google.com, pub-6663105814926378, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 Historical Approach Urban Legends 4289

Historical Approach Urban Legends

Although not an established “school” of interpretation with a rigorous methodology, the study of historical backgrounds of contemporary legends has long interested folklorists, especially those who practice the so-called historic-geographic (or comparative) method of analysis devised for the study of traditional folktales. In essence, this approach is comparative in the sense that varying versions from other times and places are examined as to their differences and similarities; the approach is historical in that versions of similar themes from the past are reviewed as possible prototypes for the modern tradition.


Often in such studies, the historical connections are rather vague and may apply only to general similarities between old and modern legends. For example, a medieval exemplum (moral tale) tells of a spider infesting a vain woman’s hairdo, but it cannot safely be concluded that this is the genuine ancestor of the contemporary legend on the same theme. Similarly the severed-fingers (or hand) motif is found in stories from the sixteenth century and the present, but it is difficult to prove a direct relationship between the larger narratives themselves. When an entire legend such as “The Choking Doberman” is linked to several older legends—even to the point of diagramming the suggested connections—the idea that this represents the true genealogy of the modern legend is merely conjectural.

Folklorists have more success in tracing the histories of modern legends with roots no deeper than the twentieth century, since then there are likely to be reliably dated and published texts. “The Heel in the Grate” and “The Unsolvable Math Problem” provide good examples of success with what might be called studies of the “modern history” of individual legends. For the distant past, Bill Ellis’s study of “The Blood Libel” as it circulated as an anti-Christian story in ancient Rome stands as a rare example of a successful quest for the historical roots of a continuing tradition.


Another direction of the historical approach is to identify examples of interest in the legends of their own time in the works of past writers. Among those who have been thus studied are Geoffrey Chaucer, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Jack London.

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