Dictionary of English Folklore

Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud. A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press, 2000.

This scholarly encyclopaedia, with more than 1,200 entries from the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance to Yule, has two aims. Firstly to rescue English (as opposed to Scots, Irish and Welsh) folklore from what they see as undeserved obscurity. Secondly to place the study of folklore on a sounder, scholarly footing, removing the romantic but long out-moded obsession with notions of prehistoric survivals and similar wild speculations. To this end Simpson and Roud often emphasise the relative modernity of many customs and traditions.

Though, inevitably, the bulk of the dictionary is devoted to traditional 'olde worlde' customs and beliefs; there are acknowledgements to more modern developments; with articles on urban legends, alien big cats, and new customs such as the leaving of flowers and other mementoes at the sites of tragedies. Surely they should have included flying saucers, animal mutilations, Satanic abuse legends and crop circles as well - the last not only being folklore but folk art. The emphasis on 'quaint customs' is perhaps inevitable, reflecting not just on the period of collection but the concerns of the collectors.

Folklorists, like anthropologists and many sociologists portrayed, themselves as internal travellers, 'in the company of strangers', whose strange ways and mores they sought to convey to the reader 'back home' in their comfortable office or home. For folklorists, these 'strangers' were often the rural populace, whose were both quaint and heading to extinction. Of course, logistics also played a role., the population that folklorists collected from tended to be those still in awe of squire and parson, who would be suitably deferential and helpful towards middle class interviewers. Trying to collect folklore in Victorian urban slums would have been a much more hazardous operation.

There are biographical entries on past luminaries of the folklore movement, the stipulation that those included should be safely dead, means the authors can sometimes say their mind without looking over their shoulders to m'learned friends. The entry on Andrew Lang echoes modern concerns, as he is not only criticised as one of the chief architects of the despised 'survivals' school, but because "he clearly believed in some psychic phenomena such as ghosts and even fairies and was also involved in the Society for Psychical Research... He called for a 'scientific approach to the supernatural'. But his evident belief and 'open mindedness' on such topics was hardly calculated to appeal to those who were working so hard to convince the world of folklore's serious scientific credentials... "

Some may see that comment as having resonances with Jacqueline Simpson's disputes with David Hufford who seems to be positioning himself in the tradition of Lang's 'psycho-folkloristics'. This indicates that there are still major problems in treating anomalous personal experiences in a manner which avoids either 'supernaturalising' or 'pathologising' them. This book will almost certainly be regarded as a standard work on folklore for some considerable time; and it may be one of the last records of a dying culture. That does not mean that the emerging global multiculture will not a have a vast and vibrant folklore of its own, Indeed, as Roger Sandell once speculated, it could be that the post-industrial society will see a revival of traditions and beliefs that were subject to strong cultural repression in the age of mass heavy industry. -- Peter Rogerson

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