Industrialization and Other Early Threats to Culture
We then moved into the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As the West industrialized, large numbers of peasants from the countryside relocated to seek work in the cities.
Roman Catholicism, of course, had also attempted to extinguish paganism, but the Church maintained a level of tolerance for local folk customs as long as they were white-washed with a Christian veneer.
tolerated but with a condescending arrogant view that they were the customs of the backward peasantry.
And, in actuality, some folk customs were still persecuted into the Age of Science when laws were passed outlawing folk healing in favor of the new science based medicine. In some cases this was justified. Folk healers came in all sorts, from the true and honest herbalist to the charlatan who invented nonsense cures for profit.
An Awakening to the Loss of Culture
By the 19th century, a realization occurred to some notable people who would become pioneers in the burgeoning field of folklore.
They realized that there was a vast amount of knowledge carried by the rural folk that was in danger of being lost as their young people left the countryside.
From legitimate herbal medicines to superstitious cures, from legendary tales to heart-wrenching ballads, there was a great deal of information on the verge of being lost forever.
As most of these country folk were illiterate, folklorists took it upon themselves to travel about the countryside recording their tales, songs, etc.
There are so many pioneers in this field that it is impossible to name them all here. Some of them you will already be familiar with, such as Jacob Grimm (1785-1863).
Jacob and his brother Wilhelm are the famous “Brothers Grimm,” who recorded the many fairy tales from their native Germany. Jacob Grimm was also an accomplished folklorist. Grimm was a student of language and linguistics as well as mythology.
By traveling around German speaking areas and recording legends he was able to begin to piece together some of the lost canon of German mythology.
His most famous work is called Teutonic Mythology, a multivolume epic masterpiece on German myth.
Thoms used the word folklore in a letter he wrote in 1846 to a magazine called Athenaeum, a leading literary magazine of the day. Soon thereafter, the academic discipline was founded as well as folklore societies in Britain and the United States. Between the years of 1870 and 1910, the field of folklore essentially was born and proverbially grew legs.
Not only was world’s first folklore society formed, but folklorists combed rural regions for the first time to make record of the folklore and folk customs at the local level.
It was also during this period that the first folklore journal was issued.
There was enough interest in the subject that the journals had no dearth of article submissions.
Editors began to locate and republish earlier works that had been long out of print, such as the Gaelic scholar Robert Kirk’s "The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies" written in the 17th century.
One of the earliest volumes of Celtic folklore was "Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland", published anonymously in 1825.
Because the book was such a major success, the publisher encouraged its author to return to Ireland to collect more stories.
And, thus the anonymous author, whom we now know to be Thomas Croften Croker (1798-1854), then published not only a second but a third volume as well.
Croker’s volumes on Irish fairy lore were the first ever intentional field surveys of British folklore, on par with Grimm’s Household Tales.
Far from simply a children’s author, Lang was a noted folklorist who not only published in his own right, but was also asked to contribute prefatory essays in the published works of other experts in the field.
The Field of Folklore in the 20th Century
And Simpson is a noted academic who has published works on European mythology, Viking history, and regional British folklore. I cannot say enough good things about her book European Mythology, which is actually more about folklore than myth, and recommend it whenever I get the chance.
A Slump and Resurgence of Interest in Folklore Today
slump in public awareness. This is simply my own theory, but I believe that a socio-cultural phenomenon similar to what occurred following the Scientific Revolution has re-emerged in our
contemporary “Electronic Age,” and even moreso with globalization.
Just as advancements in medicine and technology caused our forbearers to dismiss folk practices during their age, I think that our even greater advancements in science and technology, as well as a movement away from traditional religion, has caused folklore to be, at worst, outright rejected and, at best, misunderstood by the public today.
sprung up which emphasize science and math. This is the wave of the future.
Atheism may not be the belief of the majority, but it is certainly believed by many more than ever before. And, among those who are religious, more and more people choose to identify as being “spiritual but not religious” in what appears to be a collective moving away from organized religion.
Don’t misunderstand, there is nothing wrong with any of those things. But, I think that as our culture has shifted forward yet again, folklore was again shunted to the side.
How can the pragmatic atheist show an interest in fairy stories? How can the scientist entertain the idea of spiritual entities living among us?
Of course, any folklorist will tell you that the field of folklore is about much more than that.
It’s about regional festivals, cultural dancing, traditional dress, music and art.
But, stories about the mystical and magical have been a part of our past for thousands of years, and they are a legitimate part of our cultural heritage.
Though, as our societies are changing far more rapidly than ever before in the history of humanity, our cultures are at graver risk than ever before.
Folklore Scholars of Note
Today, there is a resurgence of interest in folklore. It seems that the regional surveys of local lore are not being written as readily as they were even into the 1970s. But, many academics are specializing in very focused areas of folklore.
Emma Wilby, at the University of Exeter, England, is the leading scholar on cunning folk (folk healers and wise people) and their association with fairy lore.
Among her published books is Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic.
Cherish Folk Tradition, Preserve Our Cultural Heritage
What I really hope people take away from this article is an understanding of the importance of folk heritage to everyone within their own respective culture, whatever that culture is.
Just as we strive to respect other world cultures, our own Western culture must be respected and preserved.
We must pass a love for history and folk traditions on to the next generation, tell our children the fairytales our grandparents told us, keep traditions alive, and preserve historical heritage sites for the future.