Andreas Klare

title.none: Sautman, et al, eds., Telling Tales: Medieval Narratives (Klare)

identifier.other: baj9928.9902.015 99.02.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Andreas Klare,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Sautman, Francesca Canade, Diana Conchado, and Giuseppe Carlo Di Scipio, eds. Telling Tales: Medieval Narratives and the Folk Tradition. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. ix, 320. $49.95. ISBN: 0-312-21131-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.02.15

Sautman, Francesca Canade, Diana Conchado, and Giuseppe Carlo Di Scipio, eds. Telling Tales: Medieval Narratives and the Folk Tradition. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. ix, 320. $49.95. ISBN: 0-312-21131-7.

Reviewed by:

Andreas Klare

The essays in this collection not only cover a wide range of questions concerning the relationship between medieval texts, the oral tradition, and the impact of folklore, but they also take into consideration the social conditions of the texts and the cultural experiences of the author and the audience. As the editors tell us, "Telling Tales . . . brings the investigation of the mutual shadowing of oral and written narratives to bear on the systems of learning, political ideologies, gender formation and conflicts, folk religion, ethnic tensions, and legal practices" (p. ix). The book is divided into five main parts: an introduction; part I, sources and traditions; part II, textual variation; part III, hagiography; part IV, historical contexts. Parts I through IV demonstrate four different approaches to medieval artifacts. Part I examines the correlation between the oral and written sources. Part II considers variant texts and examines the relationship between text and image. Part III explores new approaches to medieval sources, such as gender studies and psychoanalysis. Part IV looks at the social function of texts in general.

The introduction explains the basic principles of the scholars' approaches to folklore. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that folklore is an important and essential factor of medieval life and culture. It is therefore crucial that scholars take it into consideration when dealing with medieval artifacts. In this collection all the essays work with a wide definition of the term 'text'. The editors write that texts are ". . . cultural artefacts that include strictly verbal, word-based, or 'word-conveyed' narratives, as well as narratives that are in part or whole conveyed through icons" (p. 4). In other words, to study a text is also to study the interdependence between word and image, icon and text in general, not only in manuscripts but also in murals or amulets. Furthermore, we are told, texts "are not simply strings of words with a meaning, but are an integral part of a performance, which is by definition, local, historically timed, and variable in its very repetition" (p. 6). This connects medieval literature with issues of variance, mouvance, and performance.

In this book, folklore does not only refer to the oral tradition, nor is the term used to describe the culture of the lower social strata. Instead, the term 'folklore' is defined and used in the widest sense. Folklore connotes the ever-changing knowledge of a given people and refers to a complexity of attitudes, beliefs, rituals, customs, thoughts, myths, legends, theories, etc. Folklore includes both the oral tradition and literacy; it refers to the practices and beliefs of the lower and upper levels of medieval society. This broad use of the term hearkens back to the original understanding of 'folk-lore', presented by W. J. Thomas in 1846. Folklore is not an invariant factor. The editors note the difficulties of finding and assessing the traces of folklore in medieval texts and other artefacts.

The first essay (John McNamara) deals with Angl-Saxon saints' legends which were originally transmitted orally. These legends were altered when they were translated into Latin and written down according to the Latin literary models. They retained a pseudo-oral character through source references to 'famae' and rumors, interestingly not a devaluation at that time. There is a great variety of ways in which the texts were transmitted (through performance or reading), so that each text has to be individually evaluated.

Jeffrey J. Cohen writes about the order of monsters in the Middle Ages, and demonstrates that the scholar has then to deal with "the development of a complex narrative tradition in which scientific discourse, theological regulation and the popular imagination overlap, compete, and coexist" (p. 37). Cohen addresses the beginnings of this development (Herodotus, Ktesias, Alexander the Great) and then discusses the perception of monsters in the Middle Ages (Augustine, Isidor). By examining maps, he ascertains where monsters were thought to live, he investigates different types of monsters and various functions within the medieval social discourses (danger, curiosity, adventure, moral standards). I question only Cohen's derivation of the rebellious and mocking character of the Goliards' works from the biblical giant Goliath, who was one of the "insubordinate sons of Earth" (p. 46) -- the origin of the name is rather to a bishop Golias, thought to be a historical figure from the 12th century on.

According to Philippe Walter the focus of research should be switched from the relationship between Latin and the vernacular languages to the one between oral and written literature. Oral cultural traditions could have been the aesthetic, poetic and thematic sources of nearly all non-Latin literature. Variations of written texts only can be explained in full by looking at the oral tradition, which is not homogeneous in itself. Walter emphasizes the role of the wandering English story-tellers who also roamed the continent and spread stories of Celtic origin. Written literature is seen by him as the result of the desire to transmit the best oral tales -- stories were adapted, but not invented. Walter therefore denies the important role of authors like Chrétien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach, who took the basic plot from sources, but changed essential features to produce literature of a very different style. With respect to the chansons de geste Walter is correct when he asserts that they are intended "to retell a mythified (or mystifying) history, to crystallize around a given, more or less accurate historical event a mythical memory and patterns that are quite anterior to those events" (p. 65). But I find too radical the following statement: "Epic truth, more beautiful and more expressive than historical truth, thus comes to displace the latter in collective memory" (p. 65). We must remember that there are efforts among the secular nobility to root their mostly genealogy-based history in Latin or vernacular chronicles.

The story of Judith in medieval narrative and in the iconographic tradition is the topic of Leslie Abend Callahan's article that opens part II of the book. First she looks on the story in different texts (biblical, hagiographic) and notes fundamental variations, recognisable from the first occurance of the story in Jewish literature on. The image of Judith changes from a heroine under the guidance of God to a dangerous, self-confident woman. The ambiguity of Judith even exists within a single text, "created by the conjunction of conflicting or contradictory narratives" (p. 79). By looking on the iconographic tradition Callahan tries to reveal the underlying basic narrative structures, but I could not find a clear logic to the order of the texts mentioned. I wonder why the two versions of the Judith-legend (Older and Younger Judith) that are combined in the Vorau manuscript cod. 276 from different sources are not mentioned. They represent a special case: the older text, based on oral vulgar heroic traditions, pushes the religious context to the background; the younger text, that follows the older one, depicts Judith as an exemplary saint.

Jacques Berlioz deals with two Catalan texts from the 15th century as a special kind of exempla from the Recull de eximplis e miracles (numbers 40 and 41). This kind of exemplum was designed and destined to avoid border conflicts in rural areas by describing the horrors in hell that awaited the perpetrators. They were used in sermons. The two exempla dealt with here are of German origin, written by the Cistercian Caesarius of Heisterbach at the beginning of the 13th century and transmitted to Spain via Arnold of Liège's "Alphabetum narrationum" (written between 1297 and 1308). Berlioz tries to show the connections of the two exempla with other traditions and genres as part of the explanation for all the changes the texts underwent to maintain their effectiveness. The ambiguous and paradoxical character of Þórr and his relationship with Hrungnir are the topics of Michael J. Stitt. He focusses on the different levels and elements of narration that concern these two characters and their possible sources in the Indo-European literary heritage. Even the etymology of certain words (e.g. 'thundergod') in different languages is taken into account. "All the evidence shows that the ambiguities shared by the dragonslayer and his foe are deeply rooted in various Indo-European languages . . ." (p. 130). These sources contribute to the different texts and leave space for the creative narrating of the respective authors.

In the next article, Madeleine Jeay compares the scene from Chrétien's Perceval, in which Perceval is fascinated by the resemblance of three drops of blood in the snow to his wife Blanchefleur, with other texts that contain this motif that is familiar to us from Snow White -- colours of red, white and black serve as a metaphor for a beautiful woman. Jeay concentrates on narrative style in the Middle Ages, not the revelation of yet undiscovered meanings. She demonstrates the complexity of meanings contained in this scene by using different methodological perspectives -- psychoanalysis, the symbolism of colours, the meaning of the motifs (e.g. 'colours', 'blood') in other narratives and contexts, literary comparison with other genres. "The lesson is that it is inscribed in the metaphors by which the text seems to translate its movement and its limits. ...We cannot divorce the 'ideogrammatic' image from the archtypical or mythic dimension that renders all the works contemporary and fraternal" (p. 148).

With the next article we leave Western Europe and go to the Arab region. The Story of the Hunchback is compared with the story of The Corpse Killed Five Times of Thousand Nights and a Night. The discussion starts with a short review of the published editions of Thousand Nights and a Night. The result is an increased awareness of the artificiality of edited texts. 'New or material philology' and 'Mouvance' are the terms that inform the study. The manuscripts demonstrate that no recognizable homogeneous tradition is recognizable, although the texts are similar to each other. It is very interesting to realize what adaptations were made to the basic story to satisfy the cultural preconditions of a certain region. The Arab version of The Story of the Hunchback seems to have derived from the tradition, but was substantially changed to fit into Thousand Nights and a Night.

Edina Bozóky, opening the third section of the book about hagiography, concentrates on the charms and amulets attributed to saints in hagiographic legends. These charms could be attributed to the saints based on their actual acts, but the charms could also be fictional. Both kinds of charms "justify or authenticate the existing magical and religious practices" (p. 181). But some charms and amulets were created by the people's faith in the magical power of the saints described in the legends. Here unofficial und official religion interfere with each other.

Di Scipio's topic is the miracles of St. Paul and how they are described in the different legendary texts as a result of the influence of popular traditions. Based on the importance of Paul within the history of the Christian church, folk tradition, according to Di Scipio, created its own figure of Paul, and the written texts mostly rely on these oral sources. The oral traditon more or less is still alive in these days.

Joseph Nagy looks at the interaction between the oral and written tradition of the legend of Adamnán, a special case within the Irish saints' lives. Adamnán is a special case, because he did not found a monastry; he is an author who wrote legends himself, he had visions and he was seen as the writer of rules of social conduct. Within his legend he is connected with saint Columba, his predecessor as the abbot of Iona. Nagy tries to follow the changes that the figure of Adamnán underwent in later texts and investigates the differing interests in the saint that gave rise to these changes.

Part IV of the book deals with historical contexts. "Folklore and Competing Texts in Baudouin de Sebourc" is the title of Francesca Sautman's article. She examines a lot of different texts that could have been sources for arranging the chanson de geste. Among these texts are reports of the First Crusade and its consequences and reports on the local history of northeast France, Flanders and Hainaut that contain contradicting biographical and geographical facts. The information in these texts was evaluated and incorporated into the chanson, which therefore looks like a great compilation.

Carl Lindahl opens his article on "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" by introducing his basic methodological premise that one cannot isolate folkloristic elements from a literary text and pursue their tradition back to the sources as though there has never been the slightest development and as if people's knowledge about these elements never changes. He asserts that the scholar should view the literary text within the cultural and mythological knowledge of a particular social group at the time of composition. ". . .[T]rue myth is generated in the tales and rituals of the mythopoeic society, not in the heads of distant critics" (p. 250). So Lindahl tries to reveal the connections of the "Green Knight" with the festivities of the 14th century in Middle England.

Catherine Veay-Vallantin examines the interaction between the story of Little Red Riding Hood and local events that influence the story in all of its parts and levels. She first sketches the tradition of the basic story up to the time of the "Beast of Gévaudan" in the years between 1764 and 1767. She finds that the traditonal elements interact with the historical events first as a means to judge the events and second to form new texts on the basis of the different facts.

All in all the studies presented in this book are very useful to read, although they cover a range too wide to derive any single conclusion. They all present special cases, different methodological approaches and different historial contexts -- it is more a survey of possibilities offered by work in folklore.