Storytelling Between Masters & Servants

Brer Rabbit and the tar baby

Brer Rabbit and the tar baby

Last night the raptor and I went to a lecture on the dynamic of storytelling between masters and servants, with a particular focus on 18th-19th Century folk tales in Europe. The lecturer, Dr. David Hopkin, made a few points that were a bit… ambitious in terms of conclusions versus evidence, but the general gist was really interesting.

  • Stories were ways for servants to speak to their masters with some immunity, saying what they view as good or bad behaviour in a master or what they might like to do if they were free to act (such as smash plates), and so on. There’s a common theme in servant’s stories of a vampiric master – those who suck blood or even, in one example, toes. Mmm, tasty.
  • There were two levels of stories – those told by servants to servants (a ‘private transcript of resistance’), and those told by servants to masters (a coded transcript of resistance). Non-European examples of the latter include Brer Rabbit, Anansi, etc.
  • Use of specific words and patois within the telling of those stories both indicated the the storyteller’s origins and drew the audience to their own level. It was common for characters in the stories to be members of the teller’s friends and family. In this way, the servant used stories to build a relationship with their master, making them buy into the local community.
  • Folk tales are one of very few examples where the servant’s voice can be heard, and particularly that of women. In this period, 75-100% of those in service were women and this was really the only way their voices were recorded. The collections that we have are not purely the voice of their original sources, though. The upper class writer/publisher had to keep their own associations in mind – they couldn’t, for example, risk printing anti-clerical sentiments.
  • Post the French Revolution, increasingly draconian instruction manuals were written on how to manage servants. They exhorted masters not to let their servants talk, especially to the children in case the low-class language was passed on. The instruction manuals, which included lines like ‘any reluctance to execute an order without hesitation is ridiculous, any resistance is culpable’ (Jacques-Charles Bailleul, charming fellow), resulted in an emerging culture of deference. Servants began to take on the fashions, language and politics of their employers, distancing themselves from their own origins in order to ‘better’ themselves.
  • As storytellers, servants were often representative of Christian morality – witnesses to the secret and wicked knowledge or morals of the upper class. Stories were a way of passing judgement on their masters without appearing insubordinate. The masters didn’t appear to object. It became quite fashionable in the 19th Century to collect folk stories, and all the most prominent collectors are linked with a family servant (usually a nurse or maid) who served as their original source. In fact it’s now believed that some exaggerated the influence of this nurse figure in order to give their folk tale collections more authentic credibility. This shows the strength of the ‘Mother Goose’ archetype.
  • In the late 19th Century a campaign was started to ‘root the old woman out of our minds’ (from a book called The Rational Dame, Or Hints Towards Supplying Prattle For Children, which is a frankly awesome title). Masters were once again exhorted to prevent servants from speaking to their children, in particular to stop the telling of scary or supernatural stories lest the servants turn children into cowards. The fact that this warning was apparently required in every single servant behaviour manual suggests that it wasn’t being followed.
  • And finally, it turns out folk tale collectors have very tidy minds. They have their own version of the Dewey System, called the Aarne Thompson Uther (ATU) system, which categorises folk and fairy tales according to their common elements. It’s an impressive list – take a look.

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