Lori Ann Garner is associate professor of English at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. She is the author of Structuring Spaces: Oral Poetics and Architecture in Early Medieval England (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), as well as articles exploring a range of Old and Middle genres (such as charms, proverbs, saints’ lives, histories, and epic) within the dual contexts of oral tradition and literate culture.
This article explores areas of productive overlap in the respective fields of oral history and oral tradition, with particular focus on ways that both disciplines have enabled and encouraged engagement with premodern texts. Shared points of inquiry into the vexed concepts of truth, performance, and orality are explored in oral and oral-derived narratives of storytellers from medieval France, Anglo-Saxon England, and mid-twentieth-century Memphis, Tennessee. As an extended illustrative example of analysis drawing from a blended methodology, three versions of the “same” story are examined as they appear in the Old English epic Beowulf . Comparison with modern-day oral history accounts puts into sharp relief the ways that early medieval texts—texts produced in an era of new and emerging literacy—reflect very real patterns of oral narrative seen in interviews recorded quite recently.