Monika Otter

title.none: Schaefer, Vokalität: Altenglische Dichtung

identifier.other: baj9928.9404.007 94.04.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Monika Otter, Dartmouth College

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Schaefer, Ursula. Vokalität: Altenglische Dichtung zwischen Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit. Series: Script Oralia 39. Tübingen: Narr, 1992. Pp. xiv + 260. ISBN: ISBN 3-8233-4246-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.04.07

Schaefer, Ursula. Vokalität: Altenglische Dichtung zwischen Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit. Series: Script Oralia 39. Tübingen: Narr, 1992. Pp. xiv + 260. ISBN: ISBN 3-8233-4246-0.

Reviewed by:

Monika Otter
Dartmouth College

Note on spelling: Although, in accordance with German convention, I have used ae, oe, ue to stand for Umlauts in German words, the name "Schaefer" is in fact spelled with ae, not a-Umlaut.

Over the past few decades, studies on oral and written modes in literature and communication have established themselves as a central part of the scholarship on the high and later Middle Ages. Schaefer's impressively learned, wide-ranging study (published in the lively ScriptOralia series that comes out of Freiburg University's special project on orality and literacy) complements these endeavors on the early medieval side. She closely examines the pragmatics of poetic production and reception in the Anglo-Saxon period, and the esthetic and semiotic consequences of those pragmatics; she is particularly interested in the early development of fictionality. As she carefully establishes her theoretical groundwork, Schaefer rejects neat dichotomies between "oral" and "literate" as untenable. She is also dissatisfied with evolutionist models of "transitional" stages between one state and the other, which are both unnecessarily judgmental and insufficiently supported by evidence. (It should be noted, though, that Schaefer does not entirely free herself from such models in her argument.) Therefore, she posits a tertium quid, a modality that participates in both oral and literate culture yet also has a logic and esthetic of its own. Borrowing a term from Zumthor, though slightly changing its place within the larger terminological system, she calls this mode "vocality" (Vokalitaet). "Vocality," she argues, is the term that best captures the workings of early medieval culture: it denotes the peaceful coexistence of written and oral modes, each in their appropriate spheres, and a characteristic interplay between features of both.

The first part of Schaefer's book is devoted to the theoretical and historical foundations of her argument. She shows how the specific historical circumstances of the advent of literacy in Anglo-Saxon England produce vocality: we are dealing with a "craft literacy," tied intrinsically to Christianity, and to the relatively small (though not strictly monopolistic) group of people actively engaged in the religious life. Given the methods of reading instruction and the tradition of ruminative "lectio divina," reading in the monastic context remains closely linked to the spoken word and to memorization. Thus, even the written tradition taken by itself has a strong oral element; this, together with the constant interplay between Latin and vernacular, written/ecclesiastical and oral, Christian and Germanic cultures, creates the cultural conditions specific to vocality.

The next section (chapter 3) makes use of text linguistics, as well as literary historians' studies on the early history of fictionality, to establish the specific nature of poetic communication within a vocal culture. In contrast to many recent theorists, Schaefer limits the term "text" to written materials, and suggests the term "utterance" ("Aeusserung" or "enonciation") for any instance of oral communication or oral poetic activity; the main difference being that a written text forms "an autonomous system of reference" (and autoreference), whereas an "utterance" remains closely tied to its communicative context, and thus retains its primary reference to the extralinguistic world. The distinction is crucial because the very nature of literary "Sinnvermittlung" (transmission of meaning) depends on it. Following, among others, Wolfgang Iser and Michael Riffaterre, Schaefer sees fictionality as a property of the written text, as a direct consequence of textuality and the concept of an autonomous text.

To define the specific place of vocality in this framework, Schaefer next examines poetic formulae and gnomai. Schaefer shows that formulaicness is a natural property not only of primary orality but also of the hybrid "utterances" of vocality. Reliance on formulae and gnomai ("systemes connotes," in Barthes' phrase) ensures traditionality of context and of form. Each poetic work and performance both perpetuates the shared poetic tradition and derives from it its authority, even its meaning.

The final chapter of Part I., "the aesthetic locus of poetry in vocality," is the linchpin of Schaefer's argument. Returning to an argument begun in chapter 2, Schaefer stresses the combination and coexistence of native Germanic and imported Latin/Christian elements in Anglo-Saxon England. The Christian tradition introduces "Augustinian esthetics" as "absolutely binding." This Christian imperative, though imported, fits in harmoniously with received Germanic notions of the function of poetry. Both cultures demand that poetry be traditional—either for theological reasons, or, in the case of oral Germanic poetry, for reasons inherent in orality; both require that a work of art be "tied to the world," and that it be both creative of and expressive of social consensus. Bede's famous anecdote about Caedmon strikingly demonstrates the happy meeting of both traditions. Under these conditions of literary production and reception, fictionality—tied as it is to the notion of an autonomous, self-referential text—is an alien concept, and, as Schaefer shows, only vaguely understood.

Yet that very traditionality contains the seeds of change. Formulaicness turns into written convention, and therefore contributes to the notion of an autonomous "literariness." A similar, and even stronger, push toward literariness comes from the "inscribed voice," a characteristic feature of "vocal" poetry: it mimics orality, and an oral communicative setting, in a written form, thereby creating a fictive "poetic I," which is an important, if not the crucial, element in the creation of a fictional text.

This section forms a fitting transition to Part II, which consists of close readings of Anglo-Saxon poems with the criteria and terminology developed in Part I. Schaefer follows the two main strands of her argument, formulaicness and the poetic I, through Beowulf and the so-called Old English "elegies." In all those areas, Cynewulf functions as the great transitional figure, both the embodiment of and a major impetus for the move from vocality to a fully written mode of literary communication, to textuality and to fiction.

Schaefer is an extremely circumspect, self-aware scholar. She incessantly looks about her, shores up her argument, tells the history of just about every critical debate she touches on, reflects and justifies her own position on every issue every step of her carefully constructed argument. She is competent in both literature and linguistics (historical as well as theoretical), and familiar with European as well as American scholarship; if for no other reason, her book is well worth reading as an extremely useful synthesis and retrospective evaluation of several decades of not always well-coordinated or mutually aware efforts in all those different quarters. If there is anything substantive to criticize in this book, it is that it occasionally becomes too circumspect, too careful not only to document but reason even minor steps. This results in a certain eclecticism and also a theoretical overload; confronted with such a surfeit of interpretive tools and terminologies, I sometimes found myself longing for Ockham's razor. On the other hand, the standard of meticulousness set in most of the book makes it all the more obvious when there are occasional loose ends, or when a point in her argument has not been carefully established—something a reader might blithely overlook in a less tightly argued study. For instance, two scholars on the history of death, Aries and Gronbech, are introduced into the debate of death gnomai—to little effect, as far as I can see. More seriously, perhaps, the arguments that "Augustinian ethics is absolutely binding for the Middle Ages" or that "individuality in the early Middle Ages is not well established," go rather too fast for my taste. Both points are important to Schaefer's argument and are made to carry considerable weight in the argument. Yet these points, the subjects of notoriously complicated, elusive, semantically fuzzy debates, are introduced with little discussion, and, especially by Schaefer's own standards, a rather thin bibliography.

But whatever quibbles one might have had if Schaefer had fully discussed these premises are unlikely to detract from her main argument in any serious way. It is thoroughly persuasive, sensible, and for all its terminological and methodological complexity, extremely readable. I hope that the language barrier will not discourage American scholars from reading this important and enjoyable study.