Janice Pinder

title.none: Vitz, Orality and Performance in Early French Romance (Pinder)

identifier.other: baj9928.0105.010 01.05.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Janice Pinder , Monash University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Vitz, Evelyn Birge. Orality and Performance in Early French Romance. New York: D.S. Brewer, 1999. Pp. vii, 305. $90.00. ISBN: 0-859-91538-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.05.10

Vitz, Evelyn Birge. Orality and Performance in Early French Romance. New York: D.S. Brewer, 1999. Pp. vii, 305. $90.00. ISBN: 0-859-91538-7.

Reviewed by:

Janice Pinder
Monash University

This book challenges the consensus reached in the latter part of the twentieth century, that while the Old French epic can be shown to have sprung from an orally-transmitted tradition and continued to be performed orally in public, the romance is essentially a learned genre, composed and transmitted in writing and designed for private reading by individuals and small groups. The author, primarily addressing teachers of Old French literature, draws on a range of oral theory, folklore studies, and memory and performance theory to argue that many early romances display features that indicate the presence of an oral tradition, and others that show that the works were composed for oral performance. She questions the assumptions that artistic sophistication is necessarily a sign of written composition and that what has come to us in written form was always transmitted that way. This does not mean that she tries to push romance to the "oral" side of a dividing line between oral and literary genres; it is part of her purpose to break down such a dichotomy, and to demonstrate that Old French romance is a blended tradition in which individual texts may tend more towards one or the other end of the oral-literary spectrum.

The emergence of written romances in the twelfth century is treated as part of the transition from oral to written vernacular culture in the French-speaking domain. While it is generally accepted that the subject matter, at least of Arthurian romance, must have been transmitted orally before this time, this book suggests that this transmission was in a form much closer to the written version than is commonly thought, and that romances continued to be composed and transmitted orally during this period. To advance this argument, the author has to deal with the foundations of the received view that contrasts the epic tradition (oral transmission, with formulaic improvisation during performance, in a verse-form -- the decasyllabic laisse -- uniquely suited to declamation) with the romance (learned elements indicating access to written tradition, verse-form generally considered to be a clerical invention of the eleventh/twelfth century).

The book is divided into two parts: the first deals with the concepts of orality and literacy, and the way oral and literary traditions are manifested in individual works; and the second with performance issues.

The first chapter takes up the issue of verse form. The octosyllabic rhymed couplet is traditionally one of the marks of the "literariness" of the romance, since it is generally thought of as a written verse-form, perhaps derived from a Latin hymn meter, and associated with the clerical activity surrounding the early writing down of vernacular material. It follows from this view of the octosyllabic line that works composed in this meter were designed to be read, not recited. Vitz argues for a revision of this view, advancing its immediate and widespread use in written vernacular works as evidence that the octosyllabic line is pre-literary, and pointing out that units of approximately eight syllables are common in oral poetic traditions. This chapter also engages with the question of oral composition, which is often reduced to the model of the formulaic epic as defined by Parry and Lord. Vitz looks to the work of more recent scholars of oral poetry, particularly that of Ruth Finnegan, on oral traditions that cannot be defined by the presence of oral formulae, in which literacy can coexist with oral composition and performance, and in which works are composed orally in advance and performed from memory. It is in this kind of oral tradition that she envisages the production of Old French romance.

The following three chapters examine specific works to identify different degrees of orality and text-orientedness, and indications of the mode of performance. The definition of orality is here provided by a profile of an oral work set out by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy, The Technologizing of the Word. Using this profile in a comparison of the three earliest treatments of the Tristan material, Vitz finds that Beroul's version matches it most closely, but that Thomas's and Marie's also show some acknowledgement of the values of oral culture. The picture derived from the discussion of Beroul/Thomas and Marie, of the ways orality might be manifested, is then referred to in relation to the Thebes poet in the next chapter. This chapter comes to grips with the 'learned', written origins of vernacular romance. As well as finding textual evidence of orality (following the model used in the preceding chapter), Vitz unpacks the assumptions of the necessary overlap between education and clerical status and the impossibility of familiarity with "classical" subject matter without recourse to a written source, that underly the attribution of clerical status to the Thebes poet. It is to the second assumption, that learning and literacy were necessarily tied together in the same person, that she devotes most of her argument, arguing that the courts of early twelfth-century France and England provided an environment where exchanges could take place because professional oral, vernacular poets and literate clerks came into close contact. It is in the final chapter of this section, dealing with Chrétien de Troyes, that the book's most controversial claim appears. This chapter argues that Chrétien was not a clerk, but a minstrel, a gifted and subtle court entertainer whose learning was acquired at court, not through the schools; that he was probably only modestly literate, probably only in French; that he may have composed works without any recourse to writing and may well have performed them himself, from memory. As in the preceding chapters, the argument is supported by textual evidence, examining the ways Chrétien refers to himself, his work and his audience. Vitz produces variant readings from the manuscripts of Chrétien's works that indicate, she argues, not mechanical errors or deliberate alteration, but rather copying from memory. She points out range of possible modalities of composition and performance between oral composition (improvising in performance) and written composition primarily for public or private readers. This is not to deny the emergence of new cultural forms and achievements, on the part of Chrétien and others; she rather suggests that these achievements may have taken a different form from the one we tend to think of. Chrétien specialists will no doubt find points to argue with in this chapter, but this reader, reasonably familiar with Old French verse narrative and its manuscript transmission, found its arguments persuasive.

The second section of the book is concerned with the ways romances might have been performed. Here the teaching interests of the author are very evident, for as well as trying to recover the way their first audiences experienced these texts, she strongly believes that modern students should not meet them simply as printed words on a page, and concludes this section with some suggestions for contemporary performance. Using the texts examined in the first section, she points out the way that rhyme-schemes, word-plays and repetitions within narrative blocks could function as aids to memorization for oral performance. The same texts are also analyzed for their potential for dramatization through voice and gesture, noting particularly the amount of direct speech they contain. It is one of the virtues of this book that it does not try to impose a single model, however; evidence is presented from contemporary sources for a range of modalities of performance, from dramatized recitation before a large crowd, assoiated with music and other entertainment, to reading aloud to a small group.

For students and teachers of Old French literature alike, this book provides a fresh look at the beginnings of the romance genre, with useful reviews of the discussions surrounding cleric and jongleur, orality and literacy, versification and performance, that is firmly anchored in analysis of individual texts. A bald summary of the argument does not do justice to the clarity and readability of the book, nor to its engaging tone, itself reflecting a kind of orality: the author makes frequentreference to the storyteller's voice that marks a work anchored in the oral tradition; in her work the voice of the enthusiastic teacher and lively colleague can often be heard.