Based on recent Central European research concerning the history of storytelling, this article explores the transformation of apparition stories in Scandinavia and Germany from the late Middle Ages through the Reformation to about 1700. A number of motifs were kept alive throughout the entire period but the stories as a whole changed considerably. This was not only due to a changing social and religious context but also to the specific transmission conditions of these stories.
Largely unnoticed by English-speaking folklorists, Central European scholars engaged in historical narrative research have in recent years reached important conclusions about the history of storytelling. Their findings undermine the very foundations on which the study of folklore hitherto has rested. The most important contributions have without doubt flowed from the pen of Rudolf Schenda.
The purpose of this essay is not to review these publications but rather to show avenues for future research. I shall therefore only give a simplified summary of the new history of storytelling from the late Middle Ages until the early-nineteenth century, when the ground for academic folklore studies was laid.
In the beginning, oral prose tales (which later came to be called legends or fairytales) were not told as fiction but as real events. Tales about supernatural beings, although containing well-known motifs and types, were told as memorates. We should remember that the boundaries between real and unreal or credible and incredible were drawn differently by lay people in those days than by nineteenth- and twentieth-century academics.
In the course of the eighteenth century the context of storytelling began to change. Fictional literature (mainly novels) became firmly established in the book-market. Reading habits changed as well: instead of studying a few books intensively, readers started to read many books more cursorily and only once. Reading societies were founded, printing presses were established in the provinces, and the authorities conceded a limited freedom of the press. It was at this time that fictionalised tales--which earlier had been rejected on religious grounds--started to reach a larger section of society. It is not surprising that this was also the period when the words for legend and fairytale in the Germanic languages took on their present meaning.(2)
The Grimm Brothers concentrated and codified literary developments of the late-eighteenth century. Their collections (Kinder- und Hausmarchen, 1812-15; Deutsche Sagen, 1816-18), despite claims to the contrary, were for the most part not collected from the "folk" but were derived from bourgeois and literary sources of various kinds (Grimm 1993; 1996). With the publication, translation and imitation of the Kinder- und Hausmarchen, as well as with the sale of individual fairytales as cheap booklets, a new literary taste spread among the lower classes, which earlier had only had access to Luther's Little (or Shorter) Catechism, the official hymnal, almanacs, penny godlies and penny dreadfuls. The collections in folklore archives therefore only document--and this may sound rather banal--the folk narratives of the period of collection. These were not stories that had been handed down unchanged by the fireside by word of mouth since time immemorial, but only records of more or less oral performances which were the result of formal (compulsory school attendance) or informal literary training, only available since the nineteenth century.
Even though the concepts of folk narrative and of its genres were an invention of the Grimm Brothers and their disciples, it would be rash to conclude that tales which today we would classify as folk narratives were not spread both orally and in writing prior to the age of romanticism. If we do not want to extrapolate the tales recorded in folklore archives backward in time, we have to study sources from the preceding centuries. …