At the dawn of human history, humankind was able to transfer information only in the oral form. However, the invention of writing more than five thousand years ago changed the way information was spread through human societies. Since then, both oral and written formats of information transfer have coexisted. This balance has never been static, and the roles of oral and written formats changed constantly. One of the areas where the balance shifted significantly is literature. This essay will analyze and discuss the transition from oral tradition to written across three major literature periods – Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English. Three literature periods reflect three stages of transition from mainstream oral literature to the dominance of written literature.
tailored to your instructions
for only $13.00 $11.05/page
It is believed that in the Old English literature period, the oral format may be the main format for composing and transferring literature. This is demonstrated by the oral-formulaic theory in Anglo-Saxon poetry – the theory that some features of Old English literature can be explained by the application of the oral-formulaic composition (Magoun, 1953). From the perspective of that theory, even in the written literature of the period, there is a heavy reliance on formulas and themes, which is typical for oral tradition (Foley, 1985). One of the prominent examples of such works is Beowulf – an Old English epic poem. Generally, the Old English literature period can be viewed as one dominated by oral tradition.
The Middle English literature period was characterized by the diminishing role of English because of competition with widespread Latin and French. Moreover, the overall historical period was defined by constant social, military, and environmental disasters. Nevertheless, various literary works from that period won the favor of people. Regarding the formats of literature, it is more difficult to assess the Middle English period. It is evident that during the Middle English literary period, the society of England had a trend of transitioning from oral to written formats (Amodio, 2000). However, as the printing press was not yet widely adopted, many people, especially from the lower classes, still relied mostly on oral tradition (Rafiq, 2019). One of the most prominent texts of the period – Layamon’s Brut – was described as a “work representing an intermediate stage between oral and written traditions” by Ringbom (as cited in Johnson, 1991, p.160). Thus, overall the Middle English literature period can be viewed as transitory in terms of oral and written literature formats.
Finally, according to Reichl (2014), orality became marginalized in mainstream literary culture by the early modern period. Reichl cites Sir Philip Sidney – one of the most well-known persons of the Elizabethan age – on that issue. Moreover, even though the most famous poet of the period – William Shakespeare – used various writing styles, most of his works clearly belong to the dominant written literature. This illustrates the fact that oral literature was still present during the Early Modern period; however, its role had already changed forever.
English literature got through many changes during three major periods of its history – Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English. One of the most significant changes that occurred during that period was the change in the literature formats. Three major periods of English literature history portray a picture of a smooth transition from oral literature to the written one in English society. During each period, there were prominent authors and well-known texts that reflected the transformations of their time.
Amodio, M. (2000). Tradition, performance, and poetics in the Early Middle English period. Oral Tradition, 15(2), 191-214.
Foley, J.M. (1985). Oral-formulaic theory and research: An introduction and annotated bibliography. Garland Publishing.
as little as 3 hours
Johnson, L. (1991). Tracking Layamon’s Brut. Leeds Studies in English, 139-165.
Magoun, F.P. (1953). Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry. Speculum, 28(3), 446-467.
Rafiq, M. (2019). Characteristics of Middle English Literature. HubPages.
Reichl, K. (2014). The oral and the written: Aspects of oral composition, performance, and reception. In R. DeMaria, H. Chang, & S. Zacher (Eds.), A companion to British literature: Medieval literature (pp. 1-15). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.