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  • The Poetics of Speech in the Medieval Spanish Epic by Matthew Bailey
  • Simone Pinet

epic, speech, oral composition, Cid, Fernan Gonzalez, Mocedades de Rodrigo, discourse analysis, linguistics, poetics, Matthew Bailey, Simone Pinet

Bailey, Matthew . The Poetics of Speech in the Medieval Spanish Epic. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010. ix + 147 pp.

As a result of his thinking about orality and literacy in medieval Spanish literature through new studies, Matthew Bailey presents in this book an argument sustained across three texts with which he has worked extensively, versions of epic discourse in the shape of the thirteenth-century Cantar de mío Cid, the Poema de Fernán González, and the Mocedades de Rodrigo. Bailey's intimacy with these texts is evident throughout this deceptively short book, in which he weaves masterful close readings of passages from these canonical works into an argument for oral composition and the role of speech through the lens of cognitive approaches to literature and discourse analysis.

The book is divided into five well-linked chapters, a first introductory chapter on the status of oral composition within Hispano-medievalism, a second chapter on learned culture, and three chapters devoted to each of the works, all introduced by a brief and descriptive five pages. In the first chapter, his status questionis, Bailey depicts a battle between oralists and defenders of written culture. Bailey's history of epic criticism in Hispano-medievalism begins, as so many histories do, with Menéndez Pidal, who is pitched against Parry and Lord. With the two camps established, Bailey goes on to relate how the field, while adopting some of Parry's and Lord's findings, has ultimately rejected oral composition for the Spanish epic in one way or another (Deyermond, Smith), with notable exceptions (Duggan and Geary), especially regarding the Cid (14). To a point, this is true, as Bailey details, especially in earlier criticism. However, the negotiations and tensions between oral and written culture have settled in recent decades into a consensus about their continued interplay that goes from production or composition through transmission and preservation, as first articulated by Ruth Finnegan and, as Bailey acknowledges, by Hispano-medievalists themselves, from Catalán and Michael to Bayo and Montaner. By the end of the chapter, however, Bailey seems to have (re)invested orality with a purity and originality that there seems to be little space to negotiate: "From Menéndez Pidal to Montaner, it has become an article of faith among Hispano-medievalists that the Yugoslav model of oral composition is irrelevant to the compositional process of the Spanish epic" (21-22). By focusing exclusively on [End Page 232] composition and invoking a sort of Hispanic delay (even resistance or refusal) in recognizing that the "genius" or "uniqueness" of expression of these poems is owed to an original oral composition, Bailey presents this book on Spanish epic as one determining "the extent to which their unique expression is linked to their original oral delivery." He thus makes the poems' expressive qualities the focus of his analysis, especially through studies by Wallace Chafe on speech and cognition. Centering both on structural matters such as parataxis and end-rhyme, and on those expressive qualities (which bring to mind aspects of Mark Amodio's work), Bailey attempts to prove that oral composition is the essence that will allow us "to hear the poems in a more genuine and culturally attuned way."

Chapter 2 uses the work of Carruthers to detail the process of epic composition as one that, regardless of its context of production—learned or not—not only relies on but in fact always begins in orality, using Berceo's Vida de Santa Oria as a case study. While elsewhere I find Bailey's close readings of text delicate and insightful, I am not convinced that when Oria reads and then returns to her cell to sleep and take consolation one must assume that the reading must have produced grief. While the particular nuance of grief is needed here to relate it back to Carruthers's "compunction," a fear or dread that precedes meditation, it is much more likely that Oria's "quiso dormir vn poco, tomar...


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