April 12, 2016

Before Oral History: the Folklorists

Writing about web page https://williamgpooley.wordpress.com/

Talinote Lacave was not quite old enough to personally remember the final stages of the Napoleonic Wars. Born in 1814, she would still have been a toddler when Napoleon was definitively banished. But almost ninety years later, she had an inherited memory about the final years of the fighting. In a mixture of Gascon and French, she told the folklorist Félix Arnaudin:

 The Portuguese came through first: they were bad types.

Our lot, the French, they came next, and I can tell you, they weren’t much better, they were bad types. They said [in French]: ‘Look at you, happy in your little cottages, while we, we have to go off and be killed for you lot…’ (She said it in French [the folklorist noted])

The English came last. Now they were a brave bunch.1

What is this account, if not an early example of oral history?

The relatively little-known man at the centre of my PhD research and future book is the man who collected Talinote’s story: Félix Arnaudin. Félix’s true passions were the Gascon language that Talinote spoke, and the local singing tradition which he obsessively documented over a forty year period, from around 1873-1914. But his interest in folk tales, legends, proverbs and songs turned Félix – just as it turned many other folklorists – into an oral historian in all but name.

When he asked about local supernatural events, his informants frequently replied with stories about their parents or neighbours, or about other notable events in the area. Sometimes they even left the supernatural details Félix was asking about out altogether.

And sometimes these ‘supernatural’ legends turned out to be something strikingly similar to straightforward oral histories.

One example that is central to my book project is a story about inequality in local agriculture, and the failure of justice. The story – which Félix heard from several local people, including one of his ‘star’ narrators, Mariane de Mariolan (1822-1916) – told how an unfortunate goatherd was caught grazing his sheep in a local noble’s new pine plantation. Scared for his life, the goatherd fled, with the noble hot on his heels. Finally, out of desperation, the goatherd turned and shot his pursuer, killing him.

When Félix investigated this legend of the murder of a local aristocrat, he found out that the story was actually true, and wrote an article about what Mariane’s legend added to understandings of the case, given that little written evidence about the crime survived.2

Why does it matter if the folklorists are close to what we might call oral historians?

Let me suggest two reasons:

First, as Guy Beiner’s magnificent work on the failed 1798 invasion of Ireland by the French demonstrates, historians are missing out on a huge body of material by overlooking the proto-oral history sources in folklore collections. Beiner’s book revealed not simply new information about the events of 1798 from these folklore sources, but actively proposed new interpretations about popular participation in the invasion, and the role of women.

The second point is more challenging.

As someone who goes to folklore conferences (and would strongly recommend them) I have heard discussions about oral history’s amnesia about its own origins. The historiographical account which makes oral history only a product of twentieth-century movements risks artificially severing it from a series of traditions (including anthropology, ego writing, and early sociology, to mention a few others).

And in the case of folklore, what particularly gets lost is a whole set of tools that the folklorists developed: ideas about ‘tradition’, ‘genre’, ‘orality’, and ‘community’. These are specific ways to understand oral cultures, which come with benefits, and of course with problems: each of those tools could be a blog post in themselves.

But I think it is worth thinking about what oral historians stand to learn from the history of the folklorists, and the other way around.


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  1. Alexander Freund

    Thank you for this informative and useful blog. I agree that historians have much to gain from looking at folklorists’ studies as primary sources for their own studies and from learning more about some of the tools folklorists have developed to understand oral sources. You also make a claim that I am not sure has actually been proven: that oral history developed from folklore studies (and other disciplines). I believe that at the present moment we do not have an intellectual history of oral history that could demonstrate such a connection.

    For example, the anthropologist Franz Boas, who was an earlier advocate for the use of wax cylinder phonographs for ethnographic fieldwork, spent the last part of his career (until 1937) at Columbia University in New York. There seems to be no evidence that Allan Nevins, who joined Columbia University in 1929, was inspired by Boas in his own adoption of the wire recorder. Yet, only more detailed research would assert this claim. Similarly, the Chicago School of Sociology developed life narrative research after the First World War, but whether and how this influenced later oral historians is unclear.

    So, I agree that before oral history was “invented” in 1948 at Columbia (and elsewhere are different points in time), many other scholars in a wide range of fields had used a variety of means to record people’s memories, experiences, stories, and oral culture; nevertheless, I would argue that so far we have no evidence to suggest that there were any immediate or real connections between these earlier researchers and later oral historians. I would suggest that such an intellectual history of oral history and the larger notion of collecting people’s memories and stories would be quite fruitful.

    22 Apr 2016, 04:15


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