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Reviewed by:
  • Oral Traditions and Gender in Early Modern Literary Texts
  • Kirilka Stavreva
Mary Ellen Lamb and Karen Bamford , eds. Oral Traditions and Gender in Early Modern Literary Texts. Women and Gender in the Early Modern World. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008. vii + 250 pp. index. illus. bibl. $99.95. ISBN: 978-0-7546-5538-1.

This broad study of story-telling and gender is an exciting contribution to the discussion of the cross-fertilization of oral and literary creative expressions. Complementary to Adam Foxe's groundbreaking work in this field, the focus of inquiry in Lamb and Bamford's collection is cognitive, rather than genealogical. The authors are less interested in recovering oral narratives or exploring their transformations in and out of literate culture; rather, they explore the cultural meanings that the early moderns associated with the oral imaginary. What sense did fictional and historical audiences make of the oral medium of narrative transmission? How did this medium affect emotional memory? What was the relationship between orality and performance, between orality and social status and gender? How did oral narratives, embedded within or referenced in literary texts, shift these texts' frameworks of intelligibility for female audiences? These are the central questions driving the authors' analyses of the fragmented echoes of male and female voices in literary texts of widely diverging claims to authority.

The collection is bookended by Mary Ellen Lamb's introduction, which historicizes sensitively the oral traditions in early modern England, and Pamela Allen Brown's afterword, an astute mapping of the theoretical challenges that these essays present to preconceived gender, social, and discursive hierarchies. It is comprised of three thematic sections. Part 1 explores the roles of the "old nurse" and other female storytellers in the fictional worlds of Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Lady Mary Wroth, and Anna Weamys, as well as in John Aubrey's (also fictional) historiographical project. Typically painted with a satiric brush, or else, thwarted and silenced by male storytellers, female narrators were also portrayed as enticing and rhetorically adept, shaping their auditors' imaginations for better and (more often) for worse. The especially strong essays in part 2 open new interpretive avenues into canonical literary texts by Spenser and Shakespeare. They consider dramatizations of fantasies by and about women, fantasies born of female experiences, fashioned and circulated in the oral realm. Whether these flights of the oral imaginary get sanitized, as in Diane Purkiss's reading of The Winter's Tale in light of female adolescents' tales of anger, hunger, and loss of self, or whether they get romanticized, as in Fiona McNeill's analysis of Orsino's memory of the singing "free" lacemakers (Twelfth Night), their transmutations out of and back into the oral realm point to the fantasies' semantic endurance and plasticity. Clustered around the topic of pragmatics, the essays in part 3 bring out the power of oral narratives to buttress, but also to question, ridicule, and transform gendered identities. The range of primary texts mined for traces of orality here is impressive: libelous poetry cited in defamation court cases, musical lyrics in plays by William and Margaret Cavendish, the dramatization of fairy lore by the Children of Paul's [End Page 1386] company, explorations and exploitations of the ideologically conservative phonocentric tradition by male and female characters in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Edwin Baldwin's bewilderingly multivocal satirical fiction Beware the Cat.

The oral traditions discussed in Lamb and Bamford's collection throw important light on women's labor and leisure, fantasy and determination, performance and authorship. Moreover, the essays refuse to segregate women's speech from men's, just as they keep reminding us of the permeable boundary between orality and literacy in the era. And rightly so. For this permeability is to be credited with, on the one hand, preserving the vibrant, if scant, documentary evidence of early modern orality, and on the other, with expanding the interpretive horizons of literary texts. As to the dual-gender focus in the discussions of persuasion, debate, entertainment, and the forging of emotional memory, it prepares the ground, as Brown perceptively suggests, for a reconsideration of the Habermasian historiography of the public sphere. For this historical corrective, as...


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Print ISSN
pp. 1386-1387
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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