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Medieval English Oral Tradition

Mark C. Amodio

For nearly fifty years, the medieval English oral tradition has been one of the most intensely studied of all the world’s oral traditions, but it has so far proved to be an extremely difficult one both to define and to understand. In addition to the issues that confront everyone who works with long-silent, entexted oral traditions—among which are fundamental questions about how a given culture’s verbal art was composed/produced/presented/encoded/ received—there are a number of other issues that are specific to the English tradition in the Middle Ages. Chief among these is that the tradition itself has quite understandably long been viewed as two largely discrete traditions, the Anglo-Saxon and the Middle English, rather than as a single, evolving one. The Norman Conquest brought about (or in some cases simply accelerated) many significant linguistic, cultural, social, and political changes, but the expressive economy of the English oral tradition—its richly associative oral poetics—survives the Conquest (in admittedly varying degrees of intactness) and continues to influence the production and reception of medieval English poetry even as the tradition itself grows and changes through its contact with continental traditions and practices.

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