• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Peaceful coexistence and interaction

The oAgora and tAgora are not sealed-off, wholly segregated marketplaces. Nor are oral traditions and texts always and everywhere isolated from one another, impervious to influence from the other technology. Recall as a first principle that three of the four types of oral tradition either may or must involve texts in some way: Voiced texts are composed in writing, albeit solely for oral performance; Voices from the past involved both technologies in some now undeterminable fashion; and Written oral traditions simply cannot be either composed or received without a textual vehicle. The old-fashioned idea that oral tradition and texts form an exclusive binary, or Great Divide, was in its time a useful way to create thinking space for “something else besides literature.” But contemporary fieldwork and historical research have taught us that these two technologies not only co-exist peacefully but interact in fascinating ways. Moreover, they do so not only within the same community but within the very same individual.

Individual performers who do the once-unimaginable – compose within OT code but in the textual medium – can be described as “singing on the page.” Let’s examine three cases of this phenomenon, proceeding from the most recent toward the earliest, in an effort to understand just what’s transpiring and how the oAgora supports such activities. Starting with an example from a twentieth-century South Slavic epic singer and his transcriber, we’ll then look at the nineteenth-century physician/fieldworker Elias Lönnrot, who collected and partially composed the Finnish Kalevala. Our third example will consist of the celebrated Anglo-Saxon poem entitled Caedmon’s Hymn, which scribes seem to have recomposed “orally” even as they copied and recopied it.

Case study #1: Singer versus transcriber

When Albert Lord suggested that I begin my work at the Parry Collection by listening to an audio recording of Halil Bajgorić’s performance of The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey and making an original-language transcription, I was both intrigued and bewildered. Here, after poring over many textualized performances, I was to gain access to the “real thing,” a South Slavic oral epic just as it was performed, without any editorial filter, warts and all. Just one nettlesome problem: a transcription already existed, and by none other than Nikola Vujnović, whose abilities – as a native speaker of South Slavic, a cultural insider with a deep knowledge of the epic way of speaking, and not least a practicing guslar himself – far surpassed my own. What need could there possibly be for an outsider to undertake a task that an enormously better prepared insider had already completed?

The answer to that question emerged front and center within the first ten lines of listening and transcribing, as I quickly realized that what I was hearing didn’t exactly match what I was reading in Vujnović’s elegantly handwritten notebook. Some of the discrepancies were small, and some were larger. I was initially at a loss to explain them, and listened over and over again, trying to discover how I (certainly not Vujnović) had gone astray in my apprehension of Bajgorić’s performance.

Eventually, however, I started to realize that these discrepancies weren’t simply errors; they were performance variants or alternatives. Where Vujnović failed to include performatives—extra sounds that a singer inserts to smooth his vocal continuity—the explanation was simple enough. Functional as they were, they passed unnoticed in the oAgora. What was necessary for live performance had no role in silent reading, and the transcriber was acquainted enough with tAgora procedure to know that. So he left them out.

Other discrepancies loomed larger. Where Vujnović wrote Samo (“Only”) for the singer’s Tamo (“There”) at line 263, or A opazi (“But he caught sight of”) for the singer’s ’Vako pazi (“So he spied”) at line 157, he was recomposing the song within his own personal style or idiolect even as he wrote it down in the notebook. Because he was depending on his compositional fluency, these changes were “wrong” only in a tAgora sense. Within the oAgora they were simply slightly different oWords, leading to very similar or identical oPathways. In fact, they perfectly illustrated the cardinal OT principle of variation within limits.

So in none of these cases was Vujnović actually making mistakes. His failure to accurately transcribe precisely what Halil Bajgorić was singing was not a sign of his inattentiveness or inability to hear and render what he heard verbatim. Instead, the discrepancies were a sign of his singer’s ability to navigate the networks of his oral epic tradition even as he wrote out a text. Vujnović, a guslar in the oAgora as well as a transcriber for the tAgora, was singing on the page.

Case study #2: The 3% solution

Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884) was trained as a physician, but from his twenties onward he developed an increasing devotion to the language and folk traditions of the Finnish people. In concert with the general nineteenth-century European fascination with finding a people’s roots in national epic, Lönnrot traveled through the Finnish countryside, which then encompassed large sections of what is now Russian Karelia, searching for a lost national epic. Not just any epic, of course: what he sought was a cultural treasure comparable in scope and importance to foundational works like the ancient Greek Iliad and Odyssey, the medieval German Nibelungenlied, and many others. His collections of oral poetry – written down from still-living tradition by him and to a lesser extent his collaborators A.J. Sjögren and D.E.D. Europaeus – numbered about two million lines of verse, and are preserved in the Folklore Archives of the Finnish Literature Society.

What Lönnrot must have envisioned and what he encountered were substantially different. In place of a long, sprawling epic narrative he was able to find and write down only much smaller stories and story-parts. He interpreted these short poems as pieces of a formerly unified master-story, calling it the Kalevala. From 1835 onward Lönnrot published several editions of his Kalevala, editorially assembled from the apparent fragments in his collection. And his reconstructed poem was to prove seminal for the national self-image, driving not only political developments but also myriad Finnish projects in art, literature, film, and music (especially the classical oeuvre of Jean Sibelius), and has been translated into more than fifty languages. It would be difficult to find a more influential modern oral tradition.

But this unique and enormously productive resource would never have existed if Lönnrot hadn’t learned to sing on the page. And that singing took various forms: arranging and adapting the material he had collected, sometimes dramatically, not to mention personally creating new, additional verses in the form and style of the indigenous oral poetry. As the Wikipedia article summarizes, the published epic consists approximately “one third of word-for-word recordings by the collectors, 50% of material that Lönnrot adjusted slightly, 14% of verses he wrote himself based on poem variants, and 3% of verses purely of his own invention.”

If we set aside the text-versus-OT binary that fieldwork has shown to be a false dichotomy, we can see that Lönnrot’s “interference” was still a type of oAgora activity – of Written oral tradition, to be specific. He had internalized the rules for composing within the Kalevala tradition, and used his competence to modify and even to co-create within the oral marketplace. Whether an extended narrative ever existed in the Karelian lands or not, what the physician turned epic singer accomplished was to make the oral tradition a continuing and vital force in Finnish culture.

Case study #3: The miracle that morphed

The story of the probably legendary Anglo-Saxon oral poet named Caedmon is extraordinary. According to Bede’s famous account, this lowly cowherd regularly experienced a crippling case of performance anxiety at the worst possible moment. In the monastery where he worked, it was the evening custom to pass the harp (probably a six-stringed lyre like the one found at the Sutton Hoo ship-burial) around the table after sharing mead and beer. When it reached you, it was your turn to sing – to answer the oAgora call to compose and perform Anglo-Saxon oral poetry.

But not poor Caedmon, who, confronted with what was for him a threatening prospect, fled unceremoniously to the stable, where he spent the night with his bovine charges. However, all was not lost, for during that night an angel appeared to the desolate Caedmon and imbued him with the ability to compose oral poetry. First was a hymn glorifying God’s creation, and from that point on he began the practice of turning Biblical narratives into orally performed poems, using the familiar, time-honored vernacular medium of oral tradition to spread the word of the gospels and other works. It was a miracle of the first order.

Latter-day reactions to Bede’s story have varied widely. Some earlier scholars took it at face value, and tried to decide whether this or that surviving Anglo-Saxon poem was the creation of Caedmon. Never mind that we have only a very few conclusive attestations of authorship, and that even these may well be legendary tag-names for the distributed authorship of the oAgora; textual ideology knows no bounds. More recently, other scholars have interpreted the Caedmon episode as a kind of folk allegory, conjured to explain the transferral of Christian stories to the local, familiar idiom of the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition.

We may never know with certainty whether someone named Caedmon existed, or, if he did, whether that real-life individual was in any way responsible for some of the oral-derived Voices from the past that have been attributed to him. Nonetheless, like Homer, the South Slavic Ćor Huso, the Mongolian Choibang, and even the Anglo-Saxon minstrel/oral historian Widsith (“Wide-traveler”), Caedmon remains at the very least a significant way to put a name on an ever-shifting, never-fixed, multi-authored oral tradition. Legendary figures have their own power.

So perhaps it’s only fitting that the nine-line hymn that Caedmon is supposed to have composed on his emergence from the stable is so famous. Nor that it’s by far the most widely documented of any surviving verse from this era before the Battle of Hastings. Here is my translation of the West Saxon version of Caedmon’s Hymn into modern English, with small rearrangements and adjustments:

Now we must praise the Guardian of the heaven-kingdom,
The power of the Measurer, and his mind-thought,
The work of the Glory-father, because He established the beginning
Of every wonder, the eternal Lord.
He first shaped heaven as a roof
For earth’s children, the holy Creator;
Then the Guardian of humankind afterward made
Middle-earth, the eternal Lord,
For earth’s inhabitants, the almighty King.

Many of the verses or half-lines, separated by extra space at mid-line, are variations on oWords that recur elsewhere in the Anglo-Saxon oral tradition of poetry. Given his skill with this specialized language, Caedmon is best understood as an oral poet highly adept at navigating the pathways of this medieval English web of multiform language. He was fluent in the lingua franca of the oAgora, and knew how to deploy its poetic idiom, an open source code that he shared with the poets who composed Beowulf and other Old English poetry. Indeed, he was so fluent that he caused oral poetry to do something new, to assume a social function that it had not supported in the past. Whether we explain his remarkable innovativeness and verbal dexterity as the gift of a visiting angel or as reflecting changes in a poetic tradition that took on new duties as the Christian conversion proceeded, we can confidently credit Caedmon with knowing how to manage successful transactions in his oral marketplace.

But that’s not the end of this miraculous tale. Recent research has established that the five extant versions of Caedmon’s Hymn included with the Anglo-Saxon (rather than the Latin) texts of Bede’s History of the English Church and People behave quite curiously. They don’t fit the usual tAgora mould. These variants collectively exhibit option-driven, rule-governed variation typical not of tAgora replication, but rather of oAgora navigation. Such a phenomenon can be explained only as the work of scribes – copyists physically scrawling ink on vellum manuscripts, we should keep in mind – who were recomposing even as they “copied.” Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe1 puts it very clearly and straightforwardly: “In such a process, reading and copying have actually become conflated with composing.”

Like Nikola Vujnović, who recomposed the oral epic performance by Halil Bajgorić as he transcribed the audio recording, these scribes worked within the flexible, systemic idiom of the oral poetic tradition. They weren’t doing what we tAgora denizens assume scribes do – namely, reproduce the item verbatim, with the copy nothing less than an exact replica of the original. No, they were writing under oAgora rules, remaking as they went, navigating the OT web. It may seem counter-intuitive to us, but these scribes – whose job it was to produce documents – were singing on the page.


1 Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. p. 41.