Folklore & Storytelling: MERL and the Pitt Rivers Museum

Ollie Douglas, our Assistant Curator, gave a gallery talk at the Pitt Rivers Museum recently and naturally homed in on objects relating to rural life. Here’s what he found…

Copyright_PRM_OllieI recently had the enjoyable experience of giving a gallery talk at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, on the subject of folklore and object collecting. This formed part of an ‘after hours’ event themed around folklore and storytelling. I did my best to steer a rather large number of visitors on a somewhat congested tour of some the Museum’s most intriguing items. This began beside a case of lighting equipment close to the entrance where I chose to describe how numerous late-nineteenth century folk collectors spoke of the demise of traditional technologies under the ‘glare’ of electric lighting, using such examples to underline the importance of recording old ways of life. I highlighted a few objects gathered by prominent folklorists and that I think resonate powerfully with MERL’s own holdings. These included an English horn lantern similar to an example held here and of a type used commonly by shepherds because of their soft light and hard-wearing panes.

This is a farmhouse lantern made of sheet iron with horn panels. MERL 51/584

Further on I explored examples of hazel water-divining rods collected in rural Somerset by the prominent nineteenth-century thinker Edward Burnett Tylor (1932-1917). Tylor wrote about cultures from all over the world but often illustrated his arguments with examples taken from closer to home. Indeed, one explanation of his influential idea of ‘survivals’ (i.e. older ways of life seen to linger on in modern society) focussed on similarities between protective symbols seen on silver amulets from Italy and of shapes seen on decorative British horse brasses. Whether or not he was correct about this connection there are certainly many examples where amulets were used in England to protect animals from harm. One fear amongst stockmen was that an enemy might put the ‘evil eye’ on their dairy cattle and thereby turn the milk sour. This was a means of making sense of ailments that were not well understood at this time. Indeed, problems with milk stemmed more likely from mastitis than they did from witchcraft! Nevertheless, the emergence of modern veterinarian practice and greater scientific knowledge didn’t always stop our forebears from attempting to protect their animals in unusual ways. Further examples in the Pitt Rivers Museum (some collected by Tylor himself) show that when an animal died in unexplained circumstances, one common course of action was to cut out its heart, pierce it with nails, and stuff it up the chimney. As the heart blackened in the smoke of the fire, the person who wished harm on your herd would also suffer.


The evening itself offered a brilliant context in which to promote the work of both the Museum of English Rural Life and of The Folklore Society, with which I also have connections. Alongside music, storytelling, and the dulcet tones of my tour, the event showcased the ongoing collecting practices of the inimitable Doc Rowe and a reading from the University of Reading’s own Obby Robinson. Obby read from his most recent collection—”The Witch-House of Canewdon and Other Poems”—which drew inspiration from English folklore practices and featured in a lunchtime recital at MERL in March of last year. This has left me thinking about creativity, storytelling and folk beliefs and of how we might begin to examine traditional forms of animal protection into our new displays. Check up your chimneys – I’m on the lookout for a heart stuck with nails!

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2 thoughts on “Folklore & Storytelling: MERL and the Pitt Rivers Museum”

  1. Hi Ollie, I read your (above) with great interest, and must make a visit one day, and expect some lively discussion, around some much needed Myth-busting!!!

    I must thank you for your Burnett-Tylor photocopies of the reports from the Anthropological Institute and Folkelore Society (1890) that you sent back in 2009 (was it?) which, I believe, enabled me to identify where much of the interpretation and mythologising around horse brasses originated. This will form an interesting chapter in my proposed book on the subject, Horse Brasses; a History of Collecting, for which these notes were crucial evidence, and I had previously thought that it was Lina Eckenstein was the originator of most of the dafter theories!

    At the time of writing, the earliest, provable, named face piece from cart harness dates to no earlier that 1856, before which, only a few simple studs were used on harness from c.1790’s onward, which, after much trawling through art collections, I can now corroborated with the high and low, equine art of the period.

    I also believe that Tylor and Elworthy were mainly responsible for these notions of the “Evil Eye” for which I have also found scant evidence of its belief at home. As you know, these keen amateurs travelled widely when the “Grand Tour” was extended to the burgeoning middle classes in the later 19th.c, and having seen similar amulets in North Africa, Sicily, and Southern Italy so used, I have come to believe that they simply assumed such a usage or “survivals” on the crescent brasses etc that they observed on the cart-horses seen in Somerset and East Anglia for instance!

    I hope it gets published, as you would enjoy it more so probably than most horse brass afficionados!!! I will certainly send you a gratis copy for your valuable input!!

    1. Dear Dick,

      I remember sending you the materials in question and I’m glad to hear my thoughts and comments were helpful in some way.

      The fact that Tylor acquired the brasses he collected from his own family stables suggests that he had perhaps obtained some of the vernacular beliefs he and others espoused from the ‘horse’s mouth’, so to speak (pun absolutely intended!). However, he and his contemporaries were not known for their sympathetic and in-depth participant observation, so much as their interrogations of the peasantry, so any suggestion of careful recording of superstitious beliefs in this context may well be pure speculation.

      Indeed, I suspect that it is far more likely that the symbols utilised on horse brasses had far more to do with the designs and styles popular in the casting of friendly society poleheads or in decorative forms than they had to do with apotropaic powers. As I may or may not have mentioned, Tylor was the son of a brass foundry owner so presumably he was privy to at least some of the process involved in developing and designing objects like these. It strikes me as unlikely that designs from brasses were stemming from the dwindling numbers of cunning men or other practitioners of folk magic at the time.

      I look forward to the book and to seeing what your research on horse brasses has top reveal. We’ll definitely need a copy for the library here at the Museum. I suspect your work offers a far more nuanced and complex set of histories than we generally credit to brasses.

      Many thanks and best wishes,

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