Friday's Orality/Rhetoric Lesson
Neufeld, Christine. "Speakerly Women and Scribal Men." Oral Tradition 14:2 (1999), 420-429.
Neufeld observes a tradition, dating back to classical times, by which women are storytellers and allegedly inaccurate or irrelevant, while men engage in scribal, accurate, and relevant discourse (Neufeld 1999, 420). Because she sees this characterization as a way in which men have been described as having authority over women, she chooses to explore the concept in terms of sexuality and authority. As an example, she uses Dunbar's Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, which appears in literary form in the early 16th century (Neufeld 1999, 421). In this work, the married women and the widow, who engage in oral poetry complaining about married life, the literary poet overhearing them reflects that it would be a terrible thing to marry someone who would speak in such a way. The women's speech is very derogatory toward men. What is significant to Neufeld is that Dunbar considers this as a normal type of behavior (Neufeld 1999, 423). Of additional interest to Neufeld is that the widow has a book, which she apparently could have read if she wished, but she uses it only as an accessory. She has rejected literary pursuits because of her desire to communicate within an oral tradition (Neufeld 1999, 423).
The overall concept of the literary poet as an evesdropper is of additional interest. He knows more about the women than they know about him. He is able to describe them, while they don't know he is present at all. This could also suggest that to Dunbar the literary sensibilities are superior to oral traditions, as they can know what those steeped in orality will never know (Neufeld 1999, 424).
Neufeld suggests it is possible that the genre of the oral poetry fits into that of a medieval "flyting", as described by C.S. Lewis. Here there is an oral poetry contest and the participants and audience decide which voice has been able to satirize the situation at hand most effectively (Neufeld 1999, 425). The work, then, may stand as an example of a literary attempt to capture an oral event and to make commentary on it.