Colloquium "the Scholastic Roots of Medieval Culture", Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, University of California - Los Angeles
First, please forgive me if my talk does not directly address the colloquium's topic, at least in its defined time frame. My excuse is that the roots of scholastic philosophy's influence on popular culture and society have been planted way before they exercised their effects, and I wish to go back to the origins of this process, in the hope to sketch for you its traceable genealogy.
Let me begin by a cursory description of the respective positions of orality and writing in medieval terms.
We can assume that, during this era, literacy (the ability to write and read) never characterized more than 10% of the general population, and that it was overwhelmingly a male privilege. As you may know, in 1850, in France - that is, after the school redesign by the French revolutionaries and Napoleon - 40% of the French people still were illiterates.
This fact points to a society that lived under a state of cultural apartheid and whose dominant feature was colinguism. On one hand, from Saint Augustine on to almost the end of the XVIIIth century, a minuscule elite of clerics, who speak and write an international tongue, Latin, as well as their own vernacular (from the IX th century onwards). This elite is at the center of symbolic power, be it ecclesiastical, temporal or juridical (the illiterates need the clerics for the written, Latin validation of the most minimal transfer of property); on the other hand, an immense majority excluded from the privilege of reading writing and speaking (Latin), a majority submitted to the monopoly of written exchange owned by the clerics.
Let me add to those factual observations a remark about the elusive oral contract: whatever is said (promise, oath, etc.) between two parties refers to an implicit structure, and is governed by it; an oral agreement is binding. (Developper)
Therefore, the path followed by the fabrication of meaning and its diffusion is the exact inverse of the one assumed by the partisans of an oral origin of meaning. Meaning - as far as we accede to it through the written record left by the tiny literate elite - is always concocted in the laboratory of writing and then, and only then, transmitted orally (if the circumstances warrant this diffusion). But this is not orality proper. The written document, if to be assured of any wide echo, has to be vocalized. Vocalization is therefore not the space for the conception of meaning, but an oral performance of the written text. In that context, orality is not only framed by writing: it is staged by it.
Hence, we have to reevaluate entirely the notion of orality. If the written document is the origin of a vocalization, and not orality the reference of a transcription, than orality is, first and foremost, a fiction produced by the written.
Let me now give you three examples of the reinterpretation that such a conception of "orality" may produce.
For a long time, the first document of Old French, the Strasbourg Oaths (842 AD) has been read as a (faulty) transcription of spoken roman and germanic tongues. Generations after generations of philologists have assumed that the vernacular texts were mimetic, albeit unskilled, representations of orality; the Oaths have functioned as the proof of the clerics' inability to transcribe and represent exactly what they heard. The linguistic aspect of the text is indeed a mixed bag of dialectal traits borrowed from almost every region where Old French was spoken.
What if, however, the Oaths were not an unskillful transcription, referenced to a koine that, anyway, doesn't exist in the IX th century, but an attempt at creating an artificial, written tongue, incorporating in its formalization distinctive dialectal traits of almost every region of the Francia occidentalis ; this, in order to broaden its audience to a possible maximum?
Then, far from being a haphazard transcription committed by low level scribes, the founding document has to be envisioned as the result of an extremely literate elaboration produced by the minuscule elite of Carolingian clerics. It is a linguistic innovation that has extensive implications: first, in its performative aspect (its vocalization to the troops) it substitutes the feudal oath of loyalty that cements the bond from man to man. Second, this very link of homage is erased to the profit of a new form of subjection: all who speak German will be subjects of Ludwig the Germanic, all who speak French of Charles the Bald.
Indeed, the Strasbourg Oaths found a nation not according to the principles of feudal allegiance (to which, anyway, the very concept of nation is alien), but on the discrimination of languages. This innovation is of course premature; the visionaries who wrote it into law didn't know that it would be repudiated by the treatise of Verdun (843) and begin to bear fruit only in the twelfth century and achieve its effect, at least in France, only in the XIX th century, when the nation state achieves its evolution, culminating perhaps in the radical homogenization of language through lay and mandatory education.
We are now so used to the equivalence one nation = one language (at least in the Western world) that we tend to forget its artificial beginnings in the IX th century.
My second example is a repetition of the first, since it has to do with the creation of France through, again, a written text, the Song of Roland which brings to maturity some of the ideas advanced by the Carolingian clerics around Charles the Bald.
In fact, the Song is the "first" text where we find a written inscription of the word France and Français in a vernacular text. The importance of this inaugural written trace, mentioned by all Old French dictionaries, has not received the attention it deserved from the philologists.
Even if we cannot ascertain a date for the Oxford manuscript, I maintain the privilege of anteriority for this inscription. The Oxford ms. dates back to the XII th century, but imitates or creates an eleventh century tongue in Anglo-Norman. By this very fact, the Song , in that version, claims a primacy, an antiquity that confers truth and dignity to its statements (a rhetorical device long known by the manuals as antiquitas or vetustas ). The more knowledge is ancient and repeated by successive acts of copy, the more it becomes true (Heurematics). I therefore take the antiquitas of the Oxford ms. literally: the pretension - or fiction - to be the first text to write " France " in vernacular therefore equals, or better, produces, its truth.
If we now make the concept of vocalization in the Song's period, this is what it produces.
Let us note first that, when the Song has to invent for itself a genealogy, it never derives it writing from orality. The model is always a text or texts. One example will suffice here:
1013 "Let us use big strikes in the battle,
So that no bad song be sung about us.
Pagan are wrong and Christians are right.
Bad example won't ever come from me."
says Roland when he is about to engage battle with the Saracens. It is obvious that he sees combat as writing, where - according to a long rhetorical tradition - his sword functions as a pen and the Saracens' blood as ink. Roland writes examples " examplar" in Latin which designates the materiality of the book. Then this " exemplar" will be submitted to singing. Moreover, the "acts" on the field of battle are in themselves textualized. They obey the rhetorical and ethical commands inscribed in what the Song calls the Geste Francor , the epic of the Franks, which Roland doesn't want to belie through an inadequate deed. (V. 785; " God damns me, if I belie the epic ."). Therefore, in the fiction of its own production, the text mimics its real genealogy, from writing to writing, through a vocalization.
Let's posit the latter as the first level of the text. At this level, Turoldus, the writer of the Song , knows very well - like the Carolingian clerics - that the Sovereign doesn't need the democratic consent of his subjects in order to found a new nation-state; the text obeys here, not to a demand for democratization, but to the parameters of a symbolic - linguistic monstration, a univocal communication from the ruler and his intellectual servant to his subjects. This monstration - similar to the object that guaranteed the feudal link - could be again stated thus: "You speak French, therefore you will be a subject of the King of this entity called France." That is the message that is implied by the vocalization of the Song , its oral and musical performance destined to the illiterati. We can say that the text here makes a theatrical spectacle of the very conditions of subjection.
There is, however, a second level of reciprocal communication, which establishes itself inside the community of the literati, a level where, as Peter Haidu has demonstrated, things become diabolically complex, inasmuch as the written text shows and therefore criticizes the violence and usurpation necessary to break away from the feudal order into the Nation-state.
My third example is extracted from Marie de France's Lais .
The feminine gender of this author, about whom we know nothing except for what she or he says about her/himself in the text, is in fact partly a creation of modern philologists: they "correct" the only extant manuscript of the prologue to the Lais by adding the letter "e," therefore agreeing to past participles that refer to the unnamed author in the feminine gender.
The sole mark of attribution to a female "author" other than this invention is a mention of a "Marie" at line 3 of the Lais of Guigemar that reads:
Seignurs, oiez que dit Marie,
a "Marie" that has been assimilated, without any trace of external proof, to the Marie de France who wrote the Espurgatoire Saint Patrice and translated Aesop's Fables.
Therefore, we can schematically seize the situation as follows. The person who claims to put the Briton Lais in writing is of masculine gender (" I have rhymed and composed the Lais , " Prol. v.41). The person who is identified as feminine has ties to orality - or vocalization, because writing here frames its own performance ("Lords, hear what Marie says").
Let me illustrate my thesis with a much celebrated (and justifiably so) text by Marie de France the Laüstic (or Nightingale in English). The problem of the tongues is explicitly addressed in this Lais :
I will tell you an adventure
Of which the Britons made a lais.
Its name is Laüstic, it seems to me,
That is how they call it in their country.
This is rossignol in French,
And nightingale in straight English.
Briton is clearly the oral tongue of the model text, an orality that Marie de France is intent to preserve, whereas French is the language in which this conservation effort is undertaken, thereby necessarily betraying and erasing the original text. As far as English is concerned, it is to be read as an allusion to the mixed dialect that Marie uses: Anglo-Norman.
Orality, in the narrative, is represented by the nightingale, which is also, at first an excuse for the Lady to go to her window to speak and exchange objects with her lover. The song of the nightingale is therefore a substitute for desire, and then becomes the very form of this desire. When the husband understands the ruse, he traps the nightingale, breaks its neck (aiming precisely at the voice organ) and throws it at the Lady. The dead bird splatters blood on the lady's shirt. This is a first writing (according to the old topos of blood writing); the law of marriage inscribes its sentence against adulterous desire on the Lady's body. The apparent murder of desire coincides with the death of orality itself. But the Lady envelops the bird in a cloth, on which she embroiders the story of what has just happened. She therefore proceeds to the entombment of the dead voice of desire in a written narrative. She then sends a messenger to her lover, and this messenger recites the story. Here is the first stage of a vocalization. The lover, at his turn, puts the bird and the cloth into a reliquary that he will carry with him forever.
All the stages of the Lais ' creation are here accounted for. First, an oral origin, which is destined to death and oblivion, if it is not committed to writing; second, the effective death of this desiring orality when it is submitted to the writing of the Law (the husband's); then a commemoration of this death, through a writing that is not to be confused with the first one, inasmuch as it creates, in between the lines, a memory of desire to reliance desire itself. Then, the vocalization of this approximation of desire by the messenger, akin to the public performance of the Lai itself. Thereafter, the encasement in a third living tomb (the reliquary) by the lover, which represents us, as readers and commentators. The whole operation is therefore to create a writing that doesn't kill or represses desire, but makes it alive anew, like Marie de France attempted to do with the Briton Lais. It is up to us, modern commentators, to obey this injunction and to be up to the task of not repressing the desire hidden in literature. Let me say that, as heirs to the medieval clerics, I often wonder precisely, if we are up to Marie's most profound wish.
Of course, those broad parameters have to be reinterpreted in light of each particular text. In Marie de France's Lais , the divide of orality and writing overlaps the central problem of the text, which is an attempt at uniting what is divided, at making one of what is, since the beginning of times and language, two: the masculine and the feminine, writing and orality.
Even if, from the strict point of view of linguistics, this division does not make sense, it nevertheless echoes historical facts as well as rhetorical ones. We know that, except for a few cases, women were excluded, in the Middle-Ages, from writing and reading. The masculinization of writing produces an interesting Oedipal configuration: the cleric writing in vernacular has to return to what their Latin schooling repressed: namely, the maternal tongue from which their education cut them off, and for which they had to invent signs.
This historical metaphorization and sexualization of linguistics is, moreover, a well known topos at least since Saint Augustine's Confessions, in which the oral tongue is primarily tied to Monica, the writer's mother, whereas the apprenticeship of written grammar as a rule (in all senses of the term) for this maternal orality takes on the color of the father and the male teachers of grammatica and rhetorica .
These symbolic laws explain the obsession with the theme of incest in so many monuments of the vernacular; first and foremost in the Song of Roland , but also the Perceval , the Mort d'Artu , Tristan de Nanteuil , and so on. What is at stake here is the forbidden return to the mother's body in the figure of the maternal tongue, until this vernacular language is definitively assigned to the father's authority. In French history, this turning point can be assigned a precise date, the edict of Villers-Cotterets (1539), through which French becomes the official language of the State, at the exclusion of so many dialects and Latin itself.
It is now time to turn to the philologists' vision of the dialectics of writing and orality in the Middle-Ages, an obsession which still exercises its effects today (witness, for example, the late Paul Zumthor's recent works on the subject).
I hope that I have succeeded in showing to you that the theme of orality has to be interpreted, in psychoanalytical terms, as a fantasy of return to the mother's forbidden body. Which means not that it should be denounced and dismissed as a vacuous illusion, but just that it should be properly analyzed: for fantasies are never devoid of signification and truth.
The fantasy operates first at the level of this linguistic fiction called "Low Latin": a powerful interpretative tool indeed, which has produced a better understanding of Romanic texts, but only as long as it was maintained at its appropriate level: that is, as a reconstructed writing for a tongue that never was in fact spoken as such.
When Low Latin and its descendants are reified as a spoken language, instead of being conceived as a written convention, then they produce remarkable examples of ideological blindness. Let us go over our three examples again.
In the case of the Strasbourg Oaths , the oral prejudice has the effect of blinding the interpreter on the true nature of the Oaths : that is, instead of being a democratization of power through the promotion of the people's tongue to writing, they are a means to the subjection of the same people through language. The oral hypothesis and the definition of the Oaths as a transcription is a projection of a noble but mistaken anachronism: the lay ideal of the democratic schools of the Third Republic, " à la Jules Ferry" , a retro-applied ideology, for example, by the linguist Ferdinand Brunot, who was part of this late ideal. Brunot reads the Oaths as a democratization of the Law as well as an ennobling of the vernacular; but the rulers of the feudal order or the French monarchy don't need, until 1789, the democratic consent of their subjects. Hence, the reconduction of the fantasy of orality by the modern philologist represents in fact an occultation of the true conditions of power in the IX th century. Moreover, through the concept of transcription of something already here (the vernacular), they cannot grasp the import of a written linguistic act that has in fact creative powers in culture.
As far as the Song of Roland is concerned, the hypothesis of an oral origin is the marker of a populist interpretation of the birth of the Nation-state, as if the latter was born in and through a kind of vernacular conversation involving all the people concerned, a conversation that would be at the origin of the word " France " and its meaning. The populist illusion is blind to the facts: the clerics close to feudal or monarchical power invent, create the entity of the Nation-state, for it has to be said in language in order to exist in reality. Second, in the Song , this creation is akin to a repression of the mother tongue, insofar as it submits all figures of femininity to a patriarchal order that began in Latin but now speaks French.
In the case of Marie de France's Lais , what are repressed by the philologists' creation of a feminine authorship is precisely the ambiguities of the dialectics between feminine and masculine, orality and writing, which are reduced to a one-sided "feminine sensitivity," in itself a repression of femininity. Forget also the fact that the author's feminine identity could be nothing else than a rhetorical device ( prosopopeia , sermocinatio of a feminine voice ) or better an ethopoiea , through which, says Isidorus (II, XII, 25) " Cum feminae sermo simulatur, sexui debet convenire oratio. "
Hence, the Carolingian clerics, Turold, Marie de France, and the philologists share different versions of the same dream: a return to the Mother through the mother tongue. The problem with this dream is that, as soon as it is expressed, it coincides with its own repression: to extol, to express the feminine is akin to repress it. This is most clearly manifested in the Song of Roland , where the return of the Franks to the land of the wives and sons coincides with the subjection of the feminine.
It is now time to attempt a synthesis, however sketchy it may be. Let me state first the assumption governing my interpretation, which I derive from Lacan (I quote):
"There is a nature of women only insofar as it is excluded by the nature of words."
This axiom doesn't mean that we should revert to a primitive, Freudian biologism. It means only that language, as the operator of castration, is inherently masculine, and that femininity can be evoked by it only in between the lines, it can be only half-said.
It doesn't mean either that a male has no feminine side, or that a female is silent. Or, in other words: every man has an unconscious, every female speaks. The gender divide runs through each individual, and doesn't oppose an individual to the other.
To dispel a further possible confusion, this axiom doesn't mean that psychoanalysis is patriarchal. Patriarchy (or phallocracy) is the usurpation by which the impostor declares to be the source of the Law, to incarnate the phallic function of the father, like Charles the Bald, the Charlemagne of the Song of Roland , the husband in the Laüstic. Patriarchy has a deep interested in erasing the distance between the structure, the position, the function and the human beings who temporarily occupy this place (a common error, by the way, of feminist discourse).
In this framework reference, how do we interpret the promotion of vernacular writing, of the Mother tongue at the beginning of France? We have to distinguish here between political and literary discourse. In the case of the Strasbourg Oaths , the writing of the maternal language is an erasure of the Mother and desire for the benefit of the feudal lord, the usurper of the position of the master. The vernacular language is severed from its ties to the mother, thereafter repressed and submitted.
If an analogous process happens in the Song of Roland , however, the process is so clearly exposed that it leads to a ravaging self-criticism, a radical deconstruction of the means necessary to establish a new social order and the Nation-state: the feudal Lords, as a class, become the scapegoats of the new order established by Charlemagne. At the end of the text, they have been exterminated in their entirety. Hence, writing in the Song is equivocal, on both sides of the Law and its subversion.
In Marie de France's Lais , writing is also associated with both sides, repression and desire, although in a different way. The inaugural writing is that of the Law, in its bloody consequences. Subsequently, however, orality and desire are enshrined in a subversive container: the reliquary, as writing, celebrates and perpetuates, not the relics of a saint, but the memory of adulterous desire.
In conclusion, if a modern reader is to break away from the fantasy of orality - a repetition of the Medieval clerics' blindness - which, as heirs to the schola , we are bound to repeat, this break cannot be accomplished by a celebration of the feminine, oral or written. It can be done only if we learn to listen to the silences of language.
back to top