The Persistence of Folk Memory

How long can a folk memory persist? If a story is passed down orally from generation to generation, for how long can it retain a meaningful echo of something that actually happened?

Take, for example, the story of the folk song The Cutty Wren being sung during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. There appears to be no written record of any such thing, so is it possible that there could have been a genuine oral tradition linking the song with the Peasant’s Revolt? On first thought this seems unlikely. It would seem more plausible that it was a pure speculation on the part of A.L Lloyd, who first suggested it, or speculation on the part of an informant of his. Additionally, I suppose, there could have been an oral tradition of of a few generation that was actually transmitting the speculation of  a past antiquarian – Victorian vicars are often found to be the source of local ‘legends’.

On the other hand we have the stories surrounding the Mold Gold cape. This extraordinary find, now in the British Museum was featured in Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects.

mold gold cape

The Mold Gold Cape

David Monniaux CC Attribution- Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

It was dug up in 1833 by workmen sent to quarry stone from a large mound, near Mold in North Wales. They found a stone lined grave, the remains of a skeleton, hundreds of amber beads and the gold cape. The workmen tore the cape apart and shared out the gold. Eventually, however most of the pieces were tracked down and the cape was finally, painstakingly reassembled in the 1960’s.

It is a unique and fascinating object but its interest for me, today, lies in the legends that surround the field where it was discovered. This was known as Bryn-yr-Ellyllon which is Welsh for the Hill of the Fairies or the Goblins. There were said to be local stories of a ghostly apparition of a golden boy appearing in the field and travellers were urged to avoid it at night.

The Cape is dated to the British Bronze Age, 1900 -1600 B.C.E. So do these local legends reflect a genuine folk memory of something that went into the ground there, more than 3000 years before the legends were recorded? The sceptic in me says perhaps not. Many mounds in the British Isles, both natural and man-made, are claimed as fairy mounds. The rest of the story could have been almost immediately back-formed on the discovery of the treasure. This is something people do, often almost without being aware of it.  Their listeners too, will nod along. agreeing that that is how they remember the story.

And yet, the story mentions a golden boy. It probably wouldn’t have been apparent to its finders but the cape. which must have been slipped over the head and sat on the shoulders is quite small. It could have fitted a teenage boy, or perhaps a woman, certainly not a full grown man.

If only we still had the bones that were found with it …..

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