Sunday, 31 January 2021

Into the Future Thanks to the Past

The last year has brought home how much I’ve missed fieldwork, but I have found other ways to fill my time.

Seasonal customs have been hard hit by the pandemic and restrictions on meeting, and folklorists have been documenting how this has played out. There’s been a huge proliferation of online material, inevitably, from virtual events to the spread of memes and legends of all sorts. The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research have been collecting COVID contemporary legends, while the spate of memes photoshopping a masked and gloved Bernie Sanders are being collated by archivists at the VermontFolklife Center.

 

Shortly before the second lockdown I learned of an excellent local legend, in family tradition, and had made a provisional arrangement to speak to at least one of the two people known to tell it. She wanted to speak to the other, her brother, so I’m optimistic I’ll be able to compare their tellings directly, at some point – but that ‘at some point’ rather vanished into the unknown, inevitably.

 

I’ve been busy, however, with some things which are not fieldwork dependent but are tied up instead with the history of folklore studies as a discipline. One is a chapter in an intriguing edited collection Folklore and the Nation that follows up my recent Western Folklore article on the folkloresque. While I’ve always found investigations of the ways folklore and popular culture interact fascinating, it surprised me somewhat to find myself contributing. The folkloresque is a handy set of ways of thinking about this interaction that started out by probing how popular culture creates representations of what looks like folklore. Watching the Hammer film The Witches (1966), and later reading its source novel, I’d come to see this folkloresque representation leaning heavily not just on folklore, but on the evolving history of the discipline itself. The forthcoming chapter pursues this further in an investigation of a 1930 detective novel.

 

For British folklorists this takes a particular historical slant, as the folklore studies that are reflected are often exactly the low points of our history that we’d much rather forget – what I’ve come to refer to casually, but with a shudder, as ‘the Murray/Gardner years’. So it’s been a pleasure too, to take up some actual historical research into this for a couple of projects. One was a small essay to mark the 90th birthday of that doyenne of recent British folklore scholarship, Professor Jacqueline Simpson. I confess I wrote it in part because it felt a shame not to use the title: ‘Margaret Murray: Who Didn’t Believe Her and Why’.

 

Jacqueline Simpson with Terry Pratchett

This came hot on the heels of some extensive rewrites to an article on the rather neglected Violet Alford, which should hopefully now appear later this year. In lots of ways Alford’s a massively appealing figure, but she’s slipped from sight a little because of her rather retrograde theoretical positions, including her critical agreement with some aspects of Murray’s thinking.

One reason for going into some of this awkward history is because of the valiant and ultimately successful efforts by serious folklore scholars to overcome it. One of the real joys of this recent study has been reading pieces by two of the extraordinary group of scholars who reoriented and rescued British folklore from the edge of that abyss. Leading the way in the modernisation of the Folklore Society was the great scholar of Norse and Germanic mythology, Hilda Ellis Davidson, who wrote a charming reminiscence of the 1949-1986 period within the Society (1). In it she described Gerald Gardner as ‘flamboyant and rather sinister’. The skewering that follows is immensely witty, but points to how the Folklore Society was steeling itself for more serious work: ‘It is, in retrospect, difficult to see how Dr Gardner ever got on to the [Society’s] Council, but possibly it was after his arrival that people became so cautious’.

 

Margaret Murray interviewed by the BBC (UCL Institute of Archaeology, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps even more entertaining, and possibly more revealing of how this defence of serious scholarship actually played out on the ground, is a characteristically hilarious piece by Jacqueline Simpson, written not for the Folklore Society’s journal but for its newsletter, FLS News (2). The piece commemorates a lecture given on 19 February 1964 – Jacqueline’s first meeting following acceptance of her application for membership. The lecture was The Synthetic Sabbath by Rossell Hope Robbins, a critical demolition of Margaret Murray’s views on the history and persistence of witchcraft as ‘a secret society of fertility cultists’. It is a great pity that the Society never published the lecture, but the evening was clearly part of a scholarly accounting with ideas that had until recently dominated its existence.

 

What made the event so extraordinary was that those ideas still held great sway, and the Murrayite contingent fought a determined rearguard action against this very public redress. Arriving, Jacqueline noted ‘a pile of broomsticks in the corridor, brought, I hope and believe, by students, not witches. And I noted with dismay that female scholars and witches can look rather alike, both tending to dramatic jewellery and hats’. The lecture ‘passed smoothly’, aside from the occasional squawk from Hotfoot Jackson, the tame jackdaw perched on the shoulder of Sybil Leek, High Priestess of the New Forest Coven so closely associated with Gardner. The ensuing questions were all together more riotous, with witches haranguing and denouncing Robbins. Peter Opie, another of the brilliant fieldworking scholars who did so much to revive serious folklore study in Britain, was, in Jacqueline’s words, ‘the luckless Chairman, sat with his head in his hands, speechless’.

 

But the scholarship and debate remained robust. It’s worth quoting Jacqueline at length, both in regard to the argument and its impact:

 

‘Angrily, the witches asked how Dr Robbins could explain the close likeness between what they did and believed and what Dr Murray had described in her books. Simple, said he, modern witches had cribbed all their ideas from these very books, which had been around for forty years, and from later ones by Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner. None of these were historically sound. It must have been bitter for the witches to hear all this; not only was their cherished self-image being denied, but Margaret Murray was being criticised by the very Society where she had been President … Probably the FLS Committee were feeling equally tense – dreading bad publicity and striving to make clear their academic standards’.

 

The extensive press coverage of this well-attended meeting (Angela Carter was among those present, it turns out) seems to have been ‘reasonably balanced’. It was not the first or last shot, nor the decisive turning point – intellectual history rarely works like that, even though that’s how narratives are constructed – but is emblematic of a resolute and determined struggle to champion the best of scholarly standards.

 

I’m missing the field, but telling the story of how we are able to do what we do now is not a second-best alternative. It’s an integral part of the same story, and I will continue to work at it, if only to pay due homage to scholars of the brilliance of Jacqueline Simpson, without whose efforts we would not now be doing what we do. 

 

*  *  *


1: Hilda Ellis Davidson, ‘Changes in the Folklore Society, 1949-1986’, Folklore, 98.2 (1987), 123-130  

2: Jacqueline Simpson, ‘Which Was Witch? And Witch Was What?’, FLS News, 15 (1992), 3

 

Friday, 21 February 2020

A Fox Terrier Moment

Ten years ago, reviewing Gillian Mitchell’s The North American Folk Revival (i), I commented on a strange and misleading formulation in the author’s survey of historical folklore research. She had written: ‘Influenced by the activities of British folksong collectors, particularly Cecil Sharp, scholars such as Francis James Child and his pupil, George Lyman Kittredge, began to involve themselves in the study and classification of folksongs’ (p.27). This seemed unlikely, to say the least: Child died in 1896, while Sharp only heard his first Morris tunes in 1899 and did not begin the field collection of song with which he is most associated until 1903. Further, there was no evidence elsewhere that Mitchell really thought this was the case.

I attributed the comment at the time to an unnecessary compression of writing, a problem I came to sympathise with more as I wrote up my PhD. I did also acknowledge that ‘It is impossible to eliminate typos altogether, of course’. (I am glad of this, as my review erroneously gave Child’s death as 1898). I attributed it to individual circumstances, but it was odd enough to remain in my memory.

I now suspect it was not just an individual wrinkle in Mitchell’s writing. Reading Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt’s American Folklore Scholarship (ii), one of the important historical works published around the centenary of the American Folklore Society, I came across this in her survey of Child and Kittredge’s orientation to European scholarship: ‘[Child] maintained extensive correspondence with Andrew Lang in Britain, Reinhold Kohler in Germany, Kaarle Krohn in Finland, Giuseppe Pitré in Italy … and was influenced by Cecil Sharp in England’ (p.101).


Mitchell gave no attribution for her comment on Child and Sharp, but Zumwalt’s book is listed in her bibliography so may well have been an influence. Zumwalt did give a reference for her claim, citing a 1966 article by Alan Dundes. The argument seemed peculiarly un-Dundes-ish, so I went back to his article (iii). Discussing European influence on American scholarship, here is what Dundes actually wrote about Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: ‘Francis James Child … specifically mentions that he “closely followed the plan of Grundtvig’s Old Popular Ballads of Denmark” … With regard to the collection of Child ballads in the field, one must note that such fieldwork was largely stimulated by the work of an English collector, Cecil Sharp, in the southern Appalachians’ (p.12).

Dundes, then, very much wasn’t saying Child was influenced by Sharp, but that (American) collection of ‘Child ballads’ in the field was. This is actually rather important for Zumwalt’s book, which sometimes does not clarify adequately that the American ‘literary folklorists’ did also engage in fieldwork, although perhaps not as systematically or routinely as their  ‘anthropological’ counterparts. (The less than ideal labels compound Zumwalt’s problems, but playing the terminological hands history has dealt us is a major part of folklorists’ theoretical work).

Given Zumwalt’s reference, it seems likely that this is the earliest point of this confusion. Given Mitchell’s later repetition of the error, clarification was clearly worthwhile.

My aim was not just to clear that up or score one over on Zumwalt, however. In one of his classically witty and smart Natural History essays, the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould examined the place of the fox terrier in what he called ‘the case of the telltale textbook’ (iv). Gould examines the frequently repeated textbook comparison of the size of the early horse Hyracotherium with ‘a fox terrier’. He was intrigued, because he realised he had no idea how big a fox terrier was, prompting his inner voice to say ‘I can’t believe that the community of textbook authors includes only dog fanciers – so if I don’t know, I’ll bet most of them don’t either’ (p.159).

This is how big a fox terrier really is. NB no size referent is given.
He traces the textbook repetition backwards historically. Reading Zumwalt I had a Gouldian fox terrier inner voice moment. Hopefully, in identifying her thankfully well-referenced misrepresentation of Dundes, I have similarly found the earliest appearance of this particular error, albeit working with a much smaller sample than Gould. (I would be interested to know if the mistake is replicated in other scholarship, especially if it transpired that the confusion had been made independently of – or earlier than – Zumwalt).

However, Gould’s broader point also applies. We need to be careful of a temptation simply to reproduce statements from previous scholarship, especially if they seem (suspiciously) neat and succinct. We need to check our sources more carefully, and our writing, to ensure that we have evidence and that we have represented it accurately.

I’m above all mindful of these questions as I start to think about my paper for the Folklore Society’s forthcoming conference, one of the themes of which is precisely learning and the transmission of knowledge. I won’t be speaking directly to my fox terrier moment, but I will try to remember it as I put pen to paper.

*  *  *

ii: Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt, American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1988).
iii: Alan Dundes, ‘The American Concept of Folklore’, Journal of the Folklore Institute, 3 (1966), 226-249. I am quoting the article from its reprinting in Alan Dundes, Analytic Essays in Folklore (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1975), pp. 3-16.
iv: The essay ‘The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone’ is in Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Further Reflections in Natural History (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), pp. 155-167.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Suitably chastened ...

Last year was rather grimly preoccupying for me, and most of my available mental time and space was spent dealing with fallout of family loss. It was a pleasant relief over Christmas, therefore, to find that I was thinking again about folklore projects and topics. I found myself thinking about blog posts again, and was looking forward to reviving this rather neglected blog. I hadn't got round to it yet, obviously, but was reassured that the folkloristic engines seemed to be starting up again.

I was even more delighted today to get absolutely right kind of folkloric fillip. Seven previous posts here (not consecutive, of course) were treated this afternoon to the same spam comment advertising the services of a traditional healer. Thank you 'Fatema Davis' for this [email address removed, but otherwise as posted]:

'my partner and I have been trying for a baby for over two years now, We were going to a fertility clinic for about 5 months before somebody at baby center told us to contact this spell caster who is so powerful, We contacted him at this email; babaka.wolf@xxxxx.xxx or Facebook at priest.babaka , for him to help us, then we told him our problem, he told us that we will conceive once we follow his instructions ,but after two years of trying we were at a point where we were willing to try anything. And I'm glad we came to Priest Babaka, Because his pregnancy spell cast and herbal remedy help us, and I honestly believe him, and his gods really helped us as well, I am thankful for all he has done. contact him via email: babaka.wolf@xxxxx.xxx or Facebook at priest.babaka if you are trying to have a baby or want your lover back. he has powers to do it, he has done mine'



It's not quite as beautiful as the healers' cards I used to find around London, but I'm glad cyberspace is filling a gap in my folkloric vistas.

And with that, I'm back.

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.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

On Disagreeing with Legends


More than a century of scholarly debate and reflection has allowed us a hugely nuanced and flexible reading of legend as a genre. The discussion has hinged to a great extent on the relationship of the legend narrative to the truth. In her 1914 rewrite of George Laurence Gomme’s The Handbook of Folklore Charlotte Sophia Burne included legends broadly within the category of tales ‘told as true’. Describing them ‘simply as an account of things which are believed to have happened’, Burne noted that even where told of historical people or events ‘the legend itself may be inaccurate or even baseless’ (i). How the relationship between these two tendencies works has become an intense focus of research, with Linda Dégh famously defining legends by the process within it: ‘The legend is a legend once it entertains debate about belief’ (ii).

Of course, discussions of the defining characteristics of a genre are simply attempts to describe how narrators are using stories: genre is not a set of abstract absolute templates, but a snapshot of function, which is why the same narrative item may turn up variously in different generic categories. After all, stories do not tell themselves, and the shifting interaction played out through the adaptive use of narrative materials between narrator and audience, or between competing narrators, is itself a fascinating and essential part of the folkloric moments we investigate. This may be a contributory factor in legend’s endless attraction for scholars, because its entertainment of ‘debate about belief’ (going so far, in the case of supernatural legendry, as to encompass some expectation of disbelief) is built as an active component into the narration and performance.

There has been much investigation of how this plays out in legend sessions, the dedicated exchange and consideration of legends between narrators. We may need to think more broadly about the performance and contemplation of these narratives, however, beyond the direct exchange of the folkloric narrative text. ‘Debate about belief’ would, after all, also include negative or dismissive reactions falling some way outside the scope of the immediate legend narration. Apparently non-folkloric reactions would themselves be part of this negotiation of the truth (or otherwise) of a legend.

This still only part-formed reflection was prompted by a couple of unexpected readings. I am increasingly interested in the appearance (or dismissal) of legends in unlikely sources, especially political writings and narrative histories. I have also become increasingly interested in the anti-semitic blood libel legends, which have been (and continue to be) used as weapons of political reaction (iii). These coincided in two very different contexts.

The first was Bo Lidegaard’s book about how and why 95 per cent of Denmark’s Jewish population were able to escape the Nazi round-up of October 1943. Lidegaard writes better on the first question than the second, in part because the accommodation of the Nazis is a difficult and tender subject. To some extent, Lidegaard argues, Denmark’s Jews had been untouched until 1943 because the government’s agreement to Nazi occupation left it still able to observe certain domestic arrangements, including its refusal to distinguish Danish citizens by religious or ethnic background. Lidegaard does, however, bring out well how this agreement also created certain problems for Nazi officials tasked with simultaneously pursuing official policies and also maintaining a certain goodwill amongst the local population.

When the realities were finally exposed by the 1943 round-up, it brought home some deeper political realities not just in Denmark but across Scandinavia. In Sweden, public comment on the Danish round-up was much sharper than had been previously voiced about the Nazis. The official Swedish reaction was to declare publicly that all Danish Jews were welcome there. (It was where most went).

On October 3, 1943 the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter denounced the round-up in an editorial entitled ‘Sacrificing to Idols’. It is a furious piece, marking out the separation of ‘the Swedish people’ and ‘the leaders of the German people’ by the vapours from the burned offerings’ of the ‘Pogroms in Copenhagen’. Most strikingly, however, it does so by inverting the very ritual killing invoked so often against the Jews:

‘There exist some pseudo-religions with ritual murders as part of their cult. Sometimes it happens that a resourceful tribe first uses a threat as a means of pressure to achieve what it wants – and after that the prestige of the idol enters the picture’ (iv).

This was intriguing. Clearly not part of any direct interaction on the legend, it was also evidently using the narrative’s shape to reject its argument. This seems a more complex engagement than simply a rejection of the legend, a statement of disbelief. It may not be, but perhaps it requires a more inclusive approach to dismissive contributions to the legend dialectic than I for one had hitherto taken.

This was reinforced by shortly afterwards reading about the European plague outbreak of 1347-51. Like many other plagues historically it was rationalised by legends that hostile populations, in this case European Jews, had poisoned water sources. (I had first encountered this legend in Book II of of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War). The result was anti-Semitic pogroms, but the official reaction of the medical faculties at the Universities of Paris and Montpellier was striking. Both declared that ‘all charges lodged against the Jews were false’, noting that Jews ‘usually partook of the same water as their Christian neighbors’ and suffered roughly equivalent plague mortality. This is not presented by the historian Robert Gottfried as being any engagement with the legend dialectic – indeed, in highly rational tone, it is later observed that Montpellier prided itself on its connections with Jewish physicians from Spain and North Africa – yet it clearly needs including as such by folklorists (v).

None of this may be particularly innovative or novel, but it is worth pursuing. Looking for legends in popular sources is great fun and highly rewarding, but understanding their continued broader cultural influence also requires us to look at what might appear less promisingly engaged sources. This is also an evident necessity if we are to understand better the dynamics of non-belief or disbelief, especially in non-supernatural legendry where we might perhaps have paid it less attention so far.

*  *  *  *  *

i) Charlotte Sophia Burne, The Handbook of Folklore (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1914), pp. 263, 262.
ii) Linda Dégh, Legend and Belief: Dialectics of a Folklore Genre (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001), p.97.
iii) The 1913 Mendele Beilis trial is a useful case in point. For a good (non-folkloric) summary of the 1913 events and their current revival by the Russian Orthodox Church see Clara Weiss, ‘Russian federal investigators review anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about murder of the Tsarist family’, World Socialist Web Site, 7 December 2017. The Beilis case led even the determinedly publicity-resistant J.G. Frazer to write in protest to the press.
iv) Bo Lidegaard, Countrymen, tr. Robert Maass (London: Atlantic, 2015), pp. 221, 220.
v) Robert S. Gottfried, The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 52, 73, 106-7.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Shifty Grades of Fey


In the dark with fairies
Much to my own surprise, I have been thinking about fairies and fairylore lately.

It was some way from my main areas of interest. It was somewhat remote, historically: while fairylore has remained a persistent presence in Ireland, here in England it was rather more distant in time. I was not exactly hostile. The influence of literary representations in developing belief systems is always fascinating (1), and my work on belief in ghosts had made me aware of the way various constructs of supernatural lore are transmitted diachronically with changes in the attributed entity.

I had also not set out initially to research emergent spiritual beliefs, and the place of fairies in contemporary thought called for some quite specific focus outside my chosen areas of interest. The historical separation between earlier and contemporary forms of belief and thought required particular attention.

My doctoral researches, and my continued interest in the history of my discipline, have taken me some way into a consideration of new, eclectic and syncretic forms of spiritual observation. I would include the resurgence/reappearance of fairylore in this category. There has been a flurry of recent publications on the subject, both scholarly and less so. Simon Young has been active in research and in bringing together other writers on the subject, as in the volume he co-edited with Ceri Houlbrook, Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present (London: Gibson Square, 2018). I am not going to offer here a full review of that interesting volume, much as I enjoyed some parts of it and greatly disliked others. Rather, I want to flag up some general concerns.

The book is extremely mixed. One or two contributions were sound enough but still felt like a Greatest Hits compilation, both of their author’s work and of the fairy records. The best work in the book is the historical conspectus material: not much of it feels new, but some of it is well reviewed. There is also a body of contemporary material here, which is intriguing. (Simon Young has been particularly active in collating this material elsewhere). Not much of that material feels well processed here, and it is where the volume tends to drift into spiritual travelogue mode.

The great problem is that in the historical record there is essentially a break between the earlier documented material (which also operated in close interaction with literary sources) and this contemporary lore. The latter seems a voluntary and wilful adoption and adaptation of antiquarian and imaginative literature of Ye Olden Dayes, which points to the necessity for careful consideration and reflection. In the absence of any thorough consideration of the gap between the historical material and contemporary reports, however, we end up with an argument by implication: this is the classic bad Frazerian comparison of purportedly similar phenomena from different periods and with different histories as if they were the same, and with the result (if not the intention) of implying direct continuity through survival. Which very much does not seem to be what we have with fairylore.

This requires some sensitivity, because with the contemporary material we are looking at a belief practice. It is problematic to see that practice presented by practitioners as being simultaneously scholarship: scholars who are themselves practitioners will have emic insights that are of inestimable value, but the practice itself cannot uncritically and unreflexively also be presented as its own scholarly appraisal. At a recent conference a practitioner raised kataphatic visionary techniques as a research tool in the field to enable fairy encounters: this is an accepted belief practice within that group, but as scholarship it is self-serving and circular. It enables the researcher to find exactly what was already believed, thus confirming a contentious historical narrative that might not otherwise stand up.

It was instructive, then, to read Michael Ostling’s much better collection Fairies, Demons, and Nature Spirits: ‘Small Gods’ at the Margins of Christendom (London:Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), with its sharper historical focus. Ostling’s ‘Introduction’ places fairies as a product of Christianity rather than a pagan precursor to be overcome. This necessarily prevents universalising speculation, whether by design or accident, and focuses the research much more clearly. It also enables Sabina Magliocco’s consideration (pp.325-347) of contemporary belief practices (including the visualisation mentioned above) to be really shrewd on the limits and character of the fairy revival. As Magliocco notes, ‘In fact, were fairies still creatures of terror and awe, the process of belief revival, with its kataphatic practices designed to contact them, could not take place’ (p.330).


The historical depth and sensitivity I am discussing here is a requirement not just to make scholarly sense of fairylore (or whatever other belief practice). There is, of course, no requirement for belief practitioners to observe such scholarly niceties in their own practice, but for any kind of accurate understanding of the development and interaction of those practices there absolutely is.

This is not, however, just about understanding a belief practice or performing one. It has implications for the scholarship too: as a folklorist I am concerned that my discipline is invoked in some antiquated and unrepresentative ways to support a belief practice. As part of an invented tradition’s own mythopoiesis it is all too common to find an airy resort to an Edwardian armchair universalism that really no longer has any place in contemporary folklore scholarship. I am not denying practitioners their choice of syncretic materials, but if it goes unremarked by folklorists it will be to our detriment. There is a widespread and erroneous popular view, thanks largely to folklore’s academic marginalisation, that folklore is still a Frazerian collation of popular rites and speculation on their pagan origins. It took folklore (especially in Britain) a long time to break the stranglehold of that outdated approach, and I am extremely chary of seeing it being smuggled back in under the guise of practitioners with an interest in folklore conflating the two. If this were to happen we would be at risk of losing what we as folklorists have achieved, and losing it moreover in a process it would require a folklorist to explain.

*  *  *  *  *

1: There’s an interesting discussion in Ronald Hutton, The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present (New York and London: YaleUniversity Press, 2017), pp. 215-242, although the book is a little problematic, being inclined to a more sophisticated version of the tendency described below.
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Monday, 28 May 2018

A Question about Dolls

As those colleagues and friends who specialise in material culture never fail to remind me, my research interests have primarily tended towards the intangible aspects of folklore, particularly in verbal and musical tradition. It would be wrong, however, to portray me as wholly resistant to material culture. It's just that I know the limitations of my informed knowledge.

Which is why this post is really an appeal for some (possibly quite basic) information.

I recently and belatedly got to visit the Lilliput Doll and Toy Museum in Brading. It's a really excellent small museum of children's toys and dolls: crowded but well-maintained displays, with the tempting allure of how much more they have in store. It's lovely - charming and fascinating.

My eye was caught by this astonishing piece, a doll made of crab's claws and dressed. The notice explains that she's mid-nineteenth century (1865), made by 'a poor fisherwoman in Perth'. Nearby in the case (not shown in this photo) is a rather fancy pedlar doll made by a small Portsmouth company: she is distinguished by the quality of reproduction of the items in her pedlar's basket, but once you strip down the astonishing craftsmanship there you find that she is, at core, the extremely traditional pegdoll, a clothespeg with a painted face and dressed.

The pegdoll suggests traditional crafts being adapted for commercial purposes, which is all straightforward enough, but I had not come across such crab dolls before. So here is my question: is this the crafted invention of a particularly imaginative and gifted individual alone, or is it also reflective of a broader tradition of making such dolls? Can anyone point me to readings on this?

And if you can't, don't worry. Just enjoy the magnificent craft and skill on display here.




Thursday, 26 April 2018

Hi ho, hi ho ...

I'm busily gearing up for a couple of conferences, and finding that my fascination with the history of folklore is moving on apace.

Tomorrow I'm off to the Folklore Society's annual conference. This year's theme is 'Working Life: Belief, Custom, Ritual, Narrative'. It looks, as ever, a fascinating event (it's always the central point of my intellectual year, I must say), and I'll be talking essentially about the folklore of folklorists. This has been raised and discussed before, but I'll be considering the lore that we deploy to consolidate our understanding of our own thinking and practice: like any occupational group, folklorists use folklore to consolidate our social cohesion and to consolidate our occupational practices. It may be a slight topic - I don't want it just to be an exercise in navel-gazing, but it's also not the main event in folkloric research - but its personal significance for all of us makes it rather special to me.

When I get back I'm working again on some earlier folklorists, but in the meantime I've also written a guest blog post for Twitter's #FolkloreThursday crowd. When I started my Folklore MA in the much-lamented National Centre for English Cultural Tradition at Sheffield, Julia Bishop asked us 'Ok, then, you're all interested in it: so what is folklore?' And we struggled for an answer. At the end of that module Julia asked us again 'After a whole term's study: what is folklore?' And we realised that it hadn't been a trick question, after all, but finding ways of explaining succinctly what folklore is involves some knowledge of how it had been understood and explained previously. I'm happy to find that I've been doing this quite a bit of late, but this blog post, '"Folklore"? What do you mean? And why?' marks another attempt by me to set out some of the issues, highlight some of the problems, and hopefully still make it all as fascinating as I find it.

Once I'm back from the 'Working Life' conference I'm intending to get down to some more serious work on one or two of these questions. I've described my paper tomorrow as 'another love letter to my discipline', and I'm standing by it.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Getting back to it

It's been over a year since I posted here. Latterly such an absence has usually indicated some health catastrophe (my 'career dogged by injury', to borrow the footballing phrase), but the last year has finally seen me getting back into the swing of things a little. I've given papers at conferences and symposiums (including my first international trip since the major medical interruption), I've done a couple of more popular talks and events (the first large-scale outing for my singing voice since 2014, for example), started to get used to indexing Folklore (in my second year at it), drafted a long-awaited chapter for an edited collection, and taken part in various other events and ventures that begin to feel like me finding my place in the world of folklore again. As someone who's still a little wary of his own physical fragility I'm surprised by how much I actually have done in the last year.

More interesting to readers here is the fact that I haven't just been picking up old threads. I have been doing that, of course, because it's essential - the book chapter sees me reviewing some of my thinking about ghost beliefs and new religious syncretism, for example, while last week I was giving a Vaughan Williams Memorial Library lecture on ghostlore in traditional songs - but it's not been static. My ongoing engagement with the history of the discipline has become ever more a way of introducing non-academic non-specialist audiences to its full range (I've just written a forthcoming guest post for the Folklore Thursday blog), as well as a way of trying to negotiate the survival of academic folklorists and other interested academics in a university world that offers us little security or support.

It's also seen me getting interested in some new figures and areas: I spoke twice last year (at the splendidly titled 'Folklorists Are Fallible' conference in my beloved Tartu, and then at the third Folklore Society/Royal Anthropological Institute 'Folklore and Anthropology in Conversation' seminar) about the 20th century field collector and writer Violet Alford, and will be speaking about her again this summer. My paper at the forthcoming Folklore Society conference is also very much about how we are as folklorists, what we do to identify as such and how we interact with other folklorists. Later in the year I'll be going back to the question of ghost belief and religious syncretism (particularly around Spiritualism) for a major conference in Oxford.

I actually have things to blog about again, it seems, so I will.

Part of this reorientation/reawakening has involved some apparently cosmetic fiddling with my library, refiling and reshelving books and copies of papers. In doing so I also moved around a lot of my fieldnotes. One sheet caught my eye as it fell loose. It dates from early in my MA researches (2004-6), when I asked co-workers in the Civil Service department where I was temping for their recollections of childlore, skipping games etc. The following was remembered by a woman in her late 20s from her schooldays in South Essex:

1, 2, 3 Mother caught a flea
She put it in the teapot and made a cup of tea
The flea jumped out,
Mother gave a shout,
And down came father with his winkle hanging out.

It's good to be back.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

More Than Just a Word: A Podcast on Folklore's History and Background

Back in October I gave a talk at the South East London Folklore Society on the intellectual history of folklore (or, more properly, of 'Folklore'). Mark Norman at The Folklore Podcast thought this sounded right up his listeners' street, and I hoped so too. Shortly before Christmas I sat down in a darkened room with a voice recorder, and the results are now online. The podcast is free to listen to (but the site happily accepts donations to support their work), and they've already broadcast a lot that's worth listening to.