The Orality of a Silent Age: The Place of Orality in Medieval Studies

The Orality of a Silent Age: The Place of Orality in Medieval Studies

By Alaric Hall

Methods and the Medievalist: Current Approaches in Medieval Studies, edited by Marko Lamberg, Jesse Keskiaho, Elina Räsänen and Olga Timofeeva (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007)

Abstract: ‘The Orality of a Silent Age: The Place of Orality in Medieval Studies’ uses a brief survey of current work on Old English poetry as the point of departure for arguing that although useful, the concepts of orality and literacy have, in medieval studies, been extended further beyond their literal referents of spoken and written communication than is heuristically useful. Recent emphasis on literate methods and contexts for the writing of our surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry, in contradistinction to the previous emphasis on oral ones, provides the basis for this criticism.

Despite a significant amount of revisionist work, the concept of orality remains something of a vortex into which a range of only party related issues have been sucked: authorial originality/communal property; impromptu composition/meditated composition; authorial and audience alienation/immediacy. The relevance of orality to these issues is not in dispute; the problem is that they do not vary along specifically oral/literate axes.

The article suggests that this is symptomatic of a wider modernist discourse in medieval studies whereby modern, literate society is (implicitly) contrasted with medieval, oral society: the extension of the orality/literacy axis beyond its literal reference has to some extent facilitated the perpetuation of an earlier contrast between primitivity and modernity which deserves still to be questioned and disputed. Pruning back our conceptions of the oral and the literate to their stricter denotations, we might hope to see more clearly what areas of medieval studies would benefit from alternative interpretations.

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