The Ballad Tree: A Study of British and American Ballads, Their Folklore, Verse and Music, Together with Sixty Traditional Ballads and Their Tunes

By Evelyn Kendrick Wells | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
CHRISTIAN ELEMENTS IN THE BALLADS

IF there is a wealth of paganism in the ballads, there is a corresponding poverty of Christian elements. Ballad matter is largely secular, embodying themes not limited to Christian times or moral attitudes; and for many reasons traditional song has absorbed very little, either in theme or allusion, that may be attributed to Christian influences.

In the slow conversion of Northern Europe the rulers of the countries became Christian often only in name, and for political purposes, and the ensuing baptism of the people themselves was entirely superficial. Indeed, heathen practices continued throughout the Middle Ages; superstition was rampant in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; witch hunts in Western Europe, Britain, and New England were the disgrace of the eighteenth century; even today the remnants of pagan superstition are not confined to backwaters of ignorance. The making over of the minds and hearts of men professedly Christian, indeed, is still an unrealized dream.

In 601 Gregory the Great, almost as aware as the modern folklorist of what ages of entrenched belief and custom he had to meet, issued his instructions to his missionaries:

Do not pull down the fanes. Destroy the idols; purify the buildings with holy water; set relics there; and let them become temples of the true God. So the people will have no need to change their places of concourse, and where of old they were wont to sacrifice cattle to demons, thither let them continue to resort on the day of the Saint to whom the church is dedicated, to slay their beasts no longer as a sacrifice but for a social meal in honor of Him whom they now worship.1

The missionaries, therefore, wisely converted to their purposes what they found. In Britain as well as Europe native divinities had given way to Roman gods, who now in turn were dispossessed by Christian

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1
Gregory the Great, writing to Ethelbert of Kent. Quoted from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by Chambers, Medieval Stage, I, 95-96.

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