David Waldron is the author of a new book, Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay: A Case Study in Local Folklore, and he kindly agreed to be interviewed by Pagans for Archaeology. It’s his second book; the first was The Sign of the Witch: Modernity and the Pagan Revival (Ritual Studies Monograph). He lives in Australia.
PfA: What got you interested in Black Dog folklore?
DW: Well to be honest it was when my father became minister of Emmanuel Church in Bungay and I started to hear the story from friends and family over there. As an Australian in a very colonial way my first response was something along the lines of “How cool is that!” and then started to do some digging on the tale. I think people in the UK sometimes don’t realize just how fascinating and intoxicating the level of historicity in Britain is. Especially for Australians and Americans who usually have less than 200 years of white colonization behind them and the kind of anxiety that having claimed displaced indigenous land creates.
I think it is the same reason Australian and American Pagans tend to be extremely fixated on the UK or at least European heritage as a source of “authenticity” and legitimacy. Beltane in Mt Franklin near Ballarat where I live, for example, occurs in a Volcano crater which was landscaped in the 19th century to look British with Elms and pines and the like and the crater walls serve to disconnect from the Australian landscape and help create the illusion of connectedness to European heritage.
In terms of my own experience, I was first digging into the Bungay legend coming out of the reformation as it does, at the time I was writing my first book on the history of Witchcraft and saw a lot of close links. It gave me an opportunity to look at the romanticization of the past, the myth of pagan survivals, the trauma left from the reformation etc at the local level.
After having done so much research from Australia via text books and the like the ability to get into primary sources first hand at the local level was just fantastic. I’d also been looking at broad pan-British or even pan-Anglophone issues in “Sign of the Witch” and I’d really wanted to get into what these sort of things actually meant at the level of communities and individuals rather than the broad sweeping brush strokes people so often work with.
PfA: What is the significance of Black Dog folklore? How widespread is it? How does it relate to other spectral dogs?
DW: Black Dog folklore is quite enormous and I would say it’s global. Essentially every culture with dogs has variations on Black Dog myths. In particular the configuration of the dog as a creature of the boundaries of human/animal, death/life, predator/protector and spirit-world/physical world is almost universal. I even came across Aztec and Australian Aboriginal mythology paralleling that of British Black Dogs. A colleague of mine researching Australian Aboriginal folklore had a story from the Northern territory of spiritual Dingos that could talk and if one spoke to you and you answered back as you would a human (i.e. boundary violation) you were turned to stone or it ate your spirit. There are two schools of thought on this. One is that these stories are somehow directly linked (i.e. there are common historical origins); the other is that they are simply archetypal. I would suggest it has a lot to do with the nature of Dogs themselves as a symbiotic animal with 40,000 odd years of close relations with humans. Spectral Dogs, particularly Black Dogs or, less often, white Dogs are common in folklore in pretty much every region of Britain.
However there is another point to make, which is the legacy of folklorists themselves. A common theme in reviews of 19th century literature of Black Dog folklore was the tendency of people to group vastly different stories together as “Black Dog” myths and over time they gradually blurred together and started to change the local tales into iconic Black Dog legends from what were originally stories about say someone’s dead dog who was thought to be a ghost or a shape-changing trickster fey creature who might happen to take a dog form becoming very quickly a “Black Dog”. People were so eager, post-Frazer, to see universal patterns that they actually actively went and shifted stories to what they were wanting to find and then over time changed the local myth and communities took up these stories and interpretations themselves. This is a pattern Ronald Hutton refers to a lot in “Witches, Druids and King Arthur” for example.
PfA: What can this study tell us about the links between folklore and the Pagan revival?
DW: I think a key issue for me was that transmission of symbols, images and ideas from the pagan past are very fragmentary, complex and ambivalent. People are very quick to throw the “Pagan Survival” label around because they so badly need to feel a connection to the past and a feeling of pastness in what they do. People can also be very quick to deny connection to a Pagan past when debunking. One thing that was really apparent to me when doing my research on the Black Dog of Bungay from a local history perspective, was that it is not a zero sum game. Let’s look at the Black Dog of Bungay for example.
There are fragments in the myth from the Celts, Vikings and Romans for example. However, if I was to speak to a 16th century Puritan in Bungay he may not even know what a Celt was and would certainly take offense at the suggestion his view of the attack on St Mary’s church by a Black Dog or “Devile in such a likenesse” was Pagan. On the contrary he has a whole wealth of cultural forms he takes up and integrates into his protestant Christian identity much the same way Christmas today is a Christian ritual with fragments of our cultural heritage from all over the place. This is much the same with the folkloric beliefs in the witch trials. Emma Wilby talks about all the bits and pieces of Shamanic folklore, ritual and practices in the English witch trials of the civil war some of which predate Christianity yet are very much interpreted in a Christian context.
People didn’t differentiate their folklore the way we do today and you can’t separate Christianity from its local cultural context which includes a wealth of forms, images, rituals and ideas. This is much like say Catholicism in Latin America which integrates all sorts of bits of folklore from all over the place into a strongly Catholic tradition.
The analogy I use in my book is that the legacy of Pagan survivals is very much like language. The English I speak today is full of the legacy of Latin, French, Greek, Celtic and Germanic dialects and is shaped by all sorts of social and cultural factors that are connected to my heritage. So even the meaning associated with the fragments that make up my language have changed my English is no more Latin than Christmas is Pagan. Yet, that being said the connection to the past and the vast array of influences in what my language is today are still there constantly coming together, separating, old words fall away and receive new meaning new words and influences come into focus and the context in which I make sense of them constantly change. So it’s a constant growing and transforming process experience by different cultures and sectors of society differently and it’s a mistake to try to interpret the past from a modern context and then try to overlay that interpretation on the present.
On another side I found in Theodora Brown’s (a very detailed folklorist of the early 20th century who has literally boxes and boxes of resources of British myths like the Black Dog archives in Exeter) collection that Margaret Murray and others were frantically and deliberately looking for something, anything, to support her witchcraft as pagan survival hypothesis.
I found all these letters and transcripts of the Devon folklore association meetings of Margaret Murray badgering Theodora Brown to present her findings on Black Dog myths in England as part of a witch cult linked to pre-Christian Paganism. Presuming that was going on all over the place with other folklorists, it brings to mind the stridency with which the early Wiccan movement were pushing to configure culture in a way that supported their contention that it was a survival pre-Christian belief system and the fervour which religiosity can bring to interpretations of the past.
That being said while there are very obvious examples of the Pagan community doing this, a lot illustrated by Hutton, it is a pattern common to all religious beliefs and often pursued with a lot more aggression by say Christians, Jews and Muslims for example especially once linked to politics.
PfA: What can the (re-)construction of the Black Dog legend tell us about how folklore develops? What function do these stories have?
DW: I think, that aside from the fragmentary nature by which aspects of culture become part of the communicative and archetypal structure by which people tell stories and make sense of the world, it’s important to note that it’s constantly in a state of flux and growth. So much of the folklore studies of the 19th and 20th centuries presupposed, via Frazer, that folklore was this static primordial thing located in the countryside.
Even in the most remote areas, folklore is constantly evolving and being reconstructed and within a generation the origins of a story, festival or myth can become lost and thus seem to originate in a primordial past. Another important aspect is the way in which the very act of studying and publishing on folklore can actually change the myth itself as people take up these interpretations as part of their own heritage and use them to make sense of their own traditions. This can also happen with literary fiction that can be taken up if it resonates with the myth and the culture and within a generation it can seem like people have always had this point of view.
One example from the Black Dog of Bungay was the myth that the Black Dog is the cursed soul of Lord Bigod. The earliest mention Chris and I could find for it anywhere was in Anthony Hippsley Coxe’s “Haunted Britain” published in 1973. Now when I went over to Devon to get into Theo Brown’s archives I spoke to people who knew him and saw Theo Brown’s discussion of that myth and found that he had lacked information and presumed parallels with a black Dog story he was more familiar with, that of Squire Richard Cabell in Dartmoor, and used it as a template for Bungay.
The thing is that story was taken up with gusto in Bungay and ran in all the papers, the local publications etc and became a central component of the myth. It fitted into the story really well. It tied two different myths together and linked to two most prominent historic buildings in town: the Church of St Mary’s and the Castle. Now it’s local folkloric orthodoxy if you like.
PfA: What bearing does the Black Dog legend have on the relationship between folklore and the literary tradition? For instance, the Black Shuck is referenced in Jane Eyre.
DW: I think one issue is that that they are closely linked. Our engagement with popular culture is as much part of our cultural heritage as myths, legends, folklore and empirical history. Some, like Frederik Jameson for example, would say literature and film etc are a darn sight more culturally important today. I found the story of Bungay having a linking network of secret underground tunnels originated in Elizabeth Bonhote’s novel “Bungay Castle”.
It is a late 18th C Gothic romance novel (but with a very plucky female protagonist having to rescue her deathly ill imprisoned lover which I think was pretty cool and liberated for the era) which was very popular at the start of the 19th century but had been almost completely forgotten by the late 19th C. Elizabeth lived in Bungay and loved the ruins of St Mary’s and the castle and was inspired by the remains of King Stephen’s siege works, including sapper tunnels, to have a secret labyrinth of tunnels under the town in which to have adventures. Now this was taken up as part of the town folklore and then linked to the English Civil war where it was meant to be built by Cromwell’s men and contain caches of weapons etc. When they found secret rooms buried in the graveyard of Emmanuel Church in 1977 this became integrated into the story and now taken as given.
The thing is we tell stories as part of our lived social and community experience. They say things about who we are, our values and our culture. They are like art but in a communicative context. So fiction is part of this process and we take things from literary and cinematic culture into our folklore. Fiction however is a product of people in a community and draws on this to give a story resonance and archetypal significance (as well as being just really fun and entertaining). It’s a mutual organic process. I think the anxiety comes from, in a post enlightenment world and as products of a modern education system, there is an underlying perception that legitimacy can only come from empirical veracity.
So while, as Hutton comments, a well-crafted fiction can supplant any amount of historical fact in the imagination of people in a community and become folklore we feel we can only give these stories legitimacy if we can prove them by the rhetoric of empirical research. Empirical research and science however have a completely different function and are indifferent to the emotional and spiritual needs of people in a community. Thus we have an underlying tension which can often manifest itself in people taking up a literary fiction (originating out of a creative application of folklore and archetypal imagery) as fact and then becoming traumatized and often very aggressive when this belief or story is challenged on empirical terms. The legacy of “The Mists of Avalon” in the pagan community is a good example of this I think.
It’s interesting how often when I mentioned my research into the Black Dog of Bungay people then proceeded to tell me the plot of the Patrick Swayze film “the Black Dog” to me as an urban legend but one they are sure happened to their cousin or friend etc. As a historian, what do you do with that. It’s a yarn taken up as a literary fiction, but one based on established cultural forms and archetypes, which is appropriated as a story about who they are.
It’s not true in the empirical sense but it has emotional resonance to them and they need to feel it’s empirically true for it to have legitimacy and feel real for them. There are different kinds of truth and a side product of our post—enlightenment culture is the need for our fictions to feel empirically true to have validity yet empirical truth runs counter to how folklore and storytelling function and develop in a community.