Folklore Studies at the Celtic Dawn: The Role of Alfred Nutt as Publisher and Scholar

By Wood, Juliette | Folklore, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Folklore Studies at the Celtic Dawn: The Role of Alfred Nutt as Publisher and Scholar


Wood, Juliette, Folklore


At the end of the last century Alfred Trubner Nutt, distinguished folklorist and celticist, was president of the Folklore Society. On the occasion of his untimely death by drowning in 1910, Jessie Weston published an appreciation in the Folklore Society's journal which contained a succinct summation of Nutt's contributions to folklore and to Celtic studies:

   The great value of Mr Nutt's work has been his appreciation of the fact
   that the progress of Arthurian romance has been along the road of
   evolution, that direct literary invention has played but a secondary part
   in the growth of this wonderful body of romance ... he pointed out the part
   which specifically Celtic tradition had played in this evolutionary process
   (Weston 1910, 512-14).

While no scholar, even today, would eliminate cultural continuity entirely as a factor in narrative development, ideas about origins have moved dramatically away from this evolutionary position. Indeed attitudes to the entire process of transmission have changed, and both the disciplines of folklore and Celtic studies give more consideration to the integrity of the text and the creativity of authors. While Nutt was not the originator of the evolutionary approach to narrative analysis nor even to its specific application to Celtic material, in the course of his career as scholar and publisher he provided a focus for the development of these ideas. Nearly a century later, it seems appropriate to look at his contribution to discussions of the nature and origin of folklore, and its continuing effects.

Nutt was a founding member of the Folklore Society and participated actively in discussions about folklore theory. Linked to his interest in folklore and its methodology was an interest in Celtic studies. He encouraged scholars such as Whitley Stokes, Kuno Meyer, Eleanor Hull and Jessie Weston to edit medieval romance and Celtic texts, many of which were published by his family publishing house, David Nutt and Co. He himself wrote extensively on Celtic tradition and the Grail material in particular. His own writing, his contact with other scholars, and his publishing ventures were key influences in extending the evolutionary approach to narrative analysis into the area of medieval romance and Celtic tradition. Some of his ideas were adapted to more esoteric uses such as the belief that the Grail romances concealed a secret initiation rite and that Celtic religion was based on shamanic practice. Both these ideas owe much to Nutt's suggestions about Dionysian initiation cults, and although Nutt himself saw such matters in academic terms, in some form they continue to influence modern neo-Celtic traditions.

Inevitably this discussion will imply a primacy for Nutt which he would never have claimed for himself. He collaborated with many scholars and authors, and was generous in his thanks and in identifying their contributions. He synthesised the earlier work of other scholars, and here too he was very precise in noting their contributions. Nevertheless, as head of David Nutt and Co., he favoured subjects such as folklore and Celtic studies which had not been prominent in the firm's lists prior to his taking over. Since the firm continued this policy under the guidance of his wife and son for some years after his death, it seems not unreasonable to suggest that Nutt had a wide-ranging and long-lasting influence on the subject. The output of Nutt and Co. during the twenty-five years or so when Alfred was proprietor is truly astonishing, and he was active in all aspects of the business, editing, writing, commissioning and encouraging works on folklore. His influence is perhaps most obvious in the series published by the firm. Nutt clearly functioned as a kind of general editor, advising and commissioning, producing notes, commentaries and introductions to many volumes, and of course writing several himself.

Ideas

Alfred Trubner Nutt was born into a publishing family in 1856, the son of David Nutt whose firm specialised in continental books on classics and religion (see booksellers' catalogues 1837-1933). …

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