folklore, mythology, cultural studies and related disciplines



introductory guides

'fun' questionnaire


Foamy custard
is currently sponsored by
Heart of Albion Press
publishers of
Explore Folklore

Explore Mythology
The Myths of Reality

the English and the 'Other'

Bob Trubshaw

Is it more important to know what we are, or to know what we are not? Nations define themselves by exclusion. Terrestrial boundaries and, increasingly, maritime limits are rigorously defended, although these days more by threat of military action than actual force. Less obviously, but more insidiously, the people of a nation define themselves less as 'who they are' as by 'who they are not'.

The broadest example is the way 'the West' has defined itself in contrast to 'the Orient' – even though the Orient is a collective term for a wide array of cultures, races and countries. Historians trace the processes of national identity coming to the fore in the sixteenth century. Before that regional identity was usually far more important than broader ideas of nationhood. Indeed, until well into the nineteenth century, peasants and craftspeople throughout Europe retained such well-rooted regional identities while national boundaries changed around them. The legacy of this can still be recognised today in Germany, France and Spain.

In contrast to Europe, the physical boundaries of England were relatively fixed. Indeed, after the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 even ownership of the 'debatable lands' of Northumberland and lowland Scotland was established, at least on paper. Politically expediency in the eighteenth century invented the idea of 'Britishness' rather than English, Scottish or Welsh nationalism. Being British meant being Protestant. Catholic France was clearly 'Other' throughout the eighteenth century, and Ireland increasingly became 'Other' as that century progressed. 'Britishness' was not something innate to eighteenth century sensibilities. Rather it was superimposed on a mixed bag of English, Welsh and Scottish and more regional identities.

By the early nineteenth century the idea of a nation was becoming associated with its people and their 'popular culture' – the idea of the 'folk' had been invented and the notions of 'folklore' and 'folk customs' developed soon after. Initially the emphasis was on poetry – especially epic songs – as being the voice of the people. German, Russian, Swedish, Serbian and Finnish songs were collected and arranged to form epics between 1806 and 1835.

Significantly, interest in national epic poems and the subsequent interest in folklore developed first in Germany, Finland, the Baltic states and Ireland. At the time these countries were ruled over by other nations. Even in Spain, the fashion for popular culture during the late eighteenth century was a way of expressing opposition to the French-led Enlightenment. Anti-French attitudes in Germany also led to less interest in the Enlightenment there too.

By the mid-nineteenth century the lore and customs of the 'folk' – now ingeniously perceived as both the peasants and the epitome of a nation – were regarded as being under threat. Sir Walter Scott was among the most notable of the first 'folklorists' to collect and preserve certain customs before they vanished altogether.

Scott and his European contemporaries thought that popular rural culture was a survival of an unbroken tradition that stretched back before Christianity. Such confused ideas were inevitable. The 'folk' from whom they 'collected' the 'lore' were very much 'other' to their own elite culture. As the social historian E.P. Thompson bluntly observed, "Folklore, in England, is largely a literary record of eighteenth and nineteenth century survivals, recorded by parsons and by genteel antiquarians regarding them across a gulf of class condescension."

Romantic notions of nationalism found their flowering with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Emerson. The 'folk' were regarded as set apart from the gentility. While the elite social classes had culture, the common people had folklore and folk customs. In reality, the elites were rarely excluded from 'popular' culture, and the boundaries between the notions of 'elite' and 'popular' culture were always permeable. Indeed, there were probably greater differences between, say Nonconformist and Anglican 'cultures' than there were between the gentry and the workers.

During the nineteenth century several eminent historians began to foster the notion that everything good about English culture had its origins with the Germanic Anglo-Saxon settlers, who were thought to have exterminated the indigenous 'Celtic' Romano-British population. Walter Scott, at the request of George IV, had invented Scottish culture – tartans, bagpipes and Highland games – for the king's state visit to Edinburgh in 1822. Queen Victoria's love for Balmoral ensured the survival of Scott's romantic fiction of Scottish culture.

A few decades later and Lady Charlotte Guest, an Englishwoman as her name indicates, was instrumental in providing a similarly 'pre-packaged' national identity of pointed black hats, red capes and harps for the Welsh. In reality the Welsh at that time had a better tradition of bagpiping than the Scots, and the Scots had a rich tradition of harping, which died out because of the undue importance placed on the bagpipes.

Welsh nationalism had already got underway much earlier in the late eighteenth century, led by the enthusiastic but eccentric Iolo Morganwg (born Edward Williams, 1747–1826). Posterity has bestowed on him the honour of reviving Druidism in a wonderfully imaginative manner. In the absence of any historical accuracy, Morganwg's 'Druidism' is thinly-disguised Protestant theology transposed into the radical political philosophies prevalent in Wales at that time (the same impulses for liberty and self-determination that led to the American and French Revolutions), augmented with some good 'theatre' (see Morgan 1975; 2002).

The seeds were sown for the mutual – and justifiable – dislike of the English by the Welsh, Scots and Irish to begin to take on the nature of a common 'Celtic' culture. Edward Lhuwd's pinoneer lingusitic studies published in 1707 labelled of a group of European languages as 'Celtic' (although 'Gallic' or 'Brithonic' might have been equally valid designations). Before this date the term 'Celtic' was not in use in the British Isles. The year is significant as this was when the Act of Union created the idea of a British nation. English politicians were keen to emphasise 'Britishness' over English, Welsh, Scots or Irish. Because of the common linguistic roots of 'Celtic' languages it was assumed that there was a common 'Celtic' culture between Celtic-speaking peoples. 'Celtic' was a convenient way of being 'British' but not English. The invention and widespread adoption of 'Celticness' in the eighteenth century is intimately linked with the invention and promotion of 'Britishness'.

Despite the historical and archaeological evidence strongly suggesting that the Welsh, Scots and Irish had little in common with each other, the nineteenth century nationalists developed what has now become an unimpregnable belief in a shared Celtic culture. A whole industry of books and souvenirs is based on this belief. In recent years, no doubt buoyed up by the success of national parliaments for Wales and Scotland, the residents of Cornwall have also begun to define themselves by some historical notions that owe more to wishful thinking than academically-accepted historical accounts.

This constructed common identity is, in essence, based on only one common characteristic – a sense of national identity that is defined by its 'otherness' to England. In contrast England has a weak sense of national identity. The dominant position on the world stage at the head of a huge empire and Commonwealth is the antithesis of a nation defined by subjection. The intentional projection of a unified 'Great Britain' rather than English identity has weakened only in recent years, and even then the motivation has come more from World Cup football than from any political agendas. Whereas the Welsh, Scots and the Irish have their own national parliaments, England is now the exception in not having its own parliament but being governed by a British elected body. Few people seem to find this either odd or unacceptable, which suggests that most English people still do not feel in the least threatened by the other nationalities of the British Isles.

Although the landowning classes in Britain were rapidly losing their political and social power in the post-First World War era, an invented version of their culture was being actively promoted by Country Life as the model way of living for the aspiring middle classes. This imaginary heritage is now the predominant ideology of such organisations as the National Trust and, among many other consequences, has given fox hunting supporters the notion that they are trying to retain something that is the essence of English rural life.

Indeed, traditional customs generally have become one of the muddiest areas of British history. By the 1930s interest in 'folklore' had become deeply associated throughout Europe with reactionary or racist ideologies. The German Blut und Boden ideology took the nationalism implicit since the origins of the study of the 'folk'. It was different from the attitudes elsewhere in Europe not in underlying approaches of invented national tradition but only with the fervour of the belief in the truth of this invented national tradition.

The Second World War put paid to large parts of this imagined German national identity. In Britain there was no such hiatus. The imaginary ideals of Edwardian England became increasingly 'real' simply because no one stood up to challenge the ideas. By its very nature, interest in customary behaviour attracts more conservative historians. Customs are, almost by definition, conservative. The intellectual Left of the 1930s to 1970s either ignored folklore or regarded it as deeply reactionary. They turned their interest to other areas of history, such as early trade unions. So, whereas there was innovation in other areas of British history from the 1930s, the study of folklore remained in an Edwardian time warp until the 1970s. By this time the study of folklore was so marginalised as to have dropped off the vistas visible from academe and there were too few folklorists around to bring about a swift update.

Because of the way folklore has been misrepresented – both by earlier generations of folklorists and in popular books – a huge gap has opened up between popular ideas about folklore and way that folklore is prevalent in the modern world. Although academics have shown the way, little of their thinking has made it into books aimed at a wider readership. Foamy custard hopes to help bridge this gap. See also my books Explore Folklore and Explore Mythology

bibliographical sources

MORGAN, Prys, 1975, Iolo Maganwg
MORGAN, Prys, 2002, 'Archbishops and Archdruids', The Historian, Vol.76, 28–32

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003.

Someone anonymously sent the following comment:

    While your writings on the differences between British and American folkloristics are quite good in that they are informed not only by English scholarly writings, but by those across the water as well, you may want to similarly investigate writings from the "Celtic Other" that you summarily dismiss. There has been a lot of writing to and fro on this, and such writing seems usually to me (American trained, Dundes student, Ph.D. in Anthropology) usually based *either* in the English *or* in the "Celtic" camps-- and your writing seems firmly in the English. I would encourage you to look a bit broader-- there may be more than just what the English are happy to write about the "invention" of Celticity.

A very fair point and I make no claims to be offering an unbiased view! Anyone out there want to present the case for the 'Celtic camp', or at least provide bibliographical details of previously-published books or articles that do this?
Bob T.

A further anonymous comment:

    Your writing and the comment sent by an anonymous is quite interesting. My concern however is that while you consider "Others", Africa should also come into scene. Although you were very fair in your argument, African folk characters are now also richly documented and I think they could be included having come in contact with Enlish throough colonialism.

previous article     index of articles     next article