Friday, July 9, 2010

Oral histories and medieval texts

It's been an unconscionable time since I last posted anything here, and (a few) inquiring minds have been asking what I’ve been up to. The fact is, up until last week, I was buried deep in an oral history project. (Well, to be honest, it was that and the World Cup. Viva Espagne!)

So, this oral history lark has turned out to be a much more interesting project than I expected. For history postgraduates in this country, training in the theory and methodology of oral history is pretty much required if you expect to work in the field, as much of the historical research done by organisations like the NZ History unit and through the Waitangi Tribunal and the Treaty of Waitangi claims process involves gathering oral histories from people who are still alive. Suffice it to say that as a sworn medievalist, I didn't initially expect this to have much relevance to my own research. But a few of you pointed out on my last post that oral history could potentially provide me with a new perspective on medieval history. This thought was echoed by one of the oral history advocates I’ve been reading up on, who noted that many of the documentary sources we rely on as medievalists – such as chronicles and inquisitorial proceedings – were originally based on oral testimony. They therefore raise many of the same practical and theoretical issues as oral histories, such as the ways that collective or public memory (the 'master narratives', if you will) shape the memories of individuals, questions around the validity and reliability of memory, and the difficulties inherent in capturing meanings conveyed through the sounds and silences of a human voice and translating those into words on a page.

As I’ve been discovering through my work with fourteenth century English chronicles, these accounts were not only based at least partly on oral testimony, they were also designed to be read aloud in the abbeys within which they were (usually) created or to an audience of aristocratic or royal patrons. This has led me to dig deeper into theories of authorship/authority, readership, and reception, and has enhanced my awareness that meanings in historical texts are not fixed, but are constantly shifting in response to the changing relationships between authors, readers and listeners.

Interviewing people for my own oral history project really brought home to me how much ‘editing’ – intentional and unintentional – goes into creating a historical source. For example, I was very conscious of how much I was 'shaping' my evidence simply through the questions I chose to ask or not ask during the interview process. I also got a strong sense of how my interviewees were shaping their memories of the past in order to fit with their experience of the present and to create a coherent narrative of their own lives. One of the big theoretical debates in the field of oral history seems to be the fact that historians in part create (through recording oral history interviews and then making written abstracts or transcripts from them) the sources they later rely on to support their analysis and interpretation. Try taking any oral conversation and turning it into written text and you'll quickly become aware of these problems. How do you deal with slang or idiomatic expressions that your readers may not later understand? What do you do with repetitions, contradictions, and 'crutch words', such as "like" and "you know"? How do you represent tonal changes and body language, which can utterly contradict what is actually said? And how do you handle gaps and silences, which may contain as much or more meaning than the spoken words themselves (as any good post-structuralist can tell you)?

Many medieval documentary sources often involve a high degree of mediation. For example, in the case of a legal deposition or inquisitorial record, the original oral testimony (which may or may not be heavily shaped by the inquisitor's questions) is given in, say, fourteenth century English or French or Catalan. This is translated and written down by hand in Latin, and later, the hand-written document may be converted into a printed Latin text. Finally, the medieval Latin is translated into modern English or French or Spanish, if one happens to be working with recent translations. So I think many of the same issues of interpretation and shifting meanings arise as with oral histories. For the research I’m currently doing, I’m working with several fourteenth century chronicles where the original Latin version is printed side-by-side with a modern (late nineteenth to early twenty-first century) English translation. Working back and forth between the Latin and the English, I can see where different translators have interpreted the Latin in quite different terms, and even where translators have simply not translated into English some of the more controversial elements of the original Latin. This applies especially - but not only - to translations done in the late nineteenth century and the earlier part of the twentieth century. It’s hugely frustrating, but also very instructive in terms of giving a perspective on how the historian’s own socio-cultural context and political position colours the history they write, even in something so seemingly transparent as a straightforward Latin-to-English translation.

I'll write more on this translation issue soon, as I have some great examples to share with you. In the meantime, I'll be busy watching the World Cup final and, naturellement, my beloved Tour de France. Today's stage from Epernay to Montargis went through the gorgeous medieval town of Provins and straight past the cafe where I once drank (gagged down) possibly the worst cup of coffee of my life.


Steve Muhlberger said...

"where translators have simply not translated into English some of the more controversial elements of the original Latin."

Or just where the Latin is ambiguous (i.e. hard)? I'm sometimes tempted...

As I’ve been discovering through my work with fourteenth century English chronicles, these accounts were not only based at least partly on oral testimony, they were also designed to be read aloud in the abbeys within which they were (usually) created or to an audience of aristocratic or royal patrons."

I am using Matthew Paris in a grad seminar this fall and this was already on my list of things to discuss. What readings did you find particularly illuminating on this? If I may pick your brain.

Bavardess said...

I can imagine ambiguity and the difficulty of translating the essence of what a word or expression means poses some major challenges for translators. Sometimes it's pretty hard translating from modern French to English, let alone from medieval Latin. But in other cases (which I'll talk about in a separate post) the meaning of the original Latin seems pretty clear, but the modern translator obviously felt uncomfortable actually stating it in English.

As to readings, probably the most useful one in terms of engaging directly with the social practice and function of reading chronicles aloud was Andrew Taylor's "Chivalric Conversation and the Denial of Male Fear", pp. 169-188 in Jacqueline Murray (Ed.), Conflicted Identities and Multiple Masculinities: Men in the Medieval West. Taylor points to household ordinances from later medieval noble and aristocratic households which stipulated the reading aloud of chronicles as part of the process of inculcating chivalric and aristocratic values in the youths being raised in those households (as squires etc.)

The first chapter or two of Paul Strohm's England's Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399 - 1422 is also quite illuminating in the way it connects chronicles to the role of gossip, rumour and political prophecy in legitimising Henry IV's deposition of Richard II. I've just started reading Chris Given-Wilson's Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England, but the chapters on 'Memory and Usefulness' and 'Language, Form and Identity' look like they could also be useful for understanding the nature, purpose, and uses of medieval chronicles.

Digger said...

Welcome back to blogland; I've missed your posts! Funny how things that seem irrelevant can suddenly become important; I recently had this experience myself.

Thanks for the reminder both to question the document, and also to go back to the original. Even working with recent documents (nineteenth and twentieth centuries), I've found errors and oddities in transcriptions -- and those were just English to English!

Plus, if you're not working with the originals, you totally miss out on marginalia, which can be a lot of fun (and occasionally helpful).

Bavardess said...

Thanks Digger. And yes, marginalia can sometimes be the most interesting bits.
Steve - I forgot to mention above that the Given-Wilson book also discusses the shift to the vernacular and the production of verse/rhymed chronicles in the later medieval period. That, to me, indicates they were being written with at least some expectation they would be read aloud/performed.