Fragments from the Forest, Part 5 – The Age of Superstition

In The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, compiled by Steve Roud, touching wood for luck was seen in a 1998  survey as the tenth most common superstition, with 16% of the people surveyed quoting it. Roud goes on to say that this superstition is not nearly as as old as it is supposed to be and can only be traced back to the early nineteenth century, for that was when it was first recorded. But the fact that this was the first time that superstition was recorded in writing does not mean that it did not exist in some oral form before.

It had for example, to have been in existence  for it to be collected in the first place. How long had it been in existence before it was noted, a week, a month, a year, a decade, a century, a millennium? Consider too, that touching wood was a fairly common belief, not confined to one observation, but current all over the UK and apparently the USA as well. It would surely be unthinkable to suppose that from a few limited observations and records that it had spread almost instantaneously over such a large area at the time of collection. What we have to consider here is that the early 19th century was a time when a dramatic change in the attitude of the literate classes occurred for there to appear a serious interest in the culture of the common people. Collectors like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Germany collected their folk tales  from friends, neighbours and villagers and published them in German in their Children’s and Household Tales, in 1812. It took a few years for an English version to appear but by now there was a general interest in superstition, folk tales and folk songs throughout the literate classes.

Relying on the written word as a means for dating a saying or belief is fraught with difficulty and could lead to some major errors. For example there was no written evidence that the stone circle in Wiltshire known as Stonehenge existed before the 11th century when it was first recorded, yet we are assured that it’s origins lie some 9000 years earlier. Something similar occurred with the massive stone circle at Avebury, the largest stone circle in Europe, again in Wiltshire, when it was first recorded by the antiquarians John Aubrey and William Stukely in the 17th century, although archeologists assure us that it was constructed around 2600 BC.