Folklore’s Roots in the Romantic Era & Nationalist Movement

The discipline of folklore was founded during an era that was grappling with many of the same issues we are facing today. Obviously the lore itself has roots much older. But, prior to the Romantic Era, scholars and “civilized society” simply weren’t paying attention. 

The Romantic Era started in Europe as a pushback against Industrialization. The prior Scientific Revolution had  shifted Western thought toward a more “rational” worldview; one that rejected the “superstition” found among the countryfolk. There were clear benefits and advancements in the birth of science and medicine, but one downside was the dismissal of age-old tradition and belief. 

On the heels of this shift in thinking came the Industrial Revolution. This saw young people leaving the rural areas in droves to seek work in urban centers. With industrialization and urbanization came pollution, the squalor of tenement life, a degradation of traditional values, and all of the Dickensian horrors we associate with the Victorian Era, such as child labor, long hours for low wages, and unsafe working conditions. 

The Romantic Era Pushes Back

In the midst of all this, voices began speaking out against modernity. Beginning in the late 18th century, but building up through the 19th century, the Romantics were artists, writers, poets, musicians, and philosophers who longed for the peace of the rural life and traditionalism. They also saw that the rationalization of the natural world had gone too far. When society is driven solely by cold rational thought that is devoid of spiritual heart, the soul withers. 

Moreover, the Romantics saw the very first surges of globalization that industrialization had brought with it. Not only were people emigrating from the countryside to the cities, but populations were beginning to shift internationally to a much larger degree than ever before. This posed a serious threat to cultural identity, and age old traditions were on the verge of being eradicated all together

Romantics countered the attacks on their culture by celebrating what was valuable to them: the beauty of nature,  national identity, great heroes, a glorious history, cultural myths and legends, folk customs and traditions.

Romantic Era voices pushed back with both celebration of cultural heritage as well as outright and open critique of modernity. While British Romantic poets celebrated the joy they found in nature, other Romantic writers like Mary Shelley warned about the horror of science proceeding without the checks and balances of the human soul in her classic novel, “Frankenstein.” 

The Folk and National Identity

While the lore told by the folk has roots as ancient as the cultures in which it develops, the discipline of folklore emerged in 19th century Romanticism. There were certainly precursors and some level of collecting folktales which occurred prior to this era. But, I have been hard pressed to find one example that was not tied to the collective assertion of national cultural identity. 

Folklore scholar Marina Warner mentions that as far back as 1690, the collecting of folktales was rooted in the assertion of ethno-cultural nationalistic identity. 

We know that the Renaissance Era had placed a stark emphasis on the high culture of Greco-Roman antiquity. Apparently, by the late 17th century, the French had had enough of the glorification of their Mediterranean cousins at the exclusion of their own culture.

A legitimate annoyance with the superimposition of the mythologies of foreign cultures led for a search for regional French folklore, which was then collected and celebrated.

This is the birth of the very first collections of folk and fairy tales.

Although, fairy stories had certainly existed prior to this. One might go as far back as the Norse Eddas to see the understanding of the need to record and preserve cultural folk belief. The same drive is witnessed in the early medieval Irish manuscripts which preserve myths and fairy stories that have their origins far earlier than the paper upon which they are recorded. 

What Marina Warner describes in the late 17th century French impetus to seek out tales from their own regional cultural heritage was the collective casting off of foreign identity and strong assertion that said “We ARE French! We embrace our Frenchness! We celebrate our French ethno-cultural heritage!”

Read the rest of Carolyn Emerick’s essay here.


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