Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.67

Marc C. Amodio (ed.), New Directions in Oral Theory. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, vol. 287.   Tempe, AZ:  Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005.  Pp. x, 341.  ISBN 0-86698-330-9.  $40.00.  

Reviewed by Margalit Finkelberg, Tel Aviv University (
Word count: 1837 words

[I apologize for the delay in submitting this review.]

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Although the book under review falls into two mutually complementary parts, one dealing with ancient Greek and Latin and the other with Old English, Middle English and Middle Welsh texts, it is hard to avoid the impression that the main if not the only driving force behind this collection is the medievalists' dissatisfaction with the Parry-Lord theory of oral composition. This is expressed in unambiguous terms by Tim William Machan:

For Middle English literature, composed with Anglo-Saxon oral traditions in the recent past and early modern print culture in the near future, studies of orality initially focused on an aesthetic residue of formulas and type scenes that appear frequently in romances of the period. Such studies had limited success, for however formulaic a particular phrase in a particular work may be, the work in its entirety and medieval transmission by minstrels and disours undermine any claim that composition could be explained by the Parry-Lord hypothesis (279).
The remedy that Marc C. Amodio, the editor of the volume, proposes is "to articulate an oral theory that is more nuanced and more flexible than the oftentime programmatically presented Parry-Lord theory proved to be" (2); this goal is to be achieved by challenging the notion "that orality and literacy are exclusive and contradictory epistemes whose contact radically alters the former and inevitably signals its end" (3) and by placing the relevant materials on an oral-literate continuum. While some aspects of this project offer welcome modifications to oral formulaic theory as originally formulated by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, others call into question the very prospect of a constructive dialogue between scholars working in the two disparate fields. This is made especially manifest in a marked lack of common ground that could be used as a starting-point for such a dialogue.

In a paper that opens Part I John Miles FOLEY makes use of his concept of traditional referentiality to offer a strategy for asking Homer "not merely what his 'words' are, but also and more crucially what they mean in their traditional context (23; Foley's italics). Foley explores two Homeric expressions, "boundless ransom" (apeiresi' apoina, the Iliad only) and "day of return" (nostimon êmar, the Odyssey only), showing that while the former denotes the characteristically Iliadic idea of futility and death the latter stands for an Odyssean tale of return. Thus each of the expressions in question bears an additional layer of signification that encodes the poem to which it belongs. The question that Steve REECE addresses in his contribution is whether it is the oral-dictation or the evolutionary model that would account better for the origins of our text of Homer. He brings forward four meticulously researched arguments in favour of the former -- the unity of the narratives of the Homeric poems; the inconcinnities embedded in these narratives; the absence of multiple versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey; the fixation of the Homeric language in time -- and arrives at the conclusion that "the act of dictation resulted in a written text that could now be regarded as the song rather than a song -- the archetype of all the texts that are directly or indirectly descended from it" (89; Reece's italics). In showing that Aristotle's treatment of plot and topoi in the Poetics and Rhetoric is equivalent to the way in which oral tradition treats story-patterns and traditional themes, Daniel F. MELIA argues convincingly that these features point to "an underlying aesthetic of orality -- an aesthetic which, of its own historical necessity, values certain compositional techniques and assumes certain audience responses" (93), thus providing the first systematic picture of the mental structure of oral tradition. The two papers that conclude this part of the collection deal with Latin. Alexandra Hennesey OLSEN analyses the eighth-century Latin epistles known as the Boniface collection, showing that they are reminiscent of vernacular poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, while Jan M. ZIOLKOWSKI argues that although Latin poetry is usually associated with literary allusivity, there are instances in which Latin poets from antiquity through the twelfth century "appear to have composed poetry either extemporaneously or in other ways related to oral-formulaic composition" (127).

Since the second part of the collection is of lesser professional interest to the readers of this journal, in what follows I will mainly concentrate on methodological issues. The central piece here is undeniably AMODIO's lucid exposition of the theory of a non-performative oral poetics, which is also the subject of his recent book Writing the Oral Tradition. Oral Poetics and Literate Culture in Medieval England (2005). By examining Bede's representation of Caedmon's poem and the Beowulf-poet's representation of the fictional Danish scop's performance, Amodio comes to the conclusion that, contrary to the widespread view, neither one offers much support for the doctrine of composition-in-performance; in the latter especially, the representation of the Danish scop's oral performance is no more than an element of "the subtle fiction the literate poet is (re-)creating about the cultural praxis of these northern tribes" (198). Proceeding from the dissatisfaction with the Parry-Lord theory referred to above, Amodio states programmatically that

. . . the exclusively performance-based model which has so long been applied to ancient and medieval literatures is beginning to be questioned by scholars who are constructing a radically different paradigm for those supposedly oral poetries which survive only in written form from the ancient and medieval periods, a paradigm in which textuality is neither elided nor silently (and awkwardly) passed over and in which performance is viewed as a local, tradition-specific and tradition-dependent feature which may well be nonessential to the production of verse, rather than a sine qua non of poetic composition. What is emerging . . . is a non-performative oral poetics that is employed not by an oral poet in the crucible of performance but rather by a literate poet who composes pen-in-hand" (184)
. In his view, this is a traditionalistic rather than traditional poet, a poet in whose work oral and literate poetics interpenetrate and shape one another.

It is exactly this interpenetration and interplay of the oral and the literary that most of the other papers dealing with vernacular literatures address. Katherine O'BRIEN O'KEEFE examines the multiple functions of traditional verse forms in the mid-eleventh century Anglo-Saxon poems the Death of Alfred and the Death of Edward. Elaborating on earlier studies of oral-derived texts, especially those by Foley and Amodio, Jonathan WATSON focuses on the interplay of oral and written practices in the treatment of a single traditional unit, "Ódinn's Storm," in two manuscript versions of the Anglo-Norman poem Brut. Using the medieval Welsh Arthurian tale Culhwch ac Olwen as a case-study, Joseph Falaky NAGY challenges the prevailing assumption according to which the phenomenon of pieces of poetry, or "songs," embedded in traditional texts that are predominantly cast in prose should be treated in terms of cooperation and mutual complementarity; according to Nagy, "the combination of prose and poetry not only creates formal tension but signals a thematic tension in the text as well, a tension that reflects a profound mistrust of the process of textualization itself" (239; Nagy's italics). Lori Ann GARNER compares the use of proverbs in the thirteenth century Havelok the Dane on the one hand and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde on the other, arguing that while in the more traditional Havelok proverbs speak with the full authority of traditional wisdom, in the highly literary Troilus they "become rhetorical tools employed by characters within the narrative" (259). Finally, MACHAN sharply changes the perspective in that he approaches the conversation between the Maiden and the Dreamer in the Middle English poem Pearl from the standpoint of discourse analysis. His conclusion is that, rather than a residue of an earlier cultural practice, the existence of conversational features in Pearl is a necessary characteristic of any written text that reproduces conversation.

The medievalists' claim that the Parry-Lord theory of oral composition is inapplicable to their material is convincing and should be taken seriously. However, this is not to say that, as some contributors seem to imply, the inapplicability in question proves the theory wrong. If anything, their studies of vernacular texts show that, rather than to Homer or South Slavic poetry, these texts ought to be compared to Apollonius Rhodius, Aratus, and such other "traditionalistic" poets who deliberately evoked the traditional idiom while composing pen-in-hand (Apollonius' representation of Orpheus performing a theogony in Argonautica I 496-511, which closely corresponds to the Danish scop's performance in the Beowulf as analysed by Amodio, comes to mind in this connection). But it was precisely the texts of this category that served Parry as a control group against which his theory of formulaic composition was originally formulated. In demonstrating in L'Épithète traditionnelle (1928) that the principles of economy and extension are applicable to Homer but inapplicable to Apollonius and Virgil, Parry had managed effectively to distinguish between the traditional and the non-traditional poetry even before the hypothesis of oral composition as such was formulated. It follows that, in showing that the principles of oral composition are inapplicable to such medieval texts that were composed in writing, the contributors to this volume inadvertently supply corroboration to Parry's original hypothesis. Again, it is a pity that the classicists and the medievalists did not try to arrive at a common methodological ground as a preliminary to this joint project. The way things stand Foley's contribution is the only one that seems to supply such a common ground. Namely, in highlighting traditional referentiality as a feature shared by various kinds of poetry placed along the oral-literate continuum and metonymy as its primary mode of signification, Foley allows for oral, oral-derived, and written poetry to be subsumed under one category without at the same time being deprived of their specific characteristics. As far as the present reviewer is concerned, this is precisely where the collaboration between classical and medieval scholars may prove promising.

All in all, New Directions in Oral Theory is a stimulating volume, which will be of interest to both classicists and medievalists, as well as to comparativists working on orality and oral tradition.


Marc C. Amodio. Introduction: Unbinding Proteus;

John Miles Foley. Fieldwork on Homer;

Steve Reece. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey: From Oral Performance to Written Text;

Daniel F. Melia. Orality and Aristotle's Aesthetics;

Alexandra Hennesey Olsen. Proteus in Latin: Vernacular Tradition and the Boniface Collection;

Jan M. Ziolkowski. Oral-Formulaic Tradition and the Composition of Latin Poetry;

Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe. Deaths and Transformations: Thinking through the 'End' of Old English Verse;

Marc C. Amodio. Res(is)ting the Singer: Towards a Non-Performative Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetics;

Jonathan Watson. Writing Out "Ódinn's Storm": The Literary Reception of an Oral-Derived Template in the Two Versions of Lazamon's Brut;

Joseph Falaky Nagy. A leash and an Englyn in the Medieval Welsh Arthurian Tale Culhwch ac Olwen;

Lori Ann Garner. The Role of Proverbs in Middle English Narrative;

Tim William Machan. Writing the Failure of Speech in Pearl.

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