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The Two First “Folk-Lore” Columns

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athenaeum 001sm
The Athenæum was one of the most prominent English journals of the mid-nineteenth century. This is the title page for 1846, the year in which William John Thoms coined the word “Folk-Lore.”

This post presents two primary source documents, both in the public domain, which are difficult to find online. Both relate to my previous post on William John Thoms. They are the first two columns in Thoms’ series “Folk-Lore,” which ran in the journal The Athenæum from 1846 to 1849, and in Notes & Queries from 1850 until after Thoms’s retirement in 1872.  Thoms wrote these first columns under the pseudonym Ambrose Merton.  In the first column, which takes the form of a letter to the editor written on August 12, 1846, and which ran in the August 22 issue, Thoms coined the word “Folk-Lore.”


August 12.

Your pages have so often given evidence of the interest which you take in what we in England designate as Popular Antiquities, or Popular Literature (though by-the-bye it is more a Lore than a Literature, and would be most aptly described by a good Saxon compound, Folk-Lore,–the Lore of the People )–that I am not without hopes of enlisting your aid in garnering the few ears which are remaining, scattered over that field from which our forefathers might have gathered a goodly crop.

No one who has made, the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, &c., of the olden time his study, but must have arrived at two conclusions: –the first, how much that is curious and interesting in these matters is now entirely lost–the second, how much may yet be rescued by timely exertion. What Hone endeavoured to do in his ‘Every-Day Book,’ &c., the Athenæum, by its wider circulation, may accomplish ten times more effectually–gather together the infinite number of minute facts, illustrative of the subject I have mentioned, which are scattered over the memories of its thousands of readers, and preserve them in its pages, until some James Grimm shall arise who shall do for the Mythology of the British Islands the good service which that profound antiquary and philologist has accomplished for the Mythology of Germany. The present century has scarcely produced a more remarkable book, imperfect as its learned author confesses it to be, than the second edition of the ‘Deutsche Mythologie:’ and, what is it? –a mass of minute facts, many of which, when separately considered, appear trifling and insignificant,-but, when taken in connexion with the system into which his master-mind has woven them, assume a value that he who first recorded them never dreamed of attributing to them.

How many such facts would one word from you evoke, from the north and from the south-from John o’ Groat’s to the Land’s End! How many readers would be glad to show their gratitude for the novelties which you, from week to week, communicate to them, by forwarding to you some record of old Time–some recollection of a now neglected custom some fading legend, local tradition, or fragmentary ballad!

Folk-Lore first Thoms column
View the first column as a jpg image here.


Nor would such communications be of service to the English antiquary alone. The connexion between the FOLK-LORE of England (remember I claim the honour of introducing the epithet Folk-Lore, as Disraeli does of introducing Father-Land, into the literature of this country) and that of Germany is so intimate that such communications will probably serve to enrich some future edition of Grimm’s Mythology.

Let me give you an instance of this connexion. In one of the chapters of Grimm, he treats very fully of the parts which the Cuckoo plays in Popular Mythology–of the prophetic character with which it has been inves~ed by the voice of the people; and gives many instances of the practice of deriving predictions from the number of times which its song is heard. He also records a popular notion, “that the Cuckoo never sings till he has thrice eaten his fill of cherries.” Now, I have lately been informed of a custom which formerly obtained among children in Yorkshire, tliat illustrates the fact of a connexion between the Cuckoo and the Cherry, –and that., too, in their prophetic attributes. A friend has communicated to me that children in Yorkshire were formerly (and may be still) accustomed to sing round a cherry-tree the following invocation :-

Cuckoo, Cherry-tree,
Come down and tell me
How many years I have to live.


Each child then shook the tree, –and the number of cherries which fell betokened the years of its future life. The Nursery Rhyme which I have quoted, is, I am aware, well known. But the manner in which it was applied is not recorded by Hone, Brande, or Ellis : –and is one of those facts, which, trifling in themselves, become of importance when they form links in a great chain-one of those facts which a word from the Athenæum would gather in abundance for the use of future inquirers into that interesting branch of literary antiquities,–our Folk-Lore.


P.S. –It is only honest that I should tell you I have long been contemplating a work upon our ‘Folk-Lore’ (under that title, mind Messrs. A, B, and C, so do not try to forestall me); –and I am personally interested in the success of the experiment which I have, in this letter, albeit imperfectly, urged you to undertake.


Thoms’s second “Folk-Lore” column is dated “Bartholomew Tide.” This is an obscure holiday falling on August 24.  Dating the letter this way was  surely an intentional, slightly humorous demonstration of the use of folklore.  It ran in the August 29, 1876, issue of the Athenaeum, and consists of two parts: an expansion of his call for contributions from the first column, and a section on “Old Scratch,” a nickname for the Devil.



Bartholomew Tide

Folk-Lore second Thoms Column
View the second column as a jpeg image here

I do not know that I can better show my gratitude for the insertion in last Saturday’s Athenæum of my letter inviting you to receive, and your country readers to furnish, communications on the subject of our ‘Folk-Lore,’ than by indicating to “intending” correspondents some points connected with our Popular Mythology and Observances, respecting which new facts and existing traditions might prove of considerable value.

I would observe, in the first place, that, as the Fairy Mythology of England, as preserved to us in the writings of Shakspeare (its best and most beautiful expositor), exhibits a striking intermixture of Celtic and Teutonic elements, all local traditions respecting that mystic race,–whether

Of elves, of hills, brooks, standing lakes, or groves,

will be useful in developing the influence which such elements respectively exercised upon this poetical branch of our Popular Mythology. And as I agree with Mr. Keightley–no mean authority on such a subject–in opinion “that the belief in Fairies is by no means extinct in England, –and that in districts, if there be any such, where steam-engines, cotton mills, mail coaches,* and similar exorcists have not yet penetrated, numerous legends might be collected,” –I am not without hope of seeing many “a roundel and a fairy song” rescued from destruction through the agency of the Athenæum.

Can no Devonshire correspondent furnish new and untold stories of his native Pixies? Are there no records of a fairy pipe manufactory to be gathered at Swinborne in Worcestershire?–In the mining and mountainous districts of Derbyshire are all “such antique fables and such fairy toys” entirely extinct?–If so, is not the neighbourhood of Haddon, or of Hardwicke, or of both, still visited by the coach drawn by headless steeds, driven by a coachman as headless as themselves? –Does not such an equipage still haunt the mansion of Parsloes, in Essex ?–and could not some correspondent from that county furnish you with stories of the inhabitants of Coggeshall, to prove them very rivals of the Wise Men of Gotham ? –Is the Barguest no longer seen in Yorkshire? –Is “howdening” altogether obsolete in Kent-and, if so, when was this last trace of a heathen rite performed? –Are the legends of Tregeagle no longer current in Cornwall? –These are all subjects not undeserving attention: and it should be remembered that legends, and traditions which are considered trifling, in the localities to which they more immediately relate, assume an interest in the eyes of strangers to whom they are not familiar–and an importance when placed in apposition with cognate materials, by the light which they both receive and furnish from such juxtaposition.

There is another matter, too, on which local information is much to be desired while it is still attainable. I mean the “Feasts” which are still annually celebrated in the more remote parts of the country; many of which are, doubtless, of very considerable antiquity–even as old as the days of Heathenism. This is a branch of our Popular Antiquities which–to use a happy phrase of Horace Walpole’s–has not yet been “tapped” in England; one which can now be thoroughly and properly investigated only by ascertaining, in each case, the following particulars, among others: –the day on which the Feast is held; the peculiar observances by which it is accompanied, and–which will serve, in some measure, to illustrate the history of the climate in this country, and (strange combination!) the progress of social improvement–the peculiar dishes which are usually introduced on such festivals.

I ought to apologize for thus occupying so much of your space: but, as you have kindly consented, at my request, to open your pages to contributions on the subject of our ‘Folk-Lore,’ I thought it might be of advantage to point out to correspondents some matters respecting which communications would be both valuable and acceptable.

                                                                                                        AMBROSE MERTON

* This was written, by Mr. Keightley, in 1828; but now, what Chaucer said of the “elves” may almost be applied to the mails–“But now can no man see non mails mo.”


The Epithet Old Scratch.’

OF that huge mass of imperfectly digested materials which may be said to constitute the text book of the students of our English ‘Folk-Lore,’ Brand’s ‘Popular Antiquities,’ there is no chapter more imperfect, and consequently more unsatisfactory, than that entitled ‘Popular Notions concerning the Apparition of the Devil.’ In this chapter, –after some allusion to the names “Old Nick,” “Old Harry,” “Old Scratch,” and “The Old One,”–Brand observes: –“The epithet ‘old’ to so many of his titles seems to favour the common opinion, that the Devil can only appear in the shape of an old man.” –It may, however, be doubted whether the epithet “old” has not, in this case, been derived from the Early Latin Fathers; who frequently use the expression, “Antiquus hostis,” when speaking of the Enemy of mankind. In this way, the Anglo-Saxon, Caedmon, speaks of “se ealda deofol,” –“se ealda,” “the Old Devil,” “the Old One” and in North Friesland, the same epithet, “de ual duivel,” still obtains. Gammel Erik (Old Erik) is a title bestowed upon the Devil by the Danes; and in this Old Erik we have, probably, the origin of our “Old Harry.” In the old Norse, “Kolski”–which signifies both “senex” and “diabolus”–is the epithet by which the “foul fiend” is usually designated.

Again, –though the epithet “Scratch” is, by modern usage, exclusively applied to his Satanic Majesty, such was not its original application. In the old High German monuments, mention is made of a small elfish sprite, Scrat, or Scrato,by Latin writers translated Pilosus; as Waltschrate, or Wood Scrat, is Satyrus. In the ‘Vocabularius’ of 1482 we find Schretlin (penates), Nacht-schrettele (Ephialtes). The Anglo-Saxon Schritta (Hermaphroditus), and the Old Norse Skratti (mains genius, gigas), are also clearly allied to this elfish Being.

Grimm describes the Schrat as resembling in its nature the Latin Faun, and the Greek Satyr, –the ‘Sylvanus’ of Livy; and the Schratlein as being a domestic spirit more resembling the German Wichtel and Alp. The Schrat is never represented as a female; and differs from the Elf as appearing only singly–not in hosts.

The reader of the third volume of the ‘Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland’–which contains a translation of the Brothers Grimm’s ‘Essay on the Irish Legends’–will, doubtless, remember the very curious old German poem there translated, in which the nature of the Schretel or Schrat is fully described. The manner in which the sprite encounters a huge white bear, by whom it is worsted in the contest, in consequence of which the house is freed from its fotrusion, –is told with considerable humour; and will give the reader a satisfactory notion of the malicious spirit who has been despoiled of his name, for the purpose of enriching the abundant nomenclature in which Old Scratch–as the Devil is now improperly designated–already rejoices.

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