Review: This Hollow Land: Aspects of Norfolk Folklore by Peter Tolhurst

Peter Tolhurst, This Hollow Land: Aspects of Norfolk Folklore (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2018), £20. ISBN 978-0-9954792-5-8. 286pp. Illus.

Readers of this blog will know that I faithfully review almost everything published on the subject of East Anglian folklore, and I have very much looked forward to reviewing this book in particular because it is so important. Peter Tolhurst’s This Hollow Land is, without doubt, the most complete survey of Norfolk’s folklore ever attempted. As Tolhurst observes, Norfolk never received the detailed attentions of an Enid Porter or a George Ewart Evans, although much folklore collecting took place in the county in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Much like my 2017 book Peterborough Folklore, therefore, Tolhurst’s completes and brings to light the work of earlier folklorists as well as contributing his own insights. The scale and scope of Tolhurst’s achievement is impressive indeed, and the book covers the folklore of water sources, folklore of erratic stones, folklore of plants and trees, treasure-hunting, folklore of churches, folk heroes, the evil eye, counter-magic, ghosts, rites of passage, calendar customs, traditional song and dance and folk tales. I was especially delighted to see that Tolhurst begins with a comprehensive review (pp. 1-10) of all existing literature on the folklore of Norfolk from the seventeenth century to the present day – an immensely valuable addition, since it makes clear the state of the field and the stature of Tolhurst’s contribution to it.

It is obvious that The Hollow Land was a book many years in the making, and that Tolhurst’s intimate knowledge of Norfolk’s landscape and people have contributed to the quality of the finished work. I especially enjoyed Tolhurst’s accounts of the popular cults of Norfolk’s saints, such as Withburga and Walstan, which evoke a lost world of complex pre-Reformation devotion in an intensely agrarian society. Tolhurst’s book conveys the sheer depth of popular tradition in Norfolk, a vast county that it is easy to get lost in, and where it is hard to shake off the suspicion that forgotten ways (some of them perhaps best forgotten…) still lurk in remote hamlets and isolated cottages. All of the best books about folklore do this, recognising the ultimately unfinished (and unfinishable) task of the folklorist in cataloguing all the lore of a place, and hinting at the unfathomable depths of memory and tradition even within one English locality.

Having said this, however, there are times when Tolhurst strays a little too far into speculation, especially in his account of pre-Christian religion and his attempts to link this with contemporary practices. For example, his suggestion that the cult of St Walstan contains elements of ‘a pagan fertility cult, remnants of which still survived among the rural poor’ (p. 28) evokes the outdated idea that paganism persisted among the lower classes in the Middle Ages. While Tolhurst is admirably circumspect in his discussion of the Green Man (pp. 54-7), recognising him as a confected figure of the twentieth-century imagination, the temptation to speculate about pre-Christian origins is sometimes too much for the author to resist. This is a shame, because the popular Christianity of medieval England is quite fascinating enough in its own right without the need to portray it as a pagan survival. As Ronald Hutton has observed, the similarities between popular medieval Christianity and paganism owe more to the fact that hierarchical, agrarian societies have much the same spiritual needs in any time or place.

Fairies are conspicuous by their almost complete absence from Norfolk folklore, at least in this book, with Tolhurst observing that ‘fairies seldom appear in Norfolk folklore’ (p. 268). Little more than a page is devoted to the hyter sprites, and it is surprising that Ray Loveday’s short book on hyter sprites (which I reviewed here a few weeks ago) is missing from the bibliography. Tolhurst includes an account of the folk tale ‘The Ploughman and the Fairies’, but fairies are missing from the index and Tolhurst makes no attempt to investigate fairy-related place-names or enquire into why fairylore is apparently so sparse in the county, and whether it might still be lurking under barely concealed alternative forms. However, these are observations that arise from my own particular preoccupation with East Anglian fairylore and do not detract in any way from the overall value of the book.

This Hollow Land contains a vast number of black and white illustrations, including many that I have not seen before, and is a handsomely produced tome with a striking black cover. I was delighted to see that the book has a thorough index as well as a bibliography. The book’s major shortcoming from an academic point of view is the scarcity of footnotes; Tolhurst mainly footnotes only direct quotations. This is unfortunate, because more extensive referencing would make it possible for future researchers to see at a glance what sources Tolhurst had explored and how he had used them. Nevertheless, compared to some books on local folklore, the critical apparatus of This Hollow Land is good. As the most complete survey of Norfolk folklore, the volume should find a place in the library of every English folklorist, and Peter Tolhurst should be congratulated on a magnificent achievement.

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