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

By Watkins, Carl | Folklore, August 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Watkins, Carl, Folklore


Abstract

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.