Since October 2020 I have been studying part-time for a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London with the working title ‘The Folklore of Death and Dying in Nineteenth-Century England’.
What can folklore tell us about rural working-class death culture in nineteenth-century England? The rituals and traditions enacted on the deathbed and at funerals were passed down from generation to generation, providing ways for the family to offer comfort, reaffirm social ties and relieve anxieties. Through analysis of the folklore record my project will show how traditions recorded by folklorists can recuperate lost histories of a persistently marginalised sector of British society: the rural working class. Examining the cultural context of folklore collection at its genesis will cast new light on rural-urban tensions, while showing how folklore collection aided the emergence of idyllic pastoral fantasies as a response to modernity. I will examine the emotional and social function of death-related folklore and build a picture of hitherto obscured rural working-class death culture.
This painting is emblematic of my research. It shows a widow and her young son heading to the family beehives in order to inform them of her husband’s death. The tradition of ‘telling the bees’ was still practised in some rural locations in England in the nineteenth century and it was believed that if the bees were not informed respectfully of any important family news (especially births or deaths) then they would desert the hives. In some locations they would also wrap the hives in black crape and bring them tiny versions of the funeral feast to ensure the bees were not offended.
I have long held an interest in folklore and below are some of the blog posts I have written about folklore in the past. I hope to share some more blog posts based on my research as I move forward with the project.