00.02.09, Bradbury, Writing Aloud: Storytelling in Late Medieval England

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Joyce Coleman

The Medieval Review baj9928.0002.009


Bradbury, Nancy Mason. Writing Aloud: Storytelling in Late Medieval England. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998. Pp. xii, 247. ISBN: 0-252-02403-6.

Reviewed by:
Joyce Coleman
University of North Dakota

In Writing Aloud, Nancy Mason Bradbury presents a "spectrum" of five metrical romances, each of which "shows successively more reliance on written modes of thought and expression; each offers fresh accommodations to the task of re-creating in writing stories which were once performed orally" (p. 6). (As this "mission statement" implies, the book's focus is not quite as broad as implied in its subtitle.) This review will proceed from a précis of Bradbury's discussion of the romances, to a review of her approach to the romance as a genre, and then to her theoretical discussion of orality and literacy.

The Spectrum

Bradbury begins her (avowedly non-chronological) spectrum with Gamelyn (c. 1350-70), which she describes as "the written record of what would ordinarily have been an oral performance" (p. 24). Bradbury aligns Gamelyn with complaint poems such as The Simonie, which protest the oppressions of government and its agents. She then moves on to an extended discussion of Gamelyn as an outlaw or greenwood romance, a genre whose penchant for Bakhtinian inversions of authority and for formulaic language betrays its grounding in oral, folk culture.

Havelok (c. 1280-1300) moves us one degree beyond Gamelyn, in being a literary take on a folk legend (based, Bradbury argues, more on native English tradition than on the earlier French cognates). Havelok reveals a consistent narratorial voice, and refers in its conclusion to the time the author has spent writing it. Thus it begins to open a space between author and text, consciously manipulating identity and relationship.

At midpoint in her spectrum, Bradbury tracks the increasing influence of textuality through the changes made by a fifteenth-century redactor to the early fourteenth-century Seege of Troye. Whereas Gamelyn and Havelok "have their roots in living oral traditions," she notes, the Seege, Kyng Alisaunder, and Chaucer's Troilus "are modeled on identifiable, extant written sources." The Seege is the first romance in her spectrum, Bradbury posits, whose author aspired to literary canonicity.

Next in line, Kyng Alisaunder (early 14th century; version discussed by Bradbury c. 1400) is "a work of considerable literary sophistication" that "strains against the limits of English romance's established diction and narrative conventions" (p. 134). Using Donald Howard's terms, Bradbury concludes that all five of her romances manifest "voiceness" (direct address and presumed oral delivery), but that Kyng Alisaunder is the first to manifest a significant degree of "bookness" (reliance on authorities and didactic intention) (p. 136).

Finally, we come to Chaucer. Bradbury's assertion that the native English influences on Troilus and Criseyde (early to mid-1380s) have been underestimated introduces a discussion of the "minstrel style" in that text. Drawing on John Miles Foley's Immanent Art, Bradbury shows how "traditional referentiality"--allusions that invoke not particular works but a whole generic heritage of formulas, motifs, and themes--enriches Troilus. Chaucer's audience would have been as familiar with these as Chaucer himself--far more so than with the Italian authors whose influence scholars focus on today.

Over the course of the Troilus, however, Bradbury goes on to argue, the atmosphere of "performed minstrelsy" gives over to that of "old books," as both Troilus and Criseyde lament their future, written reputation, and as Chaucer sends his little tragedy off to kiss the steps of Poesy (p. 194). As Troilus and Criseyde's fates draw in, "the flexibility, presence, and vocal immediacy of oral performance" give way to the fear "that someone will 'myswrite' or 'mysmetre' Chaucer's fixed and authorized text" (p. 201).

Bradbury's conclusion (and this last paragraph ends the book as well) is that Chaucer wrote not to "reject oral storytelling but rather to engage popular minstrelsy and written authority in a characteristic quiting. He holds the two in rivalry and balance so that each pole reveals the lack that renders the other limited or incomplete" (p. 201).

Bradbury's View of the Romance

Bradbury's discussion of each romance is careful and well-researched. She writes with ease and often grace, with many interesting insights or worthwhile correctives to prevalent arguments. In her Introduction, she deflates the tendency to equate the "oral" or the "folk" with poor quality of narrative or versification, or with "the sordid skill of corruption and fragmentation" (quoting Andrew Taylor, on p. 2).

Nor does Bradbury accept the class-prejudices that sometimes accompany this scholarly world-view ("Oral tradition in a literate society is inevitably 'low,'" wrote Derek Pearsall in 1977, "and inevitably makes wretched what it touches"; quoted on p. 2). "There was no simple and stable opposition between high and low culture in premodern Europe," Bradbury observes. Instead, she sees a pattern of "ongoing exchange" between popular and elite culture (p. 14).

Rather than denigrating any text that uses formulas, Bradbury evaluates such texts on how well they use formulas. Similarly, she can accept the fact that the genre and often the source-texts of romance came to England from France, where interest in them had largely died out by the time the English practice began, without concluding that English romances are therefore only derivative and the genre passé. What's relevant to a discussion of English romance, Bradbury assumes (and I agree), is what the romance did and meant in England.

Orality-Literacy Theory

While there is much to admire and learn in Bradbury's discussion of the romance, however, the weakness of her theoretical discussion seriously undermines any claim this book would have to contributing to current work on orality and literacy. In contrast to the deep and up-to-date scholarship shown in her discussions of romance, the coverage of "writing aloud" is seriously outdated and shallow.

Bradbury introduces her spectrum with the declaration: "The English romances seemed to me to ask to be read in the light of what we know about medieval orality and literacy" (p. 7). However, she never explicates what it is that we do know about medieval orality and literacy; nor what she means by orality, literacy, or other crucial (and debated) terms; nor what her particular theoretical views or contributions might be. The only explicit review of ideas about orality and literacy comes in one page-long footnote (pp. 203-4 n. 5).

In this footnote, Bradbury comments that "the most promising lines of inquiry now seem to be those that explore the interactions between these two modes of thought and expression [orality and literacy]" (p. 204 n. 5). However, in the text itself, discussing genre theory, she goes on to embrace Northrop Frye's distinction between epos and fiction as the most useful framework in defining the difference between "oral" and "literate" texts. In "epos," an author speaks to "a present audience," whereas in "fiction" the author is "a generator of pages to be read by silent readers" (p. 10). "Interaction" doesn't fare too well here, as Frye seems to leave no room for pages heard via public reading or recitation.

Here, and throughout the book, Bradbury's thinking on orality and literacy seems to rely primarily on the "Great Divide" theories of Walter Ong and Jack Goody. Even the idea of Chaucer "quiting" oral and literate influences in his work assumes a natural antagonism between these dichotomized and absolute categories. Bradbury's review of theorists makes no acknowledgment of the many objections raised to Ong's and Goody's essentialist conceptions, by scholars such as Ruth Finnegan, Brian Street, D.H. Green, Matthew Innes, myself, and others. I'm the only one of these cited anywhere in the book. The absence of any reference to Finnegan's Oral Poetry (1977) or Literacy and Orality (1988) is particularly regrettable. (Brian Stock [1990] gets credit for the term "strong thesis" [Bradbury, p. 204 n. 5], which Finnegan introduced in 1988.)

Given the inadequacy of the theoretical framework, and the refusal to define key terms, I found myself puzzling over an unexpected question; namely: What exactly does Bradbury's spectrum describe? She claims to be tracing the handover from oral to literate or written style (e.g., p. 6). But--as she periodically points out--all five texts refer to oral delivery. Even Chaucer embeds his fears about miswriting and mismetering in a reference to the future copies of Troilus and Criseyde being "red .. or elles songe [i.e., read aloud]" (T and C 5: 1797). And all five romances were, of course, written down. So where does orality leave off and textuality begin?

Bradbury further confuses the issue by conflating the terms "oral" and "folk," and by equating them both--like the older generation of scholars whose condescending attitudes she otherwise deprecates--with low social class. To a modern folklorist, however, the "folk" is any definable group that shares some form of interpersonal and relatively unofficial communication. By this definition, the Carmina Burana or the Luttrell Psalter's babooneries are as "folk" (and as transgressive) as outlaw romances.

Similarly, as Ruth Finnegan showed in Oral Poetry (1977), "oral" texts--even in the "purest" form of works composed, remembered, and performed with no use of writing--can belong to highly elite genres and be addressed to aristocratic audiences. In medieval England, written texts were memorized for recitation at every level of society (and in all of England's three languages), while evidence abounds that written texts were read aloud in the universities and at the courts of kings and nobles. If recitation and public reading count as "oral" (and Bradbury explicitly includes them as such, though with minimal discussion), then it makes no sense to equate "orality" with low social class. It's true enough to say that popular culture was oral; but it's equally true that bourgeois, aristocratic, and academic culture was oral. Orality is a large category, one that overlaps with the use of writing and thus should not be polarized against it.

To discuss orality in medieval texts, therefore, you have to define the kind of orality. And in fact, lurking (I think) within Bradbury's discussion is precisely that level of distinction. It seems likely that the present book is a revision of Bradbury's Ph.D. thesis, registered with Dissertation Abstracts International in 1987 under the title "Writing Aloud: The Minstrel Style in Five Middle English Narratives." Articles published subsequent to the dissertation, and presumably derived from it, concern Havelok (1993), Troilus (1994), and Gamelyn (1996).

Bradbury's spectrum makes much more sense as an index of minstrel or memorial style than as an index of medieval orality overall. The features Bradbury associates with orality--formulas, repetitions, asseverations of truth, direct address--are peculiar to minstrel style, as a subform of orality. The date of the thesis might explain the reliance on Ong's Orality and Literacy (1982), and the minimal engagement with later (and earlier, marginalized) critiques of his influential but simplistic views.

If Bradbury's spectrum traces relative degrees of "minstrel"-ism in her texts, it makes sense as well that she omits any discussion of aurality (reading aloud in social groups). It had worried me that neither Havelok's "romanz-reding on the bok" (l. 2328) nor Criseyde and her maidens' reading of the Seege of Thebes was afforded any standing in Bradbury's overview of orality. (Criseyde's reading is noted in passing, as a form of "minstrelsy" [pp. 195, 197]). Aurality shouldn't be excluded from discussions such as Bradbury's purports to be, since it evinces a unique blend of "voiceness" and "bookness" that persisted, among elite readers, throughout the later Middle Ages. But I can see that it would not hold a crucial place in an analysis of minstrel style.

As a discussion of minstrel or memorial style in popular romance, Bradbury's work is worth perusing. Her defense of the popular romance, as a viable and enjoyable art-form with its own esthetic, is admirable. As an overview of the relationship between orality and literacy in medieval English romance, however, the book is outdated and theoretically deficient. Worse, by reconfiguring her study of minstrel style as a treatise on the broader category of orality, Bradbury has created an analysis that threatens to mislead readers and to confuse the theoretical issues she allegedly set out to illuminate.

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Author Biography

Joyce Coleman

University of North Dakota