- One of the big ideas, proposed by *Tylor and others, which helped 19th-century folklorists aspire to scientific respectability, although it has long been widely discredited. Its ultimate origin lies in attempts to apply the principles and insights of evolution to human cultures and institutions, and is based on the assertion that cultures develop in a series of identifiable stages, from savage to civilized. As each culture evolves, it is argued, certain aspects live on relatively unchanged, gradually losing their original purpose and meaning, and thus become folklore in the care of the uneducated, conservative, and uncreative 'common people'. Thus a serious religious belief may become a superstition, a ritual become a calendar custom, or a burial custom become a children's game. Given this knowledge, a folk-lorist can examine recent or modern folklore and use it to reconstruct the mind and practices of previous cultural stages, and thus elucidate both the past and the present. Indeed, for many of the early writers such as George Laurence *Gomme and J. G. *Frazer, this elucidation was the main work of the folklorist. The researcher's task was considerably simplified by the idea that the stages of cultural evolution were held to be relatively predictable the world over, although they are not synchronous. Thus, so-called primitive societies of the recent past such as Australian Aborigines or North American Indians can be used as evidence for the study of, say, Celtic Britons.At its crudest, survival theory takes a particularly cavalier attitude to both history and geography. Argument proceeds by piling up supposedly relevant examples from various cultures and periods until the sheer weight of numbers overwhelms the critical faculties of the reader. Indeed, writers such as Andrew *Lang make a virtue of this 'comparative' method:Our method, then, is to compare the seemingly meaningless customs or manners of civilised races with the similar customs and manners which exist among the uncivilised and still retain their meaning. It is not necessary for comparison of this sort that the uncivilised and the civilised race should be of the same stock, nor need we prove that they were ever in contact with each other. Similar conditions of mind produce similar practices, apart from identity of race or borrowing of ideas and manners. (Custom and Magic (new edn., 1904), 21-2)As the 20th century progressed, the theory was gradually rejected by anthropologists and other social scientists, although it held its ground for a considerable time in Folklore Studies, and in watered-down form became accepted by popular writers as the basis of almost all folklore commentary. It promotes the extremely widespread assumption that all our superstitions and customs are thousands of years old, and, as its basis is purely conjectural, it can be used to support any view which is fashionable at the time, whether sun or moon worship, fertility, phallic symbols, female deities, or Freudian or Jungian psychology.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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Gomme, Alice Bertha — (1852 1938) Born Alice Bertha Merck, she married George Laurence *Gomme in 1875 and became Lady Gomme when he was knighted for his work with the London County Council in 1911. Alice Gomme was a founder member of the *Folklore Society in 1878… … A Dictionary of English folklore
Gomme, George Laurence — (1853 1916) Knighted in 1911 for his work on the Metropolitan Board of Works (which he joined in 1873) and the London County Council. He was extremely knowledgeable about London, and published several works on the history of the city as well… … A Dictionary of English folklore
Lang, Andrew — (1844 1912) Born in Scotland, and passionately interested in Scottish topics all his life, Lang also had an immense impact on the development of general British folklore studies in the late 19th century. His publications range very widely, but … A Dictionary of English folklore
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