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Folklorists' guide to 'stubborn prejudice'

The morris and related arts are featured in a new tome from the Oxford University Press.

It's called A Dictionary Of English Folklore, and it's written by two leading lights of The Folklore Society. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud have been respectively president and honorary librarian of the society. Steve is also a noted authority on mumming, though he is strongly critical of modern manifestations of the ancient drama.

OUP's website says the dictionary's 1,250 entries, from dragons to Mother Goose, May Day to Michaelmas, make this new reference work an absorbing and entertaining guide to English folklore.

Its press release asks, "Can mice cure bed-wetting? Is hedgehog fat good for your hair or would you be better off using goose grease?"

The answers to these questions and more, says the OUP, can be had for a mere 20, the book's cover price.

Morris entries faxed over to The Donkey include Bampton and a very brief biography of Janet Blunt, who was primarily responsible for saving the Adderbury tradition. Most morris practitioners will learn little from the fairly short Bampton entry, though it does mention that the earliest written reference is in the Rev J A Giles's History of the Parish and Town of Bampton (1847), which is the nearest one gets to confirming the claim that the dancing goes back 500 years. There's a fine picture from 1929 of Jingy Wells (the book uses Sharp's name, Jinky) with cake-bearer.

The best part of two pages is devoted to the subject of hobby horses, ending with a graphic description of rustic masquerading on New Year's Day in Northumberland:

"The hide of the ox slain for the winter cheer is often put on, and the person thus attired attempts to show the character of the Devil by every horrible device in his power."

Other topics addressed include:

Leap year: a well known traditional date for women to propose to men, extensions of this belief say that a man proposed to in this way could not refuse 'except on substantial payment'.

Mice: 'Used in folk medicine for a wide range of ailments - most commonly for bed-wetting, but also for whooping cough, sore throats, and various fevers.'

Photocopylore: a new folklore genre born out of the misuse of office technology, to which, 'the use of headed notepaper adds a spurious authority'.

There's also information on adders, Devil's Hoofprints, football, Grimm brothers, Hag-riding, Jenny Greenteeth, Mr Fox, nosebleeds, the Rollright Stones and the tooth fairy.

A review in The Independent On Sunday - under an atmospheric picture of a hobby horse, Jack-in-the-Green and a morris dancer at Rochester - sings the praises of the book. Writer Paul Binding, who grew up surrounded by folk dancers, refers to the now-legendary battles between Cecil Sharp and sundry rivals, and congratulates the dictionary's authors on refraining from jumping in with their own judgements.

He makes the point that England doesn't revere its folk heritage in the way that Scotland, Wales and Ireland have done, because it hasn't felt the same need to assert its own sense of self.

He also also counsels readers against falling in love with folkore as a result of such a handsome volume: "It's also a repository for stubborn prejudices born of paranoia and ignorance."

Buy the book via the Shave The Donkey Shop

2000 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew

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