BMCR 2011.07.44

Arqueología de la palabra: oralidad y escritura en el mundo antiguo

, Arqueología de la palabra: oralidad y escritura en el mundo antiguo. Barcelona: Edicions Bellaterra, 2010. 304. ISBN 9788472905122. €20.00 (pb).

Ana Rodríguez Mayorgas works at the Instituto de Historiografía Julio Caro Baroja in Madrid, having also spent time at the University of California in Berkeley. Hitherto she has written on orality and literacy in Rome, but in this useful book she extends her vision to all the previous civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean as well. She is one of those who see no great divide between what we call prehistory and history. The main perspective developed in this account is that writing and orality were not opposed to each other in ancient civilizations, but complementary. There is certainly a distinction to be made between primary orality (in societies where no writing exists at all) and secondary orality (where the two modes coexist, as now), but in Ana Rodríguez’s view society has not necessarily changed greatly with the initial advent of the latter. It is has often been thought and said that writing was developed as an aid to memory, although Plato accused writing of sabotaging the art of memory. Jack Goody, who developed the idea that the advent of writing into a society changed human psychology irreversibly even for those who could not write, but, as Ana Rodríguez points out this work can hardly be taken to mean that everybody in a literate community is logical and rational. So Ana Rodríguez sensibly looks at many relevant contexts separately, rather than aiming from the start for generalizations. Even so, one generalization that emerges is that, although writing gives the possibility for decontextualization, it rarely if ever lost contact with its oral context in the period considered.

Ana Rodríguez takes the view that the development of early writing systems is not a single phenomenon, given that they are so different. Even ancient cave paintings were, in her view, intended to convey a message. The earliest specific writing systems were logographic (fortunately, it seems that nobody now argues that they were ideographic), in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and also (giving a quick but interesting glance across the Atlantic) Mesoamerica. Hieroglyphics were only used for Egyptian, whereas by her count cuneiform was used for over fifty different languages; this shows the importance of not confusing the writing system with the language in our analyses, and she valiantly manages not to do so. Broadly speaking, she accepts the work of Denise Schmandt-Besserat that showed that numerical indications added to hollow clay bullae in Mesopotamia lay at the root of the development of cuneiform, and that their point in context was economic rather than linguistic; they were a practical mnemotechnic notation, not a representation of speech (which she compares to the quipu of the Incas, possibly raising as many problems as she illuminates thereby). In Mycene, written records similarly document ephemeral accounts, rather than any aspect of speech.

The differing socioeconomic functions of literacy in different places have implications for historians rather than linguists. Overall, in fact, linguists are likely to feel short-changed by the focus of the book: at most, this is a sociological study of the point of literacy at different times and in different places; there isn’t even much sociophilology here. The development of the alphabet, with in principle a symbol for each sound, has often been seen as a great step forward in the development of humanity, but from this perspective, as she suggests it isn’t obvious why. In any case, the alphabet isn’t an exact phonetic or phonological transcription of speech sounds, and it wouldn’t help particularly if it was, since even in an alphabetic script the purpose of the written form is to indicate the word, not the sounds. Ana Rodríguez realizes this, but even so, tells us (79) that the Greek alphabet was a near-perfect phonological script. This may be a circular argument: our reconstruction of the speech sounds of the time depends largely on that assumption, after all, but the presence of dialectal divergence at the time, which always exists, suggests that the postulated perfection could at best only be local. And she tries hard not to sound too dismissive, but her arguments against the view that alphabets are consubstantial with democratic values are convincing. It was a strange manifestation of romantic anachronism for modern antiquarians ever to have suggested that they were.

All genres of Ancient Greek literature were at least partly oral, including history and philosophy; letters were usually dictated, laws needed to be proclaimed, and in general texts were part of a performance. Ana Rodríguez argues that only a few were unlikely ever to be read aloud (until Thucydides, at least). The Romans, however, began a process of foregrounding the written at the expense of the oral, which has expanded to the present day. The Lex Iulia de Repetundis of 200 B.C., renewed in 59 B.C., meant that a man’s word was no longer sufficient; written accounts became necessary, even for generals. In Ana Rodríguez’s striking phrasing, the conquistadores became administradores (120). But even so, legal texts would reflect an oral act, and would have been invalid without it, particularly if something unusual was involved. And over time, writing extended into much more of society: the army needed written documentation to function at all, as the Vindolanda tablets and the Bu Njem ostraka have shown. There was a postal service to and from Rome. The social élite all learnt to write, although the knowledge of writing itself didn’t get one into the élite, as can be seen from the low social status of the teachers. This connection got lost in the Early Middle Ages, where rulers were not necessarily literate nor at all intellectual; but the Church took on that role to some extent, and Ana Rodríguez may be as guilty as many of her classical colleagues in undervaluing the intellectual life of those centuries. Other earlier societies had allied writing and riches: surviving Etruscan writing is mostly to be found on luxury goods, there were writing instruments inside the tomb of Tutankhamun, and the trilingual royal inscriptions at Behistun in Iran were painstakingly compiled in a place where almost nobody would be able to read them. Whereas memorial stones in the Roman Empire were often erected at the side of the road by families hoping to attract the attention of any passer-by.

The continually burning question of how much of the Roman population could read is broached head-on. As most now do, Ana Rodríguez finds the negative view of William V. Harris to be unacceptably minimalist, not least because most writing was on biodegradable surfaces and such documentation could hardly be expected to survive, but she is not unsympathetic to his arguments; she envisages a large proportion of the population as being semi-literate. As regards Athens, the surviving ostraka used in the process of ostracism (as in the striking photo on p. 170, figure 41) show a variety of handwriting and orthographical skills that is not in the least surprising. But the conclusive evidence for Rome is surely to be found in Pompeii, where almost all the surviving written material is almost determinedly ephemeral. Ten thousand pieces of written evidence, some in verse, from a huge number of hands, suggest that many could write and most could read. The alphabet was a daily reality. Texts were read aloud, and there was a reading public. The illustration on the front cover of the book is of a piece of pottery from La Graufesenque in France, and the pottery inscriptions found there, from the late first and early second centuries A.D., attest at least thirty hands. (The fact that would be prominent in any book even marginally interested in language, that several of these are in Gaulish rather than Latin, goes unmentioned). At Vindolanda, the number of authors of the letters is also surprising. Harris, in Ana Rodríguez’s words, doggedly sees the glass half-empty; but the rest of us can include these imperfectly literate members of society in the positive statistics, and see the glass as some three-quarters full.

The chapter on magic includes comments on Judaic and Christian holy books. Romans, Greeks and the other early cultures did not have the same kind of sacred texts in the same way, basing their practices on ritual rather than on exegesis. Fixing the sacred text came to seem important to the experts, but this did not exclude the oral: memorizing the offices and sections of the Bible, and being able to recite them, became an important part of Medieval culture. Other religions communicated with the divine via ex-votos, defixiones and spells, and the gods communicated back orally, via dreams, oracles and such devices as cleromancy.

The last chapter concentrates on literature, although literary matters have been mentioned extensively already in the book. All the early societies developed in due course an important role for the combined written and oral experiences; not just the Iliad, although educated Greeks seem to have known it well as a result of their education, but in Mesopotamia and Egypt hymns, lamentations, epics, tales, love poetry, advice (e.g. from father to son), proverbs, riddles, used both the written and the oral modes. Scribes in the Roman world learnt the physical process of writing by transcribing relative trivia, such as oral literature, before writing documents related to administration and laws. Under this perspective, the modern view of literature and the written text, as having a decontextualized value in itself, began with the establishment of the Alexandria library and the scholars who wished to warehouse all knowledge there in written form.

Ana Rodríguez’s book is sometimes repetitive, but always interesting. She knows and refers to a great deal of recent scholarship concerning many social contexts, including much in English, but also making clear that Spanish scholarship now plays a serious part in these scholarly arenas. (We could wonder, conversely, how many English-language authors in the field are au fait with the work of these Spanish scholars?). As we have seen, despite the presence of some sensible comments on linguistic matters, this is the work of a social historian rather than a linguist or even a philologist (who would probably wish to nuance a number of comments), and there may not be a great deal here which is original in itself. However, as a synthesis of recent sociohistorical approaches to early writing and its attendant orality, which succeeds in presenting a coherent picture without getting lost in unnecessary generalizations or universals, the book deserves a wide reading public.