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22.10.05 Amodio (ed.), John Miles Foley’s World of Oralities

22.10.05 Amodio (ed.), John Miles Foley’s World of Oralities

This collection of essays from eminent scholars testifies to the profound influence of John Miles Foley’s scholarship in the fields of classical and medieval literature. Collectively, the scholarship represents both linguistic and theoretical breadth in the fields of classical and medieval studies, with focuses on ancient Greek (G. Nagy), ancient Hebrew (Niditch), Old English (Amodio, Bagby, DuBois, Kleiner, Orchard), late Middle English and medieval Latin (Bradbury), Middle High German (Haymes), Old Norse/Old Icelandic (DuBois, Gunnell, Mitchell), and Old Irish (J. F. Nagy). Several essays discuss living languages and contemporary or near-contemporary oral traditions: South Slavic (Kleiner); Kirghiz (Reichl); and Xhosa, Somali, Zulu, and Hausa, to name just a few of the many African verbal arts mentioned in the final essay by anthropologist Ruth Finnegan. Like the journal Oral Tradition after it moved online (a journal founded and edited by Foley for nearly three decades), [1] the collection includes links to illustrative performances, in this case, an audio recording of Edward B. Irving Jr.’s reading of the first 52 lines of Beowulf; three video recordings of segments of Benjamin Bagby’s 2016 performance of Beowulf at Vassar College; and three audio recordings of Old English elegiac poems by Bagby.

Mark Amodio’s “Introduction: The Pathway(s) from Oral Formulaic Theory to Contemporary Oral Theory” describes Foley’s important contributions to oral-formulaic studies (the Parry-Lord theory), especially as his work pertains to classical and medieval studies, with special attention to Alain Renoir’s Key to Old Poem (1988), Foley’s Traditional Oral Epic (1990) and Immanent Art (1991), and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe’s Visible Song (1991). He states that their intervention “reinvigorated and redefined the field of oral studies, not by rejecting the then still-dominant theory of oral-formulaic composition...but by grappling with and ultimately reconfiguring some of its most closely held orthodoxies” (4). [2] The essays in JMF’s World of Oralities represent some of the contemporary oral theory that Foley’s work made possible. Miranda Villesvik’s “Introduction to Individual Contributions” provides a three-page overview of these essays in their order of appearance. I take up these contributions under five main headings--interrelationships between oral, literate, and digital communication; formulaic language; traditional referentiality; performance; and traditions and comparative studies--but other groups are certainly possible.

Interrelationships between oral, literate, and digital communication (G. Nagy, Orchard, Bradbury, Dubois)

Gregory Nagy (classical studies and literature), Andy Orchard (early medieval English studies and literature), and Nancy Mason Bradbury (medieval English literature) address connections between oral-traditional, literate, spoken, and written modalities in ancient and medieval texts. Taking a different approach, Thomas Dubois (folklore, religion, and Scandinavian studies) applies Foley’s theories of oral, literate, and internet-based communication to describe the “oAgora” of the Sigurðr stories and artifacts.

G. Nagy’s “Orality and Literacy Revisited,” an updated version of his essay in Classical Inquiries (2017.02.03), reviews Peter Grossardt’s Praeconia Maeonidae magni: Studien zur Entwicklung der Homer-vita in archaischer und klassischer Zeit, contrasting Grossardt’s findings with those of Olga M. Davidson (Poet and Hero: In the Persian Book of Kings), Joseph Falaky Nagy ( “How the Táin was Lost” and “Orality in Medieval Irish Literature”), and his own work (Homeric Questions) to create a brief but vibrant portrait of the intertwining of oral-traditional and literate communicative strategies: for example, oral traditions employing metaphors of literacy and literate works depicting narration as an oral process.

In “Beyond Books: The Confluence of Influence and the Old English Judith,” Orchard asserts that shared phraseology in Judith and other poems (Andreas,Beowulf, Elene) point to literate borrowing, but the most convincing and commendable sections of the essay make evident the artistry of diction in this often-overlooked poem. A problematic aspect of Orchard’s essay (a contribution apparently commissioned and accepted before the recent scandals) is its lack of meaningful engagement with Foley’s scholarship on Old English traditional phraseology, scholarship that suggests a complex range of possibilities for shared diction beyond literate borrowing.

Bradbury’s chapter, “Healing Charms in the Lincoln Thornton Manuscript,” presents a rich, situation-specific analysis of the Middle English charm tradition. Her contribution explores fifteenth-century charms for toothache and an intriguing variation on the popular “The Three Good Brothers” (Tres Boni Fratres) charm in the contexts of Robert Thornton’s life and household and the Lincoln Thornton manuscript. The texts indicate a “mixed media” approach that incorporates, depending on the charm, varying degrees of written, spoken, and performative elements (including writing on the body in blood).

An innovative chapter by Thomas Dubois, titled “‘To Surf Through the Shared Riches of the Story Hoard’: The oAgora of the Sigurðr Story,” applies Foley’s comparisons of the oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora to the medieval storyworld of the Old Norse hero Sigurðr. [3] His catalogue of texts and artifacts, as well as the subsequent analysis of “pathways” that join them, should be both informative and intriguing to readers interested in Old Norse studies and/or premodern (i.e., ancient, medieval, early modern) stories with varying synchronic and diachronic iterations.

Formulaic language (Haymes, Kleiner)

Essays by Edward Haymes (medieval Germanic studies) and Yuri Kleiner (Germanic linguistics) address the concept of the formula as it is applied to oral-traditional works. The essays by Karl Reichl and Ruth Finnegan (which appear under the heading “traditions and comparative studies”) also productively engage with the formula per se.

In “Is the ‘Formula’ the Key to Oral Composition?,” Haymes questions the usefulness of definitions of the formula by Albert Lord and others, such as Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., when such definitions do not account for complex relationships between meter, syntax, register, and genre. Haymes helpfully points to early, lesser-known scholarship that begins such an undertaking, but his chapter addresses neither Foley’s extensive discussions of formulas, formulaic systems, register, and oral-traditional diction in Traditional Oral Epic, Immanent Art, and The Singer of Tales in Performance nor subsequent scholarship informed by Foley’s work.

Kleiner in “The Formula: Morphology and Syntax,” examines formulas from a linguistic perspective. Kleiner explains the utility of a flexible yet precise definition that presents formulas as abstract rules with strict criteria that combine meter, syntax, and meaning (109). He uses examples from South Slavic and Old English verse (focusing particularly on OE alliteration, variation, meter, and themes) to describe relationships between “natural” language and traditional or specialized, poetic language. His analysis of formulaic language also demonstrates “the principal incompatibility of orality and fixity” (110), how words can function as “semi-bound morphemes” in traditional poetry (116), and the potential relationship between word substitution and “traditional aesthetics” (119).

Traditional referentiality (Niditch, J. F. Nagy)

Susan Niditch (religious studies, ancient and early Judaism) and Joseph Falaky Nagy (medieval Celtic literature and Indo-European mythology) each present interpretive strategies that attend to the frames of reference typical to oral-connected texts, and that obviate the need for emendation of these texts in specific cases. Hopefully, J. F. Nagy will not mind my saying (since only Niditch employs this exact term), that their interpretive strategies draw on “traditional referentiality”: the more-than-literal techniques that connect oral-traditional narratives, whether these techniques emerge orally or in writing. [4] Niditch focuses on “traditional-style registers” (25), including metonymy, in the Hebrew Bible and J. F. Nagy on “multiformity” in Old Irish prose.

Niditch in “Preserving Traditions of ‘Them’ and the Creation of ‘Us’: Formulaic Language, Historiography, Mythology, and Self-Definition” employs Foley’s concepts of “traditional referentiality” and “metonymy” to explore mistranslations of ancient Hebrew passages in Biblical text. Niditch demonstrates that these mistranslations stem from a misinterpretation of metonymic terms and from modern preconceptions about national identity as border-bound and non-porous. In three separate cases, she argues that interpreters have assumed that Biblical passages framed related and neighboring tribes in negative terms, when in fact they used positive terms to “help to map an Israelite sense of its own ethnicity, a view of Israelites’ place within a geographic setting, their historical location, and their identity” (31).

In “When a Hero Lies,” J. F. Nagy suggests a new way to interpret inconsistencies in the medieval Irish prose text Táin Bó Fraich (Cattle Raid of Fróech), which the anonymous storyteller situates as a prequel to Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid ofCúailnge). Critics usually view the lamenting women of the síd and the late revelation of a preexisting wife and family as errors on the author’s part. Nagy suggests instead that the storyteller knowingly adapts multiformity in the Ulster cycle to represent “the hero’s ability to be a persuasive public speaker and a credible liar” (179)--and to demonstrate his or her narrative skill (183).

Performance (Amodio, Bagby, Mitchell, Gunnell)

Mark Amodio (Old and Middle English literature), Benjamin Bagby (medieval performance and musicology), Stephen Mitchell (Scandinavian literature and folklore), and Terry Gunnell (folkloristics, Scandinavian literature) each demonstrate that considerations of performance can enrich scholarly study of specific medieval texts. Amodio focuses on the concept of “embodied” performance and Beowulf; Bagby on the choices he makes when performing partial reconstructions of Old English poems; Mitchell on comparative performance contexts for agonistic riddles, invectives, and the Hervarar saga ok Hieðreks; and Gunnell on a “performance archeology” of two skaldic poems. Bagby’s contributions stem from praxis, the knowledge and practice of medieval poetry in performance. Gunnell’s essay draws on aspects of performance theory, and offers a brief, informative summary of the schools of thought that contribute to the larger field of Performance Studies (138-39).

Amodio in “Embodying the Oral Tradition: Performance and Performative Poetics In and Of Beowulf” calls attention to “embodied artistic production,” arguing that audiences of the written Beowulf would have been familiar with live performances of poetry and song. He suggests that embodied, present-day performances of the poem could have much to tell us. The epic itself depicts an embodied mode of poetic verbal delivery as a more highly specialized “communicative transaction” than other types of formal, embodied speech (53, 52). Amodio then contrasts the voicings of Beowulf by Edward J. Irving, Jr. and Benjamin Bagby (available as audio files in a linked Google folder), concluding that entexted oral poems are not only a “prompt for an emergent reality” (per JMF), but also “a prompt for an embodied reality” (63).

The subsequent chapter acts as a companion piece. “Performing Anglo-Saxon Elegies: A Conversation” presents an annotated and condensed text of Amodio’s dialogues with Bagby about his vocal and musical choices when performing Old English poetry. Bagby--known to many as a highly-regarded performer and co-founder of the ensemble Sequentia--uses two six-string harps modeled on reconstructions of seventh-century instruments that were preserved in burials near Oberflacht, Germany (77). He describes, for example, what he calls an “epic open tuning” for Beowulf, a “very strong, modal tuning” for The Wanderer, and an “epic-centred tuning” for Deor, the latter tuning derived from a treatise by Hucbald of St.-Amand (69-70).

Their discussion is followed by Bagby’s “Notes on the Recordings of Three Anglo-Saxon Elegies.” His beautifully evocative versions of Scyld Scefing’s funeral (lines 26-52 of Beowulf), The Wanderer, and Deor are available in a linked Google folder. Lines 26-52 of Beowulf are not usually considered one of the “Old English elegies.” I believe that Bagby’s treatment of these lines as elegiac deserves further attention because, as Amodio suggests in this collection, embodied performances may have much to tell us about our interpretations of medieval poetry. Additionally, by treating these lines as a partially separable unit, Bagby picks up where Foley left off in his ethnopoetic transcription of the opening lines of Beowulf (How to Read an Oral Poem, 104-105).

In “Old Norse Riddles and other Verbal Contests in Performance” Mitchell considers where, when, and how Old Norse riddles in the Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks may have been performed in light of their structure, frame narrative, “coded language,” and similarities to other Old Norse poetic genres. He addresses the riddles’ possible relationship to other “competitive verbal exchanges” that use “ritualized invectives,” both medieval and contemporary (133), noting that “argument by analogy,” as Foley has shown, can be “an extremely valuable and productive method” (134).

In “Performance Archaeology, Eiríksmál, Hákonarmál, and the Study of Old Nordic Religions,” Gunnell engages in comparative textual analysis, consults descriptive reports of ancient pagan rituals, addresses representations of rituals on artifacts, and more. Gunnell’s performance archaeology leads to a rewarding analysis of both skaldic poems. Merging diegetic and exegetic contexts enables him to consider the possible roles of seating, audience participation, ritualized movements, symbolism, and ritual function.

Traditions and comparative studies

Although the concluding essays by Karl Reichl (medieval oral literature, modern Kirghiz epic) and Ruth Finnegan (anthropology, oral African literatures, African musical practices) may appear to be outliers in a collection focused primarily on ancient and medieval literature, they make a fitting homage to Foley’s scholarship. As a precise and careful comparativist, Foley analyzed oral and oral-connected traditions from the ancient Greek, medieval Old English, and contemporary South Slavic eras, giving equal weight to all three. He wrote extensively about the “tradition-specific” features of verbal art in each of these languages and times, using their similarities to theorize about what they shared and their differences to prevent overgeneralization.

Reichl’s contribution, “‘The True Nature of the aoidos’: The Kirghiz Singer of Tales and the Epic of Manas,” begins with the assertion by Wilhelm Radloff [V. V. Radlov] that the aoidos of the Homeric epos was identical to the Kirghiz bard, a claim that fueled the classicist Milman Parry’s desire to conduct fieldwork with Yugoslavian [South Slavic] guslari and their long narrative songs. Reichl proposes a more careful investigation of the Epic of Manas from a comparativist perspective. His study reveals, among other things, a much lower density of formulaic language in versions of Manas than in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Reichl also describes formulas, themes, type scenes, and rhyming patterns in three strikingly different versions of “The Shooruq Episode,” shedding light on tradition-specific practices and individual creativity and style of singers of long poems composing in performance. These contrasting performances raise questions about relationships between schools of singers, individual artistry, and audience expectations.

As one might gather from the final chapter’s title, “John Miles Foley: Open Mind, Open Access, Open Tradition, Open Foley,” Finnegan brings heart, wit, and memory to bear. She colorfully describes her interactions with Foley across three decades, his growth as a scholar, and his formative contributions to field of oral studies. With examples from African oral traditions, Finnegan simultaneously challenges past and present-day definitions of “orality,” “performance,” and “tradition” while sketching more than 50 years of the intellectual and institutional development of a global field of verbal-arts studies that encompasses written, oral, broadcast, and internet media. Her term “multi-oralities” has tantalizing implications for future scholarship.

Collectively, these essays celebrate John Miles Foley’s contributions to oral-formulaic theory pioneered by Milman Parry and Albert Lord; his carefully theorized expansion of the linguistic and metrical bases of oral-formulaic theory to include an aesthetics of oral traditions grounded in semiotics and performance theory; his revelatory studies of Ancient Greek, Old English, and South Slavic poetry; and his tireless work to promote the study of oral tradition. As many know, Foley’s scholarship also resonates deeply in fields focused on modern and living oral traditions (studies of Basque, South Slavic, Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan verbal art and the groundbreaking, wide-ranging work of the Finnish Folklore Society are just a few that spring to mind). These essays rightly point to well-worn paths in the fields of classical and (mostly northern) European medieval studies, paths made possible by Foley’s own scholarship and by his promotion of oral theory when there was stark resistance to it. Referring to studies of oral tradition in ancient and medieval literature, and beyond, Foley often said, “there is still so much more to do.” I believe that he would have relished the excellent scholarship within this collection, and the outlines these chapters suggest of new paths branching onward.




2. See also Scott R. Garner’s “Annotated Bibliography of Works by John Miles Foley,” part of a Festschrift for Foley edited by S. R. Garner and Lori Ann Garner, Oral Tradition 26 (2011): 677-724.

3. The oAgora, tAgora, and eAgora are the “system[s] of communicative rules and norms” constitutive to oral traditions, textual traditions, and digital/internet media, respectively (155), described by Foley in Oral Tradition and the Internet.

4. See, for example, Foley, Immanent Art, 95.