Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500-1700

Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500-1700

Jonathan Roper

Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500-1700. By Adam Fox. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000. xi + 497 pp. Illus. 57.50 [pounds sterling] (hbk), 16.99 [pounds sterling] (pbk). ISBN 0-19-820512M3 (hbk), 0-19925103-7 (pbk)

Adam Fox’s volume, a well-deserved winner of the Katharine Briggs award, is an excellent and compendious contribution to the historical study of English vernacular culture. A substantial work of social history, it is the result of a vast amount of background reading. This commendable book presents the case that “speech, script and print infused and interacted with each other in myriad ways” in the early modern period, and that the crude dichotomy of oral versus literate (or, indeed, that of elite versus popular) is unhelpful. He notes that in early modern England no one could avoid encountering documents in one context or another, and that the period may thus “be said to have experienced the literary restructuring of popular culture.”

Fox develops his theme by addressing seven topics in the book’s main chapters: “Popular Speech,” “Proverbial Wisdom,” “Old Wives’ Tales and Nursery Lore” (here conceding that the “domestic sphere was one characterised by a high degree of oral transmission”), “The Historical Imagination,” “Local Custom, Memory and Record,” “Ballads and Libels” (drawing on fascinating legal records), and “Rumour and News.” The chapters are full of documentary evidence, and the “thesis” element of the work does not loom oppressively large indeed, after the book’s rather programmatic opening pages, there follows a wonderful section entitled “The World of the Unlettered,” which unexpectedly reveals that the work is in fact to be a straightforward, even somewhat old-fashioned, example of descriptive social history, very much in the Keith Thomas mould, studded with many, often sizable, quotations of the original sources.

One criticism that can be made is that, while fully acknowledging the interaction of orality and literacy in this period, one can still regard the term “written sources” as an unwarranted privileging of the surviving, and thus, of necessity, written, material. Joseph Jacobs, when discussing “the folk” and the origin of folklore, suggested that the ultimate origin of, say, a particular saying or riddle would be “some bucolic wit, already the chartered libertine of his social circle, who first raised hearty guffaws by these homely pieces of wisdom.” Leaving aside Jacobs’ somewhat dated language, is it not likely that at least some of the sayings that Erasmus’s Adages helped to spread in Renaissance Europe, ultimately originate not with the classical authors whose works Erasmus drew on, but with some “bucolic wits” of the ancient world?

An example may illustrate this point. In the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, there is an entry for the term “to drain one’s words,” which refers to a drawling manner of speaking. This is a very localised expression. Thanks to the exemplary way the dictionary lists its sources, both oral and written, it is possible to see that this phrase is used in the village of Cow Head in the west of Newfoundland. Fieldwork there has made clear to me that the phrase is used by people in this community, which has an English-derived population, to describe the speech of the nearby French-derived community of Daniel’s Harbour. At some time, some individual in Cow Head must have made such a comment about a speaker (or speakers) from Daniel’s Harbour, a remark that struck a chord with one or more of the listeners, who picked up on it and began to use it themselves. Given the recent settlement history of Cow Head, we could even list all the possible candidates for the distinction of being the first person to coin this phrase.

If, in time to come, a novelist, quarrying the Dictionary of Newfoundland English for local speech, should light upon that phrase, and by means of his/her writings popularise its usage elsewhere, the novel could be considered as the proximate source of that phrase’s subsequent widespread popularity. But the ultimate source of the phrase will remain Jacobs’ “bucolic wit.” At times, Fox even comes close to admitting as much when he comments that “many towns and villages must have had ‘Scoggins’ in their midst, christened after Edward IV’s famous jester, who had exotic experiences to relate and whose exploits grew larger and larger in the telling.”

Another point that can be raised is that while Fox notes that “many of the jokes, riddles, and stories told in this period seeped into circulation via the printed page,” he underplays the flow in the opposite direction, from the oral to the literate. This can lead to difficulties. When, for instance, he writes that there are “few superstitions or common beliefs on almost any subject [which] cannot be traced back to some written source,” citing as an example the superstitions found in Thomas Lupton’s work 1000 Notable Things, he seems to ignore the possibility that simply because a superstitious belief is found in print, that printed record need not be the source of the belief for everyone who holds it. Likewise, wheeling out R.S. Thompson’s observation that “at least ninety-one” English folk-songs collected at the turn of the last century can be also found on early modern broadsides (incidentally, not a “recent” observation, as Fox claims), still leaves the question open of how such printed song texts were used, and hence the related question of the role that orality played in the transmission of these songs.

But, all in all, it must be said that Adam Fox has produced a wonderful, thought-provoking book, packed with detail, that should be read by everyone interested in traditional culture in the early modern period. It is one of a series of impressive historical studies produced in recent years on vernacular culture, which often draw on folkloric materials, by figures such as Ronald Hutton, Owen Davies, David Underdown, and David Cressy. This succession of distinguished studies by English social historians prompts the uncomfortable question: where are the corresponding works by English folklorists?

COPYRIGHT 2004 Folklore Society

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