Pagans and folklore

This month, I have decided to write in the first person, rather than as ‘Sherds’, for reasons that will emerge as the column unfolds. Back in 2014, I was offered a PhD studentship and was looking forward to joining the lively heritage studies team at the University of Leicester. I was conscious of being several decades older than most of the other graduates, but as Rosemary Cramp said when I told her about my plans, ‘Nobody under 50 should study for a PhD because they don’t have enough experience to make an original contribution.’

That was the problem that I quickly ran into: not the lack of experience in my case, but too much of it. I was planning a history of the heritage movement in England over the last 50 years, but my insights based on personal knowledge were considered unsuitable for a dispassionate and objective thesis. The fact that I had witnessed the events that I was writing about, the personalities, their motives and ambitions, the arguments, the alliances, the enmities, the back-room deals, the obsessions, the lies and obfuscations of politicians and officials – all of this counted for nothing, because it was based solely on my ‘lived experience’ and could not be independently verified by reference to written records.

Wikipedia has the same approach. Keyboard warriors love nothing better than peppering the text of Wikipedia entries with comments along the lines of ‘who says?’ or ‘according to whom?’ when they spot a claim that is not linked to an authoritative source. This poses something of a dilemma, because as R G Collingwood taught us (in The Idea of History, 1946), nothing should ever be taken at face value as an objective record: one has to understand the attitudes, intentions, and views of the author. How can one do that if these vital clues are missing from the record?

The answer, I suppose, is to write a memoir, not a thesis – although memoirs have their limitations too, if the people you are writing about are still alive and likely to sue you for libel. It is safest then to write about people and events long past. Even so, I see signs that authors are beginning to reject the neutral tone of voice that is deemed appropriate for scholarly work, leading to such awkward circumlocutions as ‘in an earlier work by the present author’ instead of ‘in my earlier work’.

Early Christian Wales

One example of breaking through the fourth wall (as it is known in theatrical circles) to address the reader directly comes in A History of Christianity in Wales (2022). Barry Lewis is the author of four chapters spanning the period from the Romans to the Normans, in which he demolishes the myth that St Augustine brought Christianity to the benighted British in AD 597 and instead characterises Augustine’s mission as an attempt by ‘an aggressive and expanding kingdom of Kent’ to ‘rule all of southern Britain’, so that Augustine was seen in Wales as ‘just another threat from the Anglo-Saxon power’.

As a result, there were two separate and distinctive versions of Christianity – one English and one British/Welsh – until the 8th century. The British held the English church in such contempt that, according to Aldhelm, British churchmen would refuse to take communion with English visitors and would not eat with them: food not consumed by visitors was thrown to dogs and pigs, and cups and bowls used by them thoroughly scoured afterwards.

Summing up, Barry Lewis steps out of the academic frame to introduce a personal note when he writes: ‘Readers may be puzzled, and even upset, at the way in which I have told the story … without using the term “Celtic church”.’ The idea of a Celtic church, he says, has its origins in Protestant attempts to dissociate themselves from the Roman church, which then ‘morphed into a Romantic nationalistic vision of the Celts as anarchic nature-loving free spirits in contrast to the allegedly rigid, moralising, hierarchical world of Rome.’ These are stereotypes that ‘frankly serve modern agendas with no relevance to a proper understanding of the past,’ he concludes.

Pagan goddesses

Equally determined to bust modern myths is Ronald Hutton’s latest book, Queens of the Wild (2022), promoted as a book that examines the links between Christian and pagan traditions. This is not, however, a book about the many ways in which Christianity itself is based on beliefs, rituals, and symbols borrowed from the myriad local religions that flourished in the pre-Christian era. Rather, it is a critique of 19th- and 20th-century ideas that emerged in the writings of people connected with the British Folk-Lore Society, formed in 1892, claiming that Christianity was at best a veneer and that the common folk of England – ‘ordinary villagers’ – remained cheerfully semi-pagan.

An example of a ‘Green Man’ carving; this one is from Derby Cathedral near the west entrance. IMAGE: It’s No Game (cc-by-sa-2.0)

The story of Lady Godiva’s naked ride through Coventry was thus interpreted as evidence of a horse-riding goddess cult, morris dancing as a fertility rite, and the Abbots Bromley Horne Dance as the relic of a prehistoric animal cult, while sheela-na-gig images depicted a Mother Earth goddess, and ‘Green Man’ carvings of human heads gushing leaves were of a pagan vegetation deity whose dying and revival mirrored the cycle of the seasons.

That last idea was central to one of the most celebrated and influential of all these works: Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, published in successive editions between 1890 and 1915. Frazer believed in a universal fertility cult as the basis for all the world’s religions, in which the sacrifice of an individual represented the dying and returning vegetation – this idea is at the root of the popular 1973 film, The Wicker Man (inspired in turn by David Pinner’s 1967 novel, Ritual).

Ronald is usually sympathetic towards the subjects of his books, be they modern witches or 18th-century Druids, seeing them as interesting and creative cultural responses to modern issues, especially about human relationships with the natural world or the current global ecological emergency. What he does not like is the attempt to project modern beliefs backwards and claim them as ‘living fossils left over from ancient religious rites’, or part of some sort of universal archetype or belief system. He accuses Frazer and his followers of ‘dizzyingly speculative leaps’, of disregarding objective evidence, lacking discrimination, and myth-making rather than pursuing scholarly methodology.

At times, he sounds personally affronted by this lack of scholarship, and the reason can be found in his comment that this has had the ‘unfortunate effect of preventing folklore studies from becoming established in British universities as an institutionalised field of enquiry in their own right.’ If so, Professor Hutton has done more than most to compensate with his insightful histories of folk customs and his pioneering of pagan studies as an academic discipline.

Green Men and coal mine heritage

In the forensically detailed final chapter of Queens of the Wild, Ronald Hutton shows how an article published by Lady Raglan in the Folklore Society’s journal for 1939 has had an astonishing influence in propagating the widely held belief that the sculptures commonly found in medieval churches of a human head sprouting foliage represents the survival of an ancient fertility god, dubbed ‘the Green Man’.

Margaret Faull wrote a book review on the same subject in Church Archaeology (2003-2005, p.186), pointing out that these foliate sculptures were not considered sufficient of a threat by the Church or by Protestant iconoclasts to be subjected to the destruction suffered by so many other ecclesiastical images, so they were probably seen as Christian symbols. Just as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, despite its folkloric elements, is a deeply Christian tale about human frailty and the need for Christian grace for redemption.

Margaret Faull’s new book, Commemorating Coal Mining Worldwide, delves into the worldwide impact of coal mining, including the history of the Pit Brow lasses, who worked in British collieries picking rocks out of the coal after it was brought to the surface. IMAGE: National Coal Mining Museum for England.

Margaret’s own recently published work perfectly illustrates the theme of a book in which the author’s own voice sings through. Margaret retired from her role as director of the National Coal Mining Museum in October 2015; since then, she has travelled extensively to visit coal-mining museums, heritage centres, libraries, archives, and sites related to coal-mining in 48 countries around the world.

The resulting volume, Commemorating Coal Mining Worldwide (2022), is far more than a gazetteer, it is a richly illustrated guide to mining history and technology, mining communities, and memorials to those who have lost their lives to produce the material that powered the industrial revolution and transformed the world. If you have ever wondered why people get excited about coal-mining heritage, and why coal-mining sites have been granted statutory protection (including World Heritage status), this book will not only explain, it will leave you better informed on topics as diverse as the links between mining and non-conformist religion, strikes and trades unions, mines as the source of fossil evidence for the earth’s development, and the future for coal in an age that is turning to renewable energy sources in an attempt to mitigate the impacts of climate change.