Academic journal article Folklore

"Folklore" and "Popular Religion" in Britain during the Middle Ages

Academic journal article Folklore

"Folklore" and "Popular Religion" in Britain during the Middle Ages

Article excerpt


This article explores whether the bi-polar model of "elite" and "folk" or "popular religion" can be maintained for the medieval period. In fact, there were many strands to medieval religious culture, and people from a variety of backgrounds participated at a variety of levels on different occasions. Using a variety of chronicles and other sources, rather than the more dogmatic penitentials and canon law texts usually cited, this article argues that historians should make room for "local religious culture" in their taxonomies, in which both elites (including clerics) and people could participate.


Studying the "folklore" of the Middle Ages is a frustrating enterprise. Our sources yield a harvest rich enough to whet the appetite yet still too slight to satisfy. From the early Middle Ages, law codes and penitentials depict healing rituals in which children were placed in ovens, fairies placated by casting bows and arrows into barns, and unbaptised children who were "staked" to stop them rising from the grave. From the late twelfth century onwards, exempla indicate that some men and women thought it unlucky to meet a priest in the street and that others were not averse to crumbling communion wafers over their crops to protect them. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a proliferation and diversification of "historical" writing. Chroniclers increasingly found space in their narratives for tales of the wondrous: Ralph of Coggeshall told of green children found in cornfields, wild men fished from the sea and invisible spirits haunting peasant houses (Ralph of Coggeshall 1875, 117-21). On the fringe of the chronicle genre, new species of narrative also evolved that set the wondrous and fantastical at the centre rather than the edge of the historical enterprise: here Walter Map told tales of fairy women who married mortal men and stories of dead men who rose from the grave by night (Map 1983, 154-6 and 344). [1]

It is easy enough to assemble examples, but how are we to analyse them? In handling such material, three problems are immediately visible. (In a sense they are a single problem, but for the purposes of clarity it might be wise to split them at the outset.) The first is conceptual: can we speak of "folklore" in the Middle Ages and, if so, who exactly were "the folk" who used the lore? The second is evidential: the communities of medieval Europe have, because their cultures tended to be articulated by oral rather than written forms, left only the very faintest traces of beliefs and practices. These seldom survive in sufficient concentrations to allow us to describe the beliefs and practices of any single community or even a particular region. This closes down possible avenues of exploration: the opportunities for "micro-history" or "thick descriptions" are few in this period, especially in the earlier part of it (the obvious exception here is Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou [1980]). A final complexity is related to the second but is methodological in character. Our scattered fragments of evidence are products of clerical pens, of a literate culture rather than of the predominantly oral culture in which beliefs were held and practices used. As such, the cultural gaps between the practitioners of oral and written culture call for thought.

This problematic trinity--a three-in-one historiographical conundrum--demands that we deploy powerful theory if we are to recreate from fragmentary remains the larger patterns of medieval belief and practice. In discussing the possibilities here, we cannot speak of "folklore" in isolation or as a given category. Rather, we need to think of the bigger picture, considering "religious culture" as an organic whole.

"Elite" Religion and "Folkloric" Religion

One series of solutions to our problems is supplied by "popular/elite" models of medieval religion. Over the past twenty-five years, it has often been argued that religious culture in medieval Europe can best be understood in terms of social categories, that considerable gulfs existed between religions of educated elites and uneducated masses or between those of clergy and laity. …

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