Saturday, December 21, 2013

An Ensample that the Fox Told to the King

"MY worthy and dear Lord the King," said the Fox, "I am well agreed and paid therewith. But when I came first into your Court there were many that were fell and envious to me, which never had hurt ne cause of scathe by me. But they thought that they might best over me, and all they crieden with mine enemies against me and would fain have destroyed me, because they thought that the Wolf was better withholden and greater with you than I was, which am your humble subject. They knew none other thing, why ne wherefore. They thought not as the wise be wont to do, that is what the end may happen.

"My lord these ben like a great heap of hounds which I once saw stand at a lord’s place upon a dunghill, whereas they awaited that men should bring them meat. Then saw they an hound come out of the kitchen and had taken there a fair rib of beef ere it was given him. And he ran fast away withal; but the cook had espied or he went away, and took a great bowl full of scalding water and cast it on his hips behind; whereof he thanked nothing the cook, for the hair behind was scalded off and his skin seemed as it had be through sodden. Nevertheless he escaped away and kept that he had won.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Caxton's History of Reynard the Fox

In 1481, England's first printer, William Caxton, published a work translated from the Dutch under the title Historie of Reynart the Foxe. It is a book which weaves together several stories of the archetypal trickster of medieval Dutch folklore, Reynard (who is also found throughout the European continent, though nowhere as popularly as in France and the Low Countries), and the other beasts who inhabit his world: Isengrim the wolf, Bruin the bear, Tybert the cat, and others.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Medieval Germanic Riddles

Swings by his thigh / a thing most magical!
Below the belt / beneath the folds
Of his clothes it hangs / a hole in its front end,
stiff-set and stout / it swivels about.
Levelling the head / of this hanging tool, 
its wielder hoists his hem / above his knee;
it is his will to fill / a well-known hole
that it fits fully / when at full length
He's oft filled it before. / Now he fills it again.

 - Anonymous riddle, from the Red Book of Exeter (10th c.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

We Hope in a Short Time to See You Again

"Spanish Ladies" is one of the oldest known sea songs in the English language, with the first reference to it appearing in 1624 (and that on dry land, suggesting the song itself was likely older). We don't know what it sounded like until the 18th century. But at that time, it had a minor-key version of the melody that would become familiar from later versions, probably sounding something like in this video.

If that melody sounds oddly familiar, don't be too surprised - like "The Unfortunate Rake," versions of "Spanish Ladies" have been collected all across the globe, and indeed the melodies are closely related. (I would say they are precisely the same, but there are many small variations from one version of the tune to another; even within either family of lyrics, the precise tune is not constant.)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Now I'm a Young Man Cut Down in My Prime

"The Unfortunate Rake" is a song first known from the late 18th century which is notable in large measure for its truly massive number of derivatives. It may be one of the most widely-transmitted songs in the pre-revival Anglophone folk repertoire, and at least two well-known songs with completely different melodies appear to be derived from it also. Variants appear not only in English, Scottish, and American folk music, but in country, jazz, and punk versions as well. It is, in other words, one of the world's great folksong families.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Teetotum

A spinning top with flat facets, known as a "totum" or "teetotum," is an ancient form of randomizer, but a emerged as a particularly popular gambling tool in Germany ca. 1500 CE. From there it spread throughout Europe as an alternative to dice. And whereas dice had long since established themselves as being labeled with numbers 1-6, and were at least sometimes used in pairs as is most familiar today (originally through the game of Hazard, which dates back to the thirteenth century), teetotums could be customized for the specific game rules the players wanted to use.

It's a bit surprising, given that advantage, that the teetotum died out. Or rather, I should say, very nearly died out, since modern ones are quite well-recognized throughout the western world. We just don't call them teetotums anymore, favoring the Yiddish word dreidel instead.

Monday, November 25, 2013

What Sea Shanties Are And Aren't

The anglophone sea shanty tradition is a well-known one, and the phrase "sea shanty" is even better known. It's not uncommon, nowadays, to apply the term to every traditional song with a nautical background. But the pedantic distinction between the two made by folklorists is rooted in a history far more interesting.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Twa Corbies" as a Deconstructionist Ballad

"Twa Corbies" (Child 27, Roud 5) is a border ballad of the Anglo-Scottish tradition first published in print by Sir Walter Scott in Minstrelry of the Scottish Border (1802). It fell partway into obscurity with the loss of a melody for it in the oral tradition, but was revived when Steeleye Span set it to an old Breton air; with their tune, it's now fairly well-known, and has been recorded by other bands, such as in the wonderful rendition by Sol Invictus. (There's also a great Norwegian translaton by the band Folque, under the title "Ravene.") For the benefit of listeners who don't speak Scots, it's not uncommon for liner notes to explain a little bit of the vocabulary.

What the liner notes almost never mention is that "Twa Corbies" probably originated as a parody.

A Warning to All False Traitors

You traitors all that doo deuise
To hurt our Queene in trecherous wise,
And in your hartes doo still surmize
      which way to hurt our England,
Consider what the ende will be
Of traitors all in their degree
Hanging is still their destenye,
      that trouble the peace of England.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Decentralized Popular Theology in Late Medieval Europe

It's a familiar story: a call to reform is nailed to the door of an important church, specifically objecting to the excesses of the medieval Catholic hierarchy, and it galvanizes a movement that opposes the Church's purported monopoly on salvation.

That specific sequence of events is most famous from Martin Luther's 95 Theses, but it's also precisely the story of an English document penned over a century earlier. Calls for a decentralized Christianity that embraces popular knowledge of theology rather than the governance of a single hierarchy that claims authority on all matters of religion were abundant even before the time when we now recognize the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Piers Plowman, John Ball, and Wat Tyler

The Visio Willelmi de Piers Plowman (ca. 1360-90) is a lengthy allegorical dream poem written by a master poet thought to be named William Langland and revised by him over a period probably spanning about two decades. It is not in any way a folkloric product, but its themes permeated the popular culture.

Piers Plowman is a moralistic story of a man who dreams of the titular Piers, who offers to guide him in finding the truth; he subsequently seeks enlightenment through three characters named Dowel, Dobet (transparently short for "Do-better"), and Dobest. Along the way, however, Langland also presents us with a compelling view of contemporary society, and this was not overlooked by his contemporaries, who appropriated the title character for reasons of social commentary.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Memento Mori and the Art of Dying Well

Two generations after the Black Death, a book appeared in Europe which bore the title Ars Moriendi, "the Art of Dying." It is a manual intended both for the dying and those who visit and console them, and it is believed to have been written by a Dominican friar, likely in 1415. A later Ars Moriendi from ca. 1450 consists only of a series of eleven woodcuts illustrating what its compiler regards as the central portion of the longer work, which discusses five temptations which prevent a dying person from escaping their sins and advises on how to overcome them.

These books are, of course, part of a broader tradition of art, literature, and philosophy built around the theme of remembering one's own mortality. The memento mori tradition dates back to antiquity, when Roman generals marching in triumph would be followed by a slave whose task was to remind them that, although they are at the peak of their power and fame today, they are still mortal. In the years following the plague, however, it took on new popularity, and seems to have acquired a new and life-affirming message which makes such art no less relevant in the present day.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Story of a Boy who Set Forth to Learn Fear

A father had two sons. The oldest one was clever and intelligent, and knew how to manage everything, but the youngest one was stupid and could neither understand nor learn anything. When people saw him, they said, "He will be a burden on his father!"

Now when something had to be done, it was always the oldest son who had to do it. However, if the father asked him fetch anything when it was late, or even worse, at night, and if the way led through the churchyard or some other spooky place, he would always answer, "Oh, no, father, I won't go there. It makes me shudder!" For he was afraid.

In the evening by the fire when stories were told that made one's flesh creep, the listeners sometimes said, "Oh, that makes me shudder!" The youngest son would sit in a corner and listen with the others, but he could not imagine what they meant.

"They are always saying, 'It makes me shudder! It makes me shudder!' It does not make me shudder. That too must be a skill that I do not understand."

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Recommendation: Beowulf, Ringler trans.

I've been meaning to do book recommendations of interest to medieval folkloristics a little more frequently than the, um, once that has happened so far. So here's one: you should read Beowulf. I mean, of course you should read Beowulf. But there's one thing far better, and that's hearing Beowulf read or recited well.

The poetics of Modern English differ from those of Anglo-Saxon, but in Beowulf: a New Translation for Oral Delivery, Dick Ringler mimics the alliterative style of the original, and does so masterfully.

Fairy Tales, Literary Canon, and Oral Tradition

One of the distinguishing characteristics of folklore is that it is passed from one person to another in toto, rather than by pointing somebody at a canonical form which can be referenced and which is preserved for all to see. But by this standard, some of the best-known and best-loved "traditional" tales today cannot be called folktales at all. I am referring to the fairy tales most familiar from the Brothers Grimm.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Folk Music Devil is Stupid

So there's a thing you might have noticed about the Devil in folk music and sometimes in folktales: he's a little bit on the dim side. So much so, in fact, that he is hard to credit as a fearsome tempter, and in fact cannot possibly function in the role assigned to him by folk religion.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Inter Diabolus et Virgo

Wol ye here a wonder thynge
Betwyxt a mayd and the fovle fende?

The Devil's Nine Questions

If you don't answer my questions nine
Sing ninety-nine and ninety
I'll take you off to Hell alive
And sing I'm the weaver's bonny

Tell me, what is whiter than milk?
Sing ninety nine and ninety
And tell me, what is softer than silk?
And sing I'm the weaver's bonny

Weather Lore from Olaus Magnus the Goth

When the trees flip their leaves, it's about to rain. If the dandelions' balls of seeds are contracted and bunched up in the evening, it will rain the next day. Red sky at night, sailors delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. If the bees fly out and do not return to their hive, rain is coming.

Weather superstitions like these are found around the world, especially in temperate zones, and have a long and venerable history. Lately I've been reading through Olaus Magnus' "Description of the Northern Peoples" (1555) and it offers quite a lot of examples from sixteenth-century Scandinavia, both of things the weather foretells (hailstones the size of a calf's head are supposedly an omen of impending death; I assume he means more so than just death by being struck with a colossal ball of ice falling out of the sky on you) and of superstitions for predicting the weather. I haven't yet made it to the books which deal with fauna, so I haven't even read what their behavior has to say about meterological phenomena (but apparently there's a fair bit of that), and I confess when Olaus talks about "circles" and "semblances of the sun" in the sky he is not describing anything familiar to me either by other description or by personal experience, so when he tells us what kind of weather they imply, I have no idea what he is actually talking about. But even if these are ignored, Olaus Magnus is a wealth of information on early modern Scandinavian weather lore.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Song of the Whippoorwill

How old are Coyote stories in North America? We don't know for certain - and, in fact, we can't know for certain, because they predate good written records of American Indian folklore. But stories in which a (sometimes semi-divine) Coyote functions as a trickster (and sometimes a fool) are spread over a vast area, including being shared among tribes with only limited contact in recent history, which suggests that a tradition of such stories is fairly old - most probably (but not certainly) pre-Columbian, as a lot of the decline in contact between different Indian tribes resulted from the precipitous population decline caused by European diseases that spread across the continent at a pace far exceeding that of the people who had brought them. Further, they don't seem to have been incorporated into the package of cultural ideas and images known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, which did not spread Coyote-related imagery, but their range overlaps it; this may mean nothing (they might have spread across that territory without being picked up and spread into the Southeast), but it may imply that they either spread into the upper Midwest before the period when that cultural exchange reached its zenith (so, prior to about 1200 CE), or that they spread across that space after the trading network which propagated the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (which was centered around the city of Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the present-day city of St. Louis) was already in decline (which would put the spread of Coyote stories after about 1350 CE) - which, of course, is an annoyingly useless clue, but still a real enough one to be tantalizing.

No particular Coyote tale is especially widespread, which is consistent with a few centuries of each tribe separately developing its own particular Coyote mythos. Unfortunately, it also means we don't know which Coyote stories are of particularly great age; all we know is what ones are part of the oral tradition at the time various folklorists collected them. This one, collected by Mary Magoulick in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, seems to rely on the audience already being aware that Coyote is not to be trusted, so it's probably not the oldest, but it could still be very old. We wouldn't know - that's the difficulty of studying the history of peoples without written records.

Here, then, is a Coyote story, in the words of Ogimakwe, a woman of the Nishnaabe tribe. I've removed an aside or two and a couple of Magoulick's notes on Ogimakwe's precise pronunciation, but otherwise, the story is unedited, exactly as told.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Pagan Survival Hypotheses

Cecil Sharp, in collecting English sword dances, proposed that they were a continuation of pre-Christian fertility rites, and that the mock execution of the captain (who often wears fur) in many was a memory of ancient animal sacrifices. It's not uncommon to see it suggested that the Easter Bunny reflects the fact that eggs and rabbits were both symbols associated with an early Germanic fertility goddess named "Ostara," from whose name we get the modern English word "Easter." James Frazer's The Golden Bough posits that Germanic sacral kingship, as practiced in early England, was remembered in the poem "John Barleycorn." The "thumbs-up" and "thumbs-down" signs are frequently said to relate to how Roman emperors signaled their wishes at gladiatorial games. And the list goes on.

No, no, and no! Sword dances originated in the fourteenth century, the hare as an Eastertide symbol in the sixteenth, and "John Barleycorn" in the late fifteenth century at the earliest - and, in those early versions, he doesn't undergo the resurrection that inspires Frazer to connect the alleged folk practice with his dubious category of "life-death-rebirth deities." The thumbs-up connection is actually reasonable, except that the modern gestures come to us from later paintings which seem to have misinterpreted the written descriptions of the ancient versions, and of course we no longer use either in a way that literally calls for somebody to die violently. In truth, the supposition that modern folk customs so often preserve accurate memories of ancient practices otherwise forgotten is pure Victorian fantasy.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

King John and the Abbot of Canterbury

I'le tell you a Story, a Story anon,
Of a noble Prince & his Name was King John
For he was a Prince, and a Prince of great might
He held up great Wrongs, he put down great Right.
     Derry down, down hey derry down.

Friday, September 20, 2013

How the Bear Lost his Tail

I don't believe you understand a story until you can tell it simply enough for a child to understand. What follows is a medieval trickster tale which has survived into the modern era in Scandinavian folklore; it is an example of Aarne-Thompson Tale Types #1 and #2, which are often combined in sequence. Medieval versions typically cast Ysengrim the wolf in the leading role here, but I have opted for Bruin the bear as in the modern Scandinavian tellings, which customarily present the story as explaining why bears have such short tails.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Trickster Stories

The trickster archetype is abundant in the world's myths and legends, and examples are found in traditional folklores from every continent. The trickster is a being who defies the laws of men, gods, and nature through acts of deception, often with beneficial results for the wider world. The deceptions may paradoxically serve to affirm or rebuild the normal order of things, and may take the form of pranks, larceny, or malicious lies which lead others into danger or even death. Many tricksters are shapeshifters, and often even change genders. In general, the trickster belongs to the realm of myth or fable rather than of everyday life, swindling gods and vexing talking animals. The trickster may himself end up being deceived by those he sought to trick, but in many stories his deceptions are more successful.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Burns' Merry Muses as Folkloristic Collection

Robert Burns is best-known today as an early Romantic or proto-Romantic lyricist, but he was also a collector of traditional lyric. He also loved traditional melodies, and much of his poetry is intended to be sung to airs far older than what he wrote; this is, of course, perfectly in keeping with the core notions of Romanticism, which are best spelled out in the preface to Lyrical Ballads (1789), which describes a poet's task as "fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation" - something at odds with much of the poetry of the 18th century, which used deliberately archaic and learned forms. Burns did no such thing, preferring commonsense Scots just as Wordsworth favored everyday English.

A number of Burns' poems are light tweaks of preexisting ballads. "John Barleycorn" is likely one such, for example. In many cases, it's likely he wasn't even so much writing his own versions as attempting to present a version that would fit within an occasionally varied tradition.

The Merry Muses of Caledonia is a collection of such, printed ca. 1800 from a manuscript collection of verse Burns compiled throughout his adult life. This singular volume records the folk doggerel of the mid to late 18th century. The material in it likely does not originate with Burns, but he is known to have been fond of it and chose to compile quite a collection of such work, and it stands as an account of the 18th century's oral culture. The collection is united by a single common feature: every song in it is sexual in nature.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Hobby-Horse Dancing at Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire

In the village of Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, September 9th this year is Wakes Monday, which will be celebrated as it has been for as long as anyone can remember: the Fowell family will once again borrow a dozen large antlers from the local parish church and use them to perform a unique and improbable dance. The dance will continue for about twelve hours, before the antlers are at last returned to the church. During this time, the dancers will pass throughout the parish, including by all of the local pubs, along a route about ten miles in length.

The dance is performed by twelve people. Six dancers carry pairs of fairly colossal antlers. One is dressed as Maid Marian, another as a fool, and another rides a hobby-horse. Their numbers are rounded out by two children, one with a bow and arrow and the other with a triangle, and an accordion player. While the precise details of the dance have evolved over the centuries, this custom dates back to at least the 17th century - and there is evidence which suggests, unexpectedly, that it may originate prior to the Norman Conquest.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Before Mr. Barleycorn

"John Barleycorn" is an eighteenth-century ballad family and no older. But it has antecedents, like so many popular poems do - and while none of them are old enough to truly reflect some sort of pre-Christian crop worship, they are believed to date back to ca. 1500. Here are the earliest versions, in the original Scots.

Three Versions of "John Barleycorn"

Harvest ballads which personify the crops in the character of "John Barleycorn" have a decidedly ancient feel to them, and James Frazier even made the mistake of claiming they were a relic of pre-Christian sacrificial rites to ensure a bountiful harvest. But in fact, they are far newer than commonly supposed. Here are some examples which might be familiar to readers in the present day.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Stoolball - the Ealdormere rules

Within the Society for Creative Anachronism (the reenactment group of which I am a part), the regional group which comprises the vast majority of Ontario has apparently revived Stoolball as a common part of their events. This is their reconstruction, which by necessity owes its rules to accounts of stoolball and other safe-haven games from well after the SCA's time period of study (which ends in 1600):

Friday, August 16, 2013

Early Safe Haven Games

"Tenessyng handball, fott ball, stoil ball, and all manner other games out churchyard." - John Myrc, ca. 1450.

The "Stoil ball" referenced in this instruction to prohibit it from being played in the churchyard is likely one of the earliest mentions of a safe-haven game, the family best known today for baseball and cricket. A mention of a game called "creag" in 1300 and a "bittle-battle" even earlier have also been suggested as possible examples of the family, but as all we know about them are their names, it's not reasonable to say so with any certainty. (There's a proposed etymological connection between "creag" and "cricket," but this is probably spurious - most sources give a Dutch origin for the latter term, while "creag" is almost certainly taken from a Celtic word meaning "fun.") "Stoil ball," however, is clearly a game played with a ball and a "bar" - probably a bat. Later descriptions of games with clearly related names are also definitely part of the safe-haven family, though one should be cautious in projecting those back to the 15th century as our first written account of how the game is played is from three hundred years later. There are, however, a few visual sources which push the safe haven games back into the 1200s, so the suggestion that "creag" could have been such a game is entirely reasonable, and identifying "stoil ball" as part of the family seems fairly well-founded.

Baseball originated in the United States, and was derived from a variety of safe-haven games that had been played in North America from the colonial period. These mostly had a large number of common features almost certainly owing to the shared similarities of what had been imported from England. Many of the common elements are also seen in cricket, the world's most popular safe-haven game today, and the history of the cricket branch of the family is far clearer, with the professional sport developing in the 1620s and the first written codification of cricket rules being published about a century thereafter. A 1744 version of the cricket rules would see widespread adoption, and is the ancestor of the modern game. However, the early references suggest that until the 1590s, cricket and other safe-haven games were not perceived as being suitable for adults - at least among the gentry. (There's some evidence of stoolball having been primarily played by adult women, especially milkmaids.) This likely contributed to the lack of written sources about its precise rules.

Despite the complete lack of written descriptions of the rules of any safe-haven game prior to the 18th century, reconstructions have been attempted. Generally, the approach seems to be to take the common aspects of safe-haven games generally, without any of the quirks of a specific early game; this ensures that the players are not introducing an ahistorical twist, but since most safe-haven games have some distinctive feature in the rules, it misses out on some of the variety the historical games afforded. It is, however, commonly suggested that prior to the start of play, representatives from the two teams should discuss what precise rules they are using, which is likely to be a historically authentic aspect of any game between players from different towns.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Analyzing an Early Sword Dance

What follows is one of the earliest accounts of a sword dance that has enough detail to be useful, drawn from Olaus Magnus' History of the Northern Peoples (1555), along with my notes on why I interpret it the way I do, where I deviate from the most direct reading of the text and why, and, finally, my thoroughly-danceable notation for a version of this particular dance for modern performers.

Here's Olaus. The translation is taken from William Tegg's The Every Day Book (1825), on Plough Monday, because this translation of this section is widely quoted in readily-available sources (including online ones):
The Northern Goths and Swedes have a sport wherein they exercise their youth, consisting of a Dance with Swords in the following manner. First, with swords sheathed and erect in their hands, they dance in a triple round : then with their drawn swords held erect as before: afterwards, extending them from band to hand, they lay hold of each other’s hilts and points, and, while they are wheeling more moderately round and changing their order, throw themselves into the figure of a hexagon, which they call a rose: but, presently raising and drawing back their swords, they undo that figure, in order to form with them a four-square rose, that they may rebound over the head of each other. Lastly, they dance rapidly backwards, and, vehemently rattling the sides of their swords together, conclude their sport. Pipes, or songs (sometimes both), direct the measure, which, at first, is slow, but, increasing afterwards, becomes a very quick one towards the conclusion.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Robin Hood Newly Reviv'd

Come listen a while you Gentlemen all
With a hey down, down, a down, down,
That are in this Bower within,
for a story of gallant bold Robin Hood
I purpose now to begin.

What time of the day, quod Robin Hood then,
With a hey down, etc.
Quoth little John tis in the prime;
why then we will to the green Wood gang,
For we have no Victuals to dine.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A brief history of Robin Hood.

In 1267, a man named Roger Godberd (who had been outlawed for fighting against the King during the Second Barons' War) took up residence in the Forest of Sherwood, along with a number of other outlaws of whom he was apparently the leader. He was caught and imprisoned by the Sheriff of Nottingham, but escaped; the Sheriff pursued him for several years, including laying siege to a castle in which he and the other outlaws were being protected. (The lord of the castle did ultimately surrender, but not before helping Godberd sneak out to safety.) Godberd was ultimately captured again, shortly before the new King, Edward III, returned from crusade and issued him a pardon.

If this story sounds overwhelmingly familiar, that's likely partly a coincidence, as records of Robin Hood first appear nearly forty years before Godberd's outlawry. But it does seem possible, or even likely, that the similarities between Godberd and the earlier stories of Hereward the Wake (a few of which were later recycled into Robin Hood tales) may have shaped the form of the narrative with which we are familiar today.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Starting a Morris Side

This post is a little different - it's not about history. It's about modern folk dance, and me experimenting with a tradition that has its roots in the fifteenth century. I look forward to getting to the point where I'm going to be able to tell you something about what the first couple hundred years of morris dance history were like, but right now all the information I can find is confusing and contradictory. (Best guess: "morris" was a catch-all term for performance dances done in disguise, some of them sword dances, some related to modern morris traditions, and some something else entirely. But I can't back up that hypothesis at present.)

Anyhow, I'm starting a sword and morris dance side, mostly out of a desire to learn more about this family of dances. We're dancing in for the first time on Saturday.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Hilt-And-Point Sword Dances

Hilt-and-point, or linked, sword dances are a style of dance which originated in Germany (probably in Nuremberg) in the middle of the 14th century. From there, they spread all over central and western Europe; evidence of the tradition has been found by folklorists in England, Scotland, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, the Low Countries, Romania, Austria, and Scandinavia. A particularly showy variety of these dances known as "rapper dances" began in England in the 19th century, peaked in the period between the World Wars, and is still going strong today; many other places have either preserved or revived their sword dance traditions as well. In dancing these dances today, performers continue a custom which connects them to the medieval bourgeoisie and so to over six centuries of history.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Full English

It's not historical (or rather, it's mostly relevant to about a century ago), but there's a brand new web resource for the study of English folk culture: the Full English, an archive hosted by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. It's a browseable and searchable collection of notes from many of the most important early folklore collectors in English folkloristics, and it's entirely free thanks to a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Go check it out; it's pretty amazing.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Authenticity, Comprehension, "Matona," Folklore, and Musical Performance

The first time I ever heard "Matona, Mia Cara" I knew the lovely Italian Renaissance text was entirely beyond my comprehension, but musically I felt I'd heard enough choral music to feel like I had some sense of what I was hearing anyhow.

I was wrong.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Ballads so old they're new to you

Here are EBBA links for ten ballads you've almost certainly never heard of, which might be interesting to revive (though in all cases, making them work as well for a modern audience would take effort beyond just learning the words and a matching melody). The newest among them is from 1625.

Broadsheets, Folksong, Copyright, and the Early Publishing Industry

In 1473, a London bookseller named William Caxton collaborated with a Flemish printer named Colard Mansion on a project which would bring overwhelming changes to English culture: The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, Caxton's own translation of a Burgundian account of the Trojan War. It was the first book ever printed in the English language, and Caxton sold enough copies that he proceeded to invest in setting up his own press in Westminster - the first in Great Britain. In 1476, he released the first title from his Westminster press: a mass-produced edition of the Canterbury Tales (which draws on enough folkloric material I guarantee I'm going to write a post or two on it later).

Caxton would go on to print 87 known titles, 26 of which were his own translations of foreign materials. While his aims were much the same as any modern translator's - accurately presenting the foreign material to English readers - he doesn't seem to have been very good at it, and a great many foreign words show up in his translations. ("Recuyell," for example, is not and hasn't ever been an English word, and I would never be able to read his 1481 History of Reynard the Fox without modern footnotes explaining the Dutch words therein.) Still, business was good, and by the 1480s, other printers had begun to operate their own presses in competition with Caxton. Caxton responded by expanding his shop through the help of his business partner, Wynkyn de Worde, who would go on to take over the business after Caxton's death in 1492. By the 1500s, there were a great many of them, and the publishing industry ballooned. Soon, printed material was a part of everyday life for the middle classes.

One of the products of this explosion was a sharp upswing in the composition and spread of ballads.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Barbara Allen's Cruelty, or the Young Man's Tragedy

In Scarlet Town where I was bound,
There was a fair Maid dwelling,
Whom I had choosd to be my own,
Her name was Barbara Allen.

All in the merry Month of May,
When green leaves were a springing
This young Man on his Death-bed lay,
For love of Barbara Allen.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Amleth, continued

Shakespeare ends his Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark with the titular prince dying as he gains his revenge. But in this it is like other Jacobean revenge plays, and quite unlike Scandinavian revenge stories; Amleth is no exception. When we last left our hero, he had won, and become King of Jutland - and that, of course, leaves room for a sequel. Amleth, after all, has just slaughtered Feng, who will of course have an avenger of his own. Here's the follow-up, from Book IV of the Gesta Danorum. (And you thought Hamlet II was just a terrible comedy.)

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Amleth, son of Horwendil

The following story comes from Book III of the Gesta Danorum, a chronicle of Danish history as understood by its author, Saxo Grammaticus. The Gesta Danorum, or "Deeds of the Danes", was written ca. 1185, and is available online from OMACL. This translation is by Oliver Elton, and was published in 1905. If the story sounds at all familiar, well, it's not a coincidence.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Eastern Stories in Boccaccio's Decameron

I've been reading Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron off and on lately, and one of the things I love about my copy (it's the Penguin Classics edition, translated by GH McWilliam) is the constant footnotes. They tell me everything from "yeah, that character was a real person, even though nothing like this actually happened to them" to "this entire story is a folktale of Indian origin." From a folkloristic perspective, that last kind of comment is always fascinating, and makes me want to know more.

The Decameron is part of a rich tradition of collections of stories on various themes, which often borrow from one another and consequently show up in other forms in other places. It turns out a surprising number of the stories originate in Eastern sources. Notable among these is the Panchatantra, a collection of animal fables and other tales written in Sanskrit in the 3rd century BCE; it's sometimes surprising how little the plots changed in the millennium and a half between this origin and the Decameron. Stories from the Panchatantra also appear in other places, notably including the Spanish El Conde Lucanor, the fables of Aesop, and the Thousand and One Nights.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Music for the Romancero

(Last post about romances for at least a little while, I promise.)

The texts in the romancero viejo were probably intended to be sung, or at least singable, exactly like ballads in English. But what were the melodies like?

I must confess, I have no idea, though I have a few tantalizing clues from secondary and tertiary sources. This post is mostly here to solicit the input of people more knowledgeable about early music than I, and to arm them with what knowledge I already have access to in order to help with this question.

Book recommendation: Medieval Folklore

Just thought I'd add a quick note with a recommendation for what is basically the definitive work in the field of medieval folkloristics:

Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, and John Lindow, eds. Medieval Folklore. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

This is an encyclopedic work, grand in scope (it's 445 pages of remarkably small type), with articles giving an overview of a variety of topics in medieval folklore. Emphasis is based on what was most salient to medieval European culture, rather than on what we consider relevant today. For example, the entry on "Hamlet" notes that the familiar spelling is of English Renaissance origin, gives an account of the story of Amleth as told in the Gesta Danorum and mentions a few other sources where accounts of it are found, as well as a few other legends which are broadly similar and may be related; at the very end, there's a one-sentence mention of the Shakespeare play. In addition to the articles on specific topics, there are articles about the folkloric traditions of specific regions, such as "Hungarian tradition," to give an overview of major pieces of folk culture specific to those places.

The book retails for $29.99 US, and is well worth it for the introduction it offers to such a broad range of topics relevant to anyone with an interest in life in the medieval period.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Friday, May 17, 2013

Adapting the Romancero Viejo in English

For such a large and significant body of work, the obscurity of the romancero viejo is perhaps somewhat surprising. To resolve this, I have undertaken the project of translating the entirety of the 1550 Cancionero. I'm far from done, and it's slow going because I am a very poor poet, but I feel this particular ballad tradition merits greater attention beyond the Spanish-speaking world.

While there are several prior translations of the romance del Conde Arnaldos around, and one or two other romances have been translated, so far as I am aware there has only been one substantial effort to adapt them to English-speaking audiences in significant numbers in the past: JG Lockhart's Ancient Spanish Ballads, Historical and Romantic. (The book is available in its entirety from the Internet Archive.)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Poetics of the Romancero Viejo

The Spanish romance (pronounced as three syllables, /ro'man.tse/ historically, /ro' or /ro'man.θe/ today depending on region) is a type of poem comparable to the English ballad. They appear to have originated in a form derived from chansons de geste and epics, but by the time the true romance form appears (probably in the middle of the 15th century), it is reliably in the form we think of as a romance today: relatively brief lines, constant assonant rhyme, written in a very conversational style.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What folklore is (and isn't)

The precise definition of folklore is a matter of some debate among those who study it, not least because the origins of the discipline very quickly tied the definition to some assumptions which have since been seen to be incorrect. One good modern definition is that it is the study of cultural expressions which are traditional and learned informally. By this standard, folk music is of a different sort from classical music not because it differs in any musicological way - though in the modern era it certainly tends to - but because of how it is transmitted. (One could argue that many of the novel compositions heard within the modern folk revival scene are more accurately folk-inspired rather than genuine folk music.) Folk tales are passed on through the generations and change as they go, as opposed to the consciously artistic presentation of a novel, which is kept and read in its original form.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Tennis balls

I'm getting into material culture a little here, but it's in order to better understand popular entertainments. Given that we know something of how historical games in the jeu de paume family were played, what sort of balls were used?

There are two kinds of balls of interest that are still used to this day in modern Valencian pilota games: the pilota de badana, used in the street game of llargues, and the pilota de vaqueta, used in the higher-status raspall. These balls very probably match two of the three types of tennis balls described in Vives' dialogue.

Playing handball

Given that the handball / jeu de paume family was a major sport for noblemen, how was it played?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dialogue XXII - Juan Luis Vives on ball games

Juan Luis Vives was a philosopher and humanist in the 16th century whose works include, among other things, a book of Latin dialogues intended as language practice. Sources like this are excellent for examining folk culture, because the dialogue participants are talking about things from everyday life rather than momentous historic occasions or highbrow literature. In dialogue XXII, the characters discuss the game of sphaericulum ("ball"), and how it's really the same game in France as it is in Valencia (an assertion belied by some of the contrasts mentioned). The game in question is recognizably part of the jeu de paume family.

My Latin is terrible, so what follows is mostly taken from modern Castilian Spanish translation. There's also an English translation from 1908, directly from the Latin.

Ballad of Lady Alda

The lady Alda in Paris waits
She's good Sir Roldán's wife
Three hundred damsels wait with her
To bring joy to her life

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The origins of tennis

References to games of the jeu de paume family (often collectively called "tennis" in English) are abundant, and it appears to have originated not later than the twelfth century in France. (Wikipedia's page on the history of tennis contains an uncited assertion that this in turn derives from a beginning in 6th-century Portugal; while entirely possible, I haven't seen any references that put it anywhere near that early. Then again, rules of games are often passed on orally and could well originate way before the references start being quite so frequent.)


This is a blog about the folk and oral culture of the medieval and early modern periods. Expect to see posts on ballads and songs, folk tales, dancing, games, and more.

Folk culture has been an interest of mine for a very long time, and the primary purpose of this blog is to use the goal of regular updates to push myself to actually do all the awesome research projects I want to do. To that end, expect to see at least one post a week, and hopefully more. Some of them will be short seeds of topics I might explore in greater depth later; others will be more substantive.

Ballad of Count Arnaldos

Who ever had such fortune
By the waters of the sea
As once did Count Arnaldos
On the morn of St. John's feast?
While hunting for his quarry then
His falcon for to feed
He saw a galley coming
That was riding on rough seas
Its anchors were of purest gold
With silken sails and sheets
The mariner who led it came
Singing a melody
His music made a tail wind blow
Yet calmed the surging sea
The fish that swim down in the depths
Came up for air to breathe
The birds that fly in heaven above
On the mast did perch to hear
And then spoke Count Arnaldos
And the words he said were these:
"By God I beg you, mariner
that song to me to teach!"
The mariner replied to him
And such reply gave he:
"Good sir, I only teach that song
To those that sail with me."

 - Anonymous broadsheet, Spain, early 16th c. Translation: Craig B. Daniel, 2009.

The "Romance del Conde Arnaldos" is one of the best-known poems of the "Romancero Viejo," a broadsheet tradition that flourished from the late 15th to late 16th century. Several texts survive; this translation is based on one of the shorter ones. It is likely intended as a religious allegory, with the mariner representing Christ offering the song only if the Count will set aside his life as a powerful noble and follow him.