Folklore comes to us through a rich history of oral
tradition which has been around long before any written form of
literature was available. Folklore comes to us in the form of stories,
songs and conundrums passed on through generations for generations.
These tales and fables tend to relate to the location of the tellers
or to their family group, friends or community, and give us great
insight in to the origins, characteristics, beliefs, religion and
social relationships of the peoples it involves, providing us today
with a rich tapestry of information with which to view the past
and our ancestors with.
Many people believe that folklore is little more
than superstition full of fanciful tales with little meaning or
truth in relation to the past attached to them. With a little examination
though we can look into the tapestry and see that there are things
to be seen and gleaned from these fanciful tales that can give us
great insights into the past.
If for instance we examine a famous
children’s nursery rhyme what can we find within it?
“Ring a ring of roses"
"A pocket full of posies"
"Atticho, atticho" (or ashes, ashes)
"We all fall down”
This is an amusing children’s nursery rhyme
that many children today, and for many years in the past, have learned
and recite often during childhood. Most of us today would agree
that Ring a ring of roses is nothing more than an amusingly, harmless
little nursery rhyme. A rhyme yes but it seems to have very little
reason attached to it or does it?
If we look a little closer we find that this is
a tale giving an account of the Black Death, the Bubonic plague,
which devastated Europe between 1347 and 1350, during this period
25 million people died across Europe, and reapeard again in London
The rhyme begins by indicating a “Ring a ring
of roses” which indicated a rash that appeared as a rose read
ring on the bodies of its victims. It could also reflect the rosary
beads that people used to pray for divine intervention, praying
for protection, to be kept free from this terrible disease must
have been a large part in many people’s everyday lives. The
rosary beads could also be linked to the return of the plague in
1665 in the reign of Charles the II when the political undercurrents
of the time were against the return the crown to Catholicism. Catholics
were openly accused of causing the plague at this time.
People carried flowers and herbs in pouches and
in their pockets, “A pocket full of posies”, with them
to try to relive the smell of the decaying bodies. There was a strong
belief at the time that the disease was transmitted by the smell,
so it was believed for a time that the posies help to prevent catching
Sneezing was another of the main symptoms of the
disease “Atticho, Atticho”. Also it reflected the ashes
that fell from the sky, as the churches attempted to burn the bodies
of the dead, as burial of such large numbers of people had become
Everyone seemed to becoming infected, “We
all fall down”, it must have seemed that everyone would be
overcome and die that there was no escape from this diease. It seems
with a little insight of the time this harmless little nursery rhyme
has reason and insight as well.
Local knowledge is important to understanding what
the tale is conveying. As society changes novel words develop and
jargon change but oral tradition tends to remain the same, so some
of the words used would have various meanings from region to region
and also changes through the years as society changes. If we look
at the rhyme “pop goes the weasel” we can see how this
can affect our interpretation of the rhyme –
“Half a pound of tuppenny rice"
"Half a pound of treacle"
"That’s the way the money goes"
"Pop! Goes the weasel.”
This is another little rhyme that we as children learned from
our parents and them from theirs, as we teach our children in turn.
The origins of this rhyme came from Victorian London where life
was very hard and extreme poverty was an everyday experience for
most people. “Pop” was the word used for visiting the
pawnbrokers to pawn goods and “weasel” was an altered
form of the word “whistle” which is the cockney rhyming
slang used for suit, whistle and flute. Pawing a suit was seemingly
a common occurrence a couple of hundred years ago to get money to
buy food where as today it would be almost unheard off.
There is of course also the "Chinese whispers"
affect that can greatly alter the content of any story so accuracy
can be called into question over long periods of time. Here we can
look at the Greek poet or mythical person, Homer, he is said to
have lived around 800 BC. He described the invasion of Troy, which
occurred approximately in the 1300 BC in his poem the Iliad, it
appears that the information he recorded in his poem may have been
passed down as a folk tale through the generations as there seem
to be accurate elements to the Iliad which appear to have been authenticate
by the unearthing of ruins which were discovered by Heinrich Schliemann
in 1870 AD which are believed to be the ruins of the Iliad described
in Homers poem. This would seem to imply that oral history is able
to retain a level of accurate information over several hundred years.
Probably the most popular and well known books of
oral tradition of our time is the Old Testament of the Bible it
is a collection of tales passed through the generations which spans
many hundreds of years. It appears to be generally believed today
that the Old Testament was written in the 600 BC when scribes and
learned men gathered a vast amount of these tales together and worked
to bring about a single story which now makes up the Old Testament.
It is important to remember that folklore is a rich
oral tradition that was around long before any form of writing or
recording of information was available and was passed down by word
of mouth from one generation to the next. Also recording materials
were not readily available to the average person on the street.
It maybe seen as or dismissed as nothing more than superstition
or fanciful tales of fiction and that it maybe so, it has also been
however a valid means of conserving and passing on history providing
us with valuable information and insights into the past and the
day to day lives of every day folks. We should bear in mind that
our ancestors did not have the distractions of modern day with no
televisions, newspapers, books, computers ect to fill their minds
with. If we take the time to look into our folklore tapestry that
hangs all around us we may just be surprised at what we might find.