The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 3/The Science of Folk-Lore (Burne, pp. 267–269)

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MAY I be allowed to call attention to a point which seems to have escaped notice? I mean, Mr. Wheatley's remark (Journal, vol. ii. p. 347) that "folk-lore is the unwritten learning of the people," that it is not the science which treats of that learning, but "the thing itself." Not the science, but the subject for scientific study. As the earth is not a science, but geology is: as language (pace Professor Max Müller) is not a science, but philology is; as myths are not a science, but mythology is; as man is not a science, but anthropology is; so folk-lore is not a science, but the study of folk-lore is;—and, so far, it is a study without a technical name. It seems to me that a great deal of confusion of thought, and discussion and misunderstanding arises from our trying to make one word do double duty, and using "folk-lore" to stand for both "the thing itself" and the science which deals with it.

Then on another point: viz., whether folk-lore can, or cannot, originate in the present day, may I contribute a bit of evidence, in the shape of an extract from the report in the Guardian of Sept. 3rd, 1879, of Mr. E. B. Tylor's speech in the Anthropological section of the meeting of the British Association at Sheffield.

"That myth-making is a real process of the human mind he (Mr. Tylor) showed by an amusing instance of what occurred the other day in Germany:—

"'The report had spread far and wide that all Catholic children with black hair and blue eyes were to be sent out of the country, some said to Russia, while others declared that it was the King of Prussia who had been playing cards with the Sultan of Turkey, and had staked and lost 40,000 fair-haired [sic] blue-eyed children; and there were Moors travelling about in covered carts to collect them; and the schoolmasters were helping, for they were to have five dollars for every child they handed over. For a time the popular excitement was quite serious; the parents kept the children away from school and hid them, and when they appeared in the streets of the markettown the little ones clung to them with terrified looks.

"'The real history of all this commotion was, that the Anthropological Society of Berlin had induced the authorities to make a census through the local schools to ascertain the colour of the children's hair and eyes.

"'Had it been only the boys, to the government inspection of whom for military conscription the German peasants are only too well accustomed, nothing would have been thought of it; but why should the officials want to know about the little girls' hair and eyes? The whole group of stories which suddenly sprang up were myths created to answer this question; and even the details which became embodied with them could all be traced to their sources, such as the memories of German princes selling regiments of the people to pay their debts, the late political negotiations between Germany and Russia, &c. The fact that a caravan of Moors had been travelling about as a show accounted for the covered carts with which they were to fetch the children; while the schoolmasters were naturally implicated as having drawn up the census. One schoolmaster, who evidently knew his people, assured the terrified parents that it was only the children with blue hair and green eyes that were wanted—an explanation which sent them home quite comforted. . . . The human mind is much what it used to be, and the principles of myth-making may still be learnt from the peasants of Europe.'"

I would venture to say that similar, though less extraordinary, misinterpretations of uncomprehended facts may be met with among the ignorant in any village of any country. Myths of this kind have of course no value for the historian, who studies folk-lore for the sake of the light it throws on what I may call pre-historic history; on the other hand, they have a value for the philosopher, who studies folklore because it reveals to him the workings of the untaught human mind. But whether they are valuable or not valuable, surely they are, in the strictest sense of the word, folk-lore.