“Students who recognize that their own beliefs are called into play as they assess the importance and meaning of a legend will also recognize the role belief plays in the discipline of history.”

– Sandra K. Dolby


Living history sites could not produce programs that were both educational, and entertaining, without the use of folklore. By utilizing this discipline, historians can find new ways to engage with their audience.

Folklore can be a jumping off point for conversations on the beliefs and values of past societies.

Folklore can be described in a number of different ways. Legends make up a part of the definition. Historical interpreters use these myths to create dialogues with visitors to living history sites. They do not present them in a way that implies that they are accurate portrayals of the past, but as tools to understand the way life once was. Studying legends offers a window into the beliefs of past communities. George Washington may not have actually chopped down that cherry tree, but the fact that this story maintains its presence in the American lexicon can illuminate the values and attitudes of the culture. Scrutinizing these stories also holds a mirror up to the audience’s own beliefs and the role those attitudes play in assessing the meanings of legends, as well as overall place of belief in the examination of history.[1]

Another way to view folklore is as the traditions and customs that form a portion of the identity of every individual and their larger community. In this sense, folklore is part of every aspect of a living history site. The purpose of these sites is to create a sense of the time period being portrayed. To connect with how past individuals lived their lives, the visitor needs some understanding of the activities they engaged in. When visitors are able to relate to cultures of the past, “they learn that all of us contribute to creating culture and weaving a complex meaning for our lives.”[2]

"The Spirit Bottle," Button Farm

If historians were to use only folklore to create a narrative, the resulting product will be an inaccurate portrayal of the past, either too immersed in myth or an overly individualized account losing sight of the larger picture. However, when balanced with good historical research, folklore can augment the telling of past stories, making them more relatable to the public. For it is when the public is able to relate and engage with living history sites that they are able to further their historical education.

[1] Sandra K. Dolby, “Legends, High School History Classes, and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore 31 (2005): 17.

[2] Paddy B. Bowman, “Standing at the Crossroads of Folklore and Education,” Journal of American Folklore 119 (2006): 67.

Published on December 1, 2010 at 8:15 pm  Comments Off on Folklore  
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