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