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Welsh History Review


Vol. 18, nos. 1-4 1996-97

The formation of the Medieval West: studies in the oral culture of the Barbarians. Book review.

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Cambrensis and medieval Ireland) has given him an essential insular
perspective on the question of the importance of oral culture in the
barbarian West. He has already published widely on the use of Latin and on
problems of communication in the Middle Ages. This study covers the
Frankish world, Italy, Britain and Ireland; Spain is excluded because of its
Arabic heritage, and Scandinavia because of the lateness of its surviving
evidence. Oddly, despite the wealth of material, England is fairly
summarily discussed, although it is obviously welcome that Ireland (and, to
a lesser extent, Wales) is so fully treated, since it is so often neglected in
general studies of medieval history and literature, above all by continental
It is unclear precisely what audience Richter is intending this book for.
The fact that one cannot understand his arguments without being able to
read medieval Latin and Old High German texts in the original shows that
he is certainly not expecting this book to reach a wide undergraduate
audience in the English-speaking world (which is regrettable). Yet the fact
that he starts with a chapter outlining the political demise of the Roman
Empire, in which he inevitably compresses and distorts, hardly provides the
necessary captatio benevolentiae for scholars. Although there is much of
interest in the book, too often the analysis lacks rigour and gives the
impression of randomness. However, as the title says, it is 'Studies in'
rather than an attempt to provide a rounded synthesis, and perhaps its
intent will be clearer upon the appearance of the companion volume,
Language and Culture in Early Medieval Europe, from the same publishers,
in 1995.
The book is divided into three sections: 'The Transformation of the
Roman World', 'Approaches to Oral Culture' and 'The Early Medieval
Evidence'. The first chapter looks at the settlement of the barbarians in the
Roman Empire, arguing that the nature of their settlement meant that
'important aspects of their previous culture' (p. 26) would have survived.
Chapter 2, on religion, argues that the Christianization of the Roman
Empire and of Europe was not as uncontested or as complete as historians
have suggested, and that conversion did not mean the abandonment of
'traditional culture'. The first section ends with a discussion of literacy,
both theoretically and historically, ending with. a detailed discussion of the
early Carolingians and a denial of McKitterick's argument that they
created a 'society to which the written word was central'.
After building up an awareness of the importance of oral culture, Richter
confronts it head on in the second section. He began his studies, he admits,
'with a vague notion of orality having to do with heroic poetry', until he
realized that these (written) texts told one little of the possible oral
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