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Medieval Listening and Reading: The Primary Reception of German Literature, 800-1300.

Green, D. H., Pp. xv + 483. Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 50.00[pounds].

THIS study, building on previous work by the same author, and based on a vast array of primary and secondary sources, is in part a contribution to the debate aroused by the oralformulaic theory of poetic composition and the view that medieval texts, whether orally composed or written, were intended solely for oral recital, and in part a response to Scholz, who in Horen und Lesen. Studien zur primaren Rezeption der Literatur im 12. und 13. Jahrhundert (1980) attempted to redress the balance in favour of a reading reception. While this pioneer work was a useful corrective to the exaggerated claims of the oral-formulaic school, it is here shown to neglect essential differences of genre and chronology, and to be based on an insufficient range of texts, with the result that its conclusions are equally one-sided.

The present work is, however, of much wider scope than a contribution to this debate. It encompasses the whole area of orality and literacy, different degrees of each and their interpenetration, and the relationship between Latin and the vernacular, and between lay and clerical culture. It examines the differing contexts in which texts were composed, transmitted, and received. Although the title refers only to German literature, a preliminary section (Part I) discusses the general implications of the problem and the necessary background in classical and Germanic antiquity. Part II introduces the three modes of reception, by hearing, by reading, and an intermediate mode, encompassing the possibility of both hearing and reading. Texts are grouped under the following general headings, which bear witness to the wide coverage attempted and the inclusive definition of literature here adopted: functional (e.g. charms, school, and didactic literature); religious worship and instruction; legal; historiographic; biblical; legends; drama; heroic literature; court narrative; lyric. The chronological coverage is also comprehensive, from the first beginnings of writing in the vernacular up to 1300, whereas Scholz had largely confined himself to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Under each mode of reception firstly the criteria necessary for its recognition and secondly the texts to be assigned to it, are considered. This inevitably leads to some repetition and duplication, as works may occur under either heading and fall into more than one category, but this was no doubt a necessary corollary of the attempt to examine the material exhaustively in order to permit reliable conclusions to be drawn. Part II also includes a survey of the context of reception, in so far as this is recuperable from the evidence available, and an analysis of the crucial formula hoeren oder lesen and its classical and medieval Latin equivalent audire vel legere together with their respective variants, which lend support to the notion of a two-fold reception, by both hearing and reading. An Appendix discusses the ambiguous verb lesen, which according to context can mean `read', `read aloud', `recite', `teach', `learn', `narrate', `tell'.

Part III draws together the conclusions of the study, and includes sections on the relation of history and fiction respectively to orality and literacy, the coexistence and symbiosis of clerical and lay culture, and the attendant historical, social, and educational dimensions of recital and reading. The overriding conclusion of the work is that there can be no absolute contrast between an oral and a literate society and between the concepts illitteratus and litteratus, but only degrees of difference and interrelationship between them. It is therefore insufficient to view the problem in terms of an exclusive contrast between either a hearing or a reading reception of literature. Many works were clearly both recited and read, and this intermediate reception can be shown to be the most significant of all in its consequences, a fact expressed in the last sentence of the book in a mild scholarly joke: `In this sense it can be said that the most important part of the title of this book is the word "and"'.

This work is comprehensive to a degree: in its coverage of texts and of a very wide span of secondary literature, and in its scrupulous lexical analysis. No medievalist could fail to learn from such wide-ranging scholarship and the vast bibliography. It is, however, a hard read. partly because of the density of information it contains, partly because of the proliferation of notes: it is easy to see why these could not have been accommodated at the foot of the page, since as endnotes, amounting to a total not far short of three thousand, they take up just over a hundred pages and thus form a large proportion of the whole work. They necessitate constant turning backwards and forwards, which impedes concentration on the main body of the text. Some of the references to secondary literature could perhaps have been curtailed without loss in order to reduce interruption to the flow of the argument. All in all, however, this can only be described as a magisterial work.
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Author:Sayce, Olive
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1995
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