Could Medieval Readers Shut Up?

15809Today, we have a guest post from Daniel Donoghue, John P. Marquand Professor of English at Harvard University and author of the new book How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems. The book pursues an ambitious synthesis of a number of fields usually kept separate—oral theory, paleography, syntax, and prosody, along with insights from contemporary cognitive psychology—in an exploration of how the earliest Anglo-Saxon readers understood the poems they were reading. Here, Donoghue expounds upon his book's central questions and arguments.

Could medieval readers shut up? It’s commonly assumed they couldn’t, and the same goes for readers in classical antiquity. The belief that premodern readers were compelled to speak the words out loud is surprisingly persistent in scholarly and middlebrow discourse today even though evidence for it is so slim. Exhibit A for those seeking support is a passage from book 6 of Augustine’s Confessions, when the young Augustine encounters Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, “refreshing his mind” with reading: “When he read, his eyes travelled across the page and his heart sought into the sense, but voice and tongue were silent.”

This passage has been widely understood to say that Augustine was surprised at Ambrose’s silent reading, but the original Latin never mentions anything like surprise (nor does any translation). That interpretation is entirely a modern invention, as the first chapter of How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems makes clear. Ambrose’s silence was simply part of his strategy to get through a busy day filled with responsibilities; sometimes he read in silence, sometimes he didn’t. Switching between the two modes was something he, Augustine, and every reader for centuries before and after them could do. There was nothing remarkable about it. Even if someone wants to invoke the episode to support the ubiquity of oral reading, the logic doesn’t work. As my book explains, the argument would have to go something like this:

Augustine may have had a powerful intellect . . . but as a reader he was locked into one practice, as were all his contemporaries except Ambrose. Ambrose thus becomes an anomaly, who is cited with dubious logic to support an argument at odds with what he was actually doing. At some point after Augustine (in this potted history) readers in the European west embraced the virtues of silent reading as a stage in the flowering of modernity.

The chapter goes on to give various arguments from history, literature, and cognitive psychology to show that competent readers have always had the ability to switch between silence and speech. One culture might favor one mode over the other as the “default”—you are probably reading this silently to yourself right now, dear blog reader—but moving the eyes across the page with “voice and tongue . . . silent” has a history as old as reading itself. So, to answer the initial question: yes, medieval readers could shut up.

The episode about Augustine and silent reading is part of an opening chapter that lays the groundwork for a deeper study about the first readers of the earliest poems in English. How the Anglo-Saxons Read their Poems makes three interlocking claims about the manuscripts, the readers, and the poems. First, the apparently sparse manuscript presentation was entirely adequate. The book’s cover reproduces a folio that, despite the hand’s exceptional beauty, seems impoverished in comparison with the visual display of later poems. We expect to see poems laid out in lines: where are they? Just how Anglo-Saxon readers could do without lineation introduces the second claim: they possessed sophisticated skills we’re only beginning to appreciate. Where we see a folio that is lacking, they saw a rich network of clues that guided their reading. These skills combined the book-learning of literacy with an immersion in an oral tradition that extended to everyone: men and women, young and old, across all levels of society. One was an elite skill; the other was ubiquitous yet no less sophisticated, having developed over a centuries-long tradition. The third claim turns from the readers to the poems themselves. Old English poems are extraordinary in incorporating into the very texture of their language the clues for perceiving the shape of the poetic line and the wanderings of syntax. These are the clues that readers were so skilled in pursuing.

In taking a holistic approach that combines philology with cognitive psychology, How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems sheds new light on reading practices from 1000 years ago. Although its topic speaks directly to medievalists, it has much to say to students of book history and the history of reading. Even more broadly, it raises such questions as “Why should poems today be formatted as they are?” and “What special demands do poems of any period make on their readers?”

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