New York history professor discusses folklore’s place in historical study

Sarah+Covington%2C+history+professor+at+the+graduate+center+at+City+University+of+New+York+and+Queens%2C+addresses+a+crowd+of+students+and+faculty+members+on+Tuesday+afternoon%2C+about+the+importance+of+using+folklore+in+historical+study.
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New York history professor discusses folklore’s place in historical study

Sarah Covington, history professor at the graduate center at City University of New York and Queens, addresses a crowd of students and faculty members on Tuesday afternoon, about the importance of using folklore in historical study.

Sarah Covington, history professor at the graduate center at City University of New York and Queens, addresses a crowd of students and faculty members on Tuesday afternoon, about the importance of using folklore in historical study.

Blake Newhouse

Sarah Covington, history professor at the graduate center at City University of New York and Queens, addresses a crowd of students and faculty members on Tuesday afternoon, about the importance of using folklore in historical study.

Blake Newhouse

Blake Newhouse

Sarah Covington, history professor at the graduate center at City University of New York and Queens, addresses a crowd of students and faculty members on Tuesday afternoon, about the importance of using folklore in historical study.

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Those looking to understand the past better would benefit from learning about the use of folklore throughout human history, said a history professor Tuesday afternoon on Marshall University’s campus.

“To dismiss it all as humorous, myth or superstition is to therefore overlook how individuals and social groups make meaning of their past,” said Sarah Covington, history professor at the graduate center at City University of New York and Queens. “Even stripped of their context, folktales can convey meaning within themselves.”

The Oxford Dictionary defines folklore as traditional beliefs, customs and stories of a community passed through the generations by word of mouth.

Historians have often called for the study of facts, dismissing folklore because of the fear that it could contribute to blinding people to the truth, or dividing nations against themselves or others, according to Covington.

However, Covington said she believes this can present a problem when trying to understand humans’ place throughout history.

“Without embracing relativism, or diminishing the importance of fact, I would argue that neglect of folklore, or the sidelining of it to the margins, not only neglects an important source base of which we may understand the past, but fails to acknowledge that myth is often more potent than reality, and perhaps offers a different kind of truth that shouldn’t be disregarded,” Covington said. “There is much more to be done from historians as to borrowing folklore and the discipline that stands behind it.”

Covington is in the midst of writing her fourth book, “Remembering Oliver Cromwell,” which explores how folklore has affected the memory and afterlife of Oliver Cromwell in Ireland.

With some focused on the empirical data and facts surrounding Cromwell in Ireland, Covington has separated herself from others by focusing on the folktales that have impacted his legacy long after his death.

“There are a lot of other kinds of ways to study history, and Dr. Covington is a pioneer in belief systems and the way people think,” William Palmer, professor of history at Marshall, said. “There’s not necessarily a right answer on how to study history. Using folklore is just another way to understand how people operate in the world.”

Covington said an epiphany came to her after she started her research for her upcoming book in Dublin, Ireland at the national database for folklore.

“As I read through the hundreds of folktales, I also wondered if there was a larger history behind them, whether you could trace these back to an earlier time,” Covington said. “We can trace these accounts back with generation after generation and source after source, and as an early modernist historian, I find this very interesting.”

Some folklore programs across college campuses have begun to close their doors; however, in the absence of these programs throughout the country, the internet has allowed for folktales to continue to reach an audience.

“A lot of people have digitized their folklore, so it can be found online,” Covington said. “Also, folklore is always being created on the internet, GIF’s are folklore, memes are folklore, even emojis are folklore. These expressions that we have created are ultimately all forms of folklore. So, on one hand it is being cut from schools, but it is sort of exploding elsewhere.”

Folklore reflects our society today, and should not be viewed as simply stories that tell us about the past, according to Covington.

“We tend to tell tales that mean something to us in the present. Even if we think we are telling the story of Robin Hood, it’s reflecting our times now,” Covington said. “What all people studying folklore today agree on is that it is unacceptable to look at folklore as reflective of some bygone era of some kind of primitive past. What they emphasize is that folklore is constantly being created and changed to help us learn about the human story.”

Blake Newhouse can be contacted at [email protected]

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