What do we mean by ‘oral tradition’?

This post will return to the Latin poem ‘Waltharius’ (my current obsession) yet again in a short while, but it starts from a more modern question. If someone e-mails you a joke is that an example of oral or literate culture? The obvious answer is that it’s literate culture: after all, it wouldn’t be much use if you couldn’t read the e-mail. But what if what you’re sent is an audio file of someone telling a joke? How does this differ from someone telling you a joke over the phone or in person? How different is the same basic joke in .wav and .txt form?

If it’s not simply speech v symbols that distinguishes oral and literate culture, what about permanence? The (traditionally) transient speech is contrasted with the (traditionally) permanent writing, which would push audio and video clips towards literate culture. But in that case what about intention? Many e-mails are intended to be read once and then deleted – you don’t normally save all the jokes you receive. In contrast some oral forms are intended to preserve information over sustained periods of time, ranging from mnemonics to ballads. If ours is a purely literate culture, why do people still give lectures or speeches or even read papers? Thinking about the functions of different kinds of communications is important here.

What has prompted these musings is reading scholarly articles on what ‘oral traditions’ possible lie behind ‘Waltharius’. Discussion between literary scholars on such matters soon gets into areas that I know little about, such as discussions of the relevance of Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s work on early twentieth century Balkan oral poetry to early medieval poetry. But what I am struck by, as an outsider in the field, is the extent to which oral tradition in these discussions of the early Middle Ages is very often implicitly regarded as being in a fixed format and a fixed register. It is seen as existing in the form of poetry/song and as being high status, solemn, edifying and possibly having religious overtones. The reasons for this characterisation are partly that the surviving written down versions (or rather, the texts that look most like they may have originally been orally composed) tend to have these characteristics. But I think it’s also that there is a ‘Germanistic’ model (still influential) in which such poems are the way of transmitting tribal traditions, religious beliefs etc (see e.g. Reinhard Wenskus’ idea of ‘Traditionskerne’)

The problem is that the characteristics of this kind of oral tradition, the existence of which is not disputed, are then implicitly generalised to all forms of oral transmission of stories. So for example, Michael Richter, finding examples of Carolingian moralists condemning scurrilous songs, assumes that this reflects a fundamental hostility of the Frankish church to oral culture. He doesn’t consider the possibility that perhaps the songs concerned were actually obscene.

A similar problem is that where there is later evidence of an oral tradition about a figure, this is projected back as existing in a similar form from the beginning. For example, Alois Wolf, discussing the description of Count William of Toulouse in Ermoldus Nigellus’s epic ‘In honorem Ludovicii pii’ comments that some of the characteristics of William (the colour of his horse, his ability to give mighty blows with his fist) are also visible in twelfth century chansons de geste about William of Orange. He sees this as proving the existence of much earlier oral versions of the chansons, on which Ermoldus drew. While it seems unlikely that the chansons de geste derive this information from Ermoldus, and quite probable that they share oral sources, that is a long way from proving that the chansons existed as songs in the ninth century, let alone that Ermoldus drew on them. Ermoldus was writing less than thirty years after the siege of Barcelona, from which this description of William comes. It seems equally likely me to that he was drawing on ‘eyewitness’ accounts/memories and that these informal historical memories also fed songs (either at the time or later). Similarly, the Astronomer’s report in the 840s that the names of those killed in 778 were ‘well-known’ provides a shaky basis for constructing a proto-‘Chanson de Roland’ dating back to then. A lot of hagiography suggests that oral memories could be transmitted down a generation or two without being in song form or going via ‘professional’ memories. When Notker in the 880s quotes reminiscences he’d heard as a child from Adalbert about the Avar wars of the 790s, there’s no suggestion that this was in any form other than anecdotes. Thinking harder about the types of oral communication might avoid some of these potentially misleading assumptions and reassure historians more familiar with written texts that oral theory isn’t just a load of unproveable assumptions.


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