Layers of Orality

Henry Carter (Oxford)

Late-medieval English literature challenges the dichotomy of orality and literacy in myriad ways. Troilus and Criseyde, a long narrative poem by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400), encapsulates this. Through its sustained ‘story of the very process of retelling’ (A. C. Spearing), it presents itself as a written text that draws on the authority of other books, but also as a text that will be read publicly. Furthermore, Troilus makes dynamic use of a literary feature that scholars have strongly associated with oral transmission: the formula. Barbara Graziosi and Johannes Haubold have recently argued that Homer uses formulae to point the audience to ‘resonances’ and ‘dissonances’ between a particular use of a formula and its use at other points in the poem, an insight which is equally applicable to Chaucer’s use of ‘no more’ formulae like ‘I can no more’ and ‘there is no more to say’. This is a surprising affinity, given that Chaucer’s poem, unlike Homer’s, is not the product of oral transmission. It could be that this is evidence of the influence on Chaucer of orally-transmitted Middle English poetry. ‘No more’ formulae, however, have no precedent in the surviving Middle English romances that show evidence of oral transmission, which indicates that Chaucer is not passively receiving ‘oral residue’ (Walter J. Ong), but creatively engaging with literary techniques that we are used to associating with oral transmission. More broadly, this suggests that formulae are not exclusively tied to oral transmission, but also to orally performed written texts.


Yeogeun Kim (Oxford)

Tang Chinese poetry was often orally composed, delivered, and performed, as well as received at social gatherings. Some of them were written down and survived to this date, but inevitably lost most of orality except specific rules of versification. These poems are not always standalone but sometimes embedded in prose. The orality of these embedded poetry contributes to the making of a narrative, for instance, by means of connecting people in the story world. This session explores the role of Tang Chinese poetry embedded in a 17th century Korean Buddhist tale. The focus of analysis will be given to how the orality of poetry performs in a Buddhist monk’s romantic encounter with women. The orality of embedded poems is further complicated when the tale is recited orally to the audience rather than just read individually. The complexity of performing orality of both prose and verse suggests that multi-layered orality is engendered from the environment of this confluence and thus diversifies the mode of connecting in an event of come-across among humans.