Oral communication and the consolidation of the unwritten past in medieval monastic communities. An inquiry into the meaning and the use of the spoken word in a literate context (10th-late 12th centuries)

Orale communicatie en de consolidatie van het ongeschreven verleden in middeleeuwse monastieke gemeenschappen. Een onderzoek naar de betekenis en het gebruik van het gesproken woord in een geletterde omgeving (tiende-twaalfde eeuw)
Begin - Einde 
2005 - 2010 (afgewerkt)
Vakgroep Geschiedenis



The aim of the research project is to assess the role of unwritten forms of communication -with due regard to oral media - in monastic communities between the tenth and the late twelfth centuries. Although literate behaviour was an indispensable part of education and monastic life in the early medieval period, members of such communities exchanged considerable amounts of information for which no written media were deemed necessary. During the transitional period of the tenth to twelfth centuries, the increasing impact of written communication in society ensured that a large number of oral traditions regarding the history of monastic groups, the biographies of saints, the administration of the abbey as an institution and the relations of monks with outsiders did make the transition into written media.

Close analysis of the written sources reveals, however, that oral modes of interaction and transmission of historical information continued to flourish and that documents did not serve as a substitute for oral modes of social interaction. With the aid of recent anthropological and linguistic theories of orality and literacy, the proposed research project aims to investigate the relation between social change and preferential changes regarding communicative media. In previous studies, Vanderputten has argued that the function of literacy in this age was both direct (geared towards immediately perceptible goals such as administration, ritual purposes, etc.) and indirect (conferring status and leading to the differentiation from other groups in society), but that it always served very specific purposes and that the choice to use either oral or written media was linked to strategic communicative preferences. The notion of strategic communicative preferences in many ways counters some of the arguments of Carruthers (1993) and Coleman (1992), whose discussions of monastic memory disregarded the flexibility of such groups in dealing with information in day-to-day contexts. It is our intention to study the contexts in which oral communication was preferred above its written counterpart, and to determine the motivations of monastic communities to do so. The use of comparative research methods will be instrumental in testing the (universal or particular) nature of these contexts.

The focus of this project is on three aspects of oral communication. First, there is the methodological problem of assessing the extent to which the preserved corpus of written sources is a reliable indicator of the types of information that were not committed to writing in a given period. For example, one can easily find traces of long-term oral historical traditions in eleventh- and twelfth-century abbatial chronicles, but it remains to be seen to what extent the emergence of other types of text (for example, the substitution of notitiae or unformalized charters for chartae in the latter part of the eleventh century; Vanderputten 2005g) is the result of changing policies of document preservation or of a real transition from the oral to the written. Secondly, there is the problem of analyzing traces of long-term oral traditions in the history of monastic communities, with a particular regard to their discourse and relation to written media (the influence of hagiographical texts for example). Thirdly and finally, there is the question of how monastic groups handled the oral and the written in their relation with outsiders. Although the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries witnessed a gradual increase in the production of settlement charters between monastic parties and the local nobility, few of these documents did more than register a previous oral settlement. The nature of these settlements and that of the meetings where the settlements were agreed upon has been the subject of but a handful of studies. Nevertheless, the abundance of references to (and descriptions of) such events in contemporary sources calls for a thorough and systematical examination of source material.