Monday, 17 January 2011


Fiona-Jane Brown has a complaint about the last of the BBC's Aurelio Zen adaptations (which aired last night). At no point. she says, did anyone mention what the 'Ratking' of the title was. As a rattophilic folklorist, I'm happy to oblige. (F-J knows, by the way, she just thinks other people should too).
The rat king is a phenomenon whereby rats apparently become knotted at the tail while they are in the nest. The famous image here is of an example from Rucphen, but there are one or two other good examples in museums around the world. The Rucphen one has been x-rayed and, yes, the rats, really are knotted together at the tails. (It's been suggested that the tails were broken and had re-knitted, which might cast a doubt on the idea that this occurred naturally when they were young).
So, there's a question-mark over whether this really is naturally occurring or whether it's been 'arranged' at some point. Apart from the actual object, what's interesting from it folklorically is that it's attached to reports of intelligent social behaviour from the rats. The rat king supposedly occurs in the nest while the rats are young, which would be a problem for their future development. Rats, though, have a reputation for cleverness, and for looking out for each other, so other rats are supposed to bring food back to the nest for the afflicted animals.
This ties in with all sorts of other folklore about rats' social behaviour. There are contemporary legends reported from Germany of two rats, each holding the end of a straw in their mouths as they scuttle round a farmyard. On closer inspection the trailing rat is found to be blind, and is being led around by its colleague. As rats swarm, there are also tales of a dominant rat leading them in their flight, and their flight is also taken as prescient of impending danger. (There's a story about rats swarming down main roads away from the bombing during the Coventry Blitz).
Just before Christmas I had the chance to see some of Walter Potter's taxidermy tableaux. The theme of the intelligent rat recurs throughout his work, although it's perhaps less well known than his kittens. In 'The Friend in Need' (below) a rat is caught in a trap. There is a concerted and intelligent effort to free him by his friends. Potter seems to have broken the faces of his rats to make them seem less visually ratlike, but it's clear that he's still dealing with folkloric ideas about rats.
In another tableau Potter portrayed rats stealing eggs. As P.A. Morris puts it, 'This is an evergreen topic of folklore in the countryside, even today. Potter admitted that he never saw such a thing himself, but created the case based upon what a clergyman (presumed to be a reliable witness) had told him'.(1) Right there you have the folkloric idea, and its transmission.
There was also a tableau of rats attempting to steal wine. This was based on another story resting on similar ideas about their intelligence. Rats are reputed to dip their tails into wine or oil, and then lick the fluid off it. (This image, and the egg-stealing, can be found in reproduction in this article about Potter).
That was a new one on me, but it fits perfectly with the other folklore about them. I really never will stop finding them fascinating.

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1: P.A. Morris, Walter Potter and His Museum of Curious Taxidermy (Ascot: MPM, 2008), p. 63.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Shoes on telephone lines

The new year finds me beavering away, wrestling full-time with finishing the thesis. So, to remind myself of some other folkloric things I love, here are some shoes thrown over telephone lines. There are all sorts of reasons for it as behaviour. I don't know why these are here, and I don't claim to have any handle on all of the reasons why they might be. That's part of the attraction of studying folklore. These were photographed in Goodwood Road, London SE14, on 16th March 2010.