The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain, 1500-1850

The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain, 1500-1850

The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain, 1500-1850

The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain, 1500-1850

Synopsis

Discussing the transition from a largely oral to a fundamentally literate society in the Early Modern period, this text examines English, Scottish and Welsh oral culture to provide a pan-British study, covering tradition, memories of the civil war, mechanics for settling debts and more.

Excerpt

Adam Fox and Daniel Woolf

AS WE ENTER the sixth millennium of recorded civilization, human beings have developed a superabundance of ways of communicating with each other. Some, such as writing, are several millennia old. Most have a much more recent vintage. Printing, the mechanical means whereby written symbols are reproduced in multiple identical copies, is barely five centuries old, despite some medieval and traditional Chinese precursors. The telegraph, invented in the nineteenth century, first allowed humans to communicate with others at a considerable distance. Radio, at the start of the last century, extended that technical immediacy by allowing the human voice to be carried, wireless, across great distances. Television and film reinserted the represented physical presence of the speaking human, and their modern successors, the live videophone and videoconference, have facilitated meetings of individuals as far apart as Canada and Australia. More mundane instruments, unheard of twenty years ago, now fill our personal informational universes: cell phones that allow us to converse at a distance but no longer tied to a fixed instrument in our homes or offices; and pocket organizers that ‘beam’ information to each other. Above all, email has become a matter of routine for hundreds of thousands of users. (It is worth remarking that the present book – perhaps ironically given its subject – has been co-edited by two historians who at the time it went to press had not, in fact, ever met face to face, and that virtually all of their interaction, including exchanges of the text of this introduction, occurred through email and the occasional phone call.)

In the light of all this, it is easy to overlook the fundamental importance of speech, the oldest form of intelligent communication, and of its receptionend counterpart, hearing. Although modern social theorists decry the disintegration of society, or of the family, and have argued that we are becoming atomized individuals without enduring social bonds, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Conversation, the subject of analysis by social scientists, is now much less formal than it was a hundred or even fifty years . . .

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