Romanticism,’ as anyone who has sought to find a manageable definition of the term will know, is notoriously difficult to pin down, and the next few paragraphs will be simplistic in the extreme, but it is generally agreed to have originated amongst a number of German writers and philosophers during the 18th century. According to Isaiah Berlin’s influential series of lectures, given in Washington in 1965, and finally published in book form in 1999 as The Roots of Romanticism, it was a reaction amongst certain German intellectuals, still living in small duchies, principalities and other diverse but mainly insignificant and provincial places, against the cultural threat posed by strong, centralised nation-states like France and Britain, with their glittering courts, cosmopolitan capitals and increasingly scientific, rationalist philosophies. Rather than try to emulate these countries, they decided to celebrate instead the very opposite to what they saw happening in them. They would value the old and settled, the traditional, the regional and local. They would go inwards, as with the Pietist movement within Lutheranism, rather than outwards to explore and assert power over nature and the environment, as the English, in particular, were starting to do.
This tendency is especially noticeable in the work of the philosopher Herder, whose role is particularly important, as he was the first to propose the idea of the Volksgeist, the folk soul or spirit that embodied the essence of a people, and probably of the place where they had traditionally lived, the soil in which they were rooted.
The whole Romantic love of folklore, folk music and dance, the love of what we now call ‘local distinctiveness,’ started here, over two centuries ago. It grew throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, and became a large element of the political nationalism that was one of the main historical phenomena of the period. Small countries, nations and peoples began to assert themselves against the huge multi-national, multi-racial empires in which they had been subsumed. Foundation myths and folk heroes were rediscovered, national epics composed, languages revived and traditions of all kinds sought out. In many parts of the world this process continues, as of course do the conflicts and stalemates so often engendered by it.
A basic assumption behind the folk soul myth, as it developed and hardened, was that it was remote, rare and in imminent danger of being lost. You wouldn’t find the true essence of the people in courts or capitals, or amongst the bourgeoisie or urban masses. You had to go to the peasants, the ‘real’ people, living in timeless unity with their land, passing down their tales and traditions unchanged from the immemorial past. The oldest and most remote songs, stories and customs were the purest. They were wholesome and healing, as opposed to the cynical, commercial products of industrialism and the cities. Poets, musicians and artists, in returning to this pure source of inspiration, would create work that forged anew the soul of their race.
If I may indulge in a Baring-Gould-like digression for a moment: I remember, as a child, puzzling over the illustrations of children in various picture books, who were dressed in something called ‘national costume.’ There would be an English boy and girl in 1950s school uniform, but the others were in what I later came to realise were highly stylised peasant clothing, dating from the 19th century. If, I wondered, I went to any of these countries, would my contemporaries really be dressed in these weird costumes in the playground? I couldn’t quite accept the likelihood, somehow. These ‘national costumes,’ like so much else, were invented traditions inspired by the Romantic Nationalist assumption that each people had its unique, essential nature, and that this was expressed in everyday culture. The English don’t have a national costume dating from that time, for the simple reason that we did not need to assert ourselves against a huge multi-national empire. We were the huge multi-national empire, though we allowed the Scots and Welsh, now they were safely under control, to indulge themselves in some equally invented traditions, only loosely based on real historical precedents (the tall Welsh hat, and the modern kilt and the supposed clan tartans, all date from the mid 19th century).
What the English did have, though, was a strong sense of the regional and local, particularly based on loyalty to the ancient counties. This deep awareness and pride in county identity, and the often marked individuality of each one, goes back centuries; it was especially prominent in the Tudor period, at exactly the time when a real sense of an English nation state was in the process of forming.