Speakerly Women and Scribal Men
Oral Tradition, 14/2 (1999)
I want to begin my discussion of oral tradition and manuscript authority by drawing attention to the term “old wives’ tale.” Since classical times writers have referred scornfully to the image of the “maundering old woman” telling stories by the fire in order to, as Boccaccio states, “scare the little ones, or divert the young ladies, or amuse the old”. Medieval authorities such as Augustine and Macrobius used this classical and early Christian image of a devalued oral culture associated with the private world of women to shape literary aesthetics. They invoked the term “old wives’ tale” to denigrate certain tales as immoral, false, or superstitious.
Consequently, medieval writers often sought to establish their literary authority in contradistinction to such tales and their tellers. Ironically, the gendering of oral and literate discursive spheres did not prevent women from being conceived of as discursive threats. Instead, medieval and early modern literature often depicts women as dangerous and subversive precisely because of their uses of speech acts as gossips, scolds, and tellers of immoral tales.
Indeed, medieval attempts to ghettoize women in the realm of a debased oral culture result in the literary conception of a women’s counter-discursive sphere. This paradoxical construction of the speaking woman as simultaneously diminished and empowered by her forms of speech is a result of the relationship between oral and literary traditions in the Middle Ages. In this article I will outline how medieval notions of oral tradition and manuscript authority contributed to the construction of women as constituents of an oral culture.