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problems with popular folklore

Bob Trubshaw

morris dancing at dusk

The 'folk' of folklore are an elusive bunch. Take away the tattered jackets and tinkling bells from that most archetypal images of English folklore, a morris dancer, and you will find underneath maybe a teacher, manager, or other fairly typical modern-day person. Their interest in folklore stems not from an unbroken family tradition but is a leisure pursuit that has been 'acquired' in the same way their work colleagues take up golf or go down to the gym.

The 'folk' of folklore have always been other people. In the early days of folklore, in the nineteenth century, parsons and other genteel antiquarians went out recording the folklore and customs of the rural peasants. The 'folk' were very much 'other' to their own elite culture. A gulf of class condescension all-but separated the collectors from the collected.

These early collectors fostered the notion that these rural customs were survivals of a tradition that stretched back unbroken to the prechristian past. They believed that the processes of modernisation during the Victorian era were threatening the existence of this tradition. This idea of folk customs as fossils of a 'pagan past' became so pervasive that it was not effectively challenged by academics until the 1970s and it is still the popular view of folklore. Just as the cantacerous and non-too-small 'fairy folk' of pre-Victorian folklore became the cutesy, gossamer-winged diminutive creatures of many a nursery (and, from hence to the rather more pneumatic physiques of many a Web site fantasy!), so too the foliate faces of medieval European architecture – the so-called 'Green Men' – became, in the last 60 years, regarded as the embodiment of a pagan fertility god who had survived since the pre-christian era. (For those interested in following up these particular topics, see Medieval fairies: now you see them, now you don't, Fairies and their kin, Do elves have rights? and Paganism in British folk customs.)

The idea of the 'folk' in nineteenth century Britain and, indeed, elsewhere in Europe was a subtle but very effective one. The 'folk' were at once a generalised way of thinking about the rural working classes. At the same time they came to be seen as the epitome of national identity. This is not as surprising as might be first thought. Folklore in England was following behind pioneering studies in Germany, Ireland, Finland and some of the Baltic countries. At this time, the early decades of the nineteenth century, these countries were being ruled over by foreign powers. There were strong moves to create a sense of national identity. The 'folk' of folklore came to fit this requirement wonderfully well.

As the nineteenth century developed, some of this nationalistic sentiment began to grow and grow. Wagner wrote the soundtrack and Hitler became the leading scriptwriter. The rise of Fascism led to the study of folklore being identified with deeply reactionary or racist ideologies.

Whereas, until the Edwardian era, the study of folklore was predominantly associated with those of left-wing political views now folklore was seen as, by its very nature, something deeply conservative and nationalistic. In England, more so than in other countries, academic study of folklore floundered. Historians with left-of-centre outlooks preferred to research early trade unions or religious nonconformity. Not until the 1970s did a small number of folklorists begin to look more critically at British folklore.

The folk are not some vaguely defined rural peasants, living in a lost idyll and sharing simple pleasures distinct from the more cultured activities of the more genteel classes. This view of the 'folk' was a nineteenth century invention. Everyday life is much more deeply interwoven with folklore and folk customs than is commonly supposed, although this would be not be obvious from most books about folklore, which continue to focus on the 'fossils of a lost rural idyll' and their so-called 'revival'.

Instead of thinking about the 'folk' as somehow 'other', folklorists now think that we are all folk. In the course of a day we interact with various other groups of people, such as our families, work colleagues, leisure-interest friends. Each of these groups has its own 'lore' and traditions. These are typically in-jokes, nicknames, and accounts of events that start along the lines of 'Remember the time at Alan's wedding when...' or are truncated references that only make sense to those 'in the know', such as 'Don't do an Aunt Beth on us!' Every occupational group, from computer programmers to those employed in the emergency services, has its own 'lore'. The jokes that bind such groups are usually more risqué than those told outside – it is a truism that the best anti-clerical jokes are told by Catholics only to other Catholics, and the best anti-Semitic jokes are told only between Jews.

To a modern day folklorist the habitual behaviour at weddings, funerals, stag and hen nights, office parties, 'lingerie parties' and even what happens at the 'local' every Friday night are every much as part of our cultural traditions as the self-conscious 'revivals' of morris dancing or folk singing. From this perspective we are all folk. Indeed, we are all 'lots of folk' as we interact with different groups during the course of a day.

I discuss all these aspects of folklore in more detail in my recent book Explore Folklore

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003

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