Customary society and oral culture in rural England, 1700–1900

John Clare's long poem sequence The Shepherd's Calendar celebrates English rural popular culture or, at least, that part of it which represented the local customs of his own village of Helpston in Northamptonshire in the late eighteenth century. Clare's work illustrates how village culture embraced both written and printed forms but remained essentially an oral world. Oral culture in rural England was linked closely to popular memory. Within customary society, memory provided the continuity for both individual and collective action by those in the local community. The flight of the oral tradition in face of rising popular literacy through the nineteenth century is the orthodox explanation for the disappearance of customary society. Customary consciousness was maintained and extended by oral culture in eighteenth and nineteenth century rural England, carrying it forward to the First World War.

in The spoken word