John Constable - Wivenhoe Park, Essex - Google Art Project, Public Domain,

English Folklore: What Cultural Values Does It Represent?

In broad terms, folklore—or rather its constituents—comprise legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales, stories, tall tales, and customs that are the traditions of a culture. Folklore is a vital feature of our lives. Folklore is the folk tradition which has developed in England over a number of centuries. Folklore has a broad role across the nation’s lives and has done so since time immemorial. English folklore is linked with national, regional and local traditions, local communities as well as being a force for creativity, and innovation. The constituents of English folklore can be traced back to their origins while the source of others is uncertain or disputed. England has a wealth of folklore, in all forms. Some of the obvious are the traditional Arthurian legends, the tale of Beowulf, Robin Hood tales, up to contemporary tales of urban myths and legends such as ghost trains and unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

The “lore” element of folklore historically meant texts in the shape of stories and songs. Now “lore” is any individual creative expression. Creative expression may comprise art which is decorative in form, proportion and detail or craft, made to serve a specific and important function, which is used in everyday life such as furniture, tools, caned chairs, quilts, pots, which are nonetheless decorative in form, proportion. At its best, all art, whether folk art or fine art, it makes us aware of our position in the community. Unlike most art in museums, such as paintings we are trained to consider as art, folk art is not limited to a frame, but embodies the values and visions of its makers. Art allows for an expression of how culture has shaped us, even while the artist may challenge the present and try to shape the future. Throughout the history of the planet, many of our most profound arts globally were folk arts like textiles, ceramics, and stories, which urge us to glimpses of excellence even within our daily lives. We learn to appreciate the context from which art flows and recognise the artistic genius in communities all around the world.


Lets look at the development of folklore in the UK:

Before the Renaissance, folklore in England was a personal experience through participations in song and acting ritual—a wholly oral tradition—or through watching the enactment of the ritual. Many of the rituals celebrated events, holy days or seasons, and became calendar customs. The Renaissance had a significant impact, extending the rituals to the written word. These rituals were reflected in both poetry and, more particularly, plays. Shakespeare is the most obvious example. Shakespeare possessed a rich treasury of knowledge of a most varied kind, much of which he may be said to have picked up almost intuitively. He embellished his writings with a choice store of illustrations descriptive of the period in which he lived. Contents included fairies; witches; ghosts; demonology and Devil lore; natural phenomena; birds; animals; plants; insects and reptiles; folk medicine; customs connected with the calendar; birth and baptism; marriage; death and burial; rings and precious stones; sports and pastimes; dances; punishments; proverbs; human body; fishes; sundry superstitions; miscellaneous customs. Folklore remained a personal experience.

The 18th century brought change to folklore. Folklore, sometimes under other nomenclatures, has been an object of enquiry, when antiquarians, people of leisure but educated, sought and publicised their enquiries and analysis of “popular antiquities”—customs, traditions, ballads, and legends. They published the results of their enquiries and analysis in collections, which accompanied engravings of ruined castles, passages of poetry, maps and genealogical tables.  By the 19th century amateur and antiquarian interest in popular culture assumed scholarly attributes. Antiquarians such as Henry Bourne, John Brand, and Thomas Percy published collections of professional standards on popular antiquities. Their publications proved popular, especially with the emerging group of scholars interested in what we would now call the social history of England. At the beginning of the 19th century, interest in folklore was often represented within an antiquarian interest in architectural ruins, medieval literature, and art. These would be collated and published in collections of regional curiosities and 19th century “relics” of the past, like the 18th-century collections, these volumes of collections were less interested in the analysis of their material than in the production of an archive of curiosities evocative of a bygone era. By the middle of the 19th century interest in traditional culture and narrative experienced substantial change. Folklore scholars wanted to test the potential of this material to respond to systematic and scientific treatment.  When William John Thoms, under the pseudonym Ambrose Merton, coined the term “folklore” in the pages of Athaneum in 1846, his intention was to replace the ephemeral

English folklore has many roots, but is largely drawn from Celtic, Germanic and Christian sources. Moreover, England is but one part of the European offshore Islands that consist of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. Folklore assumed new and very conscious—some may say self-conscious—significance, in the 19th century and this was how the Folklore Society came into existence

Lets look at some examples:

  • Alfred Nutt, one of the most prominent members of the Folklore Society in the latter part of 19th century, in a retrospective of Celtic folklore studies brought to prominence the underlying structures of contemporary political and cultural realities, which underlay the project of decoding and cataloguing the British national psyche. His pessimistic review of the emergence of Irish folklore, with its distinct national (ist) agenda, not only recalls the imperialist language of On The Study of Celtic Literature itself.  I could spend more time discussing Nutt (and perhaps, others will do so!). Let me encapsulate his thoughts in his last presidential address to the Folklore Society. He speaks first of the “unique importance of modern English literature for mankind,” which he traces from “it being the inheritor of archaic traditions and conventions”  from within its own national space; as a “mixed strain of Teutonic and Celtic blood, with its share in the mythologies of both these races, and in especial with its claim to the sole body of mythology and romance, by contrast folklore in Wales, Scotland and Ireland assumed a strong, mainstream social and political role.Nutt makes clear gestures throughout his work toward the role that he imagined folklore above all other sciences could play for Britain—as a science, certainly, but as a science with a very particular and unique set of ideological goals.  “I believe it  [folklore] to be a task, patriotic in the highest sense of the word.”
  • Welsh history, before the Romans, was absorbed orally by the Druids.Due to invasions by many, including the Romans and Saxons, history and mythology are confused due to the lack of written sources. Welsh folklore consists partly of folk traditions developed in Wales, and partly of traditions developed by Britons elsewhere before the end of the first millennium. Some of this contains remnants of the mythology of pre-Christian Britain, surviving in much altered form in medieval Welsh manuscripts such as The Red Book of Hergest , The White Book of Rhydderch and The Book of Aneirin.The prose stories from the White and Red books are known as The Mabinogion, a title given to them by their first translator, Lady Charlotte Guest. Other sources include the 9th-century Latin historical compilation Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons) and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century Latin chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), as well as later folklore, such as The Welsh Fairy Book by W. Jenkyn Thomas [1908].
  • In Irish Folklore, the mythology of pre-Christian Ireland did not entirely survive the conversion to Christianity, but much of it was preserved, shorn of its religious meanings, in medieval Irish literature, which represents the most extensive and best preserved of all the branches of Celtic mythology. Although many of the manuscripts have failed to survive, and much more material was probably never committed to writing, there is enough remaining to enable the identification of distinct, if overlapping, cycles: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. There are also a number of extant mythological texts that do not fit into any of the cycles. The three main manuscript sources for Irish mythology are the late 11th/early 12th century Lebor na huidre which is in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, the early 12th century Book of Leinster in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, and the Rawlinson manuscript, housed in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.
  • Irish folklore influenced author William Butler Yeats and his using folklore elements in his literary and dramatic works. This breathed new life into Irish legends and myths. In her book, Folklore and the Fantastic in Twelve Modern Irish Novels (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy), Marguerite Quintelli-Neary describes how folklore has contributed to the work of authors such as James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Mervyn Wall, Darrell Figgis, Eimar O’Duffy, and James Stephens. These works were born of the Irish culture and society and they continue to influence the body of literature and storytelling, unique to that culture and society.
  • Turning to Scottish Folklore, several origin legends for the Scots were created during the historical period, serving various purposes. One Scottish origin legend, or pseudo-historical account of the foundation of the Scottish people, appears in adapted form in the tenth-century Latin Life of St. Cathróe of Metz. It relates that settlers from Greek Asia Minor sailed the seas and arrived at Cruachan Feli “the mountain of Ireland”. They roamed through Ireland, from Clonmacnoise, Armagh and Kildare to Cork, and finally, to Bangor on the coast of Northern Ireland . After some time, they crossed the Irish Sea to invade Caledonia North of Roman Britain, successively capturing Iona, the cities of Rigmhonath and Bellathor in the process.
  • Once the Picts adopted Gaelic culture and their actual characteristics faded out of memory, folkloric elements filled the gaps of history. Their “sudden disappearance” was explained as a slaughter happening at a banquet given by Kenneth MacAlpin (an international folklore motif) and they were ascribed with powers like those of the fairies, brewing heather from secret recipes and living in underground chambers. In the eighteenth century the Picts were co-opted as a “Germanic” race.
  • Because of the movement of people from Ulster to west Scotland, which resulted in close linguistic links between the two regions, much of Gaelic mythology was imported to Scotland and possibly some of it written there. The Ulster Cycle is set at the beginning of the Christian era. It consists of a group of heroic stories dealing with the lives of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, the great hero Cúchulainn, and of their friends, lovers, and enemies. These are people of the North-Eastern corner of Ireland. They had close links with Gaelic Scotland, where Cúchulainn is said to have learned the arts of war. The cycle consists of stories of the births, early lives and training, wooings, battles, feastings and deaths of the heroes and reflects a warrior society in which warfare consists mainly of single combats and wealth is measured mainly in cattle.
  • Inner and Outer Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland are made up of a great number of large and small islands. These isolated and mostly uninhabited islands are the source of a number of Hebridean myths and legends. It is a part of Scotland which has always relied on the surrounding sea to sustain the small communities which have occupied parts of the islands for centuries, therefore, it is natural that these seas are a source for many of their legends

I have illustrated at some length the historical and cultural diversity and sources of folklore within the British Isles. They still exist because the governments of Ireland, Wales and Scotland provide funding for a diverse range of research and teaching initiatives which embrace folklore. England does not.

I would like to move forward to the 20th century, the first half of the 20th century . People studying folklore considered themselves “educated” and “civilized”.  They did not consider themselves “folk”, but instead believed themselves “above” the folk, civilized, more rational, more adult. That is how we moved from 19th century evolutionary perspectives when science influenced social scientists to explicit notions of primitive versus civilized within and among societies. Folklore was seen as nostalgic translating in perception into notions of quaint, childish, foolish in customs, superstitions, and stories. Indeed, many of our notions of folklore as childish, insignificant, or untrue reflect the ideas of early scholars who thought of the folk, however much they were admired, as being on a lower rung of what was literally viewed as a social ladder.

Let me turn now to the present, by which I mean the 1960s to date.  We have experienced a reorientation in thinking—universality of the human condition & centrality of folklore to all cultures. Today we recognize as “folk” any collectivity (a group or a culture) summarized in the words of Alan Dundas: “Who are the folk? Among others, we are!” Since the 1960’s and 70’s folklore has been defined as “artistic communication in small groups” (Ben-Amos 1972) or “the study of human creativity in its own context” (Glassie, 1993), or “art” made with an awareness of and a connection to tradition and community. Tradition and folklore are seen as dynamic processes connected to community & creativity. Extensive focus on field work through first-hand knowledge & observation has revealed similarities as humans and is a contrast from the judgmental approach of the 19th century which focused on the differences between “civilization” and “primitive” beings.  We accept that cultures change. Tradition connects us to the past while showing us a clear awareness of present and accepting responsibility to shape future.

Practically, folklore is the study of human creativity in its own context.  The politics of folklore is changing and challenging culture. Folklore is dynamic and fluid nature in all culture. It extends to urban legends, joke cycles, rap, blues, media-based beliefs like UFO’s or Bigfoot, garage bands, internet hoaxes, and graffiti. Our sense of history is built partly from folklore. Folklore directs us or allows us to imagine how to live. For example, myths, a universally popular and much-studied oral genre of folklore, have been viewed as spoken versions of history.

Many of the Latin languages, like French, have same word for history and story. Indeed, the word myth itself (from the Greek) means story or word. Words and symbols form the basis of our communication, which linguistically largely revolves around stories, even today. Some people describe myths as metaphorical interpretations of the past because both myth and history help people to try to understand their past good fortunes and tragedies and to imagine the constraints and options of human possibility.  In summary, folklore draws on collective experience and wisdom. When communal learning and individual inspiration flourish, folklore/art thrives.

Before I conclude this address, I don’t not wish to give the impression that the Folklore Society confines its studies and activities to English folklore. It never has subjected itself to those constraints. Quite the contrary I have to say. If I may be forgiven in referring to the Folklore Society’s journal, Folklore, more than 60% of subscribers are from outside the UK. An increasing number about 30% are from outside the Western Hemisphere. Equally important an increasing number of articles, which are published, are submitted from those whose first language is not English. Of the three editions published each year, about 60% of articles are about folklore outside of Britain and as much as 40% are on folklore from beyond the Western Hemisphere. We like to think that both the readership of Folklore and its content is truly global.

Let me offer some concluding observations:

  • Folklore has and continues to contribute to culture and society. At a basic level every person who listens to or reads a story becomes part of the flow of culture within a society that has flowed since the dawn of mankind. Importantly, as I have illustrated, folklore is organic and even dynamic. Sharing and retelling of the story moves enriches cultural and societal understanding.
  • Folklore is relevant to each participant or member of the audience. It is a part of the human experience. Most human beings have a sense of belonging, roots if you like. Folklore sets the scene for the common experience, in which people, who are present to view or participate in the event, can witness and feel emotionally. In time the viewer become so like other audiences over hundreds of years who sit in some place of gathering in order to be entertained and informed.
  • Just like history, of which some claim folklore is a branch, valuable lessons of another age can light the way even in modern times. The most basic revelations have endured. Those revelations are as meaningful for the generations of the 21st century as they have been for past generations.
  • The corollary is, of course, that folklore makes connections from one generation to another generation. Those connections are increasingly under tension. In modern society, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, where there is a major breakdown in family cohesion, too many people do not have that generational connection. Whatever the connection that a person’s family unit may have, there is, for most, a humanity that connect and often binds people to earlier people within a society, or to a specific cultural community.

I leave you with the following final comment for reflection from Author Ursula LeGuin who wrote :

“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel. There have been no great societies that did not tell stories.”

[This paper is a reworking and abbreviation of  a paper which I gave to an international symposium in Beirut in 2013 , sponsored by the Sultan of Oman, on ‘The Role of Folklore and Culture in Peace and Reconciliation’ to an invited audience from the Middle East, including delegates from Iran, Syria, Jordan, Armenia and Oman, as well as Lebanon.]

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Robert McDowall is a former president of the Folkore Society, but is also engaged in the research and analysis of cryptocurrencies and the technology which supports their operation. He is a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) and is a member of the RAI Finance and Administration Committee.

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