Monday, November 20, 2006

Literature and illiterature: Albert B. Friedman, RIP

From today's New York Times the news arrives that a "noted scholar of medieval literature who reveled in the tabloid journalism of the preliterate Middle Ages" died on November 11:

Trained as a scholar of high-toned literary narrative, Mr. Friedman found himself unable to resist the proletarian bustle of the ballads, sung narratives that were composed and transmitted orally by generations of unlettered bards. “Ballads are songs or performances, not poems,” Mr. Friedman wrote in his introduction to “The Viking Book of Folk Ballads.” “They are not literature, but illiterature.” And gripping illiterature they are. Mothers murder newborns. Girlfriends poison sweethearts. Women are seduced by demons. There is a great deal of sex, and it almost always ends badly, as in “Lizie Wan,” in which a brother reacts excessively on learning he has impregnated his sister:

And he has drawn his gude braid sword
That hang down by his knee.
And he has cutted aff Lizie Wan’s head,
And her fair body in three.

Friedman is best known for editing the anthology The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World . Readers of this blog may be interested to know that, back in the day, many of my own research interests were propelled by The Weekly World News, a rag of a newspaper filled with pseudoscience, pseudoarcheology, and the most interesting fantasies about the past. But that newspaper had nothing on Lizie Wan's brother and his hacking broadsword. Then again, had the baby been born, this case of incest may have enabled oh, say, a pope like the mythical Gregory.*

*On Gregory and [maternal] incest see John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), p. 373; Lowell Edmunds, Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985) and Thomas Hahn, "The Medieval Oedipus," Comparative Literature 32 (1980), 225-37.


  1. There's also Hartmann von Aue's Gregorius, which is available in translation in at least two places (I refer to the two on my shelves, sadly unread).

    I hate to kick around a NY Times obituarist, likely not a medievalist, but I have to note the contrast it draws between "high-toned" upper class literature and, not the form, but the content of the ballads. So far as I can think off hand, the content for high and low class literature in the MA is very often the same. Is Mankind a popular work or not? (or, for that matter, oral or not?) And if Harmann von Aue isn't high class literature, I don't know what is.

  2. Nothing wrong with kicking obituary writers; it's only the dead that we have to respect.

    In all honesty the writer is simply repeating Friedman's own badly out of date logic: that cultured people wouldn't read tales of incest and blood and bodily functions. We modern medievalists know that the audience for courtly romance and for fabliaux were one and the same, and that those who enjoyed stories about love from afar also enjoyed stories with genitalia in them. In the comment to a previous thread you talk about the enduring, Aries-inspired myth that medieval kids didn't possess a childhood. The specious split between low class "pop culture" works and high class aristocratic works is just as enduring. Theya re both the works of an educated and privileged class.

    Modern analogue: this blog, where Nip/Tuck and garden gnomes meet art house films and high fallutin philosophy. We're just being true to the medieval record.


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