The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 3/The Science of Folk-Lore (Burne, pp. 97–103)

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SHOULD like to make some remarks on the classification and nomenclature of folk-lore from the practical collector's point of view.

If I were asked the question, "Which of the proposed schemes would prove the most useful in practice?" I should answer without hesitation, Mr. Gomme's. I read his paper on "The Science of Folk-Lore" in the last number of the Journal with feelings something like those of a student who, after painfully striving to master some difficult language with the aid of a dictionary alone, suddenly finds a grammar put into his hands. Mr. Nutt's and Mr. Hartland's vast "Redistribution Bills," on the other hand, I am sorry to say, roused a feeling of bewilderment. They are no doubt admirable from a scientific point of view, but too elaborate for the weaker brethren, or at all events for the sisters, who certainly have a fair share of the work of collecting. One would be continually wondering, "What should go where?" i.e. under what head any particular item should be placed. It is not always easy to sort one's scraps, and to decide to what "genus" each "species" belongs. For instance: a certain man at Whixall in Shropshire said in 1883 that when St. Peter had the toothache. Our Lord desired him to cut his nails on a Friday, and he would be cured; hence any person who is careful always to cut his nails on a Friday only, will never be troubled with toothache. Now, which is the leading feature in this "scrap"? St. Peter, the toothache, Friday, or cutting nails? Ought it to be placed under Legends of the Saints, Folk-Medicine, Days and Seasons, or Superstitions connected with the Human Body? (I am giving possible sub-divisions, not writing under the idea that these particular titles have been suggested for a general classification.) Little "knotty points" like this are continually cropping up, and the difficulty of settling them would of course be immensely increased by the use of a very complex scheme, or one which did not possess the primary requisite of clear broad outlines, lucidly expressed and easily understood. Now, this is just the merit of Mr. Gomme's plan. It is simplicity itself. His division into "groups" and subdivision into "classes,"[1] answering to the "genera" and "species" of botanists, can be comprehended at a glance. Another advantage in it is, that it does not unnecessarily disturb existing arrangements and acknowledged landmarks. In fact, one could work by this scheme; and, what is more, any one reading a book written on this principle would easily learn where to look for anything he wished to find in it.

Now to examine the scheme in detail.

Group I, Traditional Narratives.—This seems to me an excellent title. No other that I have seen (unless it be " folk-tradition ") covers the whole range of subjects, from Cupid and Psyche to the Wifie and her Kidie. Class a (Folk-Tales) would need a great many subdivisions into romantic tales, nursery-tales, drolls, &c.; but this is a branch of folk-lore in which I have no experience. I wish much that I had grasped the idea that ballads and folk-songs are really folk-tradition in verse, in time to give them their proper position in the Shropshire Folk-Lore. I should enlarge the title of Class d (Place-Legends) into Place Legends and Traditions, so as to take in local traditions which do not involve any story; such as traditions of subterranean passages from place to place, and popular traditions of battles, and other local historical events. This class would need careful sifting: for instance, localized traditions of mythic or semi-mythic heroes like King Arthur, and popular stories of local heroes such as Sir Francis Drake, or Wild Humphrey Kynaston, or Tom Faggus, ought, I think, in many cases to go in Class b (Hero Tales). They are not intimately connected with the place where they are told, in the same sense as the story of the Prentice-Pillar at Roslin, or as stories of boulders thrown by giants, buildings erected by devils, or lakes formed by floods are so connected. And the same remark applies to a great many bogy-stories and ghost-stories, in which the locality is not the leading feature. Of course, cross-references would be necessary, both here and in numberless other cases.

Group II. Traditional Customs.—Mr. Gomme's remarks on this group are most interesting and valuable. In advertising phrase, "they supply a want long felt." I am particularly pleased to see the place he assigns to Games, as a species of Custom, and a very important and difficult species too.

Group III. Superstition and Belief.—In this group Class c (Superstitious Practices and Fancies) seems to me too extensive. It would overbalance all the others. I see Mr. Gomme includes "practices and fancies " connected with fairies, &c., under this head, and of course rightly; but has he considered that this would open the door to a vast number of stories[2] for which I can find no good place in Group I.? You can hardly call a story containing only a single incident, such as tat of the pixy who would not work when he had new clothes, a "folk-tale," and place it with, for instance, the history of the girl who had three impossible tasks to perform. Nor are such anecdotes exactly place-legends, in the same way as the stories which tell of the origin of lakes, or mountains, or ruined castles. These are legends of the past, of what happened "in 'ears back," as the Shropshire folk say. Now the fairy and bogy stories tell of the doings of beings superstitiously believed in, either by the tale-tellers or their fathers, as creatures having a contemporary existence with themselves, and thus they properly come under the head of Superstition and Belief.

I should re-name and re-arrange the group thus:

Group II. (not III.) Superstitious Belief and Practice.

Class a. Goblindom;
Class b. Witchcraft;
Class c. Astrology;
Class d. Superstitions connected with material things.

Some will object to the combination of belief and practice (= folk-thought[3] and folk-wont), but it seems to me that the two are inseparable. Practice hinges on belief. A man who has spilt salt throws some of it over his left shoulder, because he believes (or his ancestors believed for him) that spilling salt will bring ill-luck; so he resorts to a superstitious practice to avert it.[4] This is the reason why I would place superstitions before customs. Mr. Lang has taught us how often myth and superstition arise out of custom, but, in many cases, superstition is the mother of custom also. Thus, many burial customs have originated in the superstitious dread of ghosts; and, again, as the general "unluckiness" of women has caused it to be thought an ill omen if a woman should be the first comer to a house on 'New Year's Day, it has become customary in many English counties for parties of men and boys to go about on New Year's morning "letting the new year in" to their neighbours' houses, and expecting food and drink in return.

Class a (Goblindom) would be formed by distinguishing between belief or practice relating to real and material things and that relating to imaginary or invisible beings; and by taking from Mr. Gomme's Class c in this group everything belonging to the latter. "Goblindom" would include wish-hounds, ghosts, fairies, brownies, and innumerable queerly-named local demons; in fact, of the crowd of uncanny beings who, when "all the old gods are dead," remain in the popular imagination as "something betwixt heaven and hell." It would comprise anecdotes, such as that of the household familiar crying "We're a-flitting"; superstitious terrors, as of ghostly times and places; and practices, such as the "cream-bowl duly set " for the wage of the "lubber fiend." It would, in fact, go over the whole ground of the traces of a belief in subordinate and local deities surviving in the form of belief in goblin creatures.

In Class b (Witchcraft), I think it would be necessary to treat not only of witches but of their counter-magicians, the "white witches" or "charmers," taking care to distinguish between the two. The careful use of the words spell and charm, which are very often confounded together, will be needed here. I fully enter into all that Mr. Gomme says, of not overloading the section on witchcraft with an account of all the superstitious ceremonies used by witches and charmers. For instance, the divining-rod and the rowan-tree talisman ought to be placed with Superstitions (concerning plants). But when all had been done in this direction that could be done, I think some few curious incantations and divinations would still remain, which could nowhere else be so conveniently treated of.

Class d would contain beliefs and (minor) practices concerning material things or natural objects, as the sun, moon, and stars, fire, water, weather, metals, plants, animals, the human body, disease, and the like. Divination and folk-medicine are so closely connected with witchcraft on one side, and with animal and plant-lore on the other, that the treatment of these sections will perhaps require more nice discrimination than any.

From the folk-lore collector's point of view, the exchange of places between "Superstition" and "Custom" would be an advantage, because it would lessen the breach of continuity involved in passing from one subject to another, and thus would promote a consecutive instead of a jerky tone. "Place Legends" would lead naturally to "Goblindom": " Superstitious Practice," to Customs "; "Games," to "Rhymes, Riddles," &c.

I am tempted to take exception to the name of Group IV. Folk-speech. This compound is already in use by philologists to signify the dialect spoken by the folk, in contradistinction to the literary dialect of the same language. We can hardly therefore saddle it with a new and distinct meaning. I would suggest "Folk-sayings " as the title of the group. This name would not cover Class b, " Popular Nomenclature "; but then I would not have a class of Popular Nomenclature at all! It seems to me that it would be a hotch-potch, a miscellaneous list, with no natural connexion, no raison d'être. Such names as Robin Hood's Chair, Boggart Ho' Clough, Moot Hill, &c. are not so much valuable in themselves as for the evidence they afford of the popular belief or popular custom which occasioned them. I think a collector would do well to record Robin Hood's Chair under Hero Tales, Boggart Ho' Clough under Goblindom, Moot Hill under Local Customs, and so on. Then other writers who might wish to make an exhaustive treatise on Boggarts or on Customs would find all they wanted in one place, instead of having to hunt through lists of names to see if there might chance to be anything there suited to their purpose. In the same way, many popular rhymes would have to be inserted in previous sections—as the common magpie rhyme under Superstitions (concerning Birds).

If it is wished to keep up the symmetrical division of four classes in each group, I would let Group IV. Folk-sayings,[5] stand as follows (placing the Jingles first, as the last class was that of Games, including Singing Games):—

Class a, Jingles, Nursery Rhymes, Riddles, &c.
Class b, Proverbs;
Class c, Old Saws, rhymed and unrhymed;[6]
Class d, Nicknames, Place-Rhymes and Sayings, Folk-Etymology.

This last class would replace Mr. Gomme's "Popular Nomenclature." I think name-stories (folk-etymology) would come in better here than with Place-legends, because it is as a branch of word-lore,—for the name, not the j}lace that they are interesting. And any one who chooses may imagine the "folk," when engaged in their festival customs, as playing traditional games, bandying proverbs, riddles, and old stories; and so may lead round again to the beginning, and to the folk-tales and ballads which would most surely be heard at any "folk-mote" wheresoever assembled. The study of folk-lore is not an "exact science," and cannot be divided and kept apart by hard and fast lines. Every subject with which it deals grows out of some other subject, and runs into something else. What we should aim at is to range all these different subjects in proper order, so as to bring out their true relation to each other, and to present our new science to the world as a harmonious and homogeneous whole. I do not think we shall find any arrangement better suited for this purpose than Mr. Gomme's great fourfold marshalling of it under the heads (as I venture to predict they would be called in practical use) of Traditions, Superstitions, Customs, and Sayings.

I think Mr. Gomme's "formula" (p. 15), also admirable, and likely to prove most useful. It is delightful to get a clue to the relative value of the various "parallels"—close or distant, near or far. The number of them is sometimes quite bewildering: one cannot use all, and there has hitherto been no guide to making a judicious choice among them. I know some think that collectors should do nothing but collect, and should not give parallels; but I think this is a pity, for the sake of beginners and outsiders, who without parallels cannot "see the point" of what is recorded. We ought not to neglect anything that tends to make our writings more interesting, and therefore to attract recruits to the army of workers.

Though it is beyond my province, I cannot refrain from "saying my say" on the vexed question of the scope and definition of folklore.

Folk-lore:—that is, folk-learning. Do we mean the learning of scholars about the folk? or the learning of the folk themselves? If the former, then there are no limits to our scope. We must include the study of the habitations, the handicrafts, the dialects of the folk: we take in archæology and philology—subjects which we know are in themselves enough to occupy the whole attention of a man of science, and I may add, of many Societies. But if by folk-lore we mean "the folk's learning," the learning of the folk themselves, then we may define the science which deals with it as that which treats of all that the folk believe or practise on the authority of inherited tradition, and not on the authority of written records.[7] And in these days of universal printing and reading, the study of "the unwritten learning of the people" is indeed "the study of survivals."

  1. Mr. Gomme does not, I think, use this word, but perhaps he will allow me to suggest it to him as preferable to "minor groups."
  2. Just as "witchcraft" would contain anecdotes of witches.
  3. Is not this too narrow a use of a well-devised compound? Surely all folklore is the natural product of folk-thought. That is just what distinguishes it from other branches of the study of antiquities.
  4. How curiously this illustrates St. James's solemn argument that "faith without works is dead"!
  5. Folk-wit is a delightful compound, but I think too indefinite for the name of a group. Wit enters into the composition of so many things—songs, games, tales, &c.
  6. Viz., popular sayings not, strictly speaking, proverbs; such as traditional agricultural maxims, weather-sayings based on experience, not on superstitious fancy, &c. Folk-wisdom in short!
  7. Nobody has proposed to include traditional music; yet is it not folk-lore in the strictest sense? I cannot suggest a place for it in the general scheme, but the words charming, incantation, and enchantment show that it has a close connection with magic.