Thursday, April 17, 2008

Medieval Reading and Chaucer: A Review of Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France

Joyce Coleman’s book, Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France, is an attack on Orality/Literacy theory, that the technological sift from an oral to a literate culture was accompanied by revolution in how mankind viewed the world, and in particular the work of Walter Ong. According to Ong western society evolved from an oral society toward a literate one through a number of stages. Western society started off in a state of primal orality, exemplified by Homer. As society evolved and literacy spread literary type thinking began to become more prominent. That being said “oral” residues remained. An example of this is the prominent role during the Middle Ages of oral reading, reading texts out loud, either to oneself or to others. The move to silent reading marked one of the final transitions into the literate society and hence to the birth of modernity. An oral mode of thinking focuses on tradition and the community. The bard of an oral society passes on traditional narratives to his community. Even in terms of language there is an emphasis on repetitiveness and the familiar. Within such a system there is no space for critical analysis nor is there any space for an individual. Even under the model of oral reading, which dominated the classical and medieval periods, which had written texts, the act of reading was still a communal affair which served to strengthen the cause of tradition and left no room for the individual. Literacy allows for man to take a critical view of himself and the world around him and hence allows for the rise of rationalism. The silent reader has a personal relationship to the text that is not bound by the authority of community and tradition.

Coleman objects to this paradigm because it treats the Middle Ages as one static period and fails to take into account the sifts within society that occurred. Moreover when historians attempt to locate this mysterious sift from orality to literacy they come up with different periods. Did this sift occur during the Carolingian period with the scholarly circle surrounding the court of Charlemagne? Was it in the twelfth century with the rise of scholasticism and the medieval university? Did the literate society come into being as a result of the cultural changes of the fourteenth century? Did orality survive even the rise of the printing press? Above all Coleman sees the discussion of orality versus literacy as being hopelessly entrapped in a progressive view of history. Man is supposed to have progressed from the primitive mode of orality to literacy, which allowed for the rise of modern rational man. For Coleman an oral mode of communication is in no way inferior to a literate mode. The decision to switch to a literate mode does not imply that one has become more sophisticated or that one is all of a sudden more capable of engaging in the rational inquiry into the nature of man and the universe.

Coleman presents medieval literacy as being aural based; that people read aloud either to themselves or to others even when they could do otherwise because they preferred hearing texts. Aurality serves Coleman as a bridge between the oral and literate society. By talking about aurality she avoids the pitfall of having to deal with different “rises” of the literate society. Coleman offers examples of different types of aurality that differ from each other not in a progressive sense but merely pragmatically. There were different types of readers who read for different purposes. The recreational reader, the religious and the professional reader might in different situations have read silently to themselves or had someone read to them. Having a text read out loud did not imply any lack of literacy on the part of the listener.

Running through the book and tying it all together is an analysis of Chaucer. Chaucer has traditionally served as an example of the rise of a silent reader. At various points in his famous Canterbury Tales, and his less well known work such as Troilus and Criseyde, talks about reading and addresses himself to a reader. This has traditionally been interpreted as Chaucer writing with the assumption that his work would be read by privately by an individual. The fact that Chaucer also talks about people listening to stories is brushed aside as Chaucer giving a nod to traditional forms of narrative. Coleman rejects this interpretation of Chaucer and offers her own analysis of Chaucer using her theory of aurality. According to her reading of Chaucer, when he talks about a reader he is referring to someone either reading his work aloud to a group or someone having his work read to him. This reading of Chaucer has the advantage over more traditional readings in that it takes into account his references to the telling over of his work and the reading of it.

While I agree with Coleman’s main argument, that orality not a deficiency, and I find her analysis of Chaucer to be quite interesting, I do not think that her argument about aurality marks a real break with Orality/Literacy theory. She has overplayed the groundbreaking nature of her work by creating a straw-man out of Orality/Literacy theory in general and of Ong in particular. I do not read Ong as rejecting any of Coleman’s major assertions. Ong was not trying to create a ranking system between orality and literacy. On the contrary by analyzing orality he was trying to present an oral mode of thinking as an equally valid alternative to a literary mode. In the end Coleman does not deny that the rise of mass literacy affected how people thought and Ong is not advocating a progressive understanding of history.

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