Orality and Literacy in Middle English Religious Literature on the Example of Medieval Lives of Christ

By Witalisz, Wladyslaw | Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview

Orality and Literacy in Middle English Religious Literature on the Example of Medieval Lives of Christ


Witalisz, Wladyslaw, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies


The concepts of orality and literacy have been subjects of heated discussions among linguists and historians of literature over the last forty years. With the publication of Walter J. Ong's 1982 classic Orality and literacy The technologizing of the word the distinction, indeed opposition, or even dichotomy between the two became so pronounced and well defined that it seemed final. The oral and the literate cognitive processes, frames of mind, cultures, seemed separated by a great divide. While for an anthropologist or a cultural historian, even for a linguist, the "grand narrative" of the progress from the primacy of orality to the dominance of literacy offered an acceptable scenario marking separate phases of human development, the historian of literature could never be fully satisfied with it. Applied to literature by Albert B. Lord (1960), the great divide principle led to the definition of specialized criteria that defined what is and what is not an oral poem and claimed that a truly oral work can only b e the product of a totally pre-literate society. (1) The literary historian deals with the written text, a coded, graphological representation of thought, which may or may not be an actual record of an oral, pre-literate or illiterate performance. Even if it is such a record he has no way of knowing how the encoding, the writing down, changed Homer's original hexametric verse or the Old English scop's alliterative lines. Those who wrote them down were literates. Are we then doomed to searching for mere vestiges or remnants of orality in the written texts at our disposal? Certainly not. We know very well that authors from various penods in the literate history of man use both modes successfully and, which is more important, purposefully. The literary historian prefers to see orality and literacy as two different modes that are interdependent on each other and that have, ever since the rebirth of literacy in the 11th and 12th century, combined to produce varieties of literary discourse. Such a theory of a working compromise between orality and literacy is approached by Brian Stock (1983: 522), who claims that the 12th century brought a "realignment of oral discourse within a cultural reference system based on the logical priorities of texts". Orality did not die with the rebirth of literacy. Only its functions were re-defined by the uses of literacy.

Middle English religious literature is an especially interesting area for studying the interdependencies between orality and literacy. On the one hand, the nascent literacy is still fresh and applies to a very small portion of the society, on the other, the primacy of the written word, the sacred text, is undeniable in a literature teaching the Christian religion. In such a context most written texts, especially of moral and educational nature, were composed to be read or recited to an audience, often a clearly defined type of audience. This vocal mode of delivery of medieval literature clearly influenced the author's use of orality and literacy in shaping his message. Zumthor (1987) proposes the term "vocality" for this category -- it will be used here interchangeably with orality.

Various literary periods have been seen to use techniques and devices that even Albert B. Lord defines as strictly oral. Their use must certainly not be seen as a hangover from the distant pre-literate past that the mind still reverts to but rather as a conscious and a purposeful poetics. It is the aim of this paper to examine the "purposefulness" of orality and literacy in selected Middle English religious works in relation to the author's concept of the intended reader or the intended listener. The author's set of assumptions about the intended reader or listener is proposed as the main factor determining the use of the oral or the literate mode. Examples will be taken from several medieval lives of Christ: the Stanzaic Life of Christ, Cursor Mundi, Passion of Our Lord, Prose Life of Christ (or Pepysian Gospel Harmony), the Northern Passion. …

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