Sabine Baring-Gould

The prolific Reverend

While he appears to have been a good natured guy, he never seems to look happy. Not only in photos but paintings too!

It only feels proper when introducing Sabine (pronounced Say-Bin) Baring-Gould to use the word prolific.

While some folklorists mentioned on this website wrote one or two texts, Sabine is at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, putting his name to over 1200 publications (that is fiction books, factual books, plays, short stories, journal and magazine articles and more), covering a large range of eclectic topics.

As well as authoring collections of folk tales and folk songs that have got him on to this podcast he was also one of the top novelists of his day, an archaeologist, songwriter, a clergy man and a translator.

Despite all this he’s probably most famous today for writing the hymn “Onward, Christain Soldiers.” Oh.. at one point he taught classes with a live bat on his shoulder. 

Podcast episodes featuring Sabine Baring-Gould
Tales of Britain and Ireland
Tales of Britain and Ireland

A storytelling and folklore podcast.

Telling some of the famous and not so famous British and Irish myths, legends and folktales, in no particular order.

Coming direct from South Yorkshire it is currently regularish, and will feature all of the above and whatever other miscellaneous snippets take my fancy.

Presented by Graeme. Website at http://www.TalesofBritainandIreland.com

27: Brother Jucundus
byTales of Britain and Ireland.
Brief Biography

Unsurprisingly he was the son of a reasonably well off family – somewhere at the upper echelons of the middle classes or the very lowest rung of the upper class.

He was born in Devon in 1834, though travelled much in Europe as a child, and attended Cambridge University at 18. Following this for most of his twenties he was a schoolmaster in Sussex though seems to have had ample time for other diversions.

Though his father disapproved he took holy orders in 1864, and in his early 30s worked as a Anglican Curate (a kind of Vicar’s assistant), moving to Horbury in Yorkshire. It was here he wrote Onward Christian Soldiers, a fact that sees mention on the town sign to this day.

He’d meet and marry here in 1868, semi-scandalously to Grace Taylor, a working class woman half his age. Grace would remain with him until her death some 48 years later, the couple having 15 children.

He would move around a little bit more, and regularly travelled further afield, but in 1881, now in his 40s, he moved back to his family manor house in Lew Trenchard. His father having passed away he inherited both the house and grounds, where he also became a Priest.

While he’d continue to travel he’d live permanently in Lew Trenchard Manor for the rest of his quite long span of days, finally dying aged 89 in 1924.

Yet well before then, during pretty much all of his adult life, and even before he was always writing something.

Lew Trenchard Manor- Sabine’s family home where he lived for most of his life

Baring-Gould’s writing career

He travelled to Iceland in 1862, and wrote Grettir, a translation of an Icelandic saga, some 30 years later

Many volumes could potentially be written about the man and his works and indeed have been:

His own two volume autobiography is nearly a thousand pages long, and there was until recently a Sabine Baring Gould society publishing a newsletter on him multiple times a year!

So even to give a proper overview of his works in areas relevant to the podcast is no quick task, and unlike some other featured folklorists I cannot claim to have myself read even a very small proportion of even his most relevant works, never mind his novels and books on other subjects.

You can see a selection of his major works here: Wiki source – Sabine Baring-Gould, which might give you some idea of his output levels.

He wrote over 30 novels, most of them packed with historical and/or folkloric themes.

Grettir the Outlaw is notable as being an interpretation of the famous Grettir’s saga, which Baring-Gould fell in love with when he was in Iceland, also writing a more general book on “Iceland, Its Scenes and Sagas”.

His novels were well loved at the time, and at least one source names him as one of the top ten authors of his day, though I’m unsure of the validity of this.

It certainly seems to be the case that his first novel: Mehalah: a Story of the Salt Marshes, was very well received, but his follow up works a little less so, while still being fairly popular.

Mehlah was his first novel, and well received

He also wrote over 200 short stories in various periodicals, magazines and the like, publishing some as collections later in his life. As with most of his work a great deal of these involved elements taken from folklore, legends and myth.

As a Priest, and apparently someone who never slept, he also found time to write books of collected sermons and on the History of Religion.

One in particular was well received by British Prime Minister William Gladstone, who corresponded with Baring-Gould on it, if that helps give you a feel of the circles in which he was known.

In addition a large part of his later work was a huge sixteen volume (I just can’t get over it) Lives of the Saint’s published between 1872 and 1877, and he is thus sometimes described as a Hagiographer (someone who writes Hagiographies – lives of saints) in addition to his many other hats.

This work was largely his own interpretations and reworking of Medieval lives on Saints. There’s certainly a snippet or two in there of more fantastical elements that may one day make their way on to a podcast.

Folklore and Legends

Despite all these writings he is perhaps more famous for his early books directly on history, myths, legends and folklore. And that is certainly why he appears on this website,

His two pre-eminent works in this area were the relatively early “Book of Were-wolves” (1865) and “Curious Myths of the Middle Ages” (two vol. 1866 and 1868).

Curious Myths of the Middle Ages
A 1901 edition

Curious Myths, as with Lives of the Saints, mostly retold stories that were relatively well known in Baring-Gould’s own day, along with copious commentary on the sources of those stories and about the history of the time. This was particularly the case of the former which was a collection of manuscript stories that Baring-Gould enjoyed and most of which were already widely known. 

Know these were well known stories Baring-Gould’s works nevertheless proved to have a keen and sizeable audience. Some of this popularity may be owed by the bringing together of such stories in a single volume, the copious additional information that Baring-Gould provides and the accessibility of his style.

The book is a reasonably easy but not dull read, Sabine’s writing is not as adjective packed as some other tale tellers of the day, nor full of difficult to follow allusions.

Pope Joan – the title image of Curious Myths of the Middle Ages

Like many of his works it’s also packed with lots of diversions into history and myths that make it far more than a simple collection of stories.

To take but two examples: the section on the story of Melusine diverts off into a consideration of fish gods all across the world, while that of the Welsh legend of Gellert talks about similar tales from China, Iran and Mongolia, amongst many others.

That kind of broader consideration makes the work a much more interesting and worthy read than had it been just straight retellings.

These works contain tales that may well be of interest to the podcast and indeed some have made mention before – though not typically using Baring-Gould as a source.

The Book of Were-Wolves

The Book of Were-wolves was an altogether different beast (ho ho!). 

Werewolves were hardly unknown at the time, being featured in much literature of the age, often along with vampires as they are now.

But the Book of Were-Wolves was something different: an early attempt to bring together large numbers of older werewolf tales: from myths, literature and folklore, incorporating a wide range of sources and cultures.

In this way it acted as the first widely read English language reference book on the subject and it remained an important text in the popular understanding of legends of lycanthropy for years to come.

While there is a whole slew of useful information about werewolves somewhat unexpectedly the book spends a fair amount of time focusing on historical accounts of serial killers and murderous cannibals: concepts not so connected to were-wolves anymore.

Nevertheless it’s still a good read today, and those latter bits make juicy reading for any interested in historical true (or at least allegedly true) crime.

“Oddities, Curiosities, Characters and Strange” books and local guides

The meat of Baring-Gould’s folkloric and historical writings are to be found in his detailed collections of local folklore and legends and history. Many of these books contain have titles including some combinations of the terms: “Oddities, curiosities, characters, and Strange events” .

Amongst the many examples we have “Yorkshire oddities, incidents and Strange events”, “Cornish Characters and Strange Events”, “Freaks of Fanaticism and other Strange Events” and “Devon Characters and Strange Events” and “Curiosities of Olden Times”.

These contain a real mix of whatever he found interesting, covering a range of topics – the mammoth 800 page “Devonshire Characters and Strange Events” for instance contains fairly accurate biographies of lesser known historical and contemporary figures from Devon, such as poets, pirates and physicians (to name only those beginning with P), accounts of a poltergeist from the 1810s, stories of seventeenth century highwaymen, of nineteenth century body snatchers and of witches, in amongst its over 60 articles.

I love this weird cover

Baring-Gould clearly had a deeply ingrained love for the weird and the wonderful, and while the majority, of his stories would not fit into this podcast there’s many an unusual-history type youtube channel or podcast that would snap any up we couldn’t use.

He wrote some more books more directly focusing on Folklore – “A book of Folklore”, and also retellings of fairy tales, including a version of the Brothers Grimm tales and “Old English Fairy Tales”, though he also re-told continental fairy stories. In addition Sabine wrote books somewhat akin to travelogues, covering a number of areas of counties and a couple of countries. Cornwall, Devon, North Wales, Dartmoor and Brittany are amongst the places he turns his attention to.

These works were meant for “ the use of intending visitors, that they may know something of the history of that delightful land they are about to see,” but very much without being proper full travel guides.

Rather than discussing practical matters for a traveller they are much more focused on places of interest to visit than your average lonely planet.

They are distinguished from his other works by the number of photos they contain, which do form a partially useful guide.

In content they’re a bit of a mixed bag of architecture and quaint places, quite detailed local history and even a fair bit of folklore, myth and legend which he just can’t keep away from.

For instance, in his book on North Wales he takes time to tell the whole second branch of the Mabinogion, which is not a short story!

I think it’s certainly possible that while over a century old these odd “introductions” could even today remain interesting guides for some of the type of people who enjoy this podcast!

Folksong Collecting

In the 1880s and 1890s Baring-Gould took up folk song collecting with some vigour. Working with musical collaborators he led a project to collect the words and scores to folk-songs in Devon in Cornwall.

This was achieved in part by having people come to his house and sing, in part by touring around places where songs were sung and by visiting known singers, or those who knew old singers, and asking them to show off their repertoire.

By this time there was a strong feeling that such songs were dying out and a keenness to preserve them. “But most of the old singers with their traditional ballads set to ancient modal melodies have passed away” as Baring-Gould says.

With his collaborators a number of volumes were published in the late 1890s, containing a great number of songs, and music. His 1890 work Songs of the West, subtitled “A collection made from the mouths of the people” was perhaps his most renowned work and was re-issued and considerably expanded on over the next couple of decades.

It’s worth saying that while clearly a success some criticism has been levelled at him and his collaborators for changes they made to the tunes. This was done for various reasons: to simplify in some cases and make into more recognisable forms in others.

This one did make it into his publication… even though it, just perhaps, could have a ruder meaning

Another criticism made of this work is that the more bawdy and scatological lyrics were considerably altered. But given what was acceptable to be published at the time this seems less a fault of Baring-Gould and more a comment on the general mores of the literary culture at the time. Baring-Gould did keep copies of those more bawdy lyrics though, and these were published a long time after his death.

Now while others had collected songs before, for hundreds of years in fact, Baring-Gould was at the very crest of a wave of English language folk song collection which was to really pick up in the first century of the twentieth century. This was to have a larger focus on the music than many other earlier folk song collectors had, and in this Baring-Gould led the way.

The movement was to expand to involve a large number of people and one of its leading luminaries was Cecil Sharp. Baring-Gould collaborated with Sharp on a number of volumes in the 1900s, including on a 1907 volume called “English Folk Songs for School” which was in use for half a century afterwards.

Though Sharp’s name would go on to become far more well known than Baring-Gould’s, Baring-Gould really blazed the trail here (along with a few contemporaries of his).

Picture of a Ballad singer from “Strange Survivals”

The change in public perception of folk song during his time in collecting is made plain in the opening to the 1913 fifth edition of Songs of the West which opens with the following:

In this Edition of “Songs of the West,” some considerable changes have been made. When the first edition was issued, we had to catch the public taste, and to humour it. …[Describes what they did for popularity]… But now that real interest in Folk airs has been awakened, we have discarded this feature.

By this point the importance of gathering them had become even more critical in baring-Gould’s opinion: “In a very few years all this heritage of traditional music will be gone …. Already nearly every one of my old singers from whom these melodies were gathered, is dead.

By the end of his life Baring-Gould had collected hundreds of songs and made a considerable contribution to the world of English language folk song collecting.

Later life and other stuff he did, somehow because he had a magic watch that stopped time or something

Grimspound: A Devon Bronze age settlement that Baring-Gould helped excavated, Credit: Herby CC BY-SA 4.0

In his years collecting folk songs, Baring-Gould also found time to organise archaeological excavations within Dartmoor and wider Devon, under the auspices of “Committee of the Devonshire Association for the exploration of Dartmoor” of which he was secretary for many years.

He never lost his love for writing and through his 60s, 70s and 80s was churning out books, on architecture, history, folklore and archaeology.

He finished up by writing a grand autobiography in two volumes, completing it very shortly before his death in 1924 at age 89.

All in all Sabine had an extremely prolific life. While he is not perhaps as well remembered as some other victorian writers, or indeed folklore or folksong collectors it does seem like at the time he was up there with the best of them in all these fields.

I’ve seen the proposition a few times that, being outside of the London social scene, Baring-Gould’s influence was lesser than it would otherwise have been. But despite this slight disadvantage it seems that in his own lifetime he managed to have a pretty large impact on most of the fields in which he worked, and certainly within Devon and Cornwall.

And most importantly of all he provided a lot of material for anyone interested in the Legends, Myths and Folklore of the British Isles.

Still not mastered the art of looking happy. But I think he often was. Source: Artuk

What about the bat?

So.. the account of the bat comes from Baring-Gould’s memoirs. And honestly I’m just going to quote it in full though I can’t vouch for the veracity of it.

One thing that’s not come through much in all my reading about Sabine Baring-Gould is the character of the man. But if it is true it certainly makes me well disposed to him:

“One day whilst I was sitting before my fire, down the chimney came tumbling a bat. It fell on the hearth-mat. I picked it up and put it in a worsted stocking, which I nailed up beside the fire-place, and there it lived quite happily.

Every day at one o’clock it descended and took its place under my chair, where it waited till I came from dinner in the hall, whereupon it would crook itself on to my trouser, crawl up on to my knee, and sit there, whilst I fed it with milk. It became tame, and loved to be caressed and talked to. Sometimes it would mount to my shoulder and sit there; and when I went to my class, would remain there immovable, to the great amusement of the boys and distraction from their lesson. On my return I put the little creature back into the stocking, where it slept, till hungry. The boys called it my Familiar; and thought that it whispered strange secrets into my ear.”

It was not this kind of bat

Episode pages featuring Baring-Gould

Selected Sources

Works by Sabine Baring-Gould

There really are too many to mention in any detail. Below are the key works relevant to the podcast (but not all of them!). You can find more at Project Gutenberg – Sabine Baring-Gould, but that’s still far from a complete set

Sign up on Patreon for extra episodes and bonus content

Leave a Reply

Welcome to Tales of Britain and Ireland!

Welcome to Tales of Britain & Ireland: A podcast telling folktales, myths and legends from across Britain and Ireland. Hosted by Graeme Cooke.

Following the links below to find out more:

About the podcast
About the website

Where to begin?

All episodes
My favourite episodes

Other odds and sods:

Folklorist Biographies
Podcast recommendations
Failed memes for Elven Queen-abducted Teens

Social Share Buttons and Icons powered by Ultimatelysocial