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Walter Ong, medieval studies, textual studies, media ecology


  • 5/28/2018 Ong- Medieval Textualization


    Orality, Literacy, and Medieval TextualizationAuthor(s): Walter J. OngSource: New Literary History, Vol. 16, No. 1, Oral and Written Traditions in the Middle Ages(Autumn, 1984), pp. 1-12Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL:

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  • 5/28/2018 Ong- Medieval Textualization


    Orality,Literacy, nd Medieval TextualizationWalterJ. Ong

    L ITERARY HISTORY is no longer entirely iterary.f we are sen-sitive now to intertextuality,o the dependency of textsfortheir existence and meaning on othertexts,we are sensitivealso to the historicalorigins of literatureout of oral verbalization.Skilledoral art formspreceded and in partpredetermined he styleof the writtenworks which constitute iterature n the strict ense.Although writingwas ultimately o transmute ral performance ntoquitenewgenres,nevertheless,ven after he ntroduction fwriting,oral mindsets nd waysofexpressionhave persisted n literaryworkseverywhere, romantiquity o the present day. For centuries itera-turecarries veryheavyresidue of what have styledprimary rality,the pristineoralityof cultureswith no knowledge of writing.Thisresiduenotablydiminishesfrom heage ofRomanticism n, althoughit never entirelydisappears. Therefore, literaryhistorymust showsome awareness of orality-literacynteractions, ast and present.In theEuropean Middle Ages interactions etweenorality nd lit-eracy reached perhaps an all-timehigh. The Middle Ages had noprint, hough they prepared thewayfor t. In medievalmanuscriptculture,books weresubtly ssimilatedmore to oral utterance nd lessto the world of physical objects than theyare in a high-technologyprint ulture. This is perhapsone reasonwhydeconstructionistsyp-ically nalyzetexts omposed forprinting, otpretypographicmanu-script exts.)Manuscriptswerecommonly ead aloud or sotto oce venwhen the reader was alone. Speed readingwas of course impossible,so whynotvocalize? Vocalizationhelped thereaderto absorbthefullmeaning notsimply ome logocentric meaning),to eat thewords,as Joussehas explained in La Manducation e laparole. In earlyprinteven typesetwords tended in significantwaysto be managed not asvisual units but as sound units.2In preprintculturemanuscriptbooks had no titlepages, visuallyorganized labels which were to be an inventionof print,3 nd oftentheydid notevenhave titles.Preprintmanuscriptswere,and still re,catalogued normallyby their ncipits,heir firstwords,whichcouldbe typically conversation-likeddresstothe reader: Here youhave,dear reader, a book written y so-and-so about.... They end notwith curt abel, The End, but typically gain talking o someone:

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  • 5/28/2018 Ong- Medieval Textualization


    NEW LITERARY HISTORYHere ends The Parliament fFowls held on St. Valentine's Day, asrecountedbyGeoffreyChaucer. Thanks be to God. ( Explicitpar-

    liamentum auium in die sancti Valentini tentum,secundum Gal-fridumChaucers. Deo gracias. This explicit o Chaucer's Englishpoem occurs in Latin.)It is true thatmanuscript odices were bulky bycomparisonwithlaterprintedworks-parchment was much thicker nd stiffer hanmostpaper was to be, and witha quill pen one could hardlycopylengthy exts n letters he size ofpica typeor the muchsmaller gatetype ommoninprint. n theirrelativemassivenessmanuscript ookswere thusquite conspicuouslyobjectsor things. But twocopies ofthe same worknevermatched physically s objects; scripts nd for-matsfor the same work differedwith ach copy; and even theparch-mentvaried in texture and color frompage to page. What gave awork ts dentity onsistedvery ittle n what t ooked like. The workwas what t aid whensomeonewasreading t, onvertingt nto soundin theimagination r,more likely, loud. If a personcould notread,he or she could never tell if two manuscriptbooks were the sameworkor not. Of course, two printedtextstoday also constitute hesame work not because of what they ook like but because of whatthey ay-or, more accurately,whattheybringa reader to say,for atextdoes not say anything f itself.Yet commonly nough one cantell,without eadingthem, hatthousands of individualprintedbooksdo saythe same thing, re the same work,because of whatthey ooklike physically: n a given edition each copy is an exact replica ofeveryother.Such experience of physicallymatching printedbooks, togetherwithour late typographichabitof silentreading,has subtly lteredour senseofthetextbydissociating tnotably, houghneverof courseentirely, romthe oral world,makingthe book less like an utteranceand more like othervisibleand tangible things. Printedbooks vir-tually lwayshave tables of contents ;theyare felt more as con-tainers,withtitles nd titlepages servingas labels do on boxes. Inmanuscriptculture, texts were somewhat more like proclamations.Chaucer concludes several of hispoems with n envoy, endingoffhis textto address itselfto someone, like a speaker. He wroteTheParliament fFowls,he explains, because afterhe had been readingabout Scipio AfricanusMajor, the latter ppeared tohimin a dreamto converse withhim and take him on some travels.The way thisdream-vision onversationgrowsdirectly ut ofreading suggestshowmanuscriptbooks could be feltto be close to oral exchange. Author-ship in a manuscriptculture was not marked by absences quite somuch as it is in print. Hence, again, deconstructionistsre little t-tractedto manuscriptworks.)


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  • 5/28/2018 Ong- Medieval Textualization


    ORALITY, LITERACY, AND MEDIEVAL TEXTUALIZATIONThe European Middle Ages were bound to oralityfurthern thattheir iterature xhibited on all sides the heavy residue of primary

    orality hat stillmarked literatecultureseverywhere.This residue isevident in popular verbal art forms,withtheirregularlyheavy orheroic characters, ypecast as Noah's wifeofthemystery lays), ntheformularyententiae hichsupportso much medievalthought, nthe episodic narrativenot onlyof oral storytelling ut also of textscomposed inwriting,nthe ove offlitingexemplifiedpar excellenceby the body-souldebates or by The Owl and theNightingale),n theaddiction to amplificationgrownout of the oral need forcopia,forcontinuous flow of discourse (foran oral performermust never hes-itate-though he or she can indeed pause), and in much else.Besides carrying heavy residue of primaryorality,medieval lit-eraturewas also suffusedwith n academic orality. his was fostered,first,by the academic study of rhetoric inherited fromantiquity,where,as the artof public speaking,rhetorichad been the center ofeducation. The supreme aim ofGreek and Roman educationwas toprepare therhetor,he orator or public speaker,who was consideredthe ideallyeducated man. Writing killswere learned not for them-selves but to make a betterpublic speaker or rhetor. lthoughoverthe centuriesrhetorichad been surreptitiouslyccommodating tselftowriting s culture became morechirographic, eep inthe medievalpsyche the central,though most often unacknowledged, academicparadigm for discourse, including writtendiscourse, remained theoration rather than the text.At this point orality-literacyelationsbecame a bitdizzying.Medievaluniversities rovideda moretextuallyoriented education than classicalantiquity ad. Unlikeantiquity,heybuilt courses on textualcommentary: ollowing tandardprocedure,Thomas Aquinas's lectures s bachelor oftheology, orexample,hadbeen a Commentaryn theSentencesfPeterLombard.But for all theirtextuality,medieval universities were radicallyoral as universitiestodayno longer are. There were no written xaminationsor exer-cises.All the textualization n themilieu was intendedto be recycledin one way or another back into the oral world in disputationsorotherpublic oral performances.Academic orality-literacy ixescould affect ven the unletteredbya kind of cultural osmosis. Rhetoricas studied and practicedby lit-erates could intensifyorms fverbalization elovedbyoral tradition,such as, forexample, the elaborate,arabesqued figuresof speech incourtly ove literature r themeticulously alance