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.