4 February 2014


Claude Lecouteux. The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2013.

One of the first things that struck me in this work was the positive antiquity of some Gallic phrases used concerning the subject of moving house. The two that are mentioned at the very beginning are on pend la crémaillère (the hanging of the chimney hook) and on change de pénates (changing household gods). They stand out in comparison because, to the best of my knowledge, we British have nothing comparable that dates back so far.
We have no geomancers (unless one counts the surveyor) and we most certainly do not talk of changing our household gods. Even the practice of nailing a horseshoe above the door has fallen very much by the wayside. Although I haven’t checked (mea culpa), as far as I know, the likes of Taylor Wimpey and Barratt Homes don’t race to wall up a stranger’s shadow or a cat within the abodes that they construct.

The contrast between how traditions and superstitions are referred to between the British and the French is something which may possibly be explained by the preponderance of British people living in towns and the continuing existence of a French peasantry, who will presumably have retained the beliefs and traditions of their forebears. This may go on to explain why the author, himself a Gaul, is so captivated by the subject of household superstitions.

Claude Lecouteux was Professor emeritus at the Paris-Sorbonne University and a prolific author. He has written around thirty books dealing with both mediaeval and pagan beliefs. This book covers many, many folk beliefs concerning anything to do with constructing a house and setting up home, especially where it concerns paranormal entities that are concerned with the wellbeing of the dwelling and any attendant life forms or, indeed, the actual fabric of the structure. Many of these are fascinating and some are positively bizarre compared to our contemporary, workaday approach to construction. There was also a personal resonance, as I was pleasantly surprised to see that not only were some splendid examples of pargetting from England included in the colour photographs but also a fair few were from my former home county of Essex.

However, the real issues I take with this otherwise worthy and undoubtedly scholarly work is that it seems to ramble somewhat. Whilst steering clear of academic language, its approachability is marred by not being either more in the form of a list (for, generally, that’s what this is) or something less precise and more chatty. Unfortunately it seems to have the least desirable aspects of both list and anecdote; all over the shop on the one hand and short on entertainment on the other. For instance, when talking about the communal hearth, the scene changes from Russia, the Tyrol, the Samoyeds, Sweden, Swabia and Brittany in one short paragraph, thus both cramming in a lot of information without making it easy to retrieve later on. This packing together of data has no system of subheadings or an alternative reference system, which both makes it difficult to digest without frequent breaks and contributes to a slightly breathless and confused feel. At least there is an index, an exhaustive bibliography and notes at the end.

It is very desirable that this information, put together by an undisputed expert in the field (or rather, the house) is collected in a single volume. However, it would be even more desirable if it were arranged in a more obviously accessible fashion, facilitating retrieval of the absorbing and intriguing contents therein. – Trevor Pyne.

No comments: