The Collection and Analysis
of Oral Epic Tradition in South Slavic:

The Fragment from Gioia del Colle

by D E Bynum

The earliest certain textual evidence relating to the South Slavic oral epic tradition that has been discovered up to the present is five hundred years old. That earliest scrap of evidence entered into literary learning as the result of a conscious act of collection by an Italian to whom not only the poetry itself but also the dialects of the South Slavs were entirely foreign. What was true of him in his time has remained true in principle of all the collecting activity by all the collectors who have recorded oral traditional epic poetry in the South Slavic world ever since: collecting has, by its very nature, been the act of outsiders to whom the tradition was essentially strange, who nevertheless were interested in it as though it were literature, and who did not understand it.

Thus the whole history of knowledge about the South Slavic oral traditional epos has been shaped by three constant factors. 1. The tradition has been substantially alien to all its cognoscenti, regardless of their nationalities. 2. It has been valued and acquisitively pursued by them for its perceived literary features. 3. But the possession of texts from the tradition, no matter how the collecting has been done, has continued always to pose some of the most difficult historical and analytical problems known to literary science; namely the questions of how, why, and when narrative poetry arose in human culture to begin with, which of its original characteristics have remained constant in the life of such traditions, and what they disclose about the nature and history of the human mind.

Though there has been some progress, those questions all remain as challenging today as they were five hundred years ago, and all indeed are now even more complexly problematical than ever before. For while other kinds of natural science have made sure progress in explaining physical phenomena, the phenomena of oral poetic traditions have only quite recently come to be appreciated as truly natural phenomena, and not merely artifacts of culture manipulable at will by the persons whose culture it was. The literary author and the influential critic do, by what they think and what they surmise, actually change literature in the process of its making, and so its constant features as it evolves are only the constant features of their own minds. This reality about written literature necessarily also shapes the historical study of it. But that is not the reality at all about oral epic tradition, where there have clearly always been objectively verifiable mechanisms sustaining the tradition independently of what anyone has merely conjectured about them; and this difference is at once both the central problem and the central attraction of the tradition for those literarily docent minds that have most successfully understood what it was exactly that they have not understood about it.

But whereas the earliest known textual relics of the South Slavic oral epic tradition (its poetic fossil-finds and paleontology, as it were) presently date from no more than five centuries ago at most, nothing has ever during that five hundred years been found in the tradition itself that would be a sufficient reason not to suppose—and there are many substantial reasons why one might suppose—that the tradition has obtained among the South Slavs and their ethnic progenitors for a very much longer span of time, as long a length of time indeed as it is possible to imagine. In this way too the radical difference between collectors’ knowledge and the traditional oral epic singers’ knowledge is apparent. For a few centuries only, a few people of literary bent have now and again wanted to own texts of the tradition for one purpose or another, but the tradition itself never consisted of texts. It consisted only of a way of making texts; it was a process, not a product. Thus, in the Slavic Balkans, the idea of keeping texts is a cultural novelty of startling recency, while knowledge of the way to make such texts is probably prodigiously older.

This is paradoxical not only for literary history, but also for education; not only with regard to the past, but also for the future. For if one believes that the preservation of texts and knowledge of them in coming generations are important for the continuity of civilization (as all the collectors of the South Slavic oral epic tradition have uniformly supposed), and if one values continuity of civilization, then one must believe and hope that the texts collected from the South Slavic tradition will somehow be preserved indefinitely into the future, even though the collection of such texts was a recent cultural innovation.

Meanwhile the fate of the tradition itself that gave rise to the texts and that was the object of the collecting—the native South Slavic traditional bard's way of making epics—that fate is sealed. Prodigiously old it may have been, but we in the closing quarter of the twentieth century have finally witnessed its irrevocable extinction as the very last of the Balkan bards have departed through death or emigration. All the texts there ever were to be collected have now been collected, and what we cannot learn about the tradition from them we shall never know. It remains for our descendants no less than for the descendants of the former bards and of their people to realize sometime in the future what we cannot yet clearly discern: whether continuity of civilization is in fact better served by practicing a certain way of making things, or rather by attempting to preserve for all of future time the collections of products already made. All that can presently be said with certainty about this question is that the South Slavic experience to date markedly favors the former over the latter probability.

To feel the full force of this uncertainty, one must comprehend more than is usually understood even by experts about the actual precision and scope of the collections as a whole: how fully and how well they document the tradition even within the few centuries when any collecting at all was done. The South Slavic tradition has without a doubt been the most massively collected of all such traditions that have ever been documented anywhere in the world. Yet fewer than three hundred individuals formed all the collections that bave survived to be of use in our time.

Collectors of Serbo-Croatian

Never since the end of the pax romana have the Balkans south of the Danube experienced a single generation without warfare. Much that was once collected has perished or disappeared through pillage. What does survive is nevertheless wonderfully copious and for the most part thus far unused for any purpose whatever. No one has previously attempted even to set down in one place a comprehensive list of who the collectors were whose collections are now, taken as a group, all that still exists of the South Slavic oral poetic tradition. The following are, with certain omissions (in those instances particularly where there is much uncertainty as to the continued existence of the collection), the collectors whose names are known and whose accumulations are either certainly or probably still accessible to the modern researcher in some form or part:

Ante and Miroslav Alačević
Miho Anđelinović
Vjekoslav Babukić
Ante Balović
Filip Banić
Juraj Baraković
S. R. Bašagić
Nikola Begović
Luka Bervaldi-Lucić
Petar N. Besarović
Julije Bišćan
Andrija Blagović
Jakov Bobinac
Krsta Božović
Miladin Božović
Marko Bruerović
Manojlo Bubalo-Kordunaš
Bude Budisavljević
Ivan Bulić
Todor Bušetić
D E Bynum
Ilija Ćulum
A. Debeljaković
Pero Delić
Đuro Deželić
Todor Dimitrijević
Đorđije Dragović-Ćuričković
Stevan Dučić
Ivo and Mato Duić
Lazar Dunda
Mustafa Džinić
Đuro Ferić
Alberto Fortis
Dominik Franković
Baldo Melkov Glavić
Aleksandar Godler
Bartuo Grgić
Stjepan Grgić
Esad Hadžiomerspahić
Petar Hektorović
Kosta Hörmann
Dragoljub Ilić
Luka Ilić
Nikola Ivanaj-Arbanas
Anibal Ivančić
Ivan Ivanišević
Petar Ivanković
Stjepan Ivičević
Miloš Ivković
Ernest Jelušić-Štrkov
Ivan Franjo Jukić 2
Ivan Justić
Vladimir Kačanovsky
Ivan Kačić- Miošić
Vuk Stefanović Karadžić 1
Milan Karanović
Nikola Kašiković
Gojko M. Kilivarda
Lazar Kirjak
Josip Klarić
Jovan Koprivica
Simo Kosnić
Franjo Kovačević
Ivan Kraljević
Friedrich Krauss
Nikola Stanov Kukić
Ivan Kukuljević
Muharem Kurtagić
Sime Ljubić
Niko Ljubidrag
Albert B. Lord
Andrija Luburić
Melko Lucijanović
Luka Marjanović 3
Krsto Marković
Marko Marković
Pero Marković
Grga Martić
Đuro Matijašević
Stjepan Mažuranić
Fran Mikuličić
     Mihailo Đ. Miladinović
Mato Milas
Sima R. Mileusnić
Milan Milićević
Fran Milošević
Sima Milutinović
Petar Mirković
Ana Mladineo-Dobrila
Antun Mostahinić
Andro Murat
Jovan Mutić
Rinald Nališ
Alija Nametak
Dobroslav Nedić
Lazar Nikolić
Petar II Petrović Njegoš
Ivan Krst. Novak
Milan Obradović
Mato Ostojić
Vidak Otović
Rogeri de Pacienza di Nardo
Vice Palunko
Milman Parry
Mićun Pavićević
Mijovio Pavlinović
Božo Peričić
Đoka Perin
Jovan L. Perović
Bogoljub Petranović
Marko Petričević
Atanasije Petrović
Martin Pletikosić
Aleksa Popović
Dušan S. Popović-Momir
Stefan Popović
Mihajlo S. Profirović
Mato Projić
Filip Radičević
Ivo Rajić
Dragutin Rakovac
Mihailo St. Riznić
Branislav Rusić
Mijat Saridža
Alois Schmaus
Ćamil Šarić
Tadija Smičiklas
Jovan L. Srećković
Ivan Stipac
Blagoje Stojadinović
Sreten Stojković
Rudolf Strohal
Omerbeg Sulejmanpašić-Despotović
Andrija Svilokos
Dobroslav Šarić
Novica Šaulić
Mirko Šestić
Miloš B. Skarić
Niko Štuk
Marijan Šunjić
Đuro Šurmin
Nikola Tommaseo
Fran Tonković
Mat. Topalović
Nikola Tordinac
Ivan Trnski
Jevrem Veličković
Mijailo Viljić
Stefan Verković
Milojko Veselinović
Đuro Vijolić
Jovan Vorkapić
Vice Vodopić
Fran Vrbanić
Martin Vučković
Tatomir Vukanović
Joso Vukelić
J. M. Weiss
Dušan Zorić-Dragoš
Jovan Đ. Zorić
Vid Žunjić
Ivan Žuvela
1  Collected pre-1845
2  Collected pre-1857
3  Collected 1863-1864

In addition to the collections formed by the foregoing persons, there are also a few valuable elder manuscript collections whose makers are uncertain or unknown. Among them are the Balović, Mazarović, and so-called Zmajević mss. of Perast, the famous “Popijevke slovinske” (signature R. 4091 in the University Library, Zagreb), and the two “Zagreb” mss. (signatures 638 ‖ IV.a. 30 and 641 ‖ I.b. 80 in the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts), as well as the Erlangen Manuscript and the Ohmućević ms. (Dubrovnik).

Collectors of Bulgarian and Macedonian

The collection of oral traditional epics in the Slavic-speaking Balkans began in and about the then highly Italianate Adriatic littoral and did not penetrate into the inner fastnesses of Slavic Macedonia and Bulgaria until the nineteenth century. A number of the latter-day collectors of Serbo-Croatian texts also collected in Slavic Macedonia or Bulgaria, or both. The following list indicates most of the collectors in Slavic Macedonia and Bulgaria whose collections remain important resources for the modern student of this poetry, without repeating names already included in the foregoing list of the collectors of Serbo-Croatian texts:

Божан Ангелов
Михаил Арнаудов
Иван А. Богоев (Богоров)
Г. П. Бояджиев
С. Ив. Боянов
Николай Бончев
Х. Вакарелски
Ст. Ватев
Стоян Везенков
Юрий Ив. Венелин
Ат. В. Върбански
Козма Галичнически
Найден Геров
Н. Хаджи Герович
Иван Гинтолов
Auguste Dozon
Мария Енюва
К. П. Жинзифов
П. Е. Здравевски
И. Иванов
Васил Икономов
Михаил Илчинков
Л. Каравелов
П. Каравелов
Никола Ст. Кара-Николов
     Н. Д. Катранов
Райна Кацарова
Генчо Керемиджиев
Евгения Хаджи Гергева Кисимова
Захари Княжески
Петър Свещеник Любенов
Д. Митрев
Панчо Михайлов
Мара Михайлова
Иван Муринков
Симеон Л. Подбалкански
Еленка Н. Попова
Райно Попович
Крсте Попово
Георги С. Раковски
Петър Рачов Славейков
А. П. Стоилов
Васил Стоин
Георги Теохаров
Панайот Хитов
Добри Христов
Злата Цицелкова-Божкова
Д. Читаков
К. А. Шапкарев

Size and accuracy of the evidence

The historical accident of the Slovenes’ geographic contiguity and sometime political community with other Slavic-speaking peoples of the Balkans whose dialects have been host to the oral epic tradition has sometimes encouraged them, as a matter of ethnic pride, also to claim possession of an oral epos in some sense. Such a claim however deforms the definition of epos beyond much practical utility, and learnèđ Slovenes themselves do not conventionally use the word to describe what they properly prefer to call simply “narrative songs” (pripovedne pesmi), occasionally with the additional epithet “heroic” (junaške). Since the collected relics of such poetry from Slovenian tradition are both very short (never exceeding two hundred verses in any text) and notably exiguous in number, publishing them has been easier and has reached a much more comprehensive stage than for any other region of the Slavic Balkans. Consequently a reader can conveniently consult virtually all that there is to consult of this sort from Slovenia in two very serviceable publications (Štrekelj 1895 and Kumer et al. 1970).

Finite though the number of surviving collections is, on average they are big, making the sum of the collected textual evidence from the South Slavic oral epic tradition truly enormous. In all of its variety, the corpus as a whole is indeed quite beyond the possible scope of any one person’s knowledge, and it is so dispersed as to be, practically speaking, inaccessible in toto to anyone.

Historically, a common way of setting bearable limits upon what one has considered it necessary to know in order to function as an analyst of the tradition has been to restrict one’s purview to texts of a particular ethnic or regional provenance: texts from Orthodox Serbs, or from Moslems in Bosnia and Hercegovina, from Dalmatian Catholics, or Muslim Bulgars, and so forth. There have often been other motives as well for this balkanizing tendency in treatments of the epos, but regardless of its several causes and their relative weights, no other single factor has by itself been so obstructive to the advancement of understanding about the South Slavic tradition as this one has.

Not so blatantly obvious, but a close second to ethnic or sectarian bias as a prevailing cause of confusion has been the problem of accuracy in recording and even more in the publishing of texts. No technique was ever devised by anyone in the entire five-hundred-year history of the collecting that would assure consistent perfection in the translation of this poetry from sound-waves to alphabetical characters on paper. With no exceptions whatever, some element of prejudice on the part of collectors and their helpers as to what the poetry should be has crept into the actual fixing of it in its finally fossilized textual form.

In consequence, the very first requirement for every analyst of the South Slavic oral epos is to determine what parts of the recorded corpus are reliable, or to what extent they may be unreliable, for every other analytical purpose. In actual practice therefore, due care with regard to the qualities of texts-in what ways they do or do not mirror the actual tradition-sets much more rigorous and realistic limits upon what part of the extant corpus may properly be used for any particular analytical task than mere ethnic or sectarian partialities ever did. The only known method for judging what texts are good reflections of tradition, and which are not, derives in the universal experience of all the cognoscenti from knowing the tradition directly, not merely in its texts, and how that indispensable source of practical wisdom can possibly be replaced now that the tradition has finally expired is a new problem of great magnitude for this field of learning.

Collectors’ biases have distorted their collections, but editors’ interventions have often outright falsified published texts. Thus, the mere fact that an editor of whatever excellence has previously worked to establish authoritative texts upon a given collection has rarely meant that published texts were even as reliable as the originals were before editing took place. No fault originating with editors in the Slavic Balkans per se was to blame, for they were many of them quite as good as their best western European counterparts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The fault has been in the very idea—the western European idea, indeed—of Textkritik and editing in accord with it: to establish from flawed epigonic copies and conflations a perfect original text in all its self-explanatory pristine clarity as it must have been before later folly and error obscured it. The very idea and motivation of such editing ran foul of the fundamental difference between literature and the tradition, which, utterly unlike literature, had no original at all, perfect or otherwise, and derived its authority from another kind of source, the nature of which was not even suspected by anyone until a mere fifty years before the final extinction of the South Slavic tradition.

So throughout the entire half-millennium of collecting activity, editors have with only rare exceptions assumed not only the license but indeed have felt the positive responsibility to “correct” texts so as to render them better literature than they appeared to be in their original, true oral traditional form. The usual result of such tampering has been neither durable literature nor a good representation of the tradition. The many ways in which deliberate meddling with texts has distorted the record of the tradition are almost too many to name, and they infest every moment of the record from its beginning. Indeed, the very first text in the entire record is a revealing case in point, inasmuch as it vividly displays the most irresistible of all motives for editorial tampering: the editor’s inability in some respect to understand his text unless he alters it.

In this aspect more than any other the texts of an oral epic tradition do not tolerate treatment as though they were literature. For entirely unlike literary texts, epics in an oral tradition are never, nor do they ever need to be, either self-explanatory or wholly intelligible in and of themselves. In the tradition that made them, they were never more than the flitting shadows of the thought which they transiently expressed, and which none of them ever could or would attempt to replicate completely. Every line of such poetry means what it meant in a hundred other places at other times in other men’s tellings; but shear it away from that potent system of resonance with its own past-a past as old as time itself-and while it will still mean something, its power to convey meaning is inevitably crippled. Every editor recognizes the worst of such crippling and sees how it blemishes the poem under his editorial treatment, but too often the ensuing editorial prostheses are a cure worse than the ailment, because, while they are only meant to correct the “awkward,” literarily unacceptable features of a text, in doing that they also commonly obliterate at least some of the corrected text’s vital connections with the other elements elsewhere in the tradition that originally give it a great part of its meaning.

The central principle involved here, namely that no text from oral tradition is an independent entity nor fully intelligible apart from the rest of the tradition, is well illustrated by the case of what has been supposed to be the very first text in the collected record of the South Slavic oral epos. The text in question is very short, but the circumstances of its collection are extraordinarily well documented. Those circumstances are indeed much more fully recorded in this instance than for any text of comparable length in any manuscript collection from any other time during the past half-millennium.

The fragment from Gioia del Colle

The poem was recorded, very badly, by an Italian poetaster, Rogeri de Pacienza di Nardo, on the afternoon of Thursday, June 1, 1497, in the small southern Italian town of Gioia del Colle in what is now known as the province of Puglia. The occasion was a royal procession by the newly crowned Queen Consort of Naples, Isabella del Balzo, from her estate in the district of Lecce toward Naples by way of Taranto. As part of the festivities marking her pause at Gioia del Colle north-northwest of Taranto, the local nobility arranged for Isabella and her numerous retinue (among whom Rogeri de Pacienza was one) to be entertained with song and dance performed, as it happened, by a company of thirty or more “Slav” colonists of that vicinity. Besides a fragment of their oral poetry, Rogeri de Pacienza also noted the names of twenty-eight of the performers, a number of which are unmistakeably Serbian (Vukašin, Raško, Vukosava, etc.).

De Pacienza’s function in the Queen Consort’s company was to record in poetry all the personages and events connected with her royal progress to Naples, which occupied nearly five months’ time, from mid-May to 15 October, 1497. This he did in the form of an epic of nearly eight thousand Italian verses dedicated to Isabella. under the title “The Balziad” (“Lo Balzino”), into which he inserted many snatches and tags and oratorical effusions that occurred during the royal progress, of which the “Slavic” poem heard in Gioia del Colle was only one. Miroslav Pantić, a Serbian scholar particularly of the literature of the Dalmatian Renaissance and Baroque, has admirably gathered and reported the historical facts surrounding this poetic incident, and has attempted his own reconstruction of the Serbian text from Rogeri de Pacienza’s bad writing (Pantić 1977).

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