11.10.25, Rankovic, Along the Oral-Written Continuum

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Jonathan Herold

The Medieval Review 11.10.25

Rankovic, Slávica, Leidulf Melve and Else Mundal. Along the Oral-Written Continuum: Types of Texts, Relations and their Implications. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers n.v., 2010. Pp. vi, 488. ISBN: 978-2-503-53407-7.

Reviewed by:
Jonathan Herold
jr.herold@gmail.com

The caption to the cartoon decorating the cover of the twentieth volume of the Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy declares: "The monsters of Pure Literacy and Pure Orality have come thus far and no farther." The monsters depicted are vaguely disturbing (cyclopean hand-creatures wielding pencils oppose disembodied mouths that flap about by their ears!), but not as disturbing as the possibility that over the course of the last forty years or so some medievalists may not have already received this message. The twenty papers in this collection go far to correct this for historians, linguists, codicologists and literary scholars alike, by presenting a variety of approaches to exploring the interrelationships between oral and written modes of textual production, transmission and preservation and applying them (primarily, although not exclusively) to the study of a range of medieval narrative, poetic, legal and administrative texts. The theoretical basis for these explorations is the concept of an "'oral-written' or 'oral-literate' continuum" first proposed by Ruth Finnegan in the early nineteen-seventies as a response to the metaphorical "Great Divide" between oral/aural and written cultures advanced by W. J. Ong. Employing the "oral-written continuum" as a conceptual lens, the twenty contributors to this volume examine the interplay between orality and literacy in an impressive range of medieval textual genres and contexts.

The essays in this collection are organized in three parts. Part One includes three essays that reevaluate the continuing validity of the concept of an oral-literate continuum in light of recent research into the study of "oral culture" and the development of literate mentalities. The first two essays refine--or rather recast--Finnegan's concept of a linear continuum along which examples of oral-literate textual production can be conceptually plotted. John Miles Foley advances a theoretical model of the interplay between orality and literacy that one might characterize as "economic": he views their relationship in terms of exchanges negotiated among the three major modes of textual production devised to date (oral, written or "textual," and electronic). Foley's conception of textual production defies the linear development implied through the use of the term "continuum," and locates the processes by which texts are developed within the interaction between three "agoras" (sic) or "marketplaces" in which the media employed in textual production and delivery influence the transmission and reception of the texts themselves (22-30). In the second essay of Part One, Slavica Ranković reexamines and re-presents Finnegan's original concept of a "oral-literate continuum" in terms of three-dimensional space, in which the media of textual production and preservation, the poetics employed by authors and audiences, and the social context of the particular texts under analysis (as evidenced by the presence or absence of heteroglossia within and "around" texts) may be represented. Ranković's elaboration of the oral-literate continuum reflects a more nuanced conception of the interaction between orality and literacy than that represented in much earlier scholarship that refers to the idea (41, n. 7). Ranković is careful to note, however, that Finnegan's original view of the continuum admits more complexity than much subsequent scholarship has assumed (43-5). Ranković refers to characteristics of Icelandic sagas, skaldic verse, Serbian epic poetry, Bosnian Muslim epics, the modernist novel Ulysses and Wikipedia as "case studies" to illustrate the application of this refined model, employing it to illustrate the complex interplay between oral and literate modes of textualization in each of the six exemplary text types. Both Foley's and Ranković's papers are wide-ranging in terms of genre and temporal scope, and illustrate that observing historical developments in the relationship between literacy and orality requires sensitivity to both historical and ongoing social and technological developments.

The third paper of Part One, Leidulf Melve's "Mapping Public Debates along the Oral-Literate Continuum (1100-1300)", maintains the theoretical robustness of the previous two contributions, but focuses the concept of an oral-literate continuum more directly on a group of medieval texts than either Foley's or Ranković's essays. Melve analyzes the process of textualization in High Medieval political discourse in terms of a conceptual continuum along which polemical writing moves from argumentative formality towards increasingly demonstrative rhetoric. Referring to a series of three notable public debates of the High Middle Ages--the Investiture Controversy, the conflict between England's King Henry II and Thomas Becket, and the English Baronial Rebellion--Melve identifies and analyzes a set of four variables present in texts relating to each of these historical debates in order to describe the development of medieval literate mentalities from the late eleventh to the early fourteenth centuries. Melve notes the development in these texts as a movement away from restricted, Latinate polemical exchanges among elites to a more broad-based public debate, influenced by "oral procedures" rooted in an increasingly assertive "vernacular dimension", and linked to the process of state formation and the "gradual widening of the political public" over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (99).

The papers in Part Two of this volume, "Oral Texts and Textual Performances: Verbal Art along the Continuum", focus on specific texts (or groups of texts) whose physical artifacts display a textual instability characteristic of oral/aural transmission and development. All but one of the ten essays in this section focus on Norse texts: the genres examined range from skaldic poetry, sagas and runic inscriptions to biblical marginalia and accounts of discourse in gestae and vitae. Judith Jesch's essay analyzes the interplay between orality and written textuality in the poetry of the eleventh-century scald Sigvatr þórðarson, while Joseph Harris compares characteristics of Old Norse memorialization as preserved in different media: skaldic funeral verses recorded in manuscripts and memorial inscriptions on runestones. The significance of runestones along the oral-written continuum is also the subject of Kristal Zilmer's essay, although her analysis of three specific examples extends beyond their textual content and considers the physical characteristics of the stone writing support, the overall image of the inscription and the landscape in which the stones themselves were set. Else Mundal discusses how the introduction of Christianized literary motifs and genres came to complement the culture of textual performance that existed among the pagan Norse peoples, and posits that the written format of various early texts may reflect characteristics of their function as repositories of knowledge.

Analysis of various metaphorical references to knowledge as a liquid within Old Norse literature is the subject of Judy Quinn's contribution: Quinn observes that such references generally reflect the oral/aural roots of the culture that produced these stories, and notes that in cases when characteristics of written culture are present in the narrative (as when written or inscribed words are dissolved and imbibed by the story's hero), the metaphor of knowledge as a liquid persists. Vésteinn ólason's essay provides an analysis of the contents, layout and arrangement of the Codex Regius, the manuscript preserving the Poetic Edda, in which he concludes that although its contents undoubtedly originated in oral traditions, the various textual sections were recorded and transmitted by scribes apparently conversant with both oral-formulaic and literary modes. Bernt Øyvind Thorvaldsen considers the representation of curses in the written record of Eddic and skaldic poetry. Curses and insults were products of a performative oral tradition, but when presented in written narrative, curses were recorded in runic script that reflected (or possibly retained) the supposed magical power of the original speech act.

The next two papers in Section Two examine the development of early Christianized Latin texts within Medieval culture. Åslaug Ommundsen's contribution explores the development of the legend of Hallvard, the patron saint of Oslo. The oral origin of this legendary tradition is still detectable in variations among the different versions of the story recorded in Latin, although Ommundsen also attributes several of the variations in Halvard's legend to changes in the story's social context and liturgical usage in the different regions where his feast was observed. Lucie Doležalová considers the interaction between oral and written culture as evidenced in two other Christian didactic Latin texts: the Summarium Biblie, the understanding of which appears to depend on the reader's previous knowledge of biblical texts, and the Cena Cypriani, which apparently presumes knowledge of some manner of oral tradition. The final essay in Section Two focuses specifically on the development of 'literate mentalities' in Norse culture. Jürg Glauser analyzes the deployment of words and concepts that describe writing as both material object and compositional act in a range of literary and didactic Old Norse texts (prologues and epilogues to several riddarasögur, as well as texts from Íslendingabók and Hungrvaka), noting the persistent interdependence between orality and written textuality, even as writing as a medium of textual transmission was gaining dominance.

The third part of this volume, "Of Kings and Peasants: The Orality-Literacy Continuum and the Advent of Administrative Writing", focuses on the impact of Latinate written culture on socio-political practices and relationships throughout the Middle Ages. As was the case with Part Two, examination of evidence from the Scandinavian region is the focus of the majority of the papers included, although studies of the oral-literate continuum in other regions are also featured. For example, Anna Adamska analyzes characteristics of attributed literacy among Central European aristocrats, comparing evidence from sources related to the Polish prince Przemysl I (d. 1257) with material referring to King Venceslas II of Bohemia and Poland (d. 1305). The characteristics of Charlemagne's literacy, as well as the linguistic dimensions of the Carolingian educational reform, are the subject of Theodore Andersson's study. In the final contribution to this volume, Marco Mostert provides a brief history of the culture of writing in the Northern Netherlands, beginning with the earliest archaeological evidence of writing in the region (dating from approximately the first century BCE) until the emergence of a "literate mentality" throughout the Netherlands over the course of the eleventh through thirteenth centuries.

The remaining contributions to Part Three focus on the interplay between orality and literacy in the context of medieval Scandinavia. Sverre Bagge discusses the operation of the Norwegian royal chancery, concluding that, as in the case of other regional studies of medieval literate administration, the adoption of bureaucratic routines and standardized formulaic composition contributed to the centralization of royal power; further, his examination of the contexts in which surviving royal memoranda were preserved suggests that the Norwegian royal chancery produced far more documents than has been previously supposed. Assessing the oral-literate continuum at the sub-regal social strata is the subject of three other contributions to Part Three. Jan Ragnar Hagland conducts a comparative analysis of the composition, use and social context of two Norwegian documents, a secular judicial record from the twelfth century and an ecclesiastical record from the thirteenth, in order to trace the development of literate mentalities and the interplay between oral and literate modes in the far north. Both Inger Larsson and Bjørn Poulsen explore how and by what means literate modes came to be introduced and adopted by the lower strata of medieval Scandinavian society: Larsson's essay examines the role of Swedish law-men in the promotion of lay literacy and vernacular writing in medieval Sweden, whereas Poulsen's study of pragmatic literacy among the late medieval Danish peasantry suggests that their adoption of literate modes was driven by their increased awareness of the use of writing as a means of social and economic control.

The individual studies included in this volume generally succeed in the editors' stated goal of testing the concept of the oral-written continuum as "a tool for navigating the rugged landscape of verbal forms" and "exploring the diversity and complexity of oral-literary interrelationships" (2). The scope of this goal, however, at times seems too amorphous to act as a true unifying theme for the collection. If the collection lacks a strong synthetic coherence, nevertheless its component essays succeed in demonstrating the interdependence of oral and literate modes of textual production throughout the Middle Ages, and the excellence of the individual contributions as examples of interdisciplinary scholarship is beyond question.

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Jonathan Herold