Monday, 29 August 2011

The anniversary of 'Folklore'

Having just got back from my holiday I thought I'd better catch up with one of the more important anniversaries in the history of the discipline of Folklore.
On 12 August 1846 William John Thoms, under the pen name Ambrose Merton, wrote a letter to
The Athenaeum magazine. It was published on 22 August. In it Thoms wrote of 'what we in England designate as Popular Antiquities, or Popular Literature (though by-the-bye it is more a Lore than a Literature, and would be more aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folklore, - the Lore of the People)' (1).
It's a convenient marker for the start of Folklore as a self-identified discipline, but the letter makes no claims for inventing the discipline, pointing back as it does to the work of the Grimms and the earlier popular antiquarians. Rather, it begins to delineate the idea of what folklore is ('the manners, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, etc., of the olden time') and encourage its collection ('how much may yet be rescued by timely exertion').
It's the start of a great exploration, so it's no surprise that folklorists take it seriously. Last year's Folklore Society weekend on Death in Legend and Tradition was held in Brompton Cemetery, where Thoms is buried. On behalf of the Society Dr Jonathan Roper laid a wreath at Thoms's grave (top) and gave a short eulogy (left). Jonathan's article on 'Thoms and the Unachieved "Folk-Lore of England"' is available free here.
I'm pleased to commemorate the occasion, and give credit where it's due.
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1: The letter is reprinted in The Study of Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965), pp. 4-6.