Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Orality and Performance in Early French Romance

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Orality and Performance in Early French Romance

Article excerpt

Evelyn Birge Vitz, Oralio and Performance in Early French Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer; Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 1999). xiii + 314 PP. ISBN o-85991-538-7. L50.00.

This is a polemical book; and while those already well disposed towards its arguments (which are familiar through a series of articles) may find it useful, its methodology, style, and frequent recourse to supposition will leave the sceptical unconvinced. The central contention is that early French romance, rather than being the product of a written culture, was first and foremost an oral tradition, performed by minstrels who learned 'texts' by heart. The first section of the book argues for the orality of the octosyllabic rhyming couplet, of early Tristan material (particularly Beroul), of the Roman de Thebes, and perhaps most provocatively of Chretien de Troyes's romances. The second section examines the importance of voice in early romance, hypothetical styles of performance, and mnemonics, before exhorting teachers of Old French to foreground performance in their pedagogy.

It is hard to engage with Vitz's thesis using the usual tools of scholarly argument since she relies so heavily on hypotheses that are not susceptible to proof. What she says about the importance of dialogue in characterization and the mediated nature of romance in manuscripts is useful. However, she is nonetheless cavalier with evidence throughout. Thus when discussing Beroul's and Chretien de Troyes's remarks concerning books as sources for their romances she states flatly that she does not believe them pp 32 and 107), whereas she does believe Marie de France's references to lais being sung and circulated orally despite abundant evidence that French lais (as opposed to putative Breton sources) circulated as written texts (p. 43). Similarly, Vitz suggests references to reading aloud are exceptional or misleading, whereas indications of aural reception are taken as proof of performance despite the use of verbs like dire and oi with reference to written texts clearly intended for public reading. …

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