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The Minim-istic Imagination: Scribal Invention and the Word in the Early English Alliterative Tradition

Johnathan Watson

Oral Tradition Volume 17, Number 2

Few medievalists today would invoke the Great Divide between the oral and the literate, for one of the more convincing arguments of the past quarter-century has been the mixed nature of medieval textuality: how oralderived rhetoric persistswell into the “literate” era. Influenced by thework of Alain Renoir, Walter Ong, John Miles Foley, Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, and others, oral theorists now prefer to speak of an oral-literate continuum, a continuum featuring a complex weave of oral and literate signification. In the English alliterative tradition, for instance, we might envision a stretch of textuality from the pre-Conquest Beowulf, through Lawman’s Brut, all the way to the fifteenth-century Siege of Jerusalem, a system of textsthat deploy, at various removes, a traditional native register. Hence, even though a late text like The Siege of Jerusalem is well within the “literate” era, its word and phrasalstock is nevertheless aligned with traditional contexts, and thus retains a certain connotative potential. Yet with this model of the oral-literate continuum before us, it is easy to conceive of a gradual decay, a process in which orality slowly becomes displaced, unproductive, and ultimately vestigia. I would like, however, to demonstrate in this essay—by looking specifically at the English alliterative tradition—that, in fact, the tension between oral and literate signification remains alive far into the so-called “literate” era. I willsuggest thatsome vestiges of oral-derived rhetoric do not merely decay in the Middle English period; rather they become subject to the complex processes of amalgamation, transformation, and even reinvention. A close reading of the scribal variants in The Siege of Jerusalem can illustrate this process. Siege yields at least two remarkable pointsfor our understanding of a waning orality: that ambiguous word-minim clusters associated with oral tradition could catalyze new orsyncretic images; and thatscribes, aslate asthe fifteenth century, could seek to infuse a “literate” text with oral-derived “word-power.”

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