I’m very pleased to have been invited to give a presentation at the 2011 Conference of the Folklore Society, which is taking place at the University of Worcester on 15-17 April. The Folklore Society is the country’s oldest academic body dedicated to studying all aspects of folklore, folk belief, customs, legend, urban myths and superstition, both historical and contemporary. The theme of this year’s conference is “Childlore, and the Folklore of Childhood”.
I’m appearing on Saturday 16th, bookended by Dr Laimute Anglickiene talking about Lithuanian Children’s Horror Stories and Dr Jurgita Macijauskaité-Bonda discussing Children’s Encounters with the Souls of the Dead in Lithuanian Folklore, both of which I suspect will be amazing. And if that wasn’t enough, my friend (and one of the UK’s foremost folklorists) Jeremy Harte will be waxing entertainingly on Murder in Fairyland: A Social History of Changelings, while there are further talks on witchcraft, the Evil Eye, and the vampire series True Blood. In terms of my sense of anticipation I am, it is fair to say, feeling pretty psyched, as the young people say.
My own contribution is a talk entitled “A Cannibal Child – Just Like Her Dear Old Dad”. Here’s the abstract:
In the fifteenth century a family of cannibals was executed at Dundee. The only member spared the flames was a one-year-old girl. She was fostered by a Dundee family, but as she grew older her inheritance came through, and she started biting her fellow children and licking their blood, eventually progressing onto actual eating morsels she had torn off with her teeth. So when she had reached the age of twelve, she too was executed. She turned to her prosecutors and said, “Why chide ye me as if I had committed a crime. Give me credit, if ye had the experience of eating human flesh you would think it so delicious that you would never forbear it again.”
The paper explores the possible reality (or not) of the tale, examining dubious historical sources, spurious placename evidence, early Christian descriptions of Caledonian cannibalism, anti-Scottish propaganda, Scottish patriotism, and type relationships with two other Scots cannibals, Christie Cleek and Sawney Bean. The tentative conclusion is that the well-known legend of Sawney Bean and his anthropophagic family may have been derived from the Dundee cannibals, who, given the nature of one of the sources, may have actually existed.
But did the infant girl really grow up to be a cannibal just like her dear old dad? This seems more like an agent of storytelling, imported into the tale because that’s the way the story should end. But we’ll never really know.