to Folklore: Traditional Studies in Europe and Elsewhere

Introduction to Folklore: Traditional Studies in Europe and Elsewhere


Folklore! The very word captures the imagination and sends the mind on flights of fancy. Dragons, ogres, witches, elves, and heroes and heroines, all featured in legend and folktales, known to anyone who had a story read to them as a child or who saw a film adapted from these tales. And yet, oral traditions and the beliefs they reflect, as well as the customs and magical practices of pre-industrial Europe, are poorly understood by many because this is the realm of the folk, removed from the w…

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What differentiates folklore, mythology, and urban legend in it’s historical study?(r/AskHistorians)

Definitions are an ongoing problem, and folklorists – let alone people outside the realm of folklore studies – have a hard time agreeing on definitions. I’ll respond with three comments (one for each of your terms), drawing on excerpts from my Introduction to Folklore, which I plan to e-publish in early September. On folklore:

The first place to start a discussion about folklore is with definitions. This is necessary, ironically, because folklorists and the people they study sometimes use various terms in dramatically different ways. The need for a workable definition is, at the outset, especially pivotal for the word “folklore.” Although people may intuitively know what this means, professional folklorists have been unable to agree on precise language to explain what the term describes. Definitions are different from individual to individual and from place to place, and the meaning of words can change over time. The controversy over definitions reveals a great deal about the history of the field and some of the difficulties it faces as a discipline.

Part of the problem with defining “folklore” comes down to whether the word refers to a subject matter or a method of study. The term was invented by William Thoms (1803-1885) in 1846 who proposed, as he put it, that “Popular Antiquities, or Popular Literature … would be most aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folklore, – the Lore of the People….” (Dundes, 1965) Thoms was proposing that his peers recognize the collective traditions of the common folk of the United Kingdom, but by “common,” he did not mean the average person on the street. The concern of the day was that industrialization, or modernization as it is sometimes called, was transforming society, permanently changing rural, agricultural life. Traditions that had the appearance of being centuries if not millennia old were disappearing. This disturbed Thoms and many others, who hoped the term “folklore” would bring focus to a subject matter that warranted attention. Even before Thoms made his proposal to an English audience, two German scholars had virtually invented the academic approach to the study of popular oral traditions. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1785-1863 and 1786-1859, respectively) had published their first volume of Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and House Folktales) in 1812 and their Deutsche Sagen (Teutonic Legend) from 1816 to 1818. A series of books written independently by Jacob Grimm earned him the title of the father of folklore science. He published Deutsche Grammatik (Teutonic Grammar) between 1819 and 1837, and his Deutsche Mythologie (Teutonic Mythology) appeared in 1835. All of this happened before Thoms wrote his essay, and so it is clear that his invention of the term “folklore” did not occur without a context. Indeed, German and Scandinavian scientists, many the direct intellectual heirs of Jacob Grimm, would continue to shape the field of folklore studies, internationally, throughout the nineteenth century. Part of what inspired the Grimm Brothers was the need to identify a common Germanic folk culture. At the beginning of nineteenth century, Germany consisted of dozens of small, weak, independent states, and Napoleonic France seemed poised to obliterate Germany, militarily, culturally, and linguistically. Like Thoms, the Grimm brothers recognized that a changing world was devouring timeless traditions, but these young scholars also felt that the preservation of traditions could help their beloved German culture to survive the challenges it faced. Other countries would adopt their methods, but the inspiration varied. Nonetheless, many of the best folklore archives in Europe exist today where people sought to link folk ethnicity with a nationalist movement.

The term folklore originally referred to the traditions of the European peasant, but not necessarily to the study of that material. During the nineteenth century, much of Europe’s peasantry were still confined by a nearly medieval illiteracy, and yet antiquarians felt they preserved the crown jewels of a nation’s heritage. For enthusiasts such as Thoms, folklore meant simply the collective traditions of the people. As academic attention increasingly focused on this material, the term folklore came to mean the field of study for this subject.

Parallel to the emergence of folklore as an academic discipline was the development of ethnography. The simultaneous birth of the two academic fields caused many of the difficulties in defining folklore. Webster’s dictionary describes folklore as “the traditional beliefs, legends, customs, etc., of a people” and as “the study of such lore.” It defines ethnography as “a branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures.” A problem occurs because there is little to distinguish “culture” from “traditional beliefs, legends, customs, etc.” In short, folklore and ethnography examine virtually the same thing, at least in the simplest terms. Folklorists are left to give their field distinction by insisting that either their methodology or subject matter is unique. There has been little agreement in the discipline regarding the best approach to define the exclusive turf of folklore. When Funk and Wagnalls published its Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend in 1949, it could not find consensus on the meaning of the term folklore. It consequently offered twenty-one individually-authored definitions and left the reader to sort out the differences.

Initially, folklorists found distinction in the fact that they studied their own European traditions, while ethnographers examined other cultures, namely those that Europeans were encountering in the rest of the world. This is an awkward place to draw the line separating the two because it implies that the oral traditions of other people are somehow different from those of Europeans, and no credible scholar could promote such a concept.

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Ronald M. James

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Introduction to Folklore: Traditional Studies in Europe and Elsewhere

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What differentiates folklore, mythology, and urban legend in it’s historical study?

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