BMCR 2005.08.05

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

, Writing the oral tradition : oral poetics and literate culture in medieval England. Poetics of orality and literacy. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004. xvii, 298 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 026802023X $25.00 (pb).

In a crucial sentence in this study Amodio states boldly that “the mode of transmission in itself reveals little about any given poem’s mix of oral or written poetics” (93). As he notes, the short and lively thirteenth-century dialogue The Owl and the Nightingale is imminently suitable for public performance but its poetic principles are entirely literary, while La3amon’s1 Brut, which may well never have been performed, draws heavily on poetic principles that are commonly found in oral poetry. This bracketing of the question of transmission goes a long way to define how Writing the Oral Tradition positions itself in the field of oral studies and what it will and will not cover. Amodio has distanced himself completely from the largely futile effort to use stylistic evidence to establish how a poem was composed. He has also distanced himself from the efforts to reconstruct medieval performance practice on the basis of other kinds of evidence, such as passing references in chronicles or entries in pay records. The long tradition that runs from Thomas Warton, Joseph Ritson, and Bishop Thomas Percy down to the Records of Early English Drama, and from Edmond Faral’s Les jongleurs en France au moyen âge down to Christopher Page’s The Owl and the Nightingale: Musical Life and Ideas in France, 1100-1300, finds no place here. The book says only a little about the scop and nothing about minstrels or gestours. Arguing that the representations of oral performance in Middle English are “the fictionalized and romanticized products of highly literate sensibilities” and that we have no reliable representations of the “performative matrix” (98), Amodio turns his attention instead to the “the expressive economy of oral poetics” (98).

If this poetics has only the most indirect connection to oral performance, what then does it mean to call it oral? For Amodio, following the direction of John Miles Foley, oral poetics is one of powerful associations, one “freighted with traditional meaning(s)” (130). For those who are familiar with the tradition, these associations give particular lines, which might otherwise simply seem bizarre or illogical, a deeper meaning. It makes little sense, for example, for Beowulf to be “bolgenmod” (swollen with anger) when he is waiting for Grendel, since Grendel has not yet harmed Beowulf or any of his men. Nor are the various phrases formed on the structure (x-) belgan (- mod) part of a formulaic system of the kind that would permit semi-spontaneous oral composition, for they lack a constant alliterative pattern. The references to characters swelling with anger, however, consistently herald slaughter. It is the strong associations of such phrases that suggest they are part of an inherited poetic tradition. The associative force of Old English belgan and Middle English abel3an links Beowulf, the Brut, the Orrmulum, and even (although on the basis of a single instance) the Owl and the Nightingale. Through a detailed analysis of such verbal patterns Amodio demonstrates the continuity and flexibility of oral poetics from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries.

Although much of what Amodio says about Old English poetry has been said before, it provides a necessary introduction to his account of oral poetics after the Norman Conquest, and here he breaks new ground. Exploring such understudied works as the The Rime of King William and the Worcester fragments, Amodio compares the extraordinarily cohesive and homogeneous practice of Old English to the heterogeneous poetic practice of early Middle English. The Middle English period might at first seem to be marked by the loss of Old English oral poetics, and Amodio indicates ways in which this was indeed the case. He extends into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe’s theory that the development of more elaborate systems for indicating the metrical structure of poetry visually, including word division, lineation, and punctuation, reflect the gradual loss of contact with the formulaic tradition. In many cases, as Amodio shows, the Old English poetic lexicon died out after the Conquest. But although many Middle English poets turned more directly to Latin and continental models, some did continue to draw on the oral tradition they had inherited from the Anglo-Saxons. The Middle English romance Beues of Hamtoun, for example, while largely based on the Anglo-Norman Boeve, draws upon the oral tradition in its account of the slaying of the great boar, where the failure of the hero’s sword plays a crucial role, just as it does in Beowulf’s fight with the dragon. Amodio’s central example of this continuity is La3amon’s Brut. Challenging Eric Stanley’s view that the compounding in the Brut is merely a fossilized vestige of Old English poetic practice, Amodio makes a convincing case for the vibrancy of the compounds, in particular those based on leod (people), showing not just the poet’s extensive use of common Old English compounds but also his ability to form new compounds along the same principles as the old ones.

Amodio faces a major challenge. Old English oral poetics is but one ingredient in the stew of Early Middle English poetry. The debt to the earlier tradition is often elusive or uncertain. In tracing the survival of the tradition Amodio is sometimes forced to rely on texts whose use of the traditional elements is ambiguous. The single use of a Middle English version of “belgan” in The Owl and the Nightingale, for example, in which the owl “sat tosvolle & ibolwe” (sat puffed up and swollen with anger) is clearly comic; in the following line the Owl is said to look as if she had swallowed a frog. Admittedly, the Owl would probably like to attack the Nightingale, but no slaughter follows, just a visit to one Master Nicholas who will judge the debate between the two birds. Is the poet really drawing on the traditional associations of the term “ibolwe,” and then “thwarting the audience’s expectations” as Amodio claims (112), or is he simply telling us the Owl is very angry? Some of the examples in the last chapter, which deals with the continuations of the oral tradition into our own day, also are strained. Amodio explores the theme of “the hero on the beach” first identified by David Crowne, in which the arrival of the hero and his retinue is accompanied by a flashing light of some kind. In the oral tradition the flashing light, which can come from a weapon or piece of armor or from something quite innocuous, foreshadows slaughter. The trouble is first that the slaughter can be considerably deferred and second that shining objects are not difficult to find in many narratives. Amodio cites a tense scene from Roddy Doyle’s account of the Easter 1916 rising in A Star Called Henry in which the narrator notices “every bit of glass” and “the sun on a badge” as he waits for the English to arrive. The scene is followed, although two days later, by the suppression of the rising and the death of many of the Irish. Are these two references to shining objects enough to constitute an unwitting evocation of the violence to come and a debt to the oral tradition? The case is scarcely proved.

Amodio’s enthusiasm sometimes leads him into special pleading, but he does not deny the complexity of the evidence. To his credit he presents several examples that do not quite fit his thesis. In his analysis of the Saxon king’s daughter Rowena’s ritual presentation of wine to the British king Vortiger, for example, Amodio argues that by “tapping into the expressive economy of medieval English oral poetics and then departing from it, La3amon creates a scene whose power and complexity far outstrip those of the corresponding scenes” in Geoffrey of Monmouth or Wace’s Roman de Brut (124-25, my italics). The problem is that because La3amon’s use of the scene owes a great deal to his literary sources and also deviates significantly from the oral tradition (the cup Rowena bears is no peace offering but actually poisoned), the role played by traditional poetics in shaping the scene is considerably diminished. The use of beot in the later redaction of the Brut (British Library MS Cotton Otho C. xiii) is another awkward moment. The earlier version of the poem makes repeated use of the word and this provides a powerful example of the survival of traditional poetics. The Otho redactor, however, excises “beot,” although often substituting alternate phrases in ways that suggest that he understands what the word meant. It would seem that the Otho redactor considers “beot” too exotic for his readers or listeners, but, for some reason which Amodio does not discuss, he retains it on two occasions.

Writing the Oral Tradition makes a strong case for the continuity of a dynamic, albeit fragmented, poetic tradition into post-Conquest England. The decision to bracket questions of performance, however, means that Amodio is vague on the question of how this tradition was transmitted. His claim that La3amon “may simply have relied upon the expressive economy that was his direct cultural inheritance” (101) leaves open the question of how La3amon was exposed to this inheritance. Indeed, Amodio’s oral poetics is largely removed from any social context, including that which might be provided by the manuscripts. Thus Amodio offers a detailed discussion of several texts, including the Brut and The Owl and the Nightingale, without ever raising the question of the early provenance of the manuscript that contains them, British Library MS Cotton Caligula A. ix, or its relation to its sister volume, Oxford, Jesus College MS 29. Even the contents of Caligula (an intriguing combination of Anglo-Norman and Middle English texts) appear only in a note. What Amodio can and does tell us about is the Middle English poet’s engagement with an inherited poetics, not how the poems were delivered.

Amodio’s analysis of his primary texts is commendably clear, despite its technical nature, and largely free of jargon (although paideia does make an appearance without accompanying gloss). Amodio is not always as successful in summarizing his final positions. The distinction between Daniel Donoghue’s reading of La3amon and Amodio’s is not entirely clear, and, at one point, Amodio argues that early Middle English poets drew on oral poetics because it was “affectively powerful,” yet in the preceding sentence admits that that this poetics was “at least partially if not wholly inaccessible to [the poets’] target audience” (130).

One initial misstep should be noted. Writing the Oral Tradition begins with an attempt to challenge Derrida’s concept of textuality that confuses Derrida’s concept of écriture with physical writing systems. No doubt we can “point with some confidence to the inherently sequential nature of orality and literacy in cultural development” (2), but Derrida did not believe that cultures developed writing before they developed speech. What Derrida would challenge is the use of such terms as “‘oral’ and ‘literate’ minds,” terms that Amodio himself allows are reductive and places within quotations but employs nevertheless. Fortunately, Amodio proceeds not to a nostalgic evocation of an organic oral community untainted by the corruption of the written word — the kind of nostalgic vision that Derrida so successfully exposed — but to a nuanced account of a period in which textual and oral poetics intertwine.


1. The unsightly 3 is used to represent Middle English yogh.