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Chapter 5 - Folk Belief

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 July 2014

Sarah Tarlow
Affiliation:
University of Leicester
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Summary

Distinct traditions developed in thinking and writing about the dead body in the early modern period. Theologians argued over the exact nature of bodily resurrection and the fate of souls of the unbaptised. Scientists and doctors were increasingly able to localise disease and ascribe medical causes to the failure of the body. Appropriate ways of distinguishing the bodies of criminals or nobles from the common herd or of marking the difference between men and women were discussed. Beloved bodies were wept over. Alongside all these kinds of belief-discourse, however, ran another discourse of belief about the body. Popular, often unwritten, sometimes incoherent folk belief or superstition not only constituted the basis of medical practice for many people of the British Isles, it also affected both scientific and religious practice throughout the period and into the modern age. In fact, scientific and theological discourses were often attempts at post hoc rationalisation of phenomena that were part of folk knowledge (such as the capacity of the touch of a hanged man's hand to cure cancers of the neck, or the definition of the numinous sith as an order between men and angels) rather than explanations of empirically witnessed observations.

The study of folklore is often overlooked by scholars interested in understanding the past in Britain, especially in England, despite the success of Keith Thomas's lengthy examinations of folk belief in early modern England (Thomas 1971, 1983), and more recently Ronald Hutton's wide-ranging social histories which have integrated folkloric evidence with other more orthodox sources of historical information (e.g. Hutton 1994, 1996). In contrast to many other European countries, there are few departments of English folkloric studies. Scottish and Welsh folklore are better established, and in Ireland folkloric studies have a rich and respectable pedigree and are still regarded as important to national identity and heritage. In England, however, folklore is still widely regarded as the province of local tourist guides, ghost walks and uncritical amateurs.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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  • Folk Belief
  • Sarah Tarlow, University of Leicester
  • Book: Ritual, Belief and the Dead in Early Modern Britain and Ireland
  • Online publication: 05 July 2014
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511778629.006
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  • Folk Belief
  • Sarah Tarlow, University of Leicester
  • Book: Ritual, Belief and the Dead in Early Modern Britain and Ireland
  • Online publication: 05 July 2014
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511778629.006
Available formats
×

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Folk Belief
  • Sarah Tarlow, University of Leicester
  • Book: Ritual, Belief and the Dead in Early Modern Britain and Ireland
  • Online publication: 05 July 2014
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511778629.006
Available formats
×