Folk-Lore/Volume 30/Review/Rondes Enfantines et Quétes Saisonnières
M. Èmile Nourry, who writes under the name of P. Saintyves, has furnished another proof of his untiring industry and of his genuine enthusiasm for folklore. This little book is devoted to an exposition of the importance of children’s round games and the songs which are sung in them. The theory, which he illustrates chiefly from France, but also to some extent from England and other neighbouring countries and even from as far away as India, is that these songs and dances or round games are the remains of very archaic liturgies, that is to say, magical incantations for the benefit of the crops and of fecundity in general, whether animal or vegetable. And the same thing is affirmed of the seasonal performances and collections of money, especially at Christmas.
It is a book intended for popular reading, and hence it is not encumbered with footnotes or references. To a student this is a drawback, because, unlike too many “popular” books, it is a work of real learning. To test the author’s authorities, therefore, is of the utmost value in considering his thesis; and his thesis is worth considering. True, the theory has been broached before. But M. Nourry does more than popularize it. He follows it out in new directions, and brings such further evidence of it as his space will permit. He contends that the seasonal quest is not merely a modern deformation of an ancient rite: it is really a magical circumambulation.
A most interesting account is quoted of the Feast of Fools at Chalons-sur-Marne, apparently in the sixteenth century; but unfortunately we are left to guess at its date. One kind of song which it is argued is an incantation is a cumulative song of the form of “This is the house that Jack built.” In the example given from the Haut Boulonnais, the lover asks:
“Le premier mois de l’année
Que donnerai-je à ma mie?
Qui va, qui vient, qui vole,
Qui vole dans ce bois.”
“The first night of Christmas my true-love sent to me
A partridge on a pear-tree.
The second night of Christmas my true-love sent to me
Two turtle-doves and a partridge on a pear-tree,”
It is therefore not in English a forecast or an incantation for the months of the forthcoming year, as the author contends the version from the neighbourhood of Boulogne is. What is it? Probably it has some ritual origin.
The ballad or song of London Bridge (“London Bridge is broken down, With a gay lady”) is fully treated, and with a good deal of ingenuity. After examining a number of variants from various parts of France, from Denmark, from Russia and other Slav countries and from Roumania, he comes to the conclusion that it was derived from an ancient ritual an a bridge and representing the casting into the water and drowning of the old year, conceived as a woman, and her resuscitation as the new year. And he quotes from an account by Catullus of a Roman ritual in support of his interpretation.
In another chapter he discusses the meaning of the puzzling exclamation Anguilmineuf, and the New Year celebrations to which it is applied. He prefers among the various etymologies proposed for the expression that from a Celtic root, e.g., signifying force, young shoot, germ, explaining the whole ceremony to which it is applied as the survival of a magical ritual to assist fecundity.
The whole book (it is quite short) may be read with profit by students of these rituals, in spite of the want of e.xact references. A little research will find most of their sources in the French collections of traditional verse.
Books for Review should be addressed to
The Editor of Folk-Lore,
c/o Messrs. Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd.
Adam St., Adelphi, London, W.C. 2