Parks notes that the distinction between orality and literary study is more complex than it might seem at first glance. Not only do we rightly question if oral works are literary once we record or transcribe them, but we also find at times that works may be composed in writing yet be dependent on orality. This is especially an issue in studies of Middle English (Parks 1986, 636). Parks further speaks to the challenge presented by the fact that all Middle English works we know have been transmitted in writing. His hope is to find a way to get behind the written record so as to identify and analyze the oral roots of some of the works we have (Parks 1986, 637). Parks’ intent in this article is to analyze the scholarship, first prior to 1957, then in the period of seminal study of 1957-67, then the work which built on those roots through 1984. Finally he makes assessments and projections for future study (Parks 1986, 638).
Parks finds the roots of scholarship in orality to date to the higher-critical scholarship of the end of the 19th century, and to last until the mid 20th century. In this period, scholars uniformly postulated a written source which resulted in oral performance, rather than an oral compositional method (Parks 1986, 639). Much of the scholarship was focused on the similarities of phrases used in different oral situations. Statistical studies of formulaic elements were common at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th (Parks 1986, 640). After the start of the 20th century, scholars tended to look not so much for common authorship, but for elements which “attested to a shared, conventional poetic style” (Parks 1986, 641). This practice still resulted in extensive catalogs of what were seen as stock compositional elements. At the same time some scholars suggested that certain types of poetry, such as that of the Anglo-Saxons, didn’t use stock formulas at all (Parks 1986, 642). In the 1930s, Parks finds a greater emphasis on the phenomenon of oral performance of poetry, though not on oral composition (Parks 1986, 643). Attention focused on performance and reception, along with the challenges implicit in a society where even the royalty did not typically read.
Parks observes that oral-formulaic theory was applied specifically to Middle English after 1953, at which time Old English became a topic of interest (Parks 1986, 648). In 1957, Ronald Waldron began articulating an oral, formulaic diction which can be found in Middle English writings, thus pointing (possibly) to an oral compositional style. Unfortunately, Parks finds Waldron’s work lacking in definition of what the formulaic diction actually is (Parks 1986, 649). The question of how much composition was written and premeditated and how much was actually done in the act of oral performance remained unsettled. One of the complicating issues is the fact that much Middle English poetry is translated from French, so existed before becoming English (Parks 1986, 650). Parks does observe that various critics have presented problems with the oral theories, most notably that we really know nothing of the corpus apart from written records so we can not identify many details of their origins with certainty (Parks 1986, 652). In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gawain and the Green Knight became a common subject of study. Parks notes that the studies tended to focus on alliterative devices and word choice (Parks 1986, 654). Again, the distinction between oral delivery and oral composition was rarely considered in any depth.
Parks considers there to be a shift, roughly in 1967, in scholarship about oral tradition. About this time scholars became more clear about the distinction between oral and written composition, as well as more enthusiastic about innovations in research methods (Parks 1986, 657). Studies of formulaic structures which were common to different pieces of literature began to suggest a common context of oral composition, not merely of ral performance (Parks 1986, 658). A good deal of this work was focused on identifying patterns which would be natural in speech but possibly not as confentional in writing. Parks mentions some rhythmic elements which may not be that apparent outside of oral use (Parks 1986, 660). The issue of literacy in the Middle Ages remained a complicating factor. The nature of literacy is an important factor, as one could identify readers by profession, readers b avocation, and some who read by necessity to transact business (Parks 1986, 661). The different types of readers would work differently with texts and with orality in general. The research suggests that an author might compose with pen and paper, then that a performer would make such alterations as seemed appropriate (Parks 1986, 664).
Parks goes on to discuss scholarship related to Chaucer, which he thinks exists largely in a world of its own (Parks 1986, 665). The idea of orality has not been explored to a very great extent. However, some scholars have attempted to find evidence of oral comosition in his work (Parks 1986, 666).
In general, Parks finds that recent scholarship is open to the idea of oral composition of many Middle English works, but that the studies are generally based on word and idea clusters. These may be literary devices as well as oral devices. Yet the current shcolarship (in 1986) leans toward orality (Parks 1986, 670).
Parks finds the future of study of orality in Middle English composition to be a largely open field. However, he reminds his eaders that we will never be able to prove oral composition definitively. Yet we should be able to learn more of the characteristics of these works from a core oral tradition (Parks 1986, 675). Orality in composition as well as oral transmission, particularly of a work that has oral elements but also exists in writing, can create tremendous challenges for the scholar. The role of a manuscript or a memory is difficult to clarify (Parks 1986, 677).