Michael Richter

title.none: Hellden, Jensen and Pettitt, Inclinate aurem (Michael Richter)

identifier.other: baj9928.0211.013 02.11.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Richter, University of Konstanz,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Hellden, Jan, Minna Skafte Jensen and Thomas Pettitt, eds. Inclinate aurem: Oral Perspectives on Early European Verbal Culture. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 2001. Pp. 280. DKK 250.00. ISBN: 87-7838-680-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.11.13

Hellden, Jan, Minna Skafte Jensen and Thomas Pettitt, eds. Inclinate aurem: Oral Perspectives on Early European Verbal Culture. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 2001. Pp. 280. DKK 250.00. ISBN: 87-7838-680-2.

Reviewed by:

Michael Richter
University of Konstanz

This publication of an interdisciplinary conference held in 1998 is to be welcomed. Oral verbal culture was and is an integral part of human society, and its exploration and evaluation is still in the early stages at least as far as the medieval period is concerned. This is a highly demanding topic, but since in the Middle Ages generally speaking written culture did not have the place in society that it has in the age of printing and widespread schooling, its exploration is a priority. It is symptomatic that the only periodical centrally concerned with this topic, Oral tradition, was established as late as 1986. It is equally symptomatic that it was founded by scholars of medieval literature, not history. It reached out, however, well beyond this field and well beyond the Middle Ages.

The present volume is also of that nature. Its nine contributions span three millennia and cover half the globe, going well beyond Europe. In fact, only three contributions are concerned with the Middle Ages, and here the contributions are marginal rather than central.

The past century saw many new avenues established for our topic, and the works of Milman Parry and Albert Lord should be regarded as particularly important. They ranged from Homer to the guslari of Montenegro in the middle of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, there has been no linear development in this field of study, and there is no agreement about the evaluation of written vernacular material from the past.

All contributions investigate texts of the past and ask about their place in their respective societies. While this is perfectly legitimate, it brings up the thorny issue of the relationship of this material to oral culture. This issue is of crucial importance to the topic of orality and writing. It has been discussed for decades without, it would appear to me, satisfactory results. Most of the contributors to the present volume are not newcomers to the topic, on the contrary, they have published widely on many topics, including literary texts. This may be the reason why they do not deal with this topic in a central manner but refer the reader to their positions established elsewhere.

Let us look at the Introduction by Thomas Pettitt with the title 'Oral perspectives: ''I see a voice'' (9-19). This is the only contribution in the present volume which might be called 'theoretical', yet it does not include a single reference to the by now voluminous and diverse literature on the topic. Here are some points. His opening statement to the effect that: 'There is ultimately something inherently perverse about writing' (9) remains unexplored. He states that 'For the cultures covered by this symposium, writing was effectively a transformation of speech into visual signs which could persist independently of the speaker' (10).

'For most European traditions, over the last two millennia, the communication of verbal culture has been mixed: material received as speech has been written down; material received as writing has been spoken aloud' (11f). 'Early European verbal culture, by and large, is effectively innocent of purely oral, or purely written transmission. But the question remains: if frequently existing alongside each other, and invariably interfering with each other, are written and oral tradition nontheless different? Is there an 'oral poetics', or an aural aesthetics' of the spoken and the heard distinct from the written and the read?' ....Perhaps the major shift in this field over the last forty years has been the emergence of this question - on the distinctness of oral and written poetics - as more important than the earlier dispute concerning memorization versus improvisation (16).

Put in these terms, a topic is raised which cannot be dealt with on the basis of our material. We only have written material to study, and such material is studied here. No wonder that the subsequent papers do not deal with this issue at all, and at least two contributors (Nagy and Foley) would appear merely to offer summaries of recent more detailed contributions of their own. One would be thus well advised to go to these.

However, two contributions which strike me as particularly original since they deal in fact with oral culture, albeit in modern times, make claims which contradict what the introduction suggests. They also use the written medium, as everybody is bound to do. But they make concrete suggestions.

In her discussion of Inuit tradition of the nineteenth century, Kirsten Thisted states that there is a special language of the oral performance which is preserved in the written text. She likewise recalls the adage of the arctic explorer Knut Rasmussen that the written version of the Greenlandic drum song is like an opera without music, without the performance and without the stage setting (179f). It would appear that this applies to all oral culture, and thus to study only texts as some of the contributors have done in the past and do here is to present an impoverished and reduced portrait of past verbal art. Similar views cam be taken from the contribution of Karl Reichl on Turkic oral epic poetry. He emphasises that there are often different terms for singer-transmitter and singer-poet.

Reichl also makes a welcome plea for the value of comparative studies. He states: 'Medievalists have all too often neglected the possibility of both an oral transmission and an oral composition of medieval popular romances or traditional epics on the grounds that the medieval texts do not conform to the insights of oral-formulaic theory as developed on the basis of south Slavic heroic songs' (248). This is a very profound as well as provocative observation.

In the light of these contributions it is to be regretted that, with such diverse positions represented in this volume, the panel discussion of the symposium has not left any traces in this collection of contributions which would appear to be printed more or less in the form they were delivered and in this respect are a material product of the very matter discussed in the individual papers. The ironic but in fact condescending reference to the Great Divide concept of orality versus literacy (87) is not helpful, nor the terms 'romantic conceptions about oral traditions'or 'prelapsarian unity' (88).