Steven Jones

title.none: Lindahl, McNamara and Lindow, eds., Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia (Jones)

identifier.other: baj9928.0102.010 01.02.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Steven Jones, Cal State L.A.,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, and John Lindow, eds. Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2000. Pp. iv, 1135. $175.00. ISBN: 1-576-07121-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.02.10

Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, and John Lindow, eds. Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2000. Pp. iv, 1135. $175.00. ISBN: 1-576-07121-9.

Reviewed by:

Steven Jones
Cal State L.A.

This encyclopedia is an impressive and fascinating compilation of the cultural traditions of the medieval world of considerable interest to medievalists and non-medievalists alike. Since folklore is the foundation upon which literate culture is built, much as the medieval world is the historical foundation for the modern world, to read through this text is to unearth strata of history and literature that explain not only the civilization of the Middle Ages, but contemporary society as well. Every entry is an archeological exploration of layers of cultural antiquity that is at times incredibly illuminating and at other times tantalizingly frustrating.

The greatest limitation of this encyclopedia is the inherent problem of its subject matter, as the editors themselves acknowledge. Since there were no professional folklorists in the medieval world, the only record of the folklore of the period is what filtered into the literate tradition or was preserved in material and artistic culture. Of course, this is true of all ancient civilizations, and scholars are left with the inevitable challenge of trying to reconstruct the folklore primarily from the impression it left in written form, supplemented by any remaining artifacts.

Fortunately, in the case of the literate culture of the medieval world, there is a considerable body of evidence from which to infer the existence of much of their folk traditions, but this in turn leads to another challenge of this encyclopedia, that is, trying to span many hundreds of years and many hundreds of different popular traditions and languages. Even though the encyclopedia, by the editors' admission, "does not extend far beyond the boundaries of Europe" (xxvii) and contains little or no mention of medieval Africa, East Asia, South Asia, and the Americas, the proposed scope of the project is still quite daunting: all of European tradition between 500 and 1500 c.e. While the non-medievalist would like to conceive of the Middle Ages as a coherent and limited historical period, one of the significant accomplishments of this text is to dispel any such naive illusion. The richness and diversity of the period is reflected in the entries on the major cultural groups: Arab- Islamic Tradition, Baltic Tradition, Celtic Mythology, English Tradition, Finno-Ugric Tradition, French Tradition, German Tradition, Hispanic Tradition, Hungarian Tradition, Irish Tradition, Italian Tradition, Jewish Tradition, Scandinavian Tradition, Scottish Tradition, Slavic Tradition, and Welsh Tradition. These entries document the extent to which each of these traditions is a complex combination of different peoples evolving culturally over time and through contact with other peoples. The folklore of the Scottish tradition, for example, is a product of the confluence of Gaelic migration from the west, Pictish and Saxon migration from the south, and Viking migration from the east, resulting in language and cultural differences within the Scottish community itself, as John McNamara points out. Mix in the political conflicts with neighboring communities and the religious tension between pre- Christian and Christian traditions, and readers begin to gain an appreciation of just how complex the social dynamics of one geographical region are and how the varieties of folklore, such as legend, ballad, speech, custom, dress, etc., reflect those dynamics.

Reading through these numerous entries confirms the extent to which studying the folklore of the medieval culture is an invaluable means of learning what that world was really like, for it is in the minutia of folkloric detail that the actual lived experience of the medieval world begins to surface. But another benefit of learning the folklore of this intriguing medieval world is that, like our own childhood, it can tell us much about ourselves. For example, the development of the medieval folk tradition of Christmas, as elaborated by Bradford Lee Eden, helps us to understand one of the most significant social rituals of contemporary society. The name for Christmas was first recorded in 1038 as Cristes Maessen, or Christ's Mass, but the assigning of December 25 as the date of Christ's birth goes back as early as "the calendar of Philocalus in 354". (183) Eden goes on to inform us that from "the third to the fourth centuries, December 25 was celebrated as the Birthday of the Sun in imperial Rome" and that prior to this "the feast of Saturnalia, honoring the god Saturn, had been celebrated by ancient pagan cultures on this date". (183) The appropriation of pagan holidays was an effective strategy for the early Christian church during the Middle Ages, but the inevitable syncretism of pagan and Christian folklore produced some interesting results. The inversion festivals that typified the Saturnalia were reproduced in the various medieval feast days that became associated with the twelve days of Christmas (the twelve days between Christ's birth on December 25 and John the Baptist's Saint's Day on January 6). "In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries four feasts of inversion were celebrated during the Twelve Days: the feast of the deacons on St. Stephen's Day, December 26; the feast of the priests on St. John's Day, December 27; the feast of the choirboys, or the feast of the Boy Bishop, on Holy Innocents' Day, December 28; and the feast of the subdeacons, or the Feast of Fools (Ass), ususally held on New Year's Day." (186) Similarly, the inclusion of a pagan Santa Claus into the Christmas celebration, which is a post-medieval development, is modern devolution of the medieval belief in the saint's legend of St. Nicholas and represents a reversion to the pagan beliefs that preceded Christianity. Apparently, the schism and tension between varieties of spirituality that so characterized medieval society is still with us today.

Another fascinating entry is that on the Jewish tradition of Purim by Elliott Horowitz. He points out how during the medieval period, the celebration of Purim was linked to the reversal of the fortunes of the Jews and that it was characterized by an Anti-Christian animus. The logic for this according to Horowitz is that Haman was described in Esther as an "Agagite," a descendant of the archenemy Amalek who had first attacked the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt, and who was a grandson of Esau, "whom medieval Jews saw as a symbol of Christianity". (812) Accordingly, "the holiday of Purim provided ample opportunity for Jews to express, directly or indirectly, their hostility toward Christianity and their religion--whose founder, moreover, had met his death in a manner strikingly similar to Haman's," (812) For example, according to Horowitz's research into the Latin chronicler Rigord, in one French town in the twelfth century, prominent Jews persuaded the magistrate to allow them on Purim to hang a Christian who had murdered a Jew, which they did while reenacting certain aspects of Christ's Passion. Some eighty Jews were subsequently burned by the King for this, and Horowitz concludes that the Jewish community would not have undertaken such a daring act which resulted in such disastrous consequences, without "the carnivalesque atmosphere of Purim and without the sense on the part of the perpetrators that such brazen behavior was appropriate to their annual festival of reversal". (813) Horowitz provides an useful reference to Frazer's interesting theory that "Jesus had been killed by former coreligionists as part of their violently carnivalesque Purim celebrations" and notes the apparent confirmation of the use of Purim as an occasion for expressing ethnic and religious animosity as reflected in the establishing of the "Purim law" of 408, which prohibited Jews from "setting fire to Haman and from burning with sacrilegious intent a form made to resemble the holy cross". (812)

In this regard, medieval Purim tradition may be seen as a microcosm of the folklore of the medieval period as a whole. These medieval attitudes toward the festival of Purim may be seen as an example of how folklore is used to affirm the identity and beliefs of a specific group and to express the tension that exists between that group and its neighboring groups. It is a fascinating example of folklore's relationship to ethnic conflict and is one of the many valuable lessons for folklorists offered by this encyclopedia. The use of expressive culture to construct social identity and negotiate cultural conflicts is at the heart folklore study, and this two-volume collection of Medieval Folklore is an essential reference tool for all students of folklore, literature, and history. It teaches its readers about the way our species uses traditional narratives, beliefs, and customs to account for its existence and shape its manner of living. From this volume we learn that we not only use folklore in the same way our medieval ancestors did, but to a large extent, we are still using many of the same traditions, reinventing them each generation to suit our own purposes and needs. This encyclopedia allows us to examine our living past, not as dead words and pictures in a museum, but as a vital record of the human imagination that continues to inspire and influence us today.