New Directions in Oral Theory: Essays on Ancient and Medieval Literatures

By Henken, Elissa R. | Western Folklore, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

New Directions in Oral Theory: Essays on Ancient and Medieval Literatures


Henken, Elissa R., Western Folklore


New Directions in Oral Theory: Essays on Ancient and Medieval Literatures. Edited by Mark C. Amodio. (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005. Pp. ? + 341, acknowledgments, introduction, bibliography. $40.00 cloth)

This well-edited volume of eleven essays by a mix of well- and lesser-known scholars provides not merely, as I first mistakenly expected, a review of recent applications of the Parry-Lord theory of oral-formulaic composition (Foley 1988), but rather an intriguing glimpse of a number of ways in which the oralliterary nexus might be examined in texts for which only a written form exists. After a short introduction, in which the editor Mark C. Amodio lays out a useful, concise (remarkably restrained given his apparent knowledge of and passion for the field) survey of the development of scholarship in oral studies, the essays demonstrate a wide range of approaches to texts in Greek, Latin, Old English, Middle English, and (most unusually, but extremely welcome for oral theory) Middle Welsh.

This volume is not particularly aimed at folklorists, but many folklorists - not just those working in oral theory, folklore and literature, or medieval folklore will find it both interesting and useful. It will be especially helpful for those who have not kept up on recent developments and still think of oral theory in the limited terms of Parry-Lord; it is, in fact, quite exciting to see the array of current approaches, from counting formulae to discourse analysis. Few of the essays directly invoke Parry-Lord, but an old argument that reappears is the debate over two models for understanding the relationship of written texts to their oral or literary origins: the older oral-dictation model in which the text is a fairly or reasonably direct record of a live performance and the currently more accepted evolutionary model in which the text, no matter how it started, has been shaped by many generations of performers, scribes, and authors. (The inclusion of proponents of opposite sides of both this and other debates and the seemingly even-handed ways in which authors lay out both sides of an argument before making their own case only strengthens the volume's role as a trustworthy review of recent developments.) Most of the authors pay close attention to a text's lexicon (words, formulae, themes, clusters of images) and attempt to understand it in relation both to the contemporary culture and the oral-literary continuum. Several consider ways in which vernacular and literary cultures influence each other's aesthetics, whether in a shift from pre-literate or oral to literate or, in cases of diglossia, where the two cultures co-exist. Some reveal how the choice of oral or literary conventions may serve both aesthetic and political purposes, may support or subvert the text.

The essay of most obvious and immediate interest to folklorists is by Lori Ann Garner, who examines the differing uses of proverbs in two Middle English narratives. She finds that in Havelok the Dane, the more orally-based of the two, proverbs are used with the authority of accepted wisdom to direct the audience's response, but that in Chaucer's more literary Troilus and Criseyde, proverbs are used by various characters for their own rhetorical purposes. …

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