Book Review: A Eurocentric Study of Curious, Mostly Christian Myths of the Middle Ages

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Click to visit WorldCat to find a copy in your local library and summary.

In his introduction to this edition, Hardy writes that he “ruthlessly abandoned the farther shores of [Baring-Gould’s] research,” and I am inclined to believe that he was utterly ruthless (14-15). I have sought out copies of Baring-Gould’s unedited text and have found 600 page volumes where this one is 159.  I found Hardy’s edit of Baring-Gould’s original to be wonderfully readable and accessible, mostly because in this edit each story and its dissection is only a few pages long, most entries less than 10 pages, making it an easy book to read in pieces.  I found most of what I would want from this book—the myths themselves and some information about their possible antecedents—to be present in the abridged edition.  I have not yet and probably won’t read the ponderous 600 page volume; there is too much more modern scholarship to read, and this was a library book acquisition literally picked up when the book that I came for could not be found.

Please note that from now on whenever I cite “Baring-Gould” I really mean “Baring-Gould filtered by Hardy” because I suspect that Hardy’s edit has greatly influenced my impression of this book.

This is both a collection of myths and a study of myths.

Although Baring-Gould often points out similarities between the myth that he is telling and myths of other continents, this book is whoppingly Eurocentric, focusing most of its time on myths of Germany, France, and Great Britain—somewhat understandable as Baring-Gould seems to have spent most of his time in these countries—but his evaluation of and the language that he uses to speak about peoples outside of Europe is often uncomfortable to a modern reader.

Most of the myths that Baring-Gould, an Anglican priest and hymnist, explores here elevate and presuppose a Christian worldview—again, understandable given the focus on European myths of the medieval period when and where the Church had more power and more greatly effected everyday life and given Baring-Gould’s own religious occupation, though again the disregard for other religions and even other branches of Protestantism than Anglican is again uncomfortable.  Baring-Gould’s view of Christianity seems more militant than some too; his perhaps best known hymn is “Onward, Christian Soldier,” so his militancy doesn’t surprise me either, though even that hymn has always made me uncomfortable.

Some myths discussed here are stories of holy objects or people who interacted with Jesus on earth. Some are about devils or portals to Hell or Purgatory. Some are stories of saints or fallen Church officials. A few are more secular, like the tale of Gellert or of Melusina.  Many are myths that have made their way if not in their entirety then in pieces or into the framework of the imagination of modern, Western consciousness.  The story of Gellert, for example, I knew almost exactly as Baring-Gould reports it.  The story of the Man in the Moon I had never heard, but of course I know the phrase.  The barest bones of the story of Pope Joan I knew but not the particulars.

Baring-Gould at times comes off as stunningly condescending towards any who disagree with his assessments of the origins and meanings of these myths. “It need hardly be stated that the whole story of Pope Joan is fictitious and fabulous, and has not the slightest historical foundation” (72).

Though often he traces his assumptions through a list of sources and presuppositions, at times in this edition—too often—there is little to no explanation of particular statements, making me wonder if such statements were considered fact by the everyday nineteenth century literate who might have found this volume in its original printing—or perhaps were facts to Hardy’s readers in the 1970s. For example, Baring-Gould connects the English Jack and Jill to the Scandinavian Hjuki and Bil largely based on a supposed similarity between the names which seems like it could to me be coincidental and not an etymologically sound conclusion then decides that the trek of Jack and Jill up the hill and tumbling back down represents the waxing and waning of the moon because of his connection to the two Scandinavian children who are kept on the moon.  Past his word, there’s little evidence presented here.  Again, “Ursula is in fact none other than the Swabian goddess Ursel or Hörsel (Hürsel) to whom human sacrifices were occasionally made and who became the Venus of Venusberg, or Hürselberg, who entranced and debauched Tannhäuser” (105). I have learned being even a casual reader of Tumblr posts about etymology to be skeptical of such seemingly direct lines of etymological connection. I might believe a shared etymological source for the name of the saint and the name of the goddess before I would believe a direct descent from stories of the goddess to stories of the saint—especially without any proof of such, which I do not get from Baring-Gould.

I enjoyed the introduction to a few new European myths and further explanations of ones with which I was already passingly familiar, but much of what Baring-Gould states seems like it ought to be taken with a healthy dose of salt as his biases are very much on parade here and his evidence is at times thin and his observations sometimes not backed up at all.

**1/2

Baring-Gould, Sabine. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. Ed. Edward Hardy. New York: Oxford U, 1978. This edition first published London: Jupiter, 1977.  Original source text by Baring-Gould published 1866.

This review is not endorsed by Edward Hardy, Sabine Baring-Gould, Jupiter Books, or Oxford University Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

About Kathryn

My love of books has been carefully cultivated by the adults who raised me and also by the friends who love to share. My life has led me down long library shelves, to online forums, fanfiction sites, the front of a lecture hall, and into the desks of college classrooms. With an English degree and a couple master’s classes in Children’s Literature, I am now a bookseller for Barnes & Noble. I have been an editor for Wizarding Life Networks (the people who brought you Wizarding Life, Panem October, and MyHogwarts now HogwartsIsHere).

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