Folktales: a secret history

Words: George Evans

To find the voices of working-class people from recent history, you only have to read a letter, or the results of a public opinion poll, or a diary chapter found in a friend’s grandma’s chest of drawers. But as you go further back in time, the availability of sources produced by ‘common people’ – those outside the spheres of influence and wealth – dwindle. 

Literacy was low among the working class in Europe until the 1700s. Birth certificates and censuses provide evidence of the mundane facts of people’s lives, but as a history student, I don’t want to know the birthday of a 16th-century labourer. I want to know what he thought.

When a friend lent me a copy of Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre, a strange and brilliant collection of essays, my eyes were opened to the possibility of using folklore and mythology to shed light on the mindsets of European ‘common’ people. Folktales are passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, changing and adapting as people embellish their favourite bits or leave stuff out. Folktales obviously aren’t factual representations of the events of the past – but the morals and anxieties they contain allow a modern reader to gain an insight into the views of the people who told them.

Darnton’s argument for the usefulness of folklore springs from a tale about the slaughter of a number of cats in Enlightenment-era France. The story is grounded in real events: a group of young men killed the cats in order to make a statement against their mistreatment at the hands of their wealthy employers.  

Darnton frames this as a clash between proletariat and bourgeoisie, evidence of the rising social tensions across Europe at the time. Killing cats is an odd choice for a statement against nascent capitalist practice, but the popularity of this story in the lower strata of French society provides a picture of those telling it: desperate for better treatment, desperate to have their voices heard, and fascinated by those willing to engage in subversive violence.

Another tale that stands out as a historical source is that of ‘Long Meg of Westminster’. Meg rose to prominence in the imagination of Renaissance England after masquerading as a male soldier and fighting, fiercely and victoriously, for her country. She inspired numerous plays and biographies.

Historians typically claim that gender roles were reasonably strict at this point in history, particularly in regard to women entering battle (men in dresses could be seen on the stage of any theatre). But maybe the urge towards gender nonconformity was more widespread than elite sources, framed by the hierarchies of Christian morality, would have us believe. Meg’s tale can be viewed as a glimpse into historical understandings of gender among the common people, which differ from the established narrative of cis-heteronormativity – although the tale does end with Meg settling down into a submissive married life. 

Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of the bandit as the ultimate embodiment of disobedience from the established order provides another snapshot. For most British people, the first person that springs to mind with the word ‘bandit’ is Robin Hood, the Prince of Thieves of medieval England. Like Meg of Westminster, recent research has brought to light some information about Hood’s actual life, but the popularity of tales about his thieving from the rich to provide for the poor represent more than a fascination with an individual. 

The status of Robin Hood implies an awareness in common culture that authority should be challenged and disobeyed when it doesn’t benefit those it leads. Hood’s popularity is an imaginary act of disobedience, a shared reluctance to submit to the wills of the state and its repressive laws. Although his iconic tights-and-hat combination have now become comic, his stories were once a source of empowerment for the disenfranchised. Modern crime films in which fat cats have their money pulled out from under them by mastermind underdogs suggest that these kinds of stories still have a profound popular emotional effect.

Robin Hood is just one example of a character whose tales reveal more about the teller than the subject. Folktales can tell us a lot about the time in which they originate and grow: what people liked, what they disliked, what they feared, what they admired – above all, what they wanted to change about their worlds. Like now, storytelling then was an act of escapism. In a society in which reading and writing was the reserve of the upper classes, traditional source materials inevitably lean towards the interests of the elite. Historians must be prepared to engage with the fantastical in order to hear those who, for so long, have been denied a voice.

learn more

  • BOOK: The Great Cat Massacre – Robert Darnton
  • BOOK: Imagining Robin Hood: The Late-Medieval Stories in Historical Context – A.J. Pollard
  • BOOK: The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales – Jack Zipes (ed.)

George Evans is a first year history student at Durham University. He has particular interests in religious history and the histories of the disenfranchised.