Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Revenons à nos rats ...

Local archaeology/history/field clubs have an interesting peripheral place in folklore studies in Britain. There is some overlap of our interests, particularly in areas like placenames and dialect (the Kent Archaeological Society, for example, republished Samuel Pegge’s 18th century Alphabet of Kenticisms in their journal Archaeologia Cantiana in 1874).

Local verse and, by extension, folk song, have also featured in the interests of such societies. The Buchan Club (also known at various times as The Buchan Field Club) published an important selection from Gavin Greig’s collection Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs, Collected in Aberdeenshire by the Late Gavin Greig, ed. Alexander Keith (Aberdeen: The Buchan Club, 1925). 

For folklorists, such societies also offer an opportunity to discuss with researchers who may have material to offer us and may also be attracted themselves to our discipline. It puts us in touch with the antiquarianism that fed into the development of folklore in the first place. It isn’t, however, a straightforward relationship. There have been a few famously successful examples, usually linked with particularly determined and effective individuals.

The most notable example is probably the Devonshire Association, which for folklorists will always be linked with Theo Brown. She was the Association’s Recorder of Folklore for many years and played a key role in establishing its Folklore Section. The successful integration of folklore within the Devonshire Association’s remit was not just about Theo Brown’s personal hard work, enormous and invaluable as that was. As the Association’s nice obituary emphasises, she was building on the dedication and commitment of the previous Recorder of Folklore, the classicist WF Jackson Knight. It was Jackson Knight who brought Brown into folklore, the Devonshire Association and the Folklore Society, and he was an instrumental ally in establishing the Folklore Section.

Other societies have been less accommodating, even though not unsympathetic. In the 1970s the Kent Archaeological Society posted requests for folklore submissions from members, without developing any separate section. This kind of attitude was more or less what I found here with the Isle of Wight Natural History and Archaeological Society. There have certainly been some efforts to raise the profile of folklore within the IWNHAS: Alan Phillips, in particular, has contributed some valuable book reviews and given some fascinating papers, chiefly on the relation of ritual and myth to archaeology. When I initially proposed a paper introducing folklore’s disciplinary history, as a means of suggesting how my discipline could assist with the Society’s researches generally, it was not felt to fall closely enough within the Society’s existing remit to accept.

Happily, however, I was able to turn to an old area of research interest that fitted rather better. As Jeremy Harte said, when I told him the story, ‘Well, rats are your route into most things …’. In an 1839 retelling, local author Abraham Elder set the Pied Piper legend in Francheville (now Newtown) here on the Island. I’m going to use this as a way into discussing what folklore is and how it has been used and understood. There remains the remotest of outside possibilities that Elder was reflecting a genuine local oral tradition, but all probability and most considered opinion is that he was not, which makes it a useful example for taking a local audience into new fields of thinking about folklore. Rats are also a good way into discussing how folklore might be useful in archaeology (their gnawing makes rodents liable to fall out of their own historical strata in dig sites) and in natural history (one species discussed here is amongst Britain’s rarest mammals, yet there is little evidence of interest in its preservation).

I confess that that sounds an ambitiously wide scope for a popular talk, but I’m hoping that it will open some new ways of thinking and open the possibility of further discussion and dialogue. And I’m happy to say that I still find rats endlessly fascinating, and it's a nice way to kick off the new year.

If you’re around on Saturday January 12th at 2pm it’d be lovely to see you at Arreton Community Hall for ‘Rats, Abraham Elder and Folklore’. Further details of the IWNHAS programme are on their website.

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