regional folklore

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The collection and publication of folklore on regional lines has such a long and respectable history in England that many would not even think of questioning it, but it is not the only, or necessarily the best, way of organizing folklore material. The regional impulse has a number of strong roots, both practical and theoretical. Collecting folklore is time consuming and arduous even today, and in Victorian and Edwardian times a local emphasis was often a practical necessity, but a stronger impulse came from local pride. It was not only the Scots, Irish, and Welsh who felt the need to celebrate their traditions and demonstrate their unique qualities to bolster feelings of nationhood, but inhabitants of, say, Yorkshire, or the West Country could be equally proud of their local traditions.

Earlier antiquarians such as Aubrey, Brand, and Hone published compendia on a national scale, but from Victorian times most of the major fieldwork collections have been undertaken on a regional or county basis, including Henderson's Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England (1866), Burne's Shropshire Folklore (1883), Udal's Dorset Folklore (1922), while the Folklore Society's project to reprint earlier printed material, the County Folk-Lore series, was organized on similar lines. In post-war Britain, the major Folklore of the British Isles series published by Batsford (1973–7) and individual items such as Tongue's Somerset Folklore (1965) and Sutton's Lincolnshire Calendar (1997) show that the impulse is still as strong as ever. The general public also take a strongly local view of the subject, and, in publishing terms, it is clear that the existence of an identifiable local ‘market’ is a major factor in determining whether or not a folklore book is published.

Some traditional genres are indeed regional. Dialect is one obvious example, and calendar customs are another. With customs, the term ‘regional’ can have two distinct meanings—one being that certain customs are only found in one area (e.g. souling), the other that versions of customs found over a wide area (such as mumming plays) display regional or local characteristics which distinguish them from those of another area. Similarly, Iona and Peter Opie were able to show that many aspects of children's lore in the 1950s (e.g. truce terms and the names of certain games) could usefully be plotted on distribution maps. Mumming plays are a good example of a genre in which much collecting and publishing has been on a regional basis, but the conclusions of some leading authorities have delayed further enquiry based on geographical distribution. Margaret Dean-Smith and Alex Helm declared that the core of the action of the play, the death and resurrection, was what mattered, and that the texts were simply ‘local accretions’ which did not need to be studied. Later researchers, however, have realized that a close analysis of a large number of texts would give an opportunity for understanding how traditional transmission from place to place has functioned, and may also give clues about the earlier stages of development, if not actual origins of the custom. Some experiments have been carried out in this direction, using computers to map distribution, but a major study remains to be undertaken, and other customs could potentially benefit from a similar approach.


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