Discourse and Dominion in the Fourteenth Century: Oral Contexts of Writing in Philosophy, Politics, and Poetry

Discourse and Dominion in the Fourteenth Century: Oral Contexts of Writing in Philosophy, Politics, and Poetry

Discourse and Dominion in the Fourteenth Century: Oral Contexts of Writing in Philosophy, Politics, and Poetry

Discourse and Dominion in the Fourteenth Century: Oral Contexts of Writing in Philosophy, Politics, and Poetry

Synopsis

This wide-ranging study of language and cultural change in fourteenth-century England argues that the influence of oral tradition is much more important to the advance of literary than scholarship has previously recognized. In contrast to the view of orality and literacy as contending forces of opposition, the book maintains that the power of language consists in displacement, the capacity of one channel of language to take the place of the other, to make the source disappear into the copy. Appreciating the interplay between oral and written language makes possible for the first time a way of understanding the high literate achievements of this century in relation to momentous developments in social and political life.

Excerpt

This book is occasioned by an increasing body of scholarship which has qualified the assumption that the rise of literacy in the middle ages put an end to oral tradition. Fourteenth-century England is often regarded as confirmation of this shift in Western history. and for that reason I have explored examples from three areas—philosophy, historiography, and poetry—which suggest to me that oral characteristics of communicating and thinking still survive, albeit in embedded or implied formations.

Attempting to account for oral influence on the basis of written records has been a subject of much discussion in several scholarly disciplines. I follow the lead of others who have maintained that writing itself is vital evidence for understanding how the oral channel of language may persist. in particular, fourteenth-century studies have already demonstrated that oral influence is apparent in poetry, manuscript illumination, and the arts of memory. It is now possible, therefore, to attempt a more synthetic view of how and why orality continued at all in this century when manuscripts and books were used more than ever before.

A principle emerging from each of the parts of this book is that one mode of language is an imitation of the other. Most commonly we observe the idea, stemming from the early middle ages and antiquity, that writing imitates spoken language. But how this principle is understood and exercised differs widely in the examples I have studied. the self-consciousness with which the two modes, spoken and written, reflect on each other is sometimes acute, as in certain passages of poetry. “Self-reflexivity” or “metalanguage” is familiar in poems containing images or figures of their own mode as narrative or representation; but it is also true that poetic language in general can be called metalinguistic, and one of the most notable implications of this factor is the extent to which oral and written modes comment on each other in certain contexts.

Such acknowledgment about the status of different media raises the question of whether or not other disciplines of writing are similarly involved in exploring their own use of oral and written forms. Both philosophers and historians took a definite interest in this problem; but they also resolve it quite differently, some leaning toward the writtenness of their own projects, others toward its imitation of spoken language. As a result of such contrasting attitudes, it is no wonder that . . .

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