Folklore Society

Folklore Society
   The Folk-Lore Society was founded in January 1878 (it kept the hyphen till 1968), and was thus the first society in the world devoted to the subject. There had been protracted correspondence in *N&Q in 1876-7, initiated by Eliza *Gutch ('St Swithin'), calling for such a body to be formed. After some hesitation over the definition of its remit, a group of already well-known figures, including W. J. *Thoms and George Laurence *Gomme, took up the challenge and announced the formation of the Society (with 107 members); its journal, The *Folk-Lore Record, was launched in February 1879. In the first issue, the Society's object was defined as 'The preservation and publication of Popular Traditions, Legendary Ballads, Local Proverbial Sayings, Superstitions and Old Customs (British and foreign) and all subjects relating to them' (Folk-Lore Record 1 (1878), p. ix). The music, dancing, and material culture excluded from this official agenda nevertheless had a place in the personal work of some members, and sometimes in the pages of the journal; eventually they became the remit of the *English Folk Dance Society, the * Folk-Song Society, and the * Society for Folk Life Studies.
   Initially, the Society's aim was to publish books and a journal; members met only once a year, the work being carried on by a Council which met at intervals. There were occasional lectures in the 1880s, more regular ones from the 1890s onwards. For the first 30 years of its existence, the Society was a forum for intellectual discussion between well-known scholars, who debated their theories hotly, even acrimoniously, in its publications and meetings, which were often reported in the daily and weekly press. Many debates concerned very broad issues, approached in a scientific spirit: the origin of mythology, the relationship between folklore and the minds and lives of primitive humanity, and/or contemporary 'savages', the cultural diffusion of traditions. The goal was, and long remained, to cover the topic worldwide, and over the whole span of history. One high point of this first phase was the Society's hosting of the International Folk-Lore Congress of 1891.
   Large publication programmes were launched, resulting in many books of lasting value. Work began on several ambitious schemes: to collect all English proverbs and collate them with their foreign analogues; to classify and analyse all British 'popular customs and superstitions'; to collect folktales, on a worldwide scale, and tabulate them according to their main plots and incidental traits; Gomme's plan for a 'Dictionary of British FolkLore'. Most of these wide-ranging plans remained unfinished, for lack of manpower and/or money. With hindsight, one can see it might have been wiser to focus research more sharply on Britain itself, but the Society's policy had always been to view its subject from an international perspective, not an insular one.
   As the 20th century dawned, the Society began to lose impetus as founder members died or retired, and the Great War killed many who might have replaced them. After 1918, professional academics turned more to the new subjects of anthropology and sociology, which were gaining the foothold in universities which folklore had failed to achieve. Matters cannot have been helped by the fact that the most prominent 'heavyweight' now associated with the Society was *Frazer, whose old-fashioned methods were disapproved of by professional anthropologists. Nevertheless, a Committee (led first by Burne, then by Hart-land, then by A. R. Wright) worked throughout the war and on into the 1920s and 1930s on a major undertaking begun in 1910, a survey of British *calendar customs to update *Brand; this was eventually published in eight volumes between 1938 and 1946, covering England, Scotland, Man, and Orkney and Shetland.
   Between the wars, the FLS carried on as a minor learned society consisting largely of amateurs, though still attracting individual academics from diverse fields (e.g. E. O. James and S. H. Hooke, experts on the history of religions, and the Modern Greek scholar R. M. Dawkins). Folk-lore continued to be published, and though much of the theoretical basis for its contents at this period is questionable, it still provided a wealth of primary detail, as well as many sound and stimulating articles. But the amateurishness showed; many contributors pursued pet topics of their own, without reference to what others were doing even in this country, let alone abroad; others uncritically echoed dubious theories of the previous generation, especially Frazer's on * fertility. Folklore study in England gradually gathered a negative reputation for unsound reasoning, lack of intellectual rigour, ahistor-ical assumptions, and general pottiness.
   The Second World War brought a major logistic and financial crisis. That the Society survived at all, and continued to produce its journal, albeit much reduced in size, is due to a very small group of enthusiasts who gave their time and money to keep it afloat. Unfortunately this led to a concentration of power in the hands of a well-meaning, financially generous, but domineering and blinkered Treasurer-cum-Secretary, Mrs Lake Barnett, who contrived to block virtually all suggestions for growth and new undertakings throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.
   Meanwhile, folklore in general was enjoying a revival of public interest, in part linked to the folk *song and *dance revivals. New trends in scholarship emerged from the 1950s onwards; in particular, the work of Iona and Peter *Opie opened fresh fields, switching attention to the young, and to the present day; that of Katharine *Briggs combined literary and folkloric expertise; that of E. C. Cawte and
   Alex *Helm brought factual accuracy to the study of folk drama and guising. A new era for the Folklore Society opened in 1967, when a 'revolution' on its Council led to Katharine Briggs becoming President and Venetia Newall Secretary; together, they worked vigorously with the support of an efficient Committee to re-establish the book publications programme, renew links with scholars in America and Europe, reinstate regular conferences, and update the Society's image by becoming more visibly active. A definite trend from the 1970s onwards was the increased interest members showed in living British traditions, and in modern forms of folklore such as *con-temporary legend. Publications and conferences have reflected this well.
   The Society's Library and Archives, which began as a single bookcase in 1892, has grown into an excellent resource for the study of folklore, past and present; it contains many volumes and journals otherwise unobtainable in this country. Successive Editors of the journal *Folklore have set higher standards for contributors, and it is now a respected scholarly publication, while the newsletter FLS News provides a lively informal vehicle for the exchange of information and material. Publication of books and pamphlets has once again been active in recent years.
   Office, Library, and Archives are housed in University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT (Tel.: 0207 387 5894).
   ■ Dorson, 1968; A. R. Wright, Folk-Lore 39 (1928), 15-38; Allan Gomme, Folk-Lore 63 (1952), 1-18; Sona Rosa Burstein, Folklore 69 (1958), 73-92; E. O. James, Folklore 70 (1959), 382-94; Katharine M. Briggs, in Animals in Folklore, ed. Hilda R. Ellis Davidson and W. M. S. Russell (1978), 420; J. R. Porter, in Folklore Studies in the 20th Century, ed. Venetia Newall (1978): 1-13; Davidson, 1986: 143-7; Folklore 98 (1987), 123-30.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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