Balkan Folklore and Gender
Folklore plays a central role in the cultures of today’s southeast European or Balkan countries. This lecture provides an overview of the rich and varied oral traditions and oral literary genres of the central and northern Balkans: Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Romania. Cultural identity in this cluster of Balkan lands is informed by geography (all contiguous nations), history (500 years, starting in the late 15th century, of Ottoman rule followed by the 20th-century chapter of communist governments), religion (mainly Orthodox Christian but also Catholic and Muslim), ethnicity (primarily South Slavic, Romanian, and Romani), and gender (marked divisions in the traditional roles of men and women).
The focus of this talk is on gender and its significant role in Balkan folklore. In traditional society, the domain of women has typically been oriented around the “private” and personal sphere: nurturing the family and home and overseeing the stages of the life cycle. Men, by contrast, have routinely dominated in the “public” and communal arena; they maintain and oversee what goes on in the world outside the home, including agricultural and civic functions. These traditional distinctions strongly color the gender roles that are assumed in Balkan folklore. Women “manage” birth, marriage, and death rites and their customs and oral poetry, while men by and large perform the folklore of the calendrical cycle, centered especially in winter and spring festivities. The performance of oral traditional narrative genres are also typically determined by gender; women tell folktales in private settings while men sing narrative poetry in public. This discussion examines how gender has informed traditional life and folklore in the Balkans for generations as well as how these roles are evolving in the 21st century.
Margaret Hiebert Beissinger teaches in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She received her Ph.D. at Harvard University, specializing in Romanian and South Slavic folklore. Her research and writing focusses on Balkan cultures and oral traditions, oral epic, and Romani traditional culture and music-making, with a focus on southern Romania, where she has undertaken extensive fieldwork especially among Romani musicians. She is the author of numerous articles, chapters, and The Art of the Lăutar: The Epic Tradition of Romania (1991) and is coeditor of Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World: The Poetics of Community (1999) as well as Manele in Romania: Cultural Expression and Social Meaning in Balkan Popular Music (2016). She is currently editing The Oxford Handbook of Slavic and East European Folklore (forthcoming, 2024).
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Picture: Traditional Bosnian Muslim women preparing the bride for her wedding