Joaquin M. Pizarro, SUNY Stony Brook

title.none: Nicolaisen (ed.), Oral Tradition

identifier.other: baj9928.9611.016 96.11.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joaquin M. Pizarro, SUNY Stony Brook,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Nicolaisen, W. F. H., ed. Oral tradition in the Middle Ages. Binghamton, New York: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1995. Pp. vi, 231. $. ISBN: ISBN 0-86698-165-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.11.16

Nicolaisen, W. F. H., ed. Oral tradition in the Middle Ages. Binghamton, New York: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1995. Pp. vi, 231. $. ISBN: ISBN 0-86698-165-9.

Reviewed by:

Joaquin M. Pizarro, SUNY Stony Brook

The twelve papers contained in this volume were originally presented in 1988 at a conference organized by the Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies at SUNY Binghamton. They are: Albert B. Lord, "Oral Composition and 'Oral Residue' in the Middle Ages" (pp. 7-29); John Miles Foley, "The Implications of Oral Tradition" (pp. 31-57); Carl Lindahl, "The Oral Undertones of Late Medieval Romance" (pp. 59-75); Joseph Falaky Nagy, "Oral Tradition in the Acallam na Senorach" (pp. 77-95); Gail Ivy Berlin, "Memorization in Anglo-Saxon England: Some Case Studies" (pp. 97-113); Esha Niyogi De, "From Theater to Ritual: A Study of the Revesby Mummers' Play" (pp.115-127); Jeremy Downes, "O(r)eality: The Nature of Truth in Oral Settings" (pp. 129-144); Samuel Kinser, "Wildmen in Festival, 1300-1550" (pp. 145-160); Saul Levin, "The Medieval Transformation of the Jews' Oral Heritage" (pp. 161-178); John Lindow, "THaettir and Oral Performance" (pp. 179-186); Mary Lynn Rampolla, "'A Pious Legend': St. Oswald and the Foundation of Worcester Cathedral Priory" (pp. 187-210); Nancy Freeman Regalado, "Speaking in Script: The Construction of Voice, Presence, and Perspective in Villon's Testament" (pp. 211-225).

The collection reflects an uncertainty about the nature of orality that has existed from the beginning of modern scholarship on the subject and is as strong as ever today: is orality--as the Parryists would have it--a technique of poetic composition used in illiterate/traditional societies, or is it rather a mentalite, a way of thinking, of storing knowledge, of establishing truth?1 The second option, which is now dominant, has been around from as early as the work of Marcel Jousse (1925) and is already worked out in full in Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato (1963), published only three years after Albert Lord's The Singer of Tales.

The title of the present volume would seem more appropriate for studies of oral-formulaic composition, which implies a traditional language and method of performance, but in fact its contents are mixed, and aside from plenary papers by two leading Parryists--the late Albert Lord and John Miles Foley --Oral Tradition in the Middle Ages consists mainly of studies focused on the working of orality as a mindset rather than a technique of composition or textual production. The absence of a shared definition of orality is made even more conspicuous by papers--by Esha Niyogi De and Samuel Kinser-- that have little to do with oral composition or oral mentality and have apparently been included only because of their connection with folklore.

Recent scholarship, especially in the medieval Germanic languages, has emphasized the constant interdependence of orality and literacy in medieval Europe. This development, which weakens the dramatic opposition of the two in early Parryist theory, no doubt explains the attempt made here by several of the authors to establish alternative oppositions: unconscious vs. calculated, popular vs. elitist; "centrifugal" vs. "centripetal", and "legisimilar" vs. "verisimilar." None of these dichotomies works particularly well to strengthen or replace the contrast between oral and written; they merely add to the conceptual chaos of orality/literacy studies.

Three of the papers, in fact, are theoretical: Albert Lord on "Oral Tradition and 'Oral Residue'," John Miles Foley on "The Implications of Orality" and--very much on the orality-as- mentalite side--Jeremy Downes on "The Nature of Truth in Oral Settings." The arguments presented in these papers are disappointing, for a variety of reasons. Parryist studies of oral poetry have had the greatest trouble assimilating Larry Benson's demonstration in 1966 that--at least in Old English--all the elements of oral formulaic diction are present in poems that cannot have been orally composed, such as the translated meters of Boethius, or "The Phoenix," and in the same proportions as in those poems for which no literary sources are known and which could therefore, conceivably, be written records of oral performances. The impact of The Singer of Tales and of F. P. Magoun's early articles on oral composition in Old English had been great because their criteria of orality appeared to allow conclusions as to the origins of individual texts. After Benson's article it became impossible to reason that way: the presence of formulas, formulaic systems, and themes could prove nothing about a specific text, only about the origin of the poetic language used in it.

In his essay for this collection, written very late in his career, Albert Lord has finally come round to these views, though not without much resistance. He redefines formula, theme, and unperiodic enjambment and goes on to recognize, explicitly, that these features, whatever their statistical incidence, can tell us nothing about a given poem, but only about the nature and sources of its style. A few pages later he admits that so-called "transitional texts" are indeed a possibility. At this point, not much would seem to be left of the original claims of oral-formulaic theory. Yet Lord still finds grounds for disagreement with F. Robinson's analysis of Beowulf in his Beowulf and the Appositive Style (1985), objecting that Robinson's reading makes this fully traditional poem too conscious and calculated, i.e. too literary. Lord believes that the subtleties brought to light by Robinson can all be produced by the traditional poet unconsciously, by skillful handling of inherited materials. Yet the patterns of diction and meaning revealed by Robinson's analysis are unmatched in the Serbo-Croatian songs from which Lord takes his examples of what purely traditional poetry can accomplish; they respond to a different standard of poetic taste and it seems very unlikely that they could be produced without forethought and "calculation."

John Miles Foley, who is willing to consider the Homeric epics and all Old English poetry "oral-derived" or "oral- connected" and no longer simply "oral," writes about the esthetics of oral-traditional poetry. His aim is to counter the familiar criticism that this poetry is mechanical and crude, a mere assemblage of prefabricated parts. His argument here is that traditional phrases and themes refer to their entire tradition and derive from it a great richness of meaning; in this, according to Foley, they are different from the elements of literary composition, the meaning of which is narrowly determined by their function in each specific text and by the author's intention. Foley's main example, taken from Serbo-Croatian poetry, is a phrase that describes a character jumping to his feet: taken by itself, it is a simple account of a physical movement, but within the tradition and in the understanding of a traditionally-trained audience it is a gesture of heroic readiness in the face of tremendous odds. The problem is that this sort of metonymic reference also works in literature, which after all has traditions of its own, within the framework of which it is produced and understood. The rich intertextuality that Foley attributes to his formulas and themes can be achieved in literature by the choice of a stylistic register or level, or by the use of a generic convention (e.g. the choice of either Greek or English names for the characters in Renaissance pastoral).

Jeremy Downes, who uses Beowulf to illustrate the workings of the oral-traditional "mind," seizes on the Unferth episode and its competing versions of the hero's swimming contest with Breca as an example of how reality is established and criteria of truth are applied in pre-literate societies. His conclusion is that Beowulf succeeds in imposing his version of the match because he uses a more effective rhetoric: his account conforms to narrative conventions and expectations, makes a display of accurate information, and is delivered from a position of power. Here the poet of Beowulf and his original audience would appear to be in agreement with the latest academic philosophies, which keep telling us that reality is rhetorical and negotiable and truth a matter of "expedient error." But the best scholarship on the poetic traditions of the Unferth episode, and especially the work of Carol Clover and Ward Parks, which is not cited here, suggests strongly that the point of this type-scene is a demonstration of character and rhetorical skill by the hero, and not the establishment of factual truth.

What is instructive and fascinating about the essays in this book is that those which are not theoretical but empirically- based and focused on particular languages and texts are almost uniformly good, meeting a high standard both in the new information they present and in their interpretation of it. Four of these seemed outstanding to this reviewer. Joseph Falaky Nagy on the Acallam na Senorach discusses remarkable representations of the writing down of pre-Christian oral traditions in the legends of this rarely studied Old Irish text. Samuel Levin, writing on the medieval transformation of Jewish oral heritage, describes the impact on Hebrew culture of the transition from scroll to codex, which the Jews took over from their Christian and Muslim neighbors, and the consequent creation of systematic written grammars of Hebrew, which traditional Jewish education had done without. In a very brief but perceptive and well-argued piece, John Lindow suggests that issues of narrative performance belong to the generic description of Old Norse THaettir (short stories about Icelanders in Norway). Mary Lynn Rampolla analyzes various medieval accounts of the foundation of Worcester Cathedral Priory by St. Oswald and traces in them the gradual development of "a pious legend" created in response to the monastic and celibate emphasis of the Gregorian reform and the worsening relations of the monks with their Anglo-Norman bishops. Though these four essays made a particularly strong impression, most of the other single-language and/or single-text studies are interesting and valuable. Their authors approach orality/literacy in very different ways. Nagy and Levin, for example, are concerned with techniques of textual production and textual study (though not with formulas or with poetry), while Rampolla traces the implications of orality for the historical record, and Lindow studies performance as a genre-defining subject. This all goes to show that in spite of the theoretical disarray of orality/literacy studies at present, empirical scholarship in this vast field can thrive, and that the lack of a shared conceptual framework need not be a decisive impediment for historical investigations.