If you believe in the word of mouth…

How can we use spoken rather than written sources? History has to necessarily encapsulate a broad swathe of sources but can these oral ones be relied on?

As Mike and the Mechanics put it so well:

You don’t believe the information
You don’t believe it when it’s denied
So when you’re reading explanations
You have to read between the lines.

It’s not everyday 80s Pop/Rock can be used to explain a historical perspective. But Mike Rutherford and co. have succinctly got to the point. Reading between the lines and a health dose of scepticism will generally serve you well in life, but this is especially true of oral and written histories.  I’m going to own up now and state that this is not a yes/no question and there are a huge number of differing academic opinions. So it is recommended take the aforementioned song at face value.

So to begin to understand the intersection of linguistics, oral and written history we need to peel back the layers one at a time. I’m going to tackle this by looking at the Greek tradition, and specifically Homer and the Greek/Athenian play writes.

Oral and written histories are not mutually exclusive, neither are they necessarily completely equatable. Let me explain in the context of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey.

A slightly exasperated looking Homer.
“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” said a slightly exasperated looking Homer.

Contextually: it is widely understood that the Illiad and the Odyessy were originally oral stories, more specifically poems that were spoken aloud to audiences and perhaps even accompanied with music (although this last assertion is speculative). Homer speaks about heros and their deeds an addresses his audience as his contemporaries several times in formulaic language. In fact the name ‘Homer’ may not refer to one person but in fact be derived from ‘Homeridae‘ – professional singers. This is very important for understanding oral history because it means that the epic stories of Homer were not the preserve of one person, but were remembered and constantly shared between more people with even greater audiences. With this understanding we can look at Homer that we have now, frozen in a final state in it’s written form, with the understanding that it evolved from a linguistic, oral tradition.

An excellent paper on this by Barbara Graziosi and Johannes Haubold (Graziosi, Barbara & Haubold, Johannes (2005). Homer: The Resonance of Epic. London: Duckworth.) puts it like this:

“Repeated words and phrases such as ‘swift-footed Achilles’ trigger a chain of associations which, we suggest, work like acoustic resonance. They suggest associations in the mind of the audiences and readers that are crucial to the story, yet do not appear to be consciously invented on the spot. And even if they are, their main function is not to capture the moment that is being described in a unique way, but to tie that moment to the larger tradition and thus endow it with resonance.”

So, how does this help us? Well, it shows that oral traditions are tied into a wider scope of cultural understanding and a dialogue between the speaker and the audience. The problem we have here is that my example is about a story. While there may be some historical basis for the events in the Trojan War, historians would be VERY hesitant in treating the text as a historical document in the same way that we would for a source such as, for example, Thucydides or possibly Herodotus (although he isn’t without a whole host of other problems to do with historical validity and oral history, but that’s for another day).

So, we need to know how valid an oral historical tradition is in direct comparison to a written one. Essentially is a written record more likely to contain accurate historical ‘truth’ compared to a oral one. The spoken is far less tangible and verifiable, for the simple fact that it is contained within a cultural tradition and shared memory, compared to a book.

This is where a scholar, Milman Parry and his research comes in. Parry is really the foremost source on the oral tradition relating to Greek epics and is well worth researching (if I haven’t put you off the subject for life). To boil a life-time of work down to a few sentences; Parry worked on the theory that South Slavic epics and Greek ancient epics had a demonstrable similarity that means that it is possible for HUGE (in the epic sense) amounts of information, contained within a poetic, performance.  Poetry in an oral format could be memorised and recited accurately to an expert audience. The audience are as much a part of preserving the tradition as the speakers. The oral history belongs as part of a collective memory as either speaker or listener, part of the life of everyday people. This does not mean that the poems were not subject to change, just that, according to Parry’s research, their were likely certain aspects that HAD to stay the same or the epics would not have been remembered and mistakes would ave been called out by the audience. From Parry’s work and the evidence from Homer, it seems entirely plausible that huge amounts of information were committed to memory. Homer names every single soldier who dies in the course of the Illiad. He also does the equivalent of a shout-out a very famous passage in Book II, the so-called ‘Catalogue of Ships’.

By writing these stories down, two things happen. 1) You freeze the story into that moment in time, a written record provides tangible evidence that at the time of writing, that was how the information was understood. 2) You start negating the need for an oral tradition at all. If people can read it for themselves, or perform to an audience without having to go through the lengthy process of memorizing the whole thing. The story/history starts to take on a more solid form. This is not to say that written histories are infallible, just that they are more verifiable, accessible than an oral equivalent.

The difference between an oral and written tradition is far from clear. I think, based on the work of Parry, that for a historian to dismiss the evidence of an oral tradition out of hand, simple because of it’s format would be a gross oversight. Depending on the era of history under investigation ANY information is important to gain a full understanding. What is also important to appreciate is that just because it is written or spoken does not make an history more right or more wrong than the other. Oral traditions are subject to change within the collective or individual memory, just as written texts can be edited, lost or copied out inaccurately. Assuming that both contained accurate information in the first place! If Parry is right, this would all have been committed to memory, along with the rest of the epic, constantly being verified, at every performance, by an ‘expert audience.’ Now, I’m not entirely sure if that relates to the traditions that you are speaking of, but it certainly seems feasible that the oral and written traditions could be equally as useful when investigating the history.

In short, every source has a place in proper historical investigation. Oral traditions, although different, could have just as much significance as written equivalents or counterparts.

Emma pixnit

The genius of Milman Parry’s collection at Harvard University can be researched online here – Centre for Hellenic Studies

The genius of Mike and The Mechanics can be appreciated here too:

This blog post is based and uses extensive exerpts from a post I wrote for Reddit r/askhistorians answering the question: How do historians feel about drawing conclusions from oral traditions? how accurate are they deemed, professionally speaking?


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