Folklore, History, Place-Names and Dialect
- ISBN: 9781905816903
- Published By: University of Exeter Press
- Published: March 2022
Scholars of European religion may feel at home discussing beliefs about angels and demons, but it seems that many begin to feel uncomfortable when the discussion moves towards pixies, elves, and fairies. Academia has, of course, always been shaped by the assumptions and prejudices of those who dominate its conversations, but there is nothing really rational about assuming that one set of supernatural entities is worthy of our attention, while another set is not. The more theologically oriented among us might argue that angels and demons, in having scriptural and ecclesial sanction, belong properly to the realm of religion, while fairies and their ilk are (in that awful phrase) “mere superstition,” the stuff better delegated to folklorists. This despite Edward Tylor’s famous attempt to define “religion” inclusively as “the belief in spiritual beings” and the fact that many communities across Europe have sincerely believed in a whole host of different supernatural entities, not all of which fit comfortably into a biblically derived worldview.
With this in mind, I would hope that scholars of religion in 19th and 20th century Britain pay attention to Simon Young’s excellent new study, The Boggart: Folklore, History, Place-Names and Dialect. An English historian of folklore based in Italy, Young has established himself over the past decade as one of the foremost authorities on the topic of fairies and related supernatural figures in British popular belief. In this, his first academic monograph, he delves into the boggart, a figure that appeared in the folklore of much of northern England during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but which is still widely misunderstood. Published works on British folklore generally present the boggart as a sort of mischievous household spirit, but as Young demonstrates, to people in Victorian and Edwardian England, the boggart was so much more than this; it could be “any ambivalent or evil solitary supernatural spirit: a ghost, a hob, a shape-changer, a demon, a will o’ the wisp, a Jenny Greenteeth” (7; italics in the original). Pretty much any sort of supernatural being could be a boggart, barring angels (who were too good) and trooping fairies (who lived in groups).
The research that has gone into this study is considerable and multifaceted. Along with drawing on the standard folklore literature from the periods in question, Young has also scoured the newspaper archives for references to boggarts—something now made so much easier by the mass digitization of this material. This documentary evidence is accompanied by an analysis of boggart place-names, giving good insight into the sorts of (often liminal) landscape locations where these entities were thought to dwell. Finally, Young conducted the 2019 Boggart Census, largely via social media, through which he was able to assemble a wealth of reminiscences regarding how the term “boggart” had been used. Many respondents were able to recount their grandparents referring to such creatures, with the census thus capturing lore that is on the precipice of falling out of human memory. Handily, these datasets have all been assembled in a companion volume, The Boggart Sourcebook, which the publisher has made freely available online as a PDF.
Drawing on these varied sources has allowed Young to map out a history of boggart lore—or at least, a history of how boggart lore has declined and transformed. References to boggarts were common in many northern communities in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, but by the 1920s were declining fast. Young’s Boggart Census found many people born into the area he calls “Boggartdom” (xiv) in the 20th century who had never heard of such a creature. Moreover, the fact that influential 20th-century folklorists like Katharine Briggs presented the boggart as a household spirit has resulted in what Young calls the “goblinification” (193) of the boggart in British culture, in which form it has been further propagated through works of fantasy fiction like The Spiderwick Chronicles. One wonders how much this new goblin-boggart has filtered back into oral lore, especially among certain esoteric subcultures, a topic this volume does not tackle in any depth. As Young makes clear, today the boggart is best known as a creature from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, an entity recognized by children (and more than a few adults) internationally; no longer is it simply the sinister boogeyman haunting the isolated lanes, gloomy cloughs, and derelict houses of northern England.
Although Young sometimes has to tackle comparatively dense material, The Boggart is well written, with light touches of humor that make this a compelling and enjoyable read. Given both this and the quality of the research underlying it, the book represents a stellar study of British popular belief that should be seen as an exemplar for future works on similar topics. For those embarking on such studies, there are several important points to take away from this volume. First, as Young notes, his research highlights the value of the digitized newspaper archives for scholars of popular belief, something also demonstrated by other recent studies like Thomas Waters’ Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times (Yale University Press, 2019). Second, Young’s work underlines the fact that some of the notions promoted by folklorists in the 20th century may well be spurious and in serious need of reassessment through careful archival research. As a work that pushes its field of research forward, The Boggart is folklore history at its best, a book that deserves a very wide readership.
Ethan Doyle White is an independent scholar based in England.Ethan Doyle WhiteDate Of Review:November 29, 2022