12.12.04, Loutchitsky, Homo Legens

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Carol Symes

The Medieval Review 12.12.04

Loutchitsky, Svetlana and Marie-Christine Varol. Homo Legens: Styles et pratiques de lecture, Analyses comparées des traditions orales et écrites au Moyen Âge. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy. Turnhout: Brepols, 2010. Pp. vi, 230. ISBN: 978-2-503-53409-1.

Reviewed by:
Carol Symes
University of Illinois

This collection of essays is another welcome addition to the series of Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, which is as much concerned with orality as with reading and writing. Indeed, the volume's title can be read as a playful reference to Johan Huizinga's Homo ludens, hinting at a special emphasis on the interplay among modes of communication. As Svetlana Loutchitsky and Marie-Christine Varol explain in their editorial introduction, the relatively recent rediscovery of orality's primacy throughout the medieval period has exposed the degree to which scholars of the nineteenth century (as well as their immediate predecessors and many successors) fundamentally misunderstood the meaning of surviving texts. During the 1970s, pioneering work by Paul Zumthor, Michael Clanchy, and Michael Richter (among others) turned up the volume on the seeming-silent evidence of written record; and now an increasing number of medievalists, in many disciplines, are researching the complex milieus in which texts were inscribed, activated, and received by their various audiences. The six essays published here display a representative sample of some key methods being used to retrieve oral information from different kinds of sources. It is particularly helpful that five of them focus on regions of cross-cultural exchange that have not been well represented in studies of literacy and orality to date, most of which deal with northwestern Europe: Byzantium, the Crusader states, Spain (and its post-medieval Jewish diaspora), and Anatolia.

In "Métaphrase et mise ne roman: étude comparé des indices d'oralité chez Anne Comnène et Guillaume de Tyr," Tivadar Palágyi ingeniously uncovers elements of orality by comparing the ways that two contemporaneous historical narratives from the early twelfth century, the Greek Alexiad and the Latin Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, were rendered into the vernaculars of later audiences. He begins by arguing that, even in their "original" literary forms, these two texts display trace elements of orality that their authors were unable--or unwilling--to disguise. In fact, Palágyi suggests that William's occasional "lapses" of Latin syntax can be better explained as attempts to record the idiomatic speech of his interlocutors, while William's deliberate heightening of Muslim discourse (as rendered into Latin) might well be an attempt to capture its dignity. Similarly, he demonstrates that Anna Comnena departs from an elevated Attic style when she reports on popular songs and satires circulating among her father's subjects. He then shows how an anonymous metaphrastic treatment of Anna's biography simplified her ornate prose in order to make it more vividly intelligible to listeners whose own language was more demotic. A similar strategy is discernible in the mise en roman of William of Tyre's chronicle. These twin case-studies make the constant give-and-take between literacy and orality, spoken and written communication, vernacular and learned/official discourse very visible.

Palágyi's generous essay is buttressed by Loutchitsky's fascinating contribution,"'Veoir et oïr, leger et audire: Réflexions sur les interactions entre traditions orale et éctrite dans les sources relatives à la Première croisade." Here, she re-evaluates the relationships between the Latin chronicles of the First Crusade and the vernacular verse epics that were redacted at the same time, in the first decades of twelfth century. These relationships have been in dispute for over a century and a half, but the terms of the dispute has been reductive: which came first? Through careful analysis of their similarities and differences, Loutchitsky concludes that vernacular verse-tales were the basic source material for both genres. This means that the frequent references to written records in the epics are red herrings, factitious gestures toward the sources of legitimacy that were becoming newly fashionable in an age of increased documentation. By contrast, the Latin chroniclers establish their legitimacy with reference to eye-witness accounts and oral testimony because contemporary audiences would have known what the most likely sources of information were: the jongleurs who accompanied the crusaders and turned their exploits into song. Although we do not know how that process worked precisely, much could be gleaned from a comprehensive study of the techniques of news-gathering and reporting depicted in the chronicles and other contemporary sources, and from a more thorough understanding of how the resulting documents were made (something that this reviewer is currently undertaking).

Varol's essay also insists that studies of "the oral" and "the written" are inseparable from one another, with reference to an analogous process of transmission and reception that demonstrates the persistence of oral traditions even within a highly literate culture. She considers the proverbs featured in Judeo-Spanish commentaries on texts relating to Alexander the Great, expressions and aphorisms which were also abstracted from that manuscript tradition and continued to circulate among some Ladino-speaking communities down to the present day (despite continual displacements, ruptures, and the tragedy of the Holocaust). Her star witness is Flore Gueron Yeschua, a well-educated lady of Sephardic descent who was born in 1899 and fled her native Bulgaria for Palestine in 1943. In her 80s, she was encouraged to make a record of all the proverbs she used herself, or had heard in childhood. As Varol shows, the resulting text--comprising more than eight hundred expressions and their explanatory glosses--constitutes a rare example of an oral tradition captured in writing that still bears the distinguishing organizational features of the medieval textual commentaries which crystallized that oral tradition in the first place. Comparing Mme. Flore's text to the (mostly Hebrew and Arabic) manuscript commentaries, Varol finds that she unconsciously replicated the underlying structures of those commentaries, as well as the contexts and meanings accrued by the threaded proverbs; Mme. Flore thus retained in her memory an oral commentary that mirrored that of the manuscripts, but also which was inflected simultaneously by the lived experience of many generations. Varol concludes that this is the way orality, literacy, and memory work together--then and now.

In "Orality in Chronicles: Texts and Historical Contexts," Sophia Menache joins Palágyi and Loutchitsky in arguing that narrative sources like chronicles must be recognized as written texts that retain their "oral essence" (164-165). Her chosen examples are salutary because they represent a later era when documentation was beginning to supplant a once-predominately oral culture; instead, Menache insists that Latin Chronica Majora, of Matthew Paris (d. 1259) and the Italian Cronica of Giovanni Villani (c.1276/1280-1348) were shaped by orality and that the authors strove to emulate the liveliness of speech even when translating vernacular utterances into Latin (Paris) or Latin dialogue into Italian (Villani). But she takes issue with Elisabeth van Houts' typology of the seven distinct types of orality exhibited in medieval chronicles [1], and asserts that they do not apply to later medieval historiography. Instead, she finds that her chosen authors fabricated oral sources in order to "manipulate existing feelings" prevalent among their audiences (187)--thereby offering a perverse proof of orality's persistent association with truth.

Marta López Izquierdo considers a different kind of artfully-constructed orality in her analysis of La Celestina, the richly varied Castillian tragicomedy produced in two phases between the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries (which can be attributed to Fernando de Rojas and at least one other anonymous author). In "La mimesis de la parole dans La Celestina: une approche linguistique de l'oralité," she sidesteps anachronistic and silly arguments about whether this text was "intended" for performance as a "play." Rather, López Izquierdo sets out to show how the dialogue's different registers of orality would have been activated in any reading of it--whether silent, aloud, or in parts. Throughout, she stresses the importance of imagining any text's performative possibilities.

The volume closes with Arzu Öztürkmen's "Performance in Late Medieval Turkish Texts: Signs of Orality in Literary and Historical Sources." Since most western medievalists are unfamiliar with the cultural and linguistic dynamics of this crucial region, her critical overview of the terrain and its texts is especially welcome. Indeed, she emphasizes the special centrality of orality in this region precisely because of its political, linguistic, and textual heterogeneity: the peoples who came into contact with the one another would have not been able to rely on the authority of documents they could not read or recognize, and would have used other forms of communication. The texts that were made in this period thus bear many signs and descriptions of orality. Moreover, they draw attention not only to the fluidity of text and performance but to the porousness of other alleged boundaries. Öztürkmen suggests, powerfully, that a truly historical approach to ethnography would have to account for the performativity of archival sources, and this could well result in new ways of imagining the dealings among groups which the demands of modern scholarship (in the service of nationalist agendas) have insisted on seeing as distinct or mutually hostile. Performance not only demolishes the barriers between texts and their contexts, it also builds bridges among peoples.



1. Elisabeth Van Houts, "Genre Aspects of the Use of Oral Information in Medieval Historiography," Gattungen mittelalterlicher Schriftichkeit, ed. Barbara Frank, Thomas Haye, and Doris Tophinke (Tübingen: Narr, 1977), 297-311.

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Author Biography

Carol Symes

University of Illinois