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Reviews 233 Vitz, Evelyn Birge, Orality and Performance in Early French Romance, Cambridge, D. S. Brewer, 1999; cloth; pp. xiii, 314; R R P £50; $ U S 90. This book is concerned to advance a fundamental revision of the history of French literature/romance - to argue convincingly that oral and performed traditions were far more important in the development of early verse romance than scholars have recognized hitherto. The contention is that romance was, from a very early period, an 'ambivalent' genre, containing important features of both minstrelsy and ofclerkliness. Similarly there co-existed in French romance factors of both oral and literary poetic practices, lasting from the mid-twelfth century, into the fourteenth and beyond. It is argued that the blend came from the nature of court life over this period - the inter-relation between minstrelsy, story-telling and entertainment, as well as from therisingprestige of scholars and of documents, 'the TwelfthCentury Renaissance'. Yet Vitz is also concerned to stress that verse romances in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were much more oral than was generally thought in more recent scholarship. Orality is seen as a force existing in various areas, - non-literature poets, oral delivery, thematic contents, the impact of the material on their audiences, socially and culturally. Yet books and particularly the Bible are indeed present, even when they might well seem to be most absent. While much ofthefirstpart (Chapters One to Four) focuses on orality, this is followed inevitably by the much longer second section, one concerned with performance. The initial emphasis on the octo-syllabic couplet, seen as 'a traditional vernacular story-telling form' which then became attractive to clerks and so, progressively, a text-centred one. This slow development is illustrated by reference to three treatments of the Tristan story. A sequential section, Chapters Three and Four, then argues that two early and major romanciers, the anonymous poet ofthe Roman de Thebes and Chretien de Troyes may well have been menestrels and trouveres from the oral culture. Significally France appears to have remained more generally oral than the high culture of Anglo-Norman England, as with Wace and Benoit de Sainte-Maure writing for the monarchs there. The more expansive Part II focuses on matters concerned with performance - the role played by voice; the influence of song and music; the later custom of romance-reading; and many aspects of presumed mnemonics, as in plot and structure in the works of Chretien de Troyes. Thus the emphasis moves from the social to the oral, with more complex audience responses, suggesting that this m a y well be still needed today for the best impact for the texts. 234 Reviews Very clearly the argument will seem radical to some, not least since so many (later) writers/copyists of manuscripts had little if any contact with oral poets and/or performers. And the 'book' inevitably had soon acquired all the associations of formalism and tradition that have been almost automatic for centuries, so much so that 'it is very difficult for any ofus to overcome our double bias against - or at least our blindness and deafness toward, and incomprehension of-the oral culture ofthe Middle Ages' (p. xiii). Perhaps a circumspect survey of this illuminating and challenging text can do no better than close with reference to the writer's summary conclusion and challenge that 'we cannot begin truly to appreciate the interpersonal and interactive, nor indeed the dramatic and musical, qualities of mediaeval romances unless and until w e actually perform them, and hear and see them performed' (p. 282). Equally fascinating are the comments on Aucussin etNicolette and on several Middle English romances, or on the dramatic performances of Beowulf (p. 283), as attempted in recent years. And we should accept Evelyn Vitz's challenge - 'to get in the habit ofreading passages from [the romances] aloud and even reciting parts ofthem from memory ourselves' (p. 282). For the festive, the musical, and the likely intriguing proportions of recitation and of song, are all aspects of the stories that have and must appeal to folklorists and ethnographers, even as they tell us more and more about their 'dramatic and interactive capacities'. If nothing else, the study...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 233-234
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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