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  • Medieval Storytelling and Analogous Oral Traditions Today:Two Digital Databases
  • Evelyn Birge Vitz (bio) and Marilyn Lawrence (bio)

We are pleased to present two open-access digital databases of video clips from performances of medieval narratives and analogous living oral storytelling traditions: Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase (, [PMNT]) and Arthurian Legend in Performance (, [ALP]).

While in the process of editing, along with our colleague Nancy Freeman Regalado, a book entitled Performing Medieval Narrative (Vitz et al. 2005), we came up against a challenge: to most people, including many academics, it was simply inconceivable that the narrative literature of the medieval past had been performed. The underlying thinking, at least among scholars in modern literature departments, was that such works survive as books, and that books are to be read—silently. People were of course aware of references to performance within medieval texts, but these references did not seem believable or, more precisely, such performances were not imaginable. Most people had never seen narrative works from the Middle Ages performed and had trouble understanding how they could be performed. Their primary experience with live storytelling was typically the type of bookish entertainment provided for children in public libraries and independent bookshops. Storytelling in the West has been largely infantilized in the past century, making it difficult for many people to understand how adults of any level of sophistication might in the past have enjoyed watching and listening to the performance of narrative—in other words, storytelling.

To help people conceptualize ways in which narratives might have been performed in the Middle Ages, and to experiment with various new ways medieval narratives might be performed for audiences today, we began work on our website Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase. We created the pilot version of PMNT with a team from the Digital Studio of New York University Libraries, with Jennifer Vinopal as Project Manager.1 Launched in 2004, the website was hacked in 2011. When forced to shut down PMNT, we migrated the contents and rebuilt the site with the generous support of Vinopal and the team at NYU’s Digital Studio. Benefiting from technological advancements, the new PMNT, launched in 2012 at, allows for broader and easier searching of its contents, and, unlike our original site, can be accessed from smartphones and other mobile devices.

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Fig 1.

The home page of Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase (

PMNT currently offers over 225 video clips of performed scenes selected from medieval narratives, as well as relevant general resource tools, including a bibliography, videography, and tips for using the site in teaching.2 The website includes the work of a wide range of authors from the Early and High Middle Ages, but also, when relevant, from antiquity, the Renaissance, and the modern era. Many genres (allegories, ballads, epics, fables, fabliaux, hagiographies, lais, romances, satires, songs, and tales) are represented, pulling from a wealth of myths, legends, and stories (Anglo-Saxon, Arthurian, Biblical, Buddhist, Celtic, Christian, Classical, Germanic, Islamic, Jewish) as well as popular tales (of Charlemagne and Roland, Renart the Fox, Robin Hood, Tristan, and others).3

Oral and written traditions tend not to be discrete or autonomous—tradition is often a two-way street—and the majority of medieval “oral” works we possess today are indeed preserved in writing. Our website therefore does not focus exclusively on works from oral tradition. We emphasize medieval works that invited—and still invite—performance approaches other than silent reading. Performances represented on the site range from simple, solo storytelling to more theatrical staging by ensembles. Clips might include singing, puppets, props, sets, costumes, dance, or instrumental music—or just a single performer reciting a scene from a story. Users can view performances in a number of languages: Egyptian Arabic, Medieval Latin, Old French, Middle High German, Hebrew, Italian (Renaissance and Modern), Renaissance Croatian, Karakalpak, Norn, and Turkish, as well as English (Old, Middle, and Modern, plus Lowland Scots).

We have been fortunate to involve in the project a number of international professional performers...

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