Antiquitates vulgares, Folklore, Oral Theory, and What Matters

(Originally read at a local meeting of a few faculty members and a minutulum of undergraduates more or less interested in classical antiquity and the Latin middle ages)

The most vivid memory that has remained with me from my occasional attendance in former years at previous instances of the present gathering is of clusters of wholesome young undergraduate faces looking thoroughly stunned whilst various professors talked at length, essentially just amongst themselves, about things that the Devil himself probably wouldn’t have understood, or wouldn’t have troubled himself to hear if he had understood them. The general subject for this year’s gathering looks like a good setup for more of the same. Improbable as it may seem, I too was once an undergraduate, and I remember acutely how it felt. There was then, as there is now, an infernal element of self-important, know-it-all complacency in the bearing of most professors at one time or another, and the worst of it is that it’s usually more a matter of pervasive, unarticulated attitude than of anything specific that they will ever frankly “come right out and say,” more’s the pity.

I even remember the moment when my consciousness of this sad truth dawned. It was during one of those required-for-distribution sort of undergraduate torments, biology for non-science majors, when I was a sophomore. Big course, hundreds of students. We were having Mendelian factors explained to us—you know what I mean: what causes genetic inheritance of eye-color or the size of the gluteus maximus—and the instructor kept saying that the actual physical mechanisms that determined such things were the “genes” on the double-helices of deoxy-ribonucleic acid. So, of course, I asked the obvious question: “Then what, exactly, is a ‘gene?’” But I was unable to extract any answer at all to that question. What I got instead was only an admonition: “don’t worry about what a ‘gene’ is, just learn the mathematical expressions for what it does.” But how was I supposed to understand why the ‘gene’ for the density of bone-mass in my femur didn’t produce egg-shell or Gruyère cheese instead of the bone-mass in my femur when I had no idea what the gene actually is or how it works? Maybe I could better understand what genes do and how they do it, thought I, if this mystery-monger who called himself my professor would just go ahead and tell me what a gene is; but he never did. And the more I reformulated the question, the more I got of that same self-satisfied, know-it-all complacency, as much as to say: “stop bothering me with questions the answers to which you wouldn’t understand, much less be able to use, if I were to tell you."

I didn’t like that. I really didn’t like that. But it wasn’t until sometime later that the root of that professor’s problem became clear to me. A colleague of his in the same university, while I was still a student there, actually isolated and described for the first time a real, honest-to-God gene, and showed how it worked. (Not that our professor had ever breathed a syllable to us concerning the other professor’s even then ongoing work on that very subject.) The truth dawned on me. The reason for our instructor’s so distasteful behaviour had been simply that he didn’t know. Instead of forthrightly, humanly answering my legitimate question straight out, he had practiced a despicable kind of obfuscation, implicitly pretending by his very manner of aloof silence to knowledge which he did not have. That wasn’t right. And he was in no way unique of his kind; his attitude is still just as rampant among professors everywhere today as it was then; it probably always has been, and it probably always will be a pandemic disease of teachers in higher education. They just chronically go on from age to age knowing only in part what they are talking about, and the older they get, the less they typically seem to be willing to admit even to themselves the crucial things about their chosen subjects that they truly don’t know.

“Folklore and Oral Tradition in the Ancient and Mediaeval Worlds,” the general ‘theme’ that brings us together this morning, looks to me like a perilous invitation to more of the same. For if you were to wake up tomorrow convinced that what you really want to go and learn about next in your life is pineapples, you probably wouldn’t be well advised to start by planning a research expedition for that purpose to the Gobi Desert. There are of course quite a lot of interesting dinosaur fossils to be found in the Gobi Desert, but the only pineapples you would be likely to find there would be in tin cans. And certainly if you cared to learn the physical propertes of the sort of soil pineapples thrive in, what nutrients they require, the kind of climate congenial to their cultivation, or how they grow and reproduce, you’d not go to the Gobi Desert to try to see any of that. “Folklore and Oral Tradition in the Ancient and Mediaeval Worlds” certainly sounds to me more like a couple of shelves in a grocery store in the Gobi Desert than a working pineapple plantation. So let’s not do anything really stupid this weekend; let us not try to learn from anyone in the grocery business about the origin, evolution, or culture of pineapples, because no matter how grave and knowing he may look when you ask him about them, the truth is, all the grocer knows about pineapples is that they come in one-pound tins, two for a dollar, packed and distributed by the Archer-Daniels-Midland Company.

It is not unimaginable, of course, nor perhaps impossible on its face, that before it became a desert, pineapples did once flourish on the land mass destined eventually to become the Gobi Desert, even if they do not now. But if we should happen to find traces of them together with the remains of dinosaurs in the fossil record there, we would naturally have to rely on comparison of that part of the fossil record with real pineapples where they do actually thrive in the living world for whatever conclusions we might soundly draw from evidence of them in dead stones. The problem is of exactly the same kind and stringency when we try to think about folklore or oral tradition in either the European middle ages or classical antiquity. Piles upon piles of useless rubbish have accumulated whenever that problem and its stringency have been overlooked, which has been most of the time.

The task delegated to me by the organizers of this meeting is to tell you something basic about “orality,” oral tradition, and especially, so they have urged, about “oral theories.” Theory is what everyone wants who hasn’t enough of the necessary facts at his disposal to understand a thing directly. So whenever you hear the word “theory,” look out: someone is trying (yet again) to foist off onto you some mere uncorroborated surmise for which he either doesn’t have adequate factual proof, or for which corroborating facts just don’t exist. So I have to tell you straight out: there is no “oral tradition” available for study from either the ancient Greek or Roman civilization, or from anywhere in mediaeval Europe; there are at most only a trifling number of poorly preserved and profoundly corrupted fossil specimens of any such things, if that. If you knew quite a bit of the modern South Slavic languages, I could show you some distinctive and illuminating features of oral composition and oral tradition in them, as I have just done at this same hour two weeks ago in Chicago for a group of Balkanologists of about the same size as this. But your languages are Greek, Latin, and various dialects of western Europe, and there simply are no documents in those languages to support such a demonstration.

About all that is left for me to do under these circumstances is perhaps to tell you some of the ways in which knowing an exuberant, real oral tradition in modern South Slavic has reshaped my own outlook on certain early Greek matters—I am frankly less interested in either the matter of ancient Latin or of the European Middle Ages, which, whatever their intrinsic interest may be, are just not very informative about the mechanisms or content of oral tradition. They may be serviceable loci for the application of such knowledge once it has been gained in other places, but they are very poor loci indeed from which to try to derive such knowledge; never in forty years of watching this field have I known anyone who did, and so I am strongly indisposed to believe that anyone can.

One thing that has fastened itself upon my awareness because I have studied a real oral tradition is the deep contrariety between it and the whole art of writing.

To the extent that anyone has been able to discover from its earliest history, the art of writing has been highly prescriptive from its beginning. By nature, it perhaps cannot be otherwise. How might a permissive system of writing subsist? Might one choose freely from an extensive set of characters, or construct and arrange characters to please oneself, confident that others, enjoying the same liberty, will as readily decode a piece of writing in which graphic solecism is the guiding principle as one made in accordance with some sort of conventional, established practice? If there ever was such a system of writing, it has at least left no traces of itself intelligible to our later age. No; what to write may be chosen to some extent electively, but how to write it has always been prescribed. One must make conventional symbols with conventional significations, or else what is written cannot be interpreted by another. Even when something written is meant only for the eyes of the writer, it must still be committed to a form which the writer himself is willing and able to remember, quite apart and different from whatever information the writing is intended to preserve. If you think this is a frivolous observation, I invite you to spend some time, as I have for decades done, examining the written remains of modern collectors of oral traditions.

And memorialization is, of course, the primary motive behind every act of writing. To write a thing is to utter it now in the absence of an intended hearer, so that he may perceive it later. In this sense everything written is memorial, and its preëminent virtue is its recursability. That what is recursable is not only conserved, but may also thereby be rendered suitable for analysis, is really only a secondary effect of writing, no matter how estimable.

The more momentous developments in the art of writing after its invention, such as the emergence of the Greek alphabet, were certainly consequences of analysis facilitated by the recursability inherent in what had previously been written. One perceived how to economize the labor of writing—which in early durable and widely-used systems was prodigious—and to make it more efficient, only because before then much had already been less efficiently put into writing, and was correspondingly less easily recovered from it, than might be accomplished in new ways.

Two facts vital to us emerge from this general history. Even though it has always been at root only a means to overcome the inherent temporal limitation of speech-acts, writing has nevertheless always been profoundly unlike “mere” speech. One learns all the mechanisms of one’s native speech—including, where they have existed, its traditional poetic forms—without conscious intellection, just as infants learn to crawl, walk, fear heights, or to smile, while much of their body-mass is still embryonic, and the synapses in nervous tissues are still being formed. Except for a tiny minority of physically damaged individuals, practically every human being “learns” to speak, and to understand speech, without tuition or obligatory exercise of the conscious mind. It is the conseqence of a truly “autonomic” kind of learning.

Writing is altogether another kind of acculturation, one that can be acquired only by conscious intellection. Step-by-step, without regard to variable intervals of time that may pass between the steps, an ability to write must be accumulated, and can only be accumulated, by first learning to read, and this mental exercise practically defines acquired learning, being inherently dependent upon and impossible without both formal tuition and prolonged conscious attention by the learner to the artifice of the specific writing system that must be “studied” to be understood before it can be used. Concomitantly, only a minor fraction of humanity as a whole has ever acquired an ability to write in any language, and most people everywhere learn to do it only little or badly, despite the best efforts of affluent optimistic altruists who have sometimes, probably unwisely, wished it might be otherwise.

Most writing is brief. At best, it is enormously more expensive both with regard to the technology its doer must master beforehand, and with regard to the length of time that is required to execute it, than any equivalent extent of spoken words. Therefore, only relatively brief statements of information have always been the principal subjects of writing: laws, tax-lists, deeds to property, contracts, memorial inscriptions, letters, prayers and hymns to gods, sententious wisdom, or the like—all short, and all created in writing in order to preserve what is “said” in the written words from a dreaded possibility of loss, which is to say, the fear that but for writing it could otherwise not be “heard."

One further fact about writing that is crucial for us has emerged as a fact only after millenia of experience with writing and its products in a series of cultures that have been substantially aware of their precursors in literacy over that great length of time. People everywhere purposefully retain in writing only those written things that are both unique and memorable in some respect. So in order for anything written to be long retained, a fear of lossing in the written form the irreplaceable information that it incorporates must substantially outweigh the usually considerable effort and expense required to keep it. This anxiety, where and when it has existed, is of course only a durative aspect of the same motivation that prompts writing in the first place: to assure that what is written will not, like a simple speech act of the same content, be lost to its intended recipient because the voice that spoke it cannot be heard.

Most of the world’s writing systems, and all the early ones, have required that he who writes invest far more of himself in acquiring the means to write than in understanding—not to speak of actually composing—anything which might be written. Accordingly, those early writing systems that have left the largest records of themselves were the property of social castes of writers who wrote chiefly what others told them—or paid them—to write. Naturally, what could be written under such régimes was seldom intrinsically very long or very complicated. And until quite recently, the high cost and fragility of writing materials themselves have severely limited anyone’s conceivable ambitions to write, even long after the conventions of a simplified writing system have become widely familiar and easily usable amongst many persons of different occupations in an educated caste. So as late as the latter half of the 17th century in London, for example, even so thoroughly professional a writer as the British Admiralty’s Samuel Pepys still had to limit what he wrote, even in his official duties as clark of the Admiralty, according to the quantity of writing paper that he could obtain by importation of it from France, which was his only source of it, and this even when England was at war with France.

Not until the 18th century in western Europe did the makers of paper anywhere develop a technology both economical and copiously productive enough of a sufficiently durable product effectively to end the rationing of what people might write according to what material they might be able economically to afford to write it on. This gradual change, happening concurrently with an expansion of numbers and occupational diversity among those who knew how to read and write a substantially settled common literary language, created something quite peculiar that had never happened before or elsewhere. For the first time, it was both technically and economically feasible to write whatever one had the time and disposition to write, of whatever kind, length or complexity, without significant impediment of either method or material.

This caused a cultural explosion, and much of what has been called the Enlightenment was due to it. It became not only possible, but also to some degree fashionable, to write strange or anomalous things that were somehow alien or antithetical to the things already recorded in extant writings of the time.

Part of modern Europe’s inheritance from mediaeval western Latinity was the presumptive subservience to religion of everything written. The church was custodian of writing both as craft and artifact, and its authority therefore extended as much to what could or should be written, or conserved in writing, as to how writing was done. That this authority was exercised with varying degrees of rigor at various times in no way diminished it. Besides its own theological doctrines, and the liturgies and legends of religion, the church sanctioned preservation in writing also, among other things, of hymnology, laws, traditional wisdom, calendars, annals, and descriptions of the created world, such as herbals, bestiaries, and other documents treating the properties and uses of plants, animals, minerals, numbers, astronomical objects, and so forth. What the church thus prescribed as the sum of Christian learning was reassuringly exact, comprehensive, and perfectly knowable because always perfectly recursable in its written form by anyone who could read.

But over against the known and the written as it reposed in the cure of the church, there had always been in Europe—and everyone knew it—another, drastically different reality too. Whereas the church had in its theology its written descriptions of the Trinity and the Saints, there were also in highland Scotland, for example, the sluaghmaith, of whom immemorial local tradition had somehow preserved manifold doctrine and extensive description without any resort to writing at any time; and so also the Afancs and the Buccas; and the Hobgoblins and the Fetchs and the Dracae; and the Maras and the Kelpies and the Grants and the Hedley Kow and the Billy Blins all over Britain, or their counterparts everywhere else in Europe from Dingle Bay to the Urals and from Hammerfest to Siracusa. The canonical spirit-world of Christianity was small, undistinguished, and possibly not even comparably useful when it was contrasted with those abundant and irrepressible alternatives to it that could be found everywhere in Christendom except within its pale of writing.

The tenets of traditional jurisprudence as they could be observed at work without any resort to writing in communities everywhere similarly dwarfed the written legal codes of Europe in the 18th century, as Friedrich Karl von Savigny showed. Further, the church had its calendar, and the common folk had theirs, with myriad ritual dates and practices in the latter that the former knew, or preferred pretending to know, nothing of. Proverb and sententiae outside the pale of writing everywhere displayed a scope and a richness that made the Vulgate Proverbia, Sapientia, and the Ecclesiasticus seem slight. And as for narrative, its ebullience in both sung and songless forms outside the confines of what was written simply defied explanation. It also largely defied delineation, because it was not only unwritten, but also did not reside in the mind of any one person, or even of any one discrete community or class of persons. Instead, no one individual was ever able to tell more than certain fragments of its conjecturable whole, and the only hope for ever charting the whole lay in gathering its apparent fragments from many sources to reconstitute the whole in writing, should anyone want to do so.

The advent in the 18th century of plentiful writing paper of good quality for the use of a growing population of capable, increasingly secular readers and writers was catalytic. Where formerly literate persons had only talked of such things, now some began to write about them. How novel they were as topics for writing is plain from the uncertainty that prevailed generally in Europe about what to call them. In the book about them that he published in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1725 for example, Henry Bourne called them Antiquitates Vulgares, or, The Antiquities of the Common People; others used such similar expressions as “popular antiquities” or “popular literature."

But all such names disclosed fundamental conceptual difficulties. The underlying assumption that the things common, unlettered folk bothered to remember and repeat—such as “manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads and proverbs"—the assumption that all these belonged properly to “olden times,” and were thus only imperfect shadows of a once ‘higher’ culture, seemed to become ever less demonstrable the more was learned about them. And there was the further problem that while it was fairly easy work to describe and to paraphrase all the things called “vulgar antiquities” in one’s own idiosyncratic fashion as a writer, recording them verbatim in the actual forms current in the mouths of those whose culture they actually were proved to be hard and puzzling work, and work for which none of their earlier experience as literate persons suitably equipped any of the early investigators.

This state of affairs persisted essentially unchanged for another hundred and twenty years after Henry Bourne’s time. Here and there, some little progress was made with what we have since come to call simply “collecting,” although to tell the truth it wasn’t much progress. Mrs. Brown of Falkland, for example, wrote out some of her own ballads during this time; with the cooperation of several very unjustly overlooked women, without whom they could have accomplished nothing significant, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published some—for the most part grossly fiddled—texts of German folktale, and Vuk Karadžić in the western Balkans recorded a number of Serbian ballads of very uneven worth.

Then in England in 1846 an eccentric fellow named William Thoms coined a new word, “folklore,” to designate the whole complex of things originally outside the written domain to which that word is still today applied worldwide. Thoms proposed the word as a useful addition only to the lexicon of English, but its present-day currency as a common term of international science, accepted either directly or as a calque into all modern languages of learning, attests to the remarkable success of Thoms’ coinage, which was incidentally the one and only remembered success of his career. The word succeeded simply because something less wrong-headedly constrictive was acutely needed by the mid-nineteenth century to replace the failed earlier notion of “popular antiquities."

But if the canker at the core of the old rubric was exterminated by Thoms’ neologism, it in turn introduced a new set of ambiguities and wrong-mindedness all its own into the expanding discourse on the subject. What was “lore” of the “folk” must logically be everyone’s cultural property, and consequently no one’s too (res populi, res nemenis); the whole idea became a battleground between rival theories of cultural collectivism and cultural individualism that took another century to find their just resolution in mutual futility. You may at your own leisure inspect both the ambiguities and the futility embedded in the word “folklore” by consulting the couple of dozen competing, overlapping, dissonant, and otherwise hopelessly messy definitions of it in Maria Leach’s well-known Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend.

The obvious truth—a truth so obvious that only simple minds could see it—was that everything known under either the older rubric “popular antiquities” or the newer “folklore” had not only a content alien to written culture, but also forms of its own for which no precedents or originals obtained in literary traditions. Critical awareness of this as a defining factor arose in Paris in the late 1920s, in the field of epic studies, and as the consequence of a chance confluence of Junger Grammatiker philology (in the person of the Frenchman André Meillet), Homeric scholarship (in the person of the American Milman Parry), and South Slavic ethnography (in the person of the Slovene Matijas Murko).

The presumptive earliest composition written in alphabetic Greek, which happened also to be the earliest text in European “literature,” namely Homer’s Iliad, has in it a multitude of recurring phrases such as τὴν δ᾽ ἠμείβετ᾽ ἔπειτα and θοὰς ἐπὶ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν and τὸν δ᾽ αὖτε προσέειπε, and these had been called formulas, and the reason for them had been unknown, since before anyone could remember. Seeing similar phrasal structures in the then-extant written records of oral traditional poetry from the modern Slavic Balkans, the young doctoral candidate Milman Parry concluded that the reason for them both in Homer and in South Slavic must be that they enabled an unlettered poet such as Homer or the South Slavic epic singers to make their intricate poems without writing. And having decided that, Parry went on to the conclusion that because no one person could ever have made the formulary language of the Homeric epics by himself, it must be not only a trait of oral composition but also an inherited trait of oral composition, so that those poems and others equivalent to them in other languages are not only oral but also oral traditional. Thus arose the so-called Oral Theory of Homeric composition.

Since Parry’s invention of this theory in the late 1920s, it has been tried upon a wide range of non-literate traditions in the mass of what some have continued to call less discriminatingly “folklore.” Application of the theory has always depended upon identifying in a form of oral performance some counterpart to, or equivalent of, the theory’s basic formal category, namely the ‘formula.’ Results have been various, but perhaps the most telling result has been to create in some of us who work directly with actual oral traditions an awareness that the old concept of ‘formula’ was in no meaningful way altered by Parry’s adoption of it as a test for oral traditionality, and continued to be after his innovation just what it had been before it, namely an intrinsically literary concept of no real relevance to an accurate or useful description of how a living oral traditional composer of epic poetry composes his verses or the stories that he tells in his verses. Parry’s assumption, and his continuating Oral Theorists’ assumption after him, was that since oral traditional epos displays formulae, the poet making such poems makes them by replicating or repeating formulae stored in his mind as “pre-fabricated” constructs that he may deploy at will according to the suitability of a given set of such pre-formed units to a given place in his narrative. The implicit likening of such a poet making an epic to an industrial-age factory machine producing an endless series of identical physical artifacts is patent.

There have been other surmises farther from the truth, but the merely approximate or metaphorical verity of the Theory of Formulaic Composition, as it has been called, in no way rescues it from its basic falsehood. So too the pupating insect forms a chrysalis just as it ancestors did, but it does not do this by repeating an ancestral chrysalis. The rose bud recreates petals such as its ancestors produced before it, but certainly not by simply copying ancestral petals. Instead, the code in the genetic nucleotide as it shapes its polypeptide molecule makes the chrysalis take shape, and the rose petal. So in oral traditional poetries as in other forms of life, processes and the structures they may produce are not the same things; the genesis, form, and functions of things require to be conceptually uncoupled in any successful inquiry into their exact natures. Thus too oral traditional epic poets do indeed ‘formulate’ the lines of their epic verse, but not by ‘using formulas,’ which would be impossible. As are the chrysalis and the rose petal, the oral traditional epic poet’s formulas are distinctively analogues of their ancestors, and just because they are really only analogues and not actual duplicates, they are always subtly different in their sameness, as are also the descendent’s and the ancestor’s chrysalis and rose-petal, and so they are not at all like the mechanically duplicated phrases of a literary composer who only imitates oral style. I would show you the difference precisely if only you could follow it in documents of a live tradition; but sadly there are none in your fields, so I have to do that for others elsewhere.

Note carefully, however: I have told you only what oral traditional epic poets do, and I can show you that others, such as for example oral traditional ballad poets, do not compose their sung narratives the same way. Be exceedingly wary therefore of anyone who suggests to you that oral traditional composition in any one genre is in principle the same for any other genre, much less for all genres whatever. That would be a very good indication that the person who tells you so really doesn’t know what he is talking about.

At the close of the twentieth century, we can see behind us three successive stages in the still ongoing effort of the literate world to comprehend the cultures of the illiterate one, and to come to terms with its own past puniness in the comparison. That is a good thing. Yet both worlds are surely changing. Not everything that in the 18th or 19th century seemed eminent in the popular traditions, folklore, or oral traditions of non-literates or pre-literates has kept its value well. So, for instance, the example of John Ray’s English Proverbs (1768) set off a chain-reaction of similar collecting and publishing of that oral traditional genre all across Europe, and everywhere the expectation that Ray himself had entertained in England—namely that such a published collection would contribute measurably to the moral rectitude, and accordingly also to the political stability and prosperity of the nation—this proved to be an illusion. Franz Boas in North America made prodigious collections of texts with painstakingly literal English translations from the narrative traditions in native languages of the Pacific Northwest to facilitate Europeans’ learning of those languages for practical purposes of industry and commerce; but instead of the emergence of a complex multi-lingual culture of mixed European and AmerIndian descent which the foreign-born Boas expected for that region, the same homogeneous English-speaking culture that prevailed everywhere else in North America prevailed there too, and the native cultures were—as they continue to be even today—marginalized first to the point of practical nullity, and finally to actual extinction.

In the late 19th and the 20th century, much of the world’s oral traditional culture became the object of a quite different approach to understanding it by those who belonged to the world of the written word, an approach that would have been unimaginable when plentiful paper of good quality first made comprehensive recording of such aspects of culture feasible. Eventually that new approach took the settled forms and the name of “social anthropology.” And in turn, that new intellectual discipline brought to its members a realization that what had happened to John Ray’s ambition, or Franz Boas’, were no merely isolated local incidents.

On the contrary, it similarly did not much matter what the Trobriand Islanders’ system of kinship was; or what mechanisms for defense of its economic territory the Apinayé people of the Amazon had evolved; or how the Basuto people of South Africa made poetry to celebrate their kings; or how the organization of church choirs to carry on a tradition of Christian hymnody manifested and enforced deeper principles of communal order in working-class Manchester; because all such cultures without exception are in fact marginal, mere side-shows to the main arena of human development, only peripheral appendages that are consequently both inevitably and rightly disappearing from the face of the earth at a breathtakingly accelerating rate, so that nothing they every did or might do has any continuing implication, either for good or for harm, to the rapidly gathering mainstream of world culture, which must, and surely will, let the dead past bury itself in oblivion, and move on.

Accordingly, much of the vaunted late twentieth-century “explosion of knowledge” about such dead and dying marginal sub-cultures—including those of European antiquity and the Middle Ages—may really be nothing better, nor more valuable, than the explosion of a corpse. Quite recently in modern history it was still universally believed that with time and diligence practically everything pertaining to the classical world of Greece and Rome could be recovered, so that someday educated people everywhere might readily be able to know as much about it as about their own surroundings in their own time. That was in its own day a pleasant illusion, but we know it now to have been both an impossible and also a frightful experience which we are lucky to have escaped. What has steadily emerged instead from the last century of classical learning is a stark and thoroughly unpleasant realization that far from having been in any respect happier than our world, nowhere at any time in classical antiquity was any people more than a moment away from widespread starvation, and many everywhere starved to death at all times; disease slew whole populations unchecked until their very sparsity cheated it of further victims; warfare was constant and boundlessly vicious; society was neither just nor orderly; learning was so rare as to be truly anomalous; it was a horrible world from which only a few small and rare reliques of value have come down to us from amidst a welter of miseries and inadequacies whose disappearance we can only be devoutly grateful for. But as for the European Dark Ages, the less said the better. Romanticizing them, as has foolishly been done by many in academic life in recent decades, is truly no more worthy or sensible than a life spent addicted to the reading of Regency Romances, and it may in fact be a good deal more pernicious.

There is therefore a great need to be careful about What Matters. From the worldwide wreck and ruin of dead or dying marginal cultures past and present, foreign and domestic, only certain quite limited fragments are either capable of, or are worthy, of salvation. Time will sort them out definitively and discard the dross, as it has already done with the relicts of antiquity, though there is no need positively to court time’s disapproval. The Homeric epics and Virgil will persist because they are what they are; possibly also Chaucer; less surely Piers Plowman; but the ancient graphiti on the walls of Petra, or the modern ones in less monumental places, may honestly be let go without ultimate loss, as may Super Man or the legend of Sweeney Todd and much else besides. Whatever does survive will survive because in the end it is at least as useful in written form as it was before it was recorded. As scholars, we who keep these things across the flux of generations may either conform our learning and our teaching to that reality, or consign ourselves to uselessness; there is finally no middle ground.

– D E Bynum

Version history

v 1 - May 1996
v 1.1 - January 2001
v 1.2 - July 2007

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