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Folk-Lore/Volume 10/Britain and Folklore

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When on former occasions I had the honour of addressing you, my thoughts turned to what has always for me formed the chief interest of the study of folklore, the investigation of the problems which it presents, and of the lines of inquiry which it opens up, in so far as they concern the mass of traditional fancy and custom preserved by the inhabitants of these islands.[1] The folklorist truly deserving the name cannot confine himself exclusively to a limited section of the study; he must bring with him principles based upon world-wide inquiries; he must ever be prepared to test the evidence yielded, say by Berkshire or Devon, in the light of material gathered it may be in Greenland or Polynesia, vouched for by the oldest known records of humanity, or by the latest Antipodean newspaper. But without a guiding clue our study may too easily become a mere bazaar instead of an orderly and well-arranged museum exhibiting the true correlation of phenomena. Such a clue I have essayed to find in the relation of Britain to folklore, whether it be the witness that folklore bears to the evolution of our race and its culture, or the consideration of the many still doubtful problems of folklore in the light of specific British evidence. It seems appropriate that in my last Presidential Address to the English Folk-Lore Society I should essay to indicate some of the considerations which have determined my own line of research, and which in my opinion constitute the special import of Britain for our studies. Whilst I cannot hope to offer you any novel or definite conclusions, I may be able to suggest fresh possibilities of research, and to urge fresh reasons why we as Englishmen, as Britons, should cherish and foster our study.

My first address endeavoured to set forth the unique importance of modern English literature for mankind, due to its being the inheritor of archaic traditions and conventions (whose disappearance would have meant the irreparable impoverishment of the sources of artistic fancy), and the medium through which so much of this archaic material, otherwise doomed to decay, has to be preserved for and interpreted to the world at large.

In tracing back the fairy realm which Shakespeare's genius has made an integral portion of literature to its source in the earliest known visions and speculations of dwellers in these islands, I confined myself to Britain.[2] But the rôle there claimed for English letters as guardian, transmitter, and interpreter of Celtic fancy has wider implications, at which I should like to glance for one moment. We island-dwellers have brought under our sway many lands, many peoples; we claim, whether rightly or wrongly need not here be inquired, that we have given them peace and prosperity, that we are enabling the races we have subdued to enter in upon the heritage of the highest civilisation. This is much, but it is not enough. Every race, no matter how backward, has a special cry—a special vision of its own. Upon us, upon our oversea kindred, rests the responsibility that these shall not be lost, but shall contribute their note, howsoever feeble it be, to the great concert of humanity. It is the privilege of English literature to enshrine utterances of countless races of men which otherwise must wholly perish, to make them part of the world's thought and fancy. This privilege is, I think, most likely to be realised by the folklorist, who, if he have really penetrated to the inmost sanctum of our study, will have learned to grasp the manifold links that bind us to the remotest past, to sympathise with the rudest and most infantile manifestations of human energy, and to recognise in the formless germ the source of what may be mightiest and most beautiful in human effort. He will also have learned to observe with rigid fidelity, to preserve everything, faulty and trivial though much may be, to sympathise with everything, though much may offend or startle our present conventions. It is part of his task to hold up to English literature the duty of incorporating the souls of vanishing peoples, the privilege of transmitting them to future ages. Surveying as I did the past of our literature, and noting by what happy combination of circumstances it has been enabled to preserve so much beauty, imperishable now, otherwise lost, I am filled with confidence for the future. If we know the importance of our aim, if we but will to act upon our knowledge, surely we can accomplish what chance apparently enabled our forefathers to accomplish. Imperial England of the sixteenth century preserved for later ages shapes and visions that greet us from out the oldest wonder-world of Celts and Teutons; may not imperial Britain of our days seek from the lips of passing races, before they have wholly passed away, sustenance and embodiment for the creation of new types of significance and beauty? If such is a possible outcome of the folklorist's labours, directed though these may primarily be to other objects, may he not feel that he is working for mankind at large and for all time?

In dwelling as I did upon the import of folklore for English literature in the past, in dwelling as I have just done upon its possible import for British literature in the future, I have no wish to unduly magnify the literary aspect of our studies as against others. I merely talk of that which, I confess, interests me most in folklore, that at least upon which alone I possess any claim to be listened to by you. But what I sought to exhibit, the archaic warp and woof persisting in the fabric of our national literature, could be, if I mistake not, as readily exemplified in the domain of institutions. Here, too, we might dwell upon the characteristic function of the English race in retaining, modifying, transmitting to the modern world, with the necessary enlargement of scope and significance, so much of the most ancient customary wisdom of the Teutonic-speaking peoples.

Whilst other European nations have mostly discarded all that clashed with the magnificent system of law edified by imperial Rome, England, preserving, elaborating the native customs of one of the component elements of our mixed race, has reared a structure of institutions not unworthy to be set by the side of the Roman, and destined to control the fortunes of even wider realms and more numerous populations. May it be suggested that, just as the Celtic element of our race has supplied so much of value towards the enrichment of our literature, even so Celtic institutions, hitherto of small account as compared with those derived from our Teutonic forefathers, may contribute somewhat towards the completed fabric of our law?

Nor does the parallel stop here. The English student of folk-institutions has, without travelling outside the limits of the empire, as wide and varied a field of inquiry as the student of folk-fancy; it is his to see that the customs in which so many different races have expressed their social ideal are made available for utilisation in modern life as well as for purely scientific inquiry. If it be urged that the rites and practices of barbaric or semi-civilised people cannot, as can their myths and legends, be welded and fused into our higher conception of social life, I would answer that the loftiest civilisation may often learn with advantage from the rudest strivings of mankind after social order and justice, and I would cite the example of the great governing and law-giving community of antiquity to which it is our proudest boast to compare ourselves.[3] Rome did not impose her own customs upon the stranger within her gates; she established a special tribunal before which he might plead according to his own usage, and which meted him out justice according to his own principles. Thus grew up a great body of law, different in origin, in principle, in scope from the native law of Rome. In their development the two systems influenced each other profoundly, and in the ultimate codification of Roman law the edicta of the Prætor Peregrinus, the head of the foreign tribunal, play a part second only to the native statutory and casuistic legislation. When the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council sits to hear appeals from Malabar or Benares, from Borneo or Bombay, from French Canada or Hongkong, appeals in which the strangest and most archaic systems of legislation may be involved, we have the nearest modern analogue to the jurisdiction of the Prætor Peregrinus. And as the lawgiving genius of Rome incorporated and harmonised the customary wisdom of the then known world, so when the system of our law is completed, side by side with the Teutonic groundwork, with the Roman additions, may be found elements derived from races world-divided in their range and their social conceptions.

I have, it may be, suffered myself to pursue too long a train of thought suggested by the addresses I have previously delivered. I may seem to have forgotten that ours is an historical science, and that its aim is to make intelligible the origin and growth of past phenomena. It may be an error, but I cannot hold that it derogates from the scholarly nature of our study to note that it has implications which concern the present, ay, and the future as well as the past; that it involves other than purely scientific motives and aims, and that it may contribute something towards the practical and moral, as well as towards the intellectual, ideals of our life. It was said not long ago that at present we were all Socialists; it may be said with greater truth that we are all Imperialists. Now in the true ideal of imperialism, the only one which the scholar and the honest man would care to strive for, there are elements which can be apprehended rightly and vindicated by the folklorist alone. We claim already for our study that it enables us to reconstitute the early babblings of humanity; is it belittling it to point out that by its aid we may discern the true and permanent value of phases of thought, fancy, and character which are essential to the full development of humanity, but to which the study of civilised man alone may render us blind or indifferent?

Be this as it may, you may feel that I am on surer ground in addressing myself to the consideration of the past than when I indulge in speculation as to the future. Viewing folklore solely from the standpoint of the British folklorist, I would emphasise the special advantages conferred upon him by our insular position and our resulting history. The facts of folklore are more clearly isolated, discriminated more precisely as to date, origin, topographical or racial circumstance in our case than in that of most other European countries, where the mixture of races has been at once more intense and more obscure in its processes, the variations in culture less sharply defined, and where often the very mass and complexity of phenomena make it difficult, if not impossible, to exhibit their sequence and correlation. The comparative ease with which many English customs can be investigated, the apparent certainty with which we can discern their origin and trace their growth, often blinds us to their scientific interest as touchstones by which we may test the credibility of our hypotheses in regions where we lack the aid of historical record. Folklore we define, in this connection at least, as the persistence of elements of a lower, or at all events of an outworn, stage of culture in the midst of a higher and more living one. But as to the mode and nature of their persistence hardly two investigators are agreed. Some would treat the lore of the folk as simply the weakened and distorted echo of what once engaged the thought or charmed the fancy of the higher minds of the race; others would regard it as the permanent substratum of all systems, social, religious, artistic, by which man has sought to regulate his life. In deciding between these opposing views, or between any modifications of them, our usual difficulty is that we lack precise knowledge concerning the history of most items of folklore. In many, perhaps in most, cases the loss is irreparable; we cannot really know, we can only surmise, why a particular rite is practised, in what way a particular belief has obtained credence or a particular legend currency. But in England certain customs may be traced from their inception to the present day, and the results to be derived in such cases from a truly methodical and scientific investigation should prove of the utmost value where the custom alone survives and its history has to be reconstructed.

The usages connected with Guy Fawkes' Day may be instanced: their origin is known; the documentary records concerning them are full and precisely dated. It should be possible to give such an account of the spread, variation, and decay of this custom as would shed most welcome light upon the folk-psychology underlying similar celebrations, the history of which is unknown. In particular, this one case should enable us to answer with some confidence the question whether practices of these kinds are, as Mrs. Gomme has urged in the case of Children's Games, purely imitative, or whether they do not frequently embody elements infinitely older than the ostensible events to which they owe their origin, and to which they have been adapted rather than from which they really spring.[4]

The value from this point of view of British folklore as a museum, in which, thanks to historical circumstances, the specimens are labelled, ticketed, and set forth for greater convenience of the student than elsewhere, has not, as I said, been properly recognised. For one thing, we nearly all (I plead guilty myself in the fullest measure) are subject to the fascination of the unknown and obscure. We would rather be explorers than surveyors; it is more amusing to fill up big blanks upon the map, though our details rest largely upon hearsay aud doubtful evidence, than to trudge over familiar ground carrying with one measuring chain and plotting board. But the ordnance map and not the rough sketch should be our ideal, an ideal achievable, always provided we are willing to expend the necessary labour.

Chief among the circumstances which make our folklore particularly susceptible of fruitful investigation is one upon which I dwelt in my second address, the definiteness with which we can locate chronologically and topographically many of the racial elements which make up our British people. Somewhat to my surprise I was held to have unduly minimised the importance of the racial factor in the folklore problem. Elsewhere I have essayed to remove a misapprehension due doubtless to imperfections in my method of exposition; here I would but repeat that I recognise the full importance of the factor, and that I am anxious for the correct solution of the problem which may, I believe, be essayed with better chances of success in our own than in other lands. Even here, how insufficient are the data, how obscure and complicated the whole subject. Yet compare the British Isles and their four historically known groups of population, two belonging to the Celtic races, Gaels and Brythons, two to the Teutonic, Low-Germans and Scandinavians, with any other European land presenting a similar mixture of blood, speech, and culture, and note how infinitely more favourable are the conditions for the student desirous of verifying the hypothesis of Celtic or Teutonic influence on folklore. In Germany, for instance, whilst the medium in which the folklore is preserved is almost wholly Teutonic, large portions of present Germany are known to have been occupied within historic time by Celtic or Slavonic populations, and the influence which may thus have been exercised upon the present stock of inhabitants and their traditions has formed the subject of much inquiry. For the most part this has not progressed beyond the stage of more or less plausible hypothesis, because the definite historical records, the literary and linguistic documents present in England, are lacking in Germany. In France again, history tells us of a powerful Celtic state, but its culture melted away when it came into contact with that of Rome, and has almost wholly disappeared; history tells us also of Germanic and later Scandinavian invasions contemporaneous with those of these islands, and possibly not greatly inferior in extent and duration, but practically the historic record alone remains, the speech, the customary wisdom, the treasure of myth and legend have disappeared and left scarce a visible trace upon French culture. To surmise in how far French folklore may have been affected is, it will be conceded, a matter of extreme delicacy.

If British folklore thus compares favourably with that of France or Germany as regards its greater ease of interpretation due to the historical conditions which have determined its present form, an equally favourable comparison may be made in the case of lands like Scandinavia and Russia, the folklore of which in other respects is richer than our own.[5] For they lack that mixture of races, and to a far greater extent than we, that conflict and super-imposition of cultures, which afford such admirable opportunities for the isolation of folklore facts and the discrimination of their true character. If it be of moment to trace the influence of race upon folklore, we must obviously begin our investigation where diverse races have been in contact and conflict, and where we can study the result upon the still existing population.

The considerations I have enumerated concern the methodological side of our study, and may be said to amount to no more than this: if an inhabitant of Saturn visited this earth and became smitten with noble enthusiasm for the problems of folklore, he would find it profitable to start his investigations in Britain. But the geography and history of our islands have had other and more important effects than the relative facility yielded to the folklorist and the greater chance of solving the problems which fascinate him. If we regard European folklore as a whole we can discern with certainty four great influences, that of Greco-Latin classic antiquity, and those of the Celtic-, the Germanic-, the Slavonic-speaking peoples respectively. The last (the Slavonic influence) may be left out of account, as it entered too late into the general current of European culture to modify the other elements I have named. As regards the first, Britain is, of course, far inferior to the Mediterranean peninsulas, or even to Southern Gaul, in the extent and variety of the material it has retained from classic antiquity. But this very poverty is in itself an advantage. The lore of our folk has behind it no such long ages of civilisation to crush or modify it as has that of Greece or Italy. It is, however, to the two great barbaric stocks, the Celts and the Teutons, that we owe the preservation at least (I will not raise controversy by saying the origin) of the folklore of North-western Europe, and in the light which its study can throw back upon our barbaric forefathers consists much of its interest. We must conceive of Celts and Teutons as originally occupying Central Europe, and radiating thence, the Celts first, in all directions save apparently to the due north, the Teutons secondly, first to the north and then later in all directions. In their southern and south-eastern advance the Celts met with mightier powers, more highly organised civilisations, into which they and their culture melted and were lost. In the north-west alone, in these islands that is, were they able to maintain and develop their institutions, their speech, and their literature, free, or almost free, from the all-dominating influence of Rome.

The very fact that they could advance no further, that before them lay the boundless, trackless sea, that they were compelled to halt, and, as it were, to stereotype their culture, whatever lowering influence it may be held to have had upon the vital energy of the race, had at least this advantage, to preserve for us stages of custom and fancy which otherwise would have passed away. To a far less extent this was also the case with the Teutons who invaded Britain; they did not, as did their Goth and Vandal and Frank cousins, come into contact with Rome herself, Rome weakened, attenuated to a shadow, yet powerful enough to subjugate her overthrowers, to largely impose upon them her own civilisation. Our Low German forefathers were at liberty to develop their own institutions, to exhibit a type of commonwealth more truly German than that of the kinsmen who remained on the Continent to build up half German, half Roman States. And, as I have already insisted, what was vital in Teutonic institutions has been preserved for the modern world by England, by the island colony, not by the mainland home of the Germans. In one thing our Saxon ancestors seem at first blush sadly deficient from the folklorist's point of view: the rich store of myth and romance preserved alike by the Continental and the Scandinavian Germans would seem to have dwindled away in their hands, influencing but slightly our later literature or our mass of popular fancy. But we must not forget that the most archaic German hero-legend of any length, Beowulf, was composed in these islands, nor that, if Continental German literature had had its development violently arrested in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as was the case with our Anglo-Saxon literature, Germany would have had nought to tell us of Siegfried or Dietrich, of the wooing of Brunhild or the vengeance of Kriemhild. If, however, this plea be admitted m striking the balance between the claims of Low and High Germany to the preservation of the racial sagas, it cannot, will it be said, be urged against the far superior claims of Scandinavia. Anglo-Saxondom must yield to Norway and Denmark the honour of preserving the crown of Teutonic myth and romance. Anglo-Saxondom, Yes! but Britain? This query is allowable in view of the large share which has been claimed of late for men of these islands in the elaboration of that great fabric of mythico-heroic saga which we owe to Iceland, Norway, and Denmark. In the North and North-west the Teutons found their limit as had the Celts in the West, but after ages of comparative quiescence they broke forth, hurling themselves upon communities partly subjected to the double influence of Christian and Roman civilisation. In the stress of conflict with the alien ideals they encountered, they expressed and magnified and developed their own; but to do this they had to come in contact with men who still sympathised with the pre-Christian conception of life, and still retained much of the pre-classic store of myth and legend, men, not wholly Romanised, who could interpret to them in words which they could understand the new culture which they otherwise would simply have ignored. It was contact with the Christian classic world, but contact through the comparatively friendly medium of Anglo-Saxons and Celts, that was the determining impulse to the supreme expression by men of Teutonic races of their heathen beliefs and fancies, and it was in these islands that this contact took place, and that much of the resulting literature assumed form.

Such is the theory, the details of which have been pushed to such extravagant lengths as would reduce the magnificent poetry of the Scandinavians to a mere cento of misunderstood borrowings from Englishmen and Irishmen.[6] Discarding as we must arbitrary and uncritical methods which would deprive the Eddas of all value as exponents of archaic belief and fancy, we may yet recognise that it was Britain which supplied the historical and social conditions, thanks to which Teutonic heathendom was able to realise and manifest itself in its grandest and most characteristic aspect. The Viking shock upon the Empires of the West and the East resulted in political changes the effects of which have lasted until to-day, but otherwise influenced but little the culture of the south and south-west of Europe. The Viking shock upon England and Ireland, less momentous in its political consequences, had for an outcome that superb body of mythical and heroic sagas which preserve not alone the formal legends and traditions of our forefathers, but a conception, a vision of life, alien to the Christian, alien to the latter classic ideals, whose loss would have left mankind infinitely weaker and poorer.

Thus when the older barbarism manifests itself for the first time in its awful strength and beauty our land and our people play no mean part in the drama. The results were not, it is true, immediately apparent. The Viking ideal, as embodied at least in his literature, exercised no influence upon the general trend of European culture. It was otherwise with the next great movement in which Britain also plays a capital part. In the twelfth century, thanks, and thanks alone, to the political and social movements of which Britain was the centre, Celtic fancy, Celtic romance, penetrated to every district of Western Christendom and victoriously influenced the social and moral ideals of the time. It was true they had to wear a foreign dress, to accept a large admixture of Christian and classic elements, but nevertheless, alike by the actual subject-matter which it presents and by its animating spirit, the Arthurian romance belongs to those older worlds of belief and fancy which it is our task to investigate.

This older world, as I contended two years ago,[7] came again to the front when, at the breaking up of mediæval civilisation, the order under which we are still living may be said to have begun. I need not urge afresh the claim I made on behalf of England, that here alone the thoughts and fancies of that older world were given a worthy form, and were enabled to become an imperishable portion of mankind's inheritance of beauty and wisdom. Nor need I emphasise the part played alike by the Teutonic and the Celtic elements of our race in the great romantic revival, which, starting a century and a half ago, was to result in the momentous changes, literary, intellectual, social, and political, which have profoundly affected the century drawing to a close, and the force of which is not yet spent. Viewing that revival in its widest and most general aspect, it must be regarded as a return to earlier sources of inspiration whether for the artist or the thinker, as the sympathetic reconstruction and vindication of much that humanity had tossed aside as infantile and outworn. Among its minor results was the organisation of our branch of study, and we cannot regard as entirely alien to our inquiries any manifestation of the spirit which gave us birth.

One of the chief outcomes of the romantic revival, perhaps the chief one from our point of view, has been the critical resuscitation and analysis of the mythic and heroic sagas, as well as of the customary wisdom of the Teutonic-speaking peoples.[8] A beginning has been made in the accomplishment of a like task for the Celtic-speaking peoples, but very much yet remains to be done.[9] We should not forget that we, as Britons, are the preservers of this great and fascinating body of archaic tradition, that its survival is due to the accidents of our geographical position and of our historical circumstances, that it is our duty as well as our right and our privilege to recover, before it is too late, what is yet remaining, and to place it beyond possibility of loss in a form rigidly faithful, and illustrated by the highest and most sympathetic learning we can command. That duty, as I hold, belongs in the first place to the governing and academic bodies of the United Kingdom; it is one. which they have largely neglected in the past, it is one which I see little sign of their performing in the future.[10] It is all the more incumbent upon societies such as ours, that we should clearly realise our duty in this respect, and that we should aid the accomplishment of the task I have indicated by all means in our power. Let us recollect that whilst, as Britons, we have no right to allow the beliefs and fancies of the Celtic half of our race to die away to the irreparable injury of science and of after-generations, they yield us as folklorists perhaps the most fruitful field still open to the student of archaic Europe.[11]

If it be true that, by their position, their history, their mixture of blood and speech, their social and economic conditions now and in the past, their possession of the archaic literature in which are preserved the beliefs, legends, and practices of one of the constituent elements of modern Europe and its culture, the British Isles have a special import for all the inquiries grouped together as the study of folklore—that our land has taken a preponderant part in the formation and discrimination of folklore material which has influenced the whole trend of European culture—if it be also true that the results of our study may and should influence, and influence for the good, our attitude towards imperial and world-wide problems, we are, I think, entitled to claim that our Society has a work and prerogatives of ts own, prerogatives which are honourable and legitimate, work which it alone and no other body can perform.

  1. The Fairy Mythology of English Literature: its Origin and Nature.” Presidential Address, 1897. (Folk-Lore, vol. viii., pp. 30-53.) “The Discrimination of Racial Elements in the Folklore of the British Isles.” Presidential Address, 1898. (Folk-Lore, vol. ix., pp. 30-52.)
  2. The argument I advanced was in brief that which I elaborated fully, and in reliance upon the most archaic Irish evidence, in my Voyage of Bran. Two vols. 1895-97
  3. I am glad to find myself in undesigned accord with our present President. My friend Mr. Hartland, in an address delivered two years ago before the Gloucester Philosophical Society, and which he only recently sent me, speaking of the practical value of Folklore, insists likewise upon the positive advantage which the legislator may derive from knowledge of archaic institutions.
  4. English folklore was surveyed and treated of in a fairly comprehensive fashion at an earlier date than that of France, Germany, or Italy. The consequence is that our standard collections and handbooks go back to the pre-critical period. The national taste for unrelated and unsynthetised facts has likewise made itself felt in our studies, which by some have been pursued and by many regarded as if they were a species of Tit-Bits. Thus certain work of classification, due to the older antiquary-folklorist, requires doing over again. Practically the first attempt at a systematic and critical survey is that due to Mr. and Mrs. Gomme in their projected Dictionary of British Folklore.
  5. To prevent misapprehension, I wish to emphasise that I recognise the superior richness of Scandinavian and Slavonic folklore over that of the English-speaking portions of our isles.
  6. E.g. by Professor Sophus Bugge, whose methods and results will shortly be accessible to the English reader in vol. xi. of the Grimm Library (The Home of the Eddie Poems, with special reference to the Helgi lays).
  7. Cf. Folk-Lore, vol. viii., p. 51.
  8. This work has been accomplished almost exclusively by Germans and Scandinavians. England, the home of the earliest recorded Teutonic literature, has done very little original work towards its elucidation.
  9. Here again Britain is very largely indebted to foreign, especially to German, scholarship. But it must be noted to the credit of Ireland that she has shown herself far more mindful of her ancient national literature, and far more capable of the necessary scientific work for its interpretation, than the English-speaking portion of Britain has of hers. England has no Teutonic philologist of equal eminence with O'Donovan, O'Curry, or Whitley Stokes as Celtic scholars.
  10. It is noteworthy that the recent attempt to withdraw the meagre, grudging support which Government does afford to the study of Irish, was fostered and backed by representatives of the highest academic teaching in Ireland.
  11. I again emphasise the fact that I do not make this statement on behalf of Celtic folklore, because it actually is richer and more varied than those of other European peoples, but because it is recorded earlier and under conditions that vouch for its archaic character.