oral and literate culture in early modern england

One of the most interesting things I’ve been reading lately is Oral and Literate Culture in England: 1500-1700 by Adam Fox (Clarendon Press, 2000).

This is a very well researched and nicely written book on speech, manuscript, and print practices in this time period. Fox argues that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries all three media

ìinfused and interacted with each other in a myriad ways. Then, as now, a song or a story, an expression or a piece of news, could migrate promiscuously between these three vehicles of transmission as it circulated around the country, throughout society and over time. There was no necessary antithesis between oral and literate forms of communication and preservation; the one did not have to destroy or undermine the other. If anything, the written word tended to augment the spoken, reinventing it and making it anew, propagating its contents, heightening its exposure, and ensuring its continued vitality, albeit sometimes in different formsî (5).

Others have made this observation before (most notably, for me, D. F. McKenzie in “Speech-Manuscript-Print,” an essay reprinted in a few places but perhaps easiest to find in the collection Making Meaning: “Printers of the Mind” and Other Essays (University of Massachusetts Press, 2002). However, Fox provides an amazing amount of detail: this is more a work of history than of theory.

The issues he raises inevitably encourage thought on how late twentieth-century new media might affect existing forms of communication. For example, there are frequent laments for the demise of the printed book in the age of the Internet, but I have never been persuaded that that such a demise is underway or that the Internet is responsible for it if it is. More interesting would be to consider the ways in which the Internet is changing, not replacing, our use of manuscript and print. Amazon.com, anyone? or 1000 Journals? This was, in part, what was at the root of my earlier post on “tracking and exchanging physical texts.”

(And now I find that Fox has co-edited The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain, 1500-1850 (Manchester University Press, 2003). Looks like I’ll be using the interlibrary loan office, soon.)

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2 thoughts on “oral and literate culture in early modern england

  1. George, do Fox’s ideas differ much from Harold Love’s in _Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England_? Just curious as to how he stacks up to Love.

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