Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology

Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology

Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology

Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology

Excerpt

Verba volent, scripta manent, says the proverb; but it is given the lie by those peoples the world over whose behaviour and institutions prove that the word is not quite so transitory as might be supposed. It is enough to have witnessed the guardians of oral traditions solemnly reciting the texts stored in their memory to be convinced of this. The listeners, motionless and intent, follow every word that is spoken, and there can be no doubt that to them these words bring the past back to life, for they are venerable words that provide the key to the storehouse of wisdom of the ancestors who worked, loved, and suffered in times gone by. There can be no doubt that to them oral traditions are a source of knowledge about the past.

Among the various kinds of historical sources, traditions occupy a special place. Yet little has been done towards analysing their special features as historical documents. This is all the more astonishing in view of the fact that they are constantly being used as source material, for not only are traditions the most important sources for the history of peoples without writing, but they are known to be the basis of many written sources too, especially those of classical antiquity and of the early Middle Ages.

This study hopes to draw attention to this lacuna in the theoretical analysis of historical sources and to remedy it by examining the value of oral traditions as a historical source. By oral traditions, I mean all oral testimonies concerning the past which are transmitted from one person to another. It is of course impossible, with the limited amount of information so far at our disposal, to deal exhaustively in this one book with a subject so vast and so unexplored, and all I can attempt to do is to point out the problems involved. This book is therefore no more than an introduction. But it will have fulfilled its purpose if it . . .

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