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The Oral Tradition and Middle High German Literature

Franz Bäuml

Oral Tradition Volume 1, Number 2

Serious concern with the oral tradition as it existed before and side by side with Middle High German written literature is linked in Middle High German studies to the introduction of the theory of oralformulaic composition (henceforth referred to as the Theory). True, the existence of an oral tradition has never seriously been doubted, but, beyond rather general notions of recurrent structural elements and hypotheses of a development of oral narrative texts in verse from song to epic, hypotheses which saw the oral text for the most part through the spectacles of literacy as a basically stable unit subject to alteration and adulteration, the mechanics of an oral tradition played no role in research concerned with Middle High German literature. And to this day we know practically nothing about the oral performances of the vernacular lyric of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Research on the oral tradition of epic poetry and its relationship to the written transmission, however, received more than a negligible impetus from the Theory, despite its general rejection, particularly on the part of German germanists. In this survey of the impact of the Theory on Middle High German studies, I shall therefore neither pass over the sins of the representatives of the Theory in silence, nor suppress my own view that the application of the Theory, amended and stripped of its early enthusiasms, has set in motion a current of research on the interrelationships between literacy and orality which promises to illuminate more than one dark corner of literary and social history.

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