Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Writing the Oral Tradition: Oral Poetics and Literate Culture in Medieval England

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Writing the Oral Tradition: Oral Poetics and Literate Culture in Medieval England

Article excerpt

Mark C. Amodio, Writing the Oral Tradition: Oral Poetics and Literate Culture in Medieval England (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004). xviii + 298 pp. ISBN 0-268-02024-8. £19.95.

Mark C. Amodio's study of the early English vernacular poetic tradition is detailed and wide ranging. Proceeding chronologically, he discusses what he calls the Oral poetics' of Anglo-Saxon England, before moving on to an exploration of what happened to this tradition after the Norman Conquest. His discussion of the transformation of form, lexis, and theme of the inherited Oral poetics' by post-Conquest poets sheds fascinating new light on a little studied period of English poetry. Amodio confronts early on the fundamental contradiction facing the student of Oral poetics', whose only sources are written texts. It would be frivolous to reject the oral formulaic roots of Old English verse, and the few Old English poems which survive in more than one copy all reveal a degree of freedom in recasting the transmitted text according to vernacular poetic conventions. However, the problem of terminology remains: is this re-composition 'oral'? Amodio notes that we know nothing about the transmission of vernacular verse in Anglo-Saxon England after the introduction of writing - whether poets learned from books, or aurally, or both. Such ignorance invites caution.

Amodio treads carefully in an area of scholarship with problematic terminology. The literate Anglo-Saxon poetic translators of saints' lives such as Andreas were also evidently immersed in Oral poetics'. This is seen in their traditional diction and formulae, but also in the universal practice of writing Old English verse in texta continua with minimal punctuation, paradoxically evidence of Orality' in the text. The distinction between such poets and the author of The Owl and the Nightingale is not naively assumed to be between the illiterate and literate, but between their 'oral' and 'literate' poetics. …

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