- The religion which has shaped English culture for the past 1,500 years is Christianity, whether in its Catholic or its Protestant form; much English folklore embodies Christian ethics, echoes biblical themes, or presents a modified, secularized version of what was once a religious custom or festival. This ought to be self-evident, but folk-lorists have often neglected the obvious while pursuing archaic origins. They would brush aside as unimportant any element which did not spring from the distant past; moreover, many Victorians knew little about medieval Catholicism, and despised what they did know. Today, academic folkorists have a sounder historical sense, and build their interpretations on documentary evidence, not cross-cultural analogies. Regrettably, many current writers for the popular market are less rigorous. Greatly admiring prehistoric *pagan-ism, and wishing to prove it survived under a veneer of Christianity, they repeat the Victorian error by regarding intervening centuries as irrelevant except in so far as selected items can be made to support the argument for continuity.In fact, medieval and early modern Christianity deeply affected folklore. Most old *cal-endar customs (with the important exceptions of *May Day and *Midsummer) are 'holidays' related to 'holy days'; to Catholics, there is nothing inappropriate in having secular amusements alongside church-going. Later, *Queen Elizabeth Day and *November the Fifth were deliberately created by Church authorities to celebrate Protestant deliverances from Catholic threats. However, Puritan Christianity usually opposed festivals, on four grounds: that it was wrong to consider any day (except Sundays) as more significant than another; that most festivals involved 'popish' doctrines or practices; that religion and merrymaking should be kept apart, with the few approved holy days, for example Easter, being stripped of secular elements; and that the merrymaking was reminiscent of classical paganism. At the Reformation, and again in the 17th century, Puritans campaigned to destroy calendar customs; so did some Victorians, disapproving of the associated drunkenness, brawls, and sexual opportunities. Thus, whereas medieval Christianity encouraged lively communal celebrations, later religious opinion often opposed them.In some respects, Christianity offered strong support for folklore. Scriptural texts were cited by educated writers well into the 17th century as proving the reality of certain supernatural beings - *ghosts, *witches, *giants, *dragons, and of course demons - thus strengthening and prolonging popular belief in them. The great abundance of traditions about ghosts and witches in 19th-century folklore may reflect the seriousness with which the Church had discussed them two centuries earlier, as well as their enduring importance as an explanation for subjective experiences. In contrast, *fairies lacked biblical endorsement, which may be one reason why belief in them dwindled to a pleasant whimsy. Folk *medicine and verbal *charms drew heavily on religion; to the users, this legitimized them, despite the opposition of Protestant clergy. Similarly, *churches, churchyards, and *graves were credited with various healing and magical powers because of their sanctity, as were sacraments. Many beliefs that are older and more widespread than Christianity nevertheless fitted easily into its framework; *dreams, *omens, and *ghosts, for example, could all be viewed as sent by God with warnings or information.Fairytales and other narrative genres intended as entertainment usually have no overt religious content, though their morality is generally compatible with principles of justice and kindness. *Legends, however, often do, either directly or by implication. Particularly common are stories, supposedly true, which describe God's *judgements on sinners and providential protection of the virtuous, and stories involving the *Devil; saints also feature in a few local legends. Others carry traditional moral messages - murder will out, ill-gotten gains never prosper, pride comes before a fall, and so on - which are of course not unique to Christianity, but have long been associated with it.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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