The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 3/The Science of Folk-Lore (Hartland)

Every member of the Folk-Lore Society must sympathise with Mr. Gomme's wish that it should "be settled once for all that folk-lore is a science." There are probably few habitual readers of this journal, few students of the subjects touched on in these pages, who are not fully convinced that folk-lore is a science, however difficult they may feel it to define its actual range and scope. The contribution, therefore, from Mr. Gomme's pen in the last number towards a clear apprehension of these matters will be accepted with gratitude even by those who are unable to agree with him on the terms in which he would define the science. I am one of these; and, in seeking to prolong the discussion, I trust I may not be considered as trespassing upon space that might be better occupied. For, though no doubt the question resolves itself to some extent into one about mere words, still I cannot help thinking, that whether we have a more or less ambitious conception of the object of onr study will, in the long run, affect the interest we take in it and the mode in which we pursue it.

The definition I put forward in the November number of this journal was—"Folk-lore is anthropology dealing with the psychological phenomena of uncivilised man." This was an amendment of a definition proposed by Mr. Nutt; and I then gave no reasons, beyond a few lines explaining my preference for the amended form. Let me now try to supply the omission.

Anthropology is a word of very extended signification, embracing nothing less than the study of Man and all that he is. Man is studied under every conceivable aspect—physical, mental, moral, political, social, religious—by writers upon anthropology; and the term, in fact, is one of those collective names, of which zoology, biology, physiography, are other examples, comprehending a multitude of minor sciences. Each of these minor sciences has its own subject: each is busied with researches within its own peculiar limits. And, though they all dovetail into one another on different sides, it is impossible to say that any of them are superfluous—all contribute something towards the great whole to which they belong. Zoology cannot say to entomology, nor biology to botany, "I have no need of thee," for either would be incomplete without the other. So, if we examine the writings of anthropologists—if, for instance, we glance over the Journal of the Anthropological Institute—we shall find one set of students devoting themselves to the measurement of skulls, another to the general physical characteristics of races, a third to the growth and effects of material civilisation, a fourth to customs and beliefs, and so on. Each of these studies yields its own contribution to the net conclusions of the science of anthropology. I am not seeking here, it will be observed, to enlarge the definition of anthropology in order to make good my contention that folk-lore is one of its departments. I am only appealing to well-known facts that can be verified by everybody. But, if the study of customs and beliefs be a branch of anthropological inquiry, then "the science which," according to Mr. Gomme, "treats of the survivals of archaic beliefs and customs in modern ages," must, à fortiori, be included. Even on his own showing, therefore, folk-lore is a portion of anthropology.

But I go further than this. I decline to be limited to survivals, or to archaic beliefs and customs.[1] There is, of course, a sense in which every institution, every belief, and every custom now existing is a survival. The British House of Commons is a survival; yet no one contends that it comes within the domain of folk-lore. On the other hand, there are many savage beliefs and customs (which Mr. Gomme expressly, and, no doubt, rightly, calls folk-lore) which yet may not be of ancient date. At all events, we do not study them as fragments of antiquity, or as survivals, but as superstitions now living and vigorous. The problem we set ourselves is other, because wider, than a mere study of survivals. If it were only that, our interest in savage beliefs and customs would be no more than accidental; we should treat them, or such of them as suited our purpose, merely as illustrations; we should appeal to them simply to confirm our conclusions relative to the customs and beliefs found in our own and kindred lands. I cannot assent to any such limitation. Folklore, in my view, is not confined as to its main subject to our own nation, nor even to the Aryan race. It deals with human thought generally in its primitive aspects, and seeks to reveal to us the beginnings and growth of reason. Philosophers who have undertaken to investigate the constitution of the human intellect, as a foundation for their speculations on the universe, have commenced by examining their own minds, hoping to obtain thereby a clue that shall lead them by process of reasoning to unravel the mighty mysteries with which all thinking men find themselves enveloped. But the method of introspection is, like all other deductive processes, liable to error unless checked and confirmed from point to point by the converse process of induction. In our degree of civilisation the mind is acted upon by many and very complex influences; and that thought or perception, which the philosopher thinks he has discovered to be at the root of every other principle, may, in truth, be of comparatively modern introduction, the product merely of the present state of society, or of institutions or speculations of no very remote period. Without, therefore, undervaluing the method, or disputing the results, of the introspective inquirer, folk-lore seems to me to set before itself the investigation of the external phenomena. Dealing with thought in its primitive forms, it traces it downwards from the higher civilisation* where it is exhibited in the conscious logic and historical religions, institutions, arts, science, and literature of the progressive races, to its earliest and lowest manifestation in the forefathers, not only of the Indo-European, but also of the Semitic and Turanian tribes and in the barbarous and savage races of to-day. Although it cannot afford altogether to neglect any period of culture, or any subject on which the mind of man has been exercised, it passes by almost all that we are accustomed to regard as the characteristic products of civilisation. Its business is with mankind in its infancy and childhood, when the untrained imagination was dominant, and knowledge was purely empirical,—when men could only make futile guesses at the facts of their own natures and of the world about them, and when the organisation of society was as yet more or less rudimentary. Its object is, as M. Gaidoz says in the February number of Mélusine, "reconstituer la genèse des croyances et des usages." Traces of that which has gone before naturally remain: "the child is father of the man" is true not only of the individual but also of the race. The student of folklore looks for these traces as naturalists studying the evolution of physical organisms look for indications of prior stages through which the species and genera, the families and classes, of the animal or vegetable kingdom have been developed. It would hardly seem accurate to define biology as a science of survivals, yet it would be as accurate to do so as to define folk-lore in such terms. The one is just as much and as little a science of survivals as the other. Both have to do with survivals, but both reason beyond them.

Civilisation has grown out of savagery; and because the phenomena of thought for which we seek are those of uncivilised men they live in Tradition. They elude the grasp of the historian; and, although social science finds in some of them a portion of her material, she treats them in her own way. The institutions of primitive man, from which sociology starts, are as much within the domain of folk-lore as his myths. Indeed the myths and legends of a people are frequently inexplicable apart from its laws and ceremonies. But sociology has mainly to do with history; it may be said to be a forward-looking, while folk-lore is a backward-looking, science. Sociology deals with the social environment and organisation of men, tracing these from their early forms along the lines of their development, and striving from every indication to divine the future of our species. Folk-lore seeks to follow thought back to its fountain, and inquires whence it flows, what are its boundaries, and what are its constituents. Its relations with history are therefore chiefly indirect: it is occupied with materials the historian rejects. Treating of tradition, it has as little to do with art and literature as with history. Traditions become embedded in art and literature as often as in history, or rather they are seized upon by art and literature and made everlasting monuments of beauty. And it is frequently necessary for the student of folk-lore to examine these monuments: they contain for him instructive lessons. But it is not as art and literature that he cares for them; it is because they embalm the relics of an older world,—relics dead in them, but not seldom vital and powerful in contemporary savages, or decaying, though yet alive, among the peasantry and other less advanced classes of his own fellow-countrymen. To correlate all these is the endeavour of folk-lore, and thence to formulate the ideas that swayed mankind in the dark ages of prehistoric antiquity as far back as human beings have existed on the globe. Starting from the assumption that human nature is everywhere the same, it believes that everywhere, though under different forms, the thoughts of humanity are substantially the same; and by the study of the more primitive modes in which they have been expressed our science seeks to recover their original types and the laws of their divergence, and thence to demonstrate from new materials the constitution of the mind. No doubt it is still a long way from the accomplishment of this task; but then it is one of the youngest of the sciences. Rome was not built in a day, and it is small wonder if we have scarcely now begun to find our proper methods or to realise T^hither we are bound, The time may come when the conquests of folk-lore shall be reckoned among the most remarkable and in their results the most important achievements of inductive reasoning.

This, expressed imperfectly and without much attempt at scientific precision, is my conception of the science of folk-lore. I may be told that this conception is too ambitious, that it soars beyond any practicable range. It may be so; but to recognise a lower ultimate aim than this, it seems to me, will be to limit the interest and to distort the methods of the science. Put broadly, Mr. Gomme's view is that folklore is an antiquarian—mine, that it is strictly a scientific pursuit. He sees its subjects only in the remains of a distant epoch, preserved less perfectly in Europe, more perfectly in Africa; and his method is to take for primary subjects the less perfect remains, using the more perfect remains only, as it were, incidentally. I contend that Tradition is always being created anew, and that traditions of modern origin wherever found are as much within our province as ancient ones. They may not be quite so useful in the analysis of human thought, since the influences at work in compounding and moulding them are now so complex; but they cannot be overlooked, and occasionally they may afford evidence of a most important character. Illustrations of this are found in the stories which have grown up around the names of historical personages, such as Mary Queen of Scots or Oliver Cromwell. The strength with which a large personality like these will still strike the uncultivated mind, and the attraction it proves for floating tales, however originating, are considerations often by no means irrelevant in discussing myths and folk-tales. And instances of superstitions obviously of recent birth among peoples of all degrees of civilisation will occur to every reader as throwing sometimes unexpected light on the way in which practices, meaningless to us, are generated.

The space I have already occupied forbids my entering now upon any farther discussion of classification, terminology, or methods. I do not regret this, because I hope that other members of the Society, who, like Mr. Gomme, are intimately acquainted with portions of the study of which I am comparatively ignorant, will be prevailed upon to express their opinions upon the points at issue. Just one word, ever, as to terminology. Captain Temple, in his admirable appendix to Wide-Awake Stories, has suggested a term that will be found useful. I mean Life-index. But he has unfortunately confounded under this name two distinct matters. He makes it include not only Prince Bahman's knife and Prince Perviz' chaplet of pearls (which it properly describes), but also Punchkin's parrot, which was much more than an index to his life; for it was the talisman on the preservation of which his life depended, the casket wherein it was enshrined. A separate phrase must be found for this. Life-casket is not free from objection, but perhaps it may stand in the absence of a better.

  1. It will be observed that Mr. Gomme used the word archaic as the antithesis of modern. It is in this sense alone that I am at issue with him on it. Substitute uncivilised for archaic, and we are so far agreed.