New blog post: Review of Medieval Oral Literature, ed. Karl Reichl

Emma Gorst, Kate Maxwell and Sophie Sawicka-Sykes review the weighty tome, Medieval Oral Literature (Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, c2012; 743 pp.), offering a close reading of chapters on lyric and romance narrative forms. 
‘You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen, / Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.’ In Shakespeare’s sonnet 81, literature is the medium of life. Beauty that wilts, moments that fly, breath that stills, can be captured in letters and reborn in oral performance. A living breath, a literary product, and its spoken form are part of a continuum. The relationships between literature and orality – their differentiating features, but also their continuities and points of interaction – provoke questions of how we can approach the spoken, or the sung, when the flow of breath has stopped and what is left of the original performance only exists in writing: is the written piece an extension of the oral performance, its distant relative, a separate entity altogether, or are the oral and written works part of a single complex? How can we distinguish oral features? What multi-disciplinary tools can we use to understand oral aspects of a literary work? These enquiries boil down to the issue of ‘not whether, but how a text is oral’ (p. 54), and it is this concern that underlies the encyclopedic volume, Medieval Oral Literature.
Karl Reichl’s introduction, ‘Plotting the Map of Medieval Oral Literature’, provides the reader with a thorough grounding in the methodological and conceptual issues surrounding this question of how a text can be oral with a clarity of style that makes key terminology and recent debate easy to grasp without being reductive. The introduction sets out the objectives of the work and its historical and geographical scope, and goes on to consider what is meant by the term ‘oral literature’, bringing this understanding to bear on examples of oral forms and traditions. In this way, the introduction has a similar structure to the book as a whole, which is divided into two parts, the first dealing with concepts and approaches, the second with traditions and genres. The reader, having been led to consider these aspects of medieval oral literature in the opening chapter, will certainly not feel that they have wandered into unfamiliar territory once they begin to take in the contents of parts I and II.
The thorough-going chapter ‘Oral Theory and Medieval Literature,’ co-authored by John Miles Foley and Peter Ramey, provides a coherent and comprehensive overview of the development of Oral Theory from the 18th century to the end of the first decade of the 21st, with particular emphasis on England and in the period 1990-2010. With ample bibliographic indicators and support, the chapter proves to be a lucid introduction to the topic and a convenient reference point for those already well-versed in the area. The closing emphasis on the influence of the internet and an undisguised plug for open-access publication brought a wry smile to the face of one who is following the debate with interest. Is this the equivalent of oral tradition in the literate, technological world? Will the multitude of voices behind any future ‘wiki tradition’ one day be analysed in a Homer-esque fashion? These are just some of the ideas sparked following a close reading of this chapter.
The theoretical concepts in Chapter 5, ‘Performance and Performers,’ are aimed at ‘medievalists specializing in various cultures and periods’ (p. 141). The authors, Joseph Harris and Karl Reichl, use Richard Bauman’s ‘performance studies’ theory in which, based on a communications model of sender/channel/code/receiver, ‘the audience is prepared to evaluate the act of the sender, [and] his performance; and for his part the sender becomes a performer when he assumes responsibility for performance’ (pp. 142-3). Such a model will be unfamiliar to many, so one wonders if Reichl and Harris could have discussed analogous or related medieval literary theories. This would have been particularly helpful for the non-specialist.
            The first part of the chapter, on the early Middle Ages, focuses on Eddic, Skaldic, and Old English poetry, with a nod to ‘the problem of music’ (p. 163), meaning the etymological evidence for and against the importance of music in preliterate poetics. Sections one and two work Bauman’s model into a historical overview: for example, Caedmon’s hymn can be seen as performance because Caedmon’s monastic audience evaluated his song highly (p. 147). Bauman’s terms are put to greater use in sections three onwards (on the later Middle Ages), with its sub-sections on the entertainer, repertoire, performer and audience. Section 3 onwards, on late medieval oral literature, provides additional etymological evidence about the importance of performance and performers, and a wealth of descriptive examples (Wace, manuscripts of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Matthew Paris, Flamenca, the Partenoble de Bois, Bertran de Born, Guiraut Riquier, Guy of Warwick, and many others).
            Some readers will want a broader theoretical understanding of performance. In what sense was oral medieval performance performative: how did it make things happen with words, or perform gender identities, as J.L. Austin, Judith Butler and many others have discussed? What does orality add to performativity? This chapter indeed furnishes ‘a trustworthy foundation for future research’ (p. 190) and will help non-specialists, but, equally, non-specialists could do with guidance to the tensions implicit in a communications model of performance.
Part II contains an impressive twenty chapters on ‘Traditions and Genres’, providing insight into a huge spread of vernacular languages and poetic forms throughout what we may presently call Europe and the Middle East, as well as interactions and interchanges between the Latin West and Greek East. One article that discusses the differing functions of vernacular orality and a non-native writing system is Professor Nagy’s chapter on ‘Oral Tradition and Performance in Medieval Ireland’ (chapter 9), which begins with a historical overview of the broader ‘pre-medieval Celtic oral tradition’ to which Irish oral tradition belongs (p. 280). Nagy cites the interesting early comment by Julius Caesar that the druids refused to use writing, although they used the Greek alphabet ‘for practical matters’ (p. 279). This, added to the cultural importance of the bard, is evidence for Nagy of the early importance of the oral tradition among the Celts; furthermore, Nagy cites the importance of inscriptions of early magical formulas and rituals. Literature arrived with Christianity. Like Boklund-Lagopoulou (see below), Nagy identifies ‘conventions of poetic discourse’, ‘formulas and idiom’, and ‘narrative patterns and motifs’ (pp. 280-281) as deriving from pre-existing oral traditions. The rest of Nagy’s article discusses mainly the Acallam na Senórach, or Dialogue of the Ancients, a mix of prose and verse about the exploits of Finn mac Cumaill and his followers. This narrative tradition, Nagy explains, goes back to sixth-century beginnings (p. 281). Nagy’s comprehensive argument about speech and writing in the Acallam may be found in his book, Conversing with Angels and Ancients: Literary Myths of Medieval Ireland.
           Nagy is interested in the representation of pagan ancients in the Acallam, who are permitted by angels to tell and sing stories and poems provided that they are written down. But the Acallam’s example of the oral pagan stories and songs is not only a ‘bold premise’ for its medieval writer (p. 283); it indicates a connection between orality and textuality—a dynamic relationship that is an interesting one, and deserving of more attention. Moreover, musicality, in addition to textuality, could do with being theorized or at least addressed specifically and in distinction from stories. Nagy gives wonderfully engaging examples of speech and song in medieval Irish narratives, but in what sense are these songs musical?
Ad Putter’s contribution on ‘Middle English Romances and the Oral Tradition’ (chapter 11) spends considerable time tracing the debate as to the orality - or otherwise - of these romance texts, which, as we are warned at the outset, is an issue which requires ‘much circumspection and argumentation’ (p. 335). The chapter defends the orality in these texts through a myriad of examples and a careful breaking down of the counter arguments. In essence, the chapter reads as if Putter seeks to bring back the old faith in the orality of the romances, albeit in a much more nuanced form thanks to the work of the intervening decades. Putter’s argument is certainly convincing, though surely those on the other side of the debate - those who, in Putter’s eyes, are guilty of being subject to ‘the habits and conditions of literate people with literate minds’ (p. 349) - would be able to construct coherent replies. The charge of anachronism is serious indeed when an understanding fancies itself as ‘historically informed’ (to borrow a term from performance).
        Lacking, though, is reference to Oral Theory itself; some reference to Foley’s ‘Voices from the past’ designation would not have been out of place, though it would perhaps have been out of style for an author who cannot be faulted in terms of knowledge, breadth or foundation. Perhaps, like the orality of the romances he describes, the ideas are too deeply ingrained in the author’s thinking to merit repeating; however, such a nod towards the theoretical portion of the book would surely have increased the coherence of the volume.
The following chapter is Dominique Boutet’s contribution entitled ‘The Chanson de geste and Orality’. Unlike the chapter on Middle English romance, here there is no axe to grind, there are no tables or myths to overturn. The latent orality of the chanson de geste is widely accepted. The chapter, then, reads more like a summary of accepted wisdom than a contribution to a lively debate. With Foley and Ramey’s critique of Rychner and his methods regarding the south-Slavic epic fresh in the reader’s mind, Boutet’s general reliance on the older scholar seems questionable. In addition, in the introduction to the chapter, the author’s mention of the romances ‘which lie by definition outside the performance of a jongleur’ (p. 355) is particularly striking in the light of the neighbouring chapter, even if the romances in question are not the same. A multiplicity of ideas is not necessarily a bad thing, however, and such counterpoint invites readerly participation in the debate and, it is to be hoped, will spark thoughtful responses.
      Nevertheless, this chapter lacks the charisma of some of the other contributions discussed here. This reader is left wondering whether the chapter aspired to contain anything else, and if so, what that may have been. Perhaps it is in the notion of ‘energy’ which is introduced towards the end of the chapter in the context of a brief analysis of the parallel laisses surrounding Roland’s death (pp. 364-65): an interesting concept, certainly, but one which leaves the reader eager for more of the author’s own ideas and voice.
Anne L. Klink’s chapter on ‘Woman’s Song in Medieval Western Europe’ (chapter 20) is a pan-European study of ‘a particular kind of song or poem – in a traditional style and usually about love – in a woman’s voice’ (p. 521). The notion that a woman’s voice can be depicted through literary style and register, and even through content, is a fascinating one. Whilst acknowledging the difficulties inherent in the task, Klink suggests that some features can potentially act as markers of both a female authorial voice and the voice of a female speaker within a poem. Female voices in verses known to have been written by women are generally ‘more interested in thoughts than appearance [compared to those known to be written by men], and, even when they protest the vehemence of their passion, display a strong sense of their own dignity and worth’ (p. 546). However, the male appropriation of the female voice can lead to it being imitated somewhat insensitively, as in the clerkish ‘Huc usque, me miseram’. While this implies that there existed a perception of what the female voice sounded like, Klink also emphasises that features which can be used to identify a woman’s voice are not always stable – in the case of the Middle English lyric, ‘Wolde God that hyt were so’, manuscript alterations changed the genders of the personae. This raises the question, only tentatively approached by Klink, of whether such a change was made for the benefit of a performer, or whether it was the scribe’s or manuscript owner’s predilection.
       Klink could have been more imaginative in the use of her material, and asked, with more daring, what does it mean to perform and adapt a gendered song? The study begins and ends with a reference to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in which the Duke Orsino requests from his minstrel a woman’s working song, sung by ‘The spinsters and the knitters in the sun’, which actually turns out to be a love lament in a male voice (p. 521). While Klink suggests that this indicates how gender can be adapted and reimagined in the performance of a song, she leaves the issue of the female appropriation of the male voice unexplored. As a play in which the main romantic plot concerns a woman who decks boyish garb in order to work for the melancholic love-object Orsino, surely the image of women singing a man’s lament as they work is particularly pertinent, not to say playful?
The following chapter, ‘Popular Song and the Middle English Lyric,’ runs on smoothly from Klink’s considerations of insular lyrics in the latter part of her argument. The definitions of oral literature in Reichl’s introduction leave room for a working definition of the genre investigated by each contributor, and Karin Boklund-Lagopoulou’s article would particularly have benefited from defining ‘song’. For example, in Section 2, ‘Types of Orality in Middle English Lyrics’, Boklund-Lagopoulou states that orality in lyrics is signalled by ‘conventional themes, imagery, diction, and style’ (p. 557), a statement that encourages the reader to ask how these features pertain to oral poetry rather than to any other literature or music. Section 1, ‘Orality and Literacy in England after the Norman Conquest’, is partly drawn from the author’s book, I Have a Young Suster: Folksong, Ballad, and the Middle English Lyric. This section sets out historical contexts, and Boklund-Lagopoulou argues that, because written English declines up to the end of the twelfth century, ‘literary production in English must have been almost exclusively oral’ (p. 557). One certainly wonders, did literary production in English become oral rather than disappearing? It seems like a rather big question, and hard to prove. In Section 3, meanwhile, ‘Forms of Transmission: Records of Popular Song’, it would help if more explanation was given about what makes a poem a song: is it because it includes the word ‘sing’ in the title or the words, because it is musically notated, or because paratextual information says the text was sung? In what sense are two manuscript witnesses of a poem to be considered the ‘same song’ (p. 559) when one witness does not contain music? In the case of a song within a sermon, what is the difference between sermon oral literature and song oral literature—and how does that difference matter? These questions are fascinating ones and should perturb us still.
The texts in this collection buffer up to one another, striking chords, sometimes repetitions, but no glaring contradictions. Certainly, the chapters reviewed here offer different tones, although the themes overlap considerably from one to another. One cannot expect every author to have read the others’ contributions, and the editor’s hand is shown in cross-references provided in the footnotes. While the different voices are welcome and the overall value of the volume cannot be overestimated, the resulting mix, perhaps inevitably, finds some contributors adding more new material to on-going debates than others. In the chapters above, further consideration of musical notation (where available) and clarity concerning musical terminology would have been particularly useful, even if, as Reichl mentions in the introduction, discussion of ‘the importance of popular song and popular music for a fuller understanding of oral and traditional forms of medieval song’ is outside the scope of an already large book (p. 52). Nevertheless, the volume admirably takes into account interactions between the disciplines of medieval literary scholarship, ethnography and anthropology, and goes some way towards laying foundations for future studies of the relationship between the oral-literary continuum and other disciplines such as musicology. In particular, its ambitious scope makes the volume essential reading for scholars in several bordering fields; the breadth of coverage is impressive indeed.
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