The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 5/Some Simple Methods of Promoting the Study of Folk-Lore, and the Extension of the Folk-Lore Society
LOOKING back through former volumes of the Journal, it strikes one very forcibly how little of English folk-lore they contain. While school attendance officers, newspaper-vendors, and popular scientific lecturers, are prowling about our most retired country villages, our members are calmly engaged in "surveying mankind from China to Peru," apparently in happy unconsciousness that these modern Aids to the Advancement of Learning are rapidly destroying the curious old folk-learning which it was surely the original purpose of the Society to record before it should be too late.
There must be some misapprehension in the minds of our country members, or this would not be so. Is it that they are bashful, and wait to be asked to contribute? In that case, it might be well to insert an editorial notice to the effect that brief local notes are welcome. Or do they think the numberless little matters of folk-lore which must come under the observation of dwellers in the country are too trivial or too well-known to be worth recording? If so, they surely make a great mistake. In the first place, it is just as rash for persons who have chiefly lived in one place to conclude that what is familiar to them must be familiar to all the world, as it is to fly into the opposite (but not uncommon) error of fancying that what is customary in their own neighbourhood is peculiar to the locality and unknown to the rest of the world. Besides, even though a given item may be known elsewhere, it has more than once been pointed out in the Journal that the geographical distribution of folk-lore is a matter of interest, and that things already recorded are yet worth noting when a definite, and possibly a hitherto-unnoticed, locale can be assigned to them.
Perhaps it might help to remove the evident uncertainty as to what is wanted if particular points on which further information is desirable were from time to time specified by authority in the Journal, and members were requested to state the custom or belief of their own neighbourhood as to the matter in question in the next Quarterly Part. This would be something definite, and would undoubtedly meet with a certain amount of response.
Another thing that strikes one every day is the extraordinary ignorance of even otherwise well-educated people, first, of the nature of folk-lore, and secondly, of the existence of the Folk-Lore Society. For myself, I think I have only met with one person who had heard of the latter before I mentioned it, and he thought its object was the study of dialects! This general ignorance will have to be removed before any really substantial progress can be made in collecting. For there is one noteworthy point about the study of folk-lore, in which it differs from all other branches of learning except the study of dialects, viz. that it cannot be pursued by the savants without the aid of the comparatively unlearned—those who mingle familiarly with the folk, who go in and out among them, know their ways, their ideas, and their modes of thought; nay, who in many cases have themselves been brought up in an atmosphere of old-world manners and customs, very far removed from that of modern English life. These are the people who must be enlisted in the cause and incited to bring grist to the mills of the scientific folk-lorists: the point to be considered is, how best to get hold of them.
In the first place, the admirable prospectus of the Society should be widely distributed, by which I do not mean that it should be sent to all-and-sundry in a halfpenny wrapper, to meet with immediate "happy despatch" in the waste-paper basket; but that every individual member should exert himself or herself to put two or three copies of it into the hands of intelligent friends.
In the second place we ought to gain the attention of the newspapers. What the Psychical Society can do, surely the Folk-Lore Society can. What steps to take with regard to the London press I leave to the consideration of Londoners; but there are thousands of middle-class country people who can be reached through the country press better than through any other medium, and what I want particularly to urge on our country members is the importance of drawing attention to the subject in the columns of their several local newspapers. The occasional paragraphs headed "Extraordinary Superstition," the announcements that "The ancient custom of so-and-so was observed in this town on such-a-day," would give opportunities for letters or articles on the general subject of folk-lore, which would without question be gladly welcomed by the editors of the better class of country papers. Again, queries on definite points of local usage, &c. will generally meet with some response. I speak from personal experience, and I could name two most energetic collectors who obtain the chief part of their materials in this way. Many of the local editors, too, would willingly, if it were suggested to them, insert portions of the prospectus in the form of a paragraph; especially where there is an antiquarian column, to which it would form a valuable contribution. Moreover, besides helping to arouse the interest of the general public by these means, we could not obtain more useful coadjutors than the writers for the local press themselves. I have, myself, received most courteous and competent assistance in collecting from members of their calling. The chiefs among them are naturally some of the ablest and most cultivated men of their class, and the subordinate members of the staff have unrivalled opportunities of getting at the folk-lore of their several districts.
Perhaps more tangible results in the way of new subscribers, (of whom our funds notoriously stand in need), might be obtained by the private circulation of the prospectus; but the general enlightenment of the public mind would certainly be better attained through the newspapers than in any other way, and this would also be the readiest means of increasing the stock of recorded English folk-lore, while here and there a real appreciation of the subject would be found lurking in unexpected quarters. But apart from interested motives, the promotion of the study of folk-lore is a desirable object in itself. It has a dractical bearing on the affairs of human life. Captain Temple has pointed out (Journal, vol. iv. p. 209) the value of the study to all Englishmen who are called upon (as so many are called upon) to exercise authority over savage and uncivilized tribes. But there are barbarians nearer home than in India or New Zealand, and surely any one who is placed in a position of authority over uneducated folk must gain in largeness of judgment and breadth of view, and must, therefore, be better fitted for his post, when he has arrived at a perception of the cardinal fact that widely separated stages of progress may coexist in the same country at the same time, and has learnt that the ideas of the folk are not necessarily to be ridiculed or despised when they differ from those which his education has instilled into him. When people understand the reasons of the prejudices of uneducated folk they must know better how to deal with them, and how to set about trying to reconcile them with the principles of modern culture and civilization.
Pyebirch, Eccleshall, Staffordshire.
13th December, 1886.
As one of the Honorary Secretaries of the Society I may, perhaps, be allowed to say how heartily I endorse Miss Burne's excellent and practical suggestions as set forth above.
One of them, viz. that relating to the desirability of enlisting the help of country editors, I hope to carry into effect without delay, by printing an extract from the letter itself, together with such particulars from the Prospectus of the Society as shall give an idea of the aims of the Folk-Lore Society, and make, I trust, a not unsuccessful appeal. This I propose to send to the editor of every good country newspaper.
J. J. Foster, Hon. Sec.