Romantic Folklore

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By the early twentieth century, also, the language of paganism as a force for positive renewal, and the images of the two deities, were starting to combine with another cultural development*, a set of attitudes to the English countryside and to rural folk customs. The intellectual framework for these was constructed as one of the products of Victorian rationalism, a particular response to the new sciences of geology and palaeontology and the new theory of the evolution of species which was associated with them. Applied to the development of human culture, the geological model suggested that the minds of all humans worked in essentially the same way, but had developed at different rates, according to culture and class, along the same orderly and linear track. If this were true, then it was possible to treat the customs of tribal peoples and of European peasants alike as cultural fossils, representing earlier stages in the evolution of civilized societies, and by a comparative study of them to construct a general theory of religious development for the human race.

This approach to the history of religion was first fully expounded in England in the 1870s and 1880s by Sir Edward Tylor. The most striking and influential early application of it, however, was made between 1860 and 1880 by the German scholar, Wilhelm Mannhardt, who was himself inspired by a new interest in folk culture which had been another hallmark of the Romantic movement m Germany and was sustained by the quest of nineteenth-century German intellectuals for a unifying Germanic identity. Mannhardt made the first systematic collection of contemporary peasant customs, and concluded that they were survivals of pagan ntes pnmariiy intended to ensure the fertility of humans, livestockand fields and based upon the concept of animating vegetation spirits.

These approaches promised both to make possible the construction of a history of world religion, even for places and times which had left no wntten records, and to rescue the study of European folklore from mere antiquananism and turn it into something like a scientific discipline. The latter was the avowed aim of Britain's Folk-Lore Society, founded m 1878, and of its leaders m the next two decades, such as Sir Lawrence Gomme, Andrew Lang, Edwin Sidney Hardand, Edward Clodd and Alfred Nutt. Its most ambitious and best-known expression, however, was to be the work of a Cambridge don who was only tangenaally connected with the Society: Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough which, as said above, went through successive editions between 1890 and 1922. Its basic thesis was that primitive religion had been based largely upon the veneration of Mannhardt's dying and returning spint of vegetation, personified as a god and identified with human kings, who were killed either after a set term or when their powers waned. The result was not only an important theoretical structure, but a vast compendium of human ntual practices, often lurid. Frazer intended it from the first to reach the largest possible audience, writing m a vivid and accessible style and having it packaged in an attractive format.

These developments have been well studied, notably by John Burrow, Robert Ackerman and Gillian Bennett (Burrow, 1966; Ackerman, 1987; Bennett, 1994). The same scholars have noted that the impulse which drove Tylor and Frazer was a hostility to all forms of religious belief and practice, which they hoped to discredit as part of the development of a wiser and more rational society. Frazer's attempt to prove the former existence of a universal ancient pagan mythology of a dying and resurrecting god, m particular, struck deliberately at the central claims of Chnsti-arnty. This recent research has also delineated very well the failure of the intellectual enterprise of which these writers had formed part. Between 1900 and 1930 both anthropologists and histonans of religion lost faith in the notion of folk practices as authentic survivals and in the method of equating them with beliefs and customs in modem tribal societies, regardless of context. Folklore studies failed to establish themselves as an academic discipline, falling through a gap between the emerging sciences of anthropology and archaeology.

Gillian Bennett has also noted, however, that what the founders of the Folk-Lore Society had characterized as a rational and objective enterprise was coloured from the start by one of the most powerful cultural forces of the time: a romantic and nostalgic cult of rural England (Bennett, 1993). The origins of this may be expressed in a simple equation — in 1810 20

per cent of the English lived in towns, and by 1910 only 20 per cent did not. They had become the first modern nation to be predominantly urbanized and industrialized, the balance tipping m the 1850s. After then it seemed a real possibility that the whole land would turn into one vast smoking conurbation, and from the 1870s an almost hysterical celebration and veneration of the countryside began by way of reaction, gaming strength well into the twentieth century; a phenomenon now well studied, by Raymond Williams, Martin Wiener, Jan Marsh and Alun Howkins (Williams, 1973; Wiener, 198V; Marsh, 1982; Howkins, 1986). It was not simply that rural settings were regarded as being more beautiful and healthy than those of the town, but that their people were portrayed, for the first time, as having a supenor wisdom, founded upon generations of living in close contact with nature and inheriting a cumulative hidden knowledge. Their culture was viewed as something static and immemorial, a comforting force of resistance to the dramatic and unsettling changes of the century.

This theme of continuity and timeless heritage was sounded with even greater strength by American visitors to England, seeking tap-roots for their own even more dynamic and novel civilization. It was already a central aspect of the work of Washington Irvmg, in the 1810s and 1820s. By the time that Nathamel Hawthorne introduced an American readership to Our Old Home in 1890 it was long a commonplace, but no less potent for that: this England was 'fossilized in its greenest leaf and 'hoary antiquity', a country in which the man who died yesterday or ever so long ago walks the village street today, and chooses the same wife that he married a hundred years ago since, and must be buried again tomorrow under the same kindred dust that has already covered him half a score of times.

Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and Kenneth Grahame were probably the most celebrated of scores of English counterparts to inoculate the reading public with the same sense, of the English countryside as an organic growth of experience and tradition, changing only in outward forms.

Deep in this humus lay the old religions, which some authors had come to view as having been possessed of virtues different in kind from, and perhaps supenor to, those of Christianity. Those authors included prominent merpbers of the early Folk-Lore Society. In 1894 its president, Lawrence Gomme, informed his colleagues that 'there is sometimes more humanity in a touch of genuine ; paganism than in some of the platitudes that at present do duty for higher things'. His successor, Edward Clodd, drew their attention to 'the pagan foundation which . , . upholds the structures of classical and Christian faiths', Gomme was convinced that the latter structures were by comparison relatively fragile and recent creations, asserting that even as late as the seventeenth century English commoners had remained essentially pagan, Christianity being the religion of the elite (Gorame, 1892, 1894; Clodd, 1896). Like all the early folklonsts, he undertook no actual research into social history; but then medieval popular religion barely "began to be an area of systematic research until the 1970s. Earlier historians of the medieval English Church, such as the highly respected Geoffrey Coulton, writing m the 1920s, tended instead to confine their attention to bishops, councils and monasteries, and to adopt unquestiomngly the model for society presented by the folklonsts; of the old religion surviving among the populace beneath a veneer of Chnstiamty (Coulton, 1923:1.179-83). The equally prestigious scholar of the medieval and Tudor English theatre, Sir Edmund Chambers, built the notion that rural customs were authentic survivals of pagan ntual into a succession of books between 1903 and 1933.

The same set of concepts was swallowed whole by the man who proved to be the pnncipal influence behind the revival m English folk dances; the London music teacher, Cecil Sharp. His avowed mission was to rescue the urban working class from what he thought to be the vulganty and tawdnness of their recendy evolved culture, by restonng to it the ancestral songs and dances of the countryside. Following Frazer and Chambers, he firmly believed the latter to be descended direcdy from ancient fertility ntes, and when collecting them in the 1900s and 1910s he added a new aspect to the evolving myth of rural England: that of the village 'tradition'. This was the assumption that certain distinctive forms of dance had descended within closed communities of English country people, from time lmmemonal to the present. He was wrong upon this last point, as he was upon the larger one of pagan ongms for the dances concerned; but he made such beliefs integral to the work of the early twentieth-century English Folk Dance and Song Society (Sharp, 1912—24; Strangways, 1933; Hutton, 1996: 262-76, 295-303).

One of the better known ironies of the history of ideas is that just as professional enthusiasm for The Golden Bough collapsed, in the 1920s, the abridged edition made it a popular best-seller. Frazer's striking images influenced the work of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Edith Sitwell, Robert Graves, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, and a host of lesser creative wnters. They became part of the Western popular consciousness. Like Nietzsche and Freud, Frazer seemed to have revealed the savagery which lay beneath the surface of civilization and of reason (Fraser, 1990; Beard, 1992). Some found that apparent revelation disturbing, and some exhilarating.

The failure of folklore studies to establish themselves as a respectable academic discipline had a parallel effect, of releasing them into the hands of Frazer's devotees. From the 1920s until the 1970s the doctrine that modern customs were living fossils from pagan antiquity dominated the field. Its methodology consisted of collecting information upon such customs as they existed in the present or the recent past, and then collating it m order to reconstruct the primeval beliefs or activities from which they were derived. None of the people engaged in this work attempted to consult local historical records to trace the evolution of these acavities over time; it was much more exciting to observe them in the field, or to talk to elderly people about their memories of them, and then to let the romantic imagination play over the data. The presumed wisdom of the common countryfolk counted for nothing when it came to interpretation, the folklonsts cheerfully disregarding current contexts or explanations with the assumption that only their trained expertise could retneve the original, and 'true', significance of customs.

Scholars now know that the character of Father Christmas arose out of disputes over the value of the festival m the 1610s, but to Lady Gomme, in 1929, he was ! obviously' a former pagan god. It now appears that the Hobby Horse dance at Padstow, m Cornwall, is an amalgam of different traditions put together since the late eighteenth century, but to Mary Macleod Banks, in 1931, it was 'obviously' descended from a pagan ritual of mamage between earth and sky. The late medieval foliate heads carved in churches are now known to have nothing to do with the foliage-covered figure dancing m May Day processions, who appeared in the nineteenth century; but to Lady Raglan, in 1939, they were 'obviously' representations of the same ancient vegetation spirit, 'The Green Man'. The northern English sword dance now appears to be another inheritance from the eighteenth century, but to Violet Alford, m 1962, it was 'obviously' a blend of a Neolithic nte to waken the sleeping earth with a Bronze Age one to confer manhood (Hutton, 1996: 70-94, 117—19, 241-3). The 1930s was an especially febrile decade for such interpretations; in 1937 another presidential address to the Folk-Lore Society, by S. H. Hooke, suggested that pancake-tossing had been a ceremony to make crops grow, that Shrovetide football had started as a ritual struggle between light and dark, and that Mother's Day was rooted in the worship of the prehistoric Corn Mother (Hooke, 1937). As all of these writers presented their interpretations as scientific deductions, the reason for their instinctual attraction to such associations can only be inferred, but it is clear that they found something mherendy fascinating m the primeval fantasy-world which they were constructing under the guise of scholarship.

In a very real sense, Wicca was to come direcdy out of the Folk-Lore Society, the framework for it being laid out by one member of the society and then given life by another. That framework consisted of an apparendy proven historical link between paganism and Witchcraft, which completed the cultulral context from which a new religion would arise.

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