The spoken word

Oral culture in Britain 1500–1850

Editors: Adam Fox and Daniel Woolf

Human beings have developed a superabundance of ways of communicating with each other. Some, such as writing, are several millennia old. This book focuses on the relationship between speech and writing both within a single language, Welsh, and between two languages, Welsh and English. It demonstrates that the eighteenth-century Scottish clergy used the popular medium of Gaelic in oral and written form to advance the Gospel. The experience of literacy in early modern Wales was often an expression of legal and religious authority reinforced by the spoken word. This included the hearing of proclamations and other black-letter texts publicly read. Literate Protestant clergymen governed and shaped the Gaelic culture by acting as the bridge-builders between oral and literary traditions, and as arbiters of literary taste and the providers of reading material for newly literate people. The book also offers some illustrations of how anecdotes became social tools which used to make points not only in private correspondence but also in civil conversation in early modern England. Locating vagabonds and minstrels, and other wanderers on the margins of settled society depended on the survival of the appropriate historical record. Cautionary tales of the judgements God visited upon flagrant and incorrigible sinners circulated widely in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England: stories of sabbath-breakers, swearers, drunkards, adulterers and other ungodly livers struck down suddenly by the avenging arm of the Almighty. During the age of Enlightenment, intellectual culture nourished a new understanding of non-literate language and culture.

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