England is rich in place-based customs, stories and traditions. From morris dancing to Robin Hood, from birds predicting the weather to mermaids swimming beneath mountain peaks, folklore permeates the history of the land. This month we’re journeying back to find out more about the folklore of our countryside…
As a concept, ‘folk-lore’ has only existed since it was coined on 22 August 1846, when British writer William John Thorns used the term for the first time in a publication. In honour of this, World Folklore Day is celebrated by many on this date, offering an invitation for us to explore the hidden histories of our local landscapes!
What is folklore?
Folklore has a wide scope but can include, according to the Folklore Society: ‘traditional music, song, dance and drama, narrative, arts and crafts, customs and belief’. For indigenous cultures worldwide, stories and songs have been passed down from ancestors and are still shared and honoured with regularity and reverence today. In many western countries, this narrative tradition and many ancient customs have been lost, but in some places, there are whispers that remain, and many practices and celebrations are now experiencing a revival.
Take the legend of John Barleycorn, for instance, a personification of the barley crop often featured in poetry and music, quoted here from the Robert Burns poem:
‘They took a plough and plough’d him down,
put clods upon his head,
and they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.’
Versions of this song date back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, although some suggest it is far older, emerging from pagan beliefs in a god of the land, sacrificed each year to ensure a bountiful harvest.
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