Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs

By Kelly, Henry Ansgar | Western Folklore, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs


Kelly, Henry Ansgar, Western Folklore


Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. 2 Vols. Ed. Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, and John Lindow. (Santa Barbara, Denver, and Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2000. Pp. xxxiii + 1135, preface, acknowledgments, illustrations, indexes. $175 cloth)

This large compilation consists of 306 entries in alphabetical order, each followed by "references and further reading." Many of the entries are only a page or two long; the longest, like "Folklore" and "Folktale" (both by Lindahl), can be 10 or 12 pages. There are comparatively lengthy entries on geographical areas by experts in the field: Arab-Islamic (Ulrich Marzolph), Baltic, Finno-Ugric (both by Thomas A. Dubois), English (McNamara and Lindahl), French (Francesca Canade Sautman), German (Leander Petzoldt), Hispanic (Samuel G. Armistead), Hungarian (Eva Pocs), Irish (Joseph Falaky Nagy), Italian (Guiseppe C. DiScipio), Jewish (Eli Yassif), Scandinavian (Stephen A. Mitchell), Scottish (McNamara), East Slavic (why not West Slavic as well?-Eve Levin), and Welsh (Elissa R Henken and Brynley F Roberts). We are told in the preface that traditions of the British Isles are favored in the choice of entries (however, the judicious findings of Ronald Hutton on subjects like Halloween, Samhain, and harvest festivals have not been utilized).

Most expected topics can be found here, but surprisingly, nothing on Superstition, Luck, or Omen, and nothing on number symbolism except as used by Dante. What were the medieval equivalents-or lack thereof-for fear of the number 13 or of Friday the 13th? No obvious answer here. Church law is also neglected, for instance in the entries on Law and Marriage Traditions (no account of clandestine marriages in the latter).

Many entries are not folkloric in any but the most general and unhelpful sense, i.e., everything is folklore-for instance, those on St. Andrew's Day (in contrast to a pertinent entry on St. Anne), Apollonius of Tyre, Bagpipe, Bal des Ardents, Bowed Strings, Boy Bishop, St. Catherine of Alexandria, Chanson de Geste, Chretien de Troyes, Courtly Love, and so on, ending with Zither. Some of these topics could easily have been given a folkloric emphasis, of course, which means that the editors should have re-worked the drafts submitted and returned them for the contributors' "approval." The editors, however, seem to have been so timid that they did not even venture to insert motif or tale-type numbers into entries where these are lacking, even though they list them in the indexes at the end of Volume 2. There is, by the way, no abbreviations page at the beginning, and two of the targeted audiences (nonfolkloric medievalists and nonfolkloric nonmedievalists) are likely to be mystified by "B160.1," "AT 1242A," and the like, unless they are dedicated enough or lucky enough to find the indexes at the end.

The editors recount the instructions that they gave to contributors, telling them especially to be very specific in dating and in characterizing both medieval and nonmedieval phenomena. In general, the results are very satisfactory, but sometimes not, as with the Satan entry, where the pre-medieval material is confused and erroneous and the medieval data scattered and unsystematic. The mainly premedieval entries by J. K Elliott (notably, Jesus Christ, St. Joseph, St. Peter, Virgin Mary) are excellent, and in the Jesus entry he gives the proper dating to the Descensus addition to the Gospel of Nicodemus, viz., 5th to 6th century, wrongly dated to an earlier period in the Harrowing of Hell entry. It is astounding that even though the gargoyles of Notre Dame in Paris are labeled as "a postmedieval stereotype" in the Preface, they are featured on the covers of the volumes. Otherwise, the selection of illustrations in the work is very good.

There are some survivals of critical stereotypes, for instance the idea that the Grail was thought of as the chalice rather than the dish of the Last Supper, and that Andreas Capellanus was chaplain of Marie de Champagne (Chretien, Grail); that Samhain was the beginning of the Celtic year (New Year's); that indulgences were "sold" (Purgatory); that there is an agreed-upon definition of courtly love and that "medieval literature employs a variety of terms for this kind of love" (Courtly Love); on the last point, it is truer to say that the same terms are used for a variety of loves in medieval literature. …

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