided they were civilly used”.
Goblins could be naughty. Pliny the Younger, Calmet tells us, had a household goblin. A freed man, who slept with a younger brother, dreamed once that someone was cutting his hair. On waking, the freed man discovered that his hair had been cut and scattered around the room. A few nights later, a young boy in the household—who slept in a room with several others—had the same thing happen.
Some goblin tricks were troubling. In one 1745 case, a French soldier stationed in Flanders complained three times to his captain, Count Despillers, about being unable to sleep. Despillers only took him seriously when the soldier, “no fool” and known for bravery, threatened to desert. The Count decided to spend the night in the room, but ended up leaving shortly after midnight, confused by the noises in the room… and the bed that had been overturned with both men in it. The next morning, the soldier had a new room.
Calmet also wanted to define what sort of creature goblins were. One story from Johannes Trithemius (d. 1516) showed what happened when a goblin was unappreciated. Hecdekin (spirit in a cap) lived in Hildesheim, Saxony, where he worked in the Bishop’s kitchen. After another servant offended him, Hecdekin complained to the head cook who proceeded to ignore him. Hecdekin “thought it proper to do himself justice”: strangling the servant, tearing him into pieces, and boiling him. This got everyone’s attention, who drove Hecdekin away by exorcism.
Calmet stressed goblins’ helpfulness and lack of malevolence, which meant that they were not devils. They only became dangerous when angered, like Hecdekin. But neither were they angels, their “waggish tricks” lacking dignity. Goblins were somewhere in between.
Brand classified the goblins linguistically. They were the same as Brownies in Scotland, related to fairies, and “a Kind of Ghost”. Brand believed that ‘goblin’ came from ancient Greek, meaning ‘house spirit’, and that hobgoblins were a species known for hopping on one leg. The name ‘Brownies’ referred to their swarthy colour, which came from their hard labour. The origin of the belief itself, Brand suggested, was Persia or Arabia. However, since Samuel Johnson had noted that no one had spoken of Brownies “for many years”, Brand thought they were extinct.
Goblin beliefs were, indeed, changing. Calmet might have dismissed the existence of vampires, but he believed in goblins because of good eyewitness accounts. William Bourne in 1725—and Brand who agreed with him—would have seen this as Calmet’s popish credulity. Goblins only flourished “in the benighted Ages of Popery, when Hobgoblins and Sprights were in every City and Town and Village”. These were stories told around winter fires that added “to the natural Fearfulness of Men, and makes them many times imagine they see Things”. Goblin extinction, then, was a move from superstitious excess (as Bourne and Brand saw it) towards reason. The classification of goblins was a way of putting them in their place.
Some of these stories are easily explained: a prankster in Pliny’s house, a murder in Hildesheim, a literary trope about terrified soldiers. All the same, if you should ever receive unexpected help around the house, remember to say thank you. Just in case.
 Augustin Calmet, Dissertation upon the apparitions of angels, demons, and ghosts, London, 1759. (Original French, 1746.)
 John Brand republished and added a commentary to William Bourne’s 1725 work on popular antiquities: Observations on popular antiquities: including the whole of Mr Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares, Newcastle Upon Tyne, 1777.
Lisa Smith (@historybeagle) is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan. She writes on gender, family, and health care in England and France (ca. 1600-1800) and teaches on medicine, natural and supernatural worlds in early modern Europe.