Fabell, Peter (DNB00)

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FABELL, PETER (fl. 15th cent.), was a native of Edmonton, where he was known as a magician and dabbler in alchemy. His name appears as that of the ‘Merry Devil,’ the chief character in the play of the ‘Merry Devil of Edmonton,’ once attributed to Shakespeare. In the prologue to the play it is proclaimed that the ‘merry devil,’ Peter Fabell, was ‘a renowned scholar,’ and it is added—

    If any here make doubt of such a name,
    In Edmonton yet fresh unto this day,
    Fixed in the wall of that old ancient church,
    His monument remaineth to be seen.

There is no precise evidence obtainable as to the existence of such a memorial, but it seems undoubted that Fabell had an historical existence. Weever in his ‘Funerall Monuments’ (1631) says under ‘Edmundton:’ ‘Here lieth interred under a seemelie tomb without inscription the body of Peter Fabell (as the report goes), upon whom this fable was fathered, that he by his wittie devices beguiled the devill: belike he was some ingenious conceited gentleman, who did use some slightie tricks for his own disports. He lived and died in the raigne of Henry VII, saith the booke of his merry pranks.’ Norden, in his account of Edmonton, says: ‘There is a fable of one Peter Fabell, that lies in this church, who is said to have beguiled the devill by policie for money, but the devill is deceit itself.’ The play of the ‘Merry Devil’ went through five editions, dated 1608, 1617, 1626, 1631, and 1655. It was entered on the Stationers' Registers 22 Oct. 1607. Ben Jonson notices its popularity in his prologue to ‘The Devil is an Ass’ (acted in 1616). A similar reference made in the ‘Blacke Booke,’ a tract by Thomas Middleton, the dramatist, issued in 1604, shows that the play had been produced before that date. Thomas Brewer (fl. 1624) [q. v.] was author of a pamphlet dealing with the story of Fabell and others as treated in the play; this tract was entered on the Stationers' Registers in 1608, although not published till 1631. Fuller, who makes the inevitable pun upon the name, says: ‘I shall probably offend the gravity of some to insert, and certainly curiosity of others to omit him. Some make him a fryer, others a lay gentleman, all a conceited person, who with his merry devices deceived the devil, who by grace may be resisted, not deceived by wit.’ In Brewer's pamphlet we are told that Fabell was of good descent, and that he was ‘a man either for his gifts externall or internall inferior to few.’ It speaks of his learning, affability, and liberality to the poor and needy.

[The Merry Devil of Edmonton (1608); Brewer's Life and Death of the Merry Devil of Edmonton (1631); Robinson's History of Edmonton, 1819; Fuller's Worthies; Weever's Funerall Monuments; Warton's Hist. English Poetry, 1824, iii. 365.]

J. B-y.