Orality, Germanic Literacy and Runic Inscriptions in Anglo-Saxon England
The presence of runic writing before the influx of Latinate literacy in Anglo-Saxon England is often neglected when investigating the transitional nature of orality and literacy in vernacular Anglo-Saxon writing. The presence of runes in Anglo-Saxon society and Old English manuscripts supports the theory that Old English poetry operated within a transitional period between orality and literacy (as argued by O'Keeffe (1990), Pasternack (1995), Amodio (2005)). However runic symbols problematize the definition of orality within Old English oral-formulaic studies because runic writing practices predate Latinate literacy in England. This article explores the possibility that the orality contained within Old English poetry is a form of secondary orality due to the pre-existence of runic writing in Anglo-Saxon England. This form of secondary orality occurs within the wider social cultural shift between primary orality and modern hyper-literate states as runes act as a literary representation of change within the construction of thought and literature in the English language. This article suggests that runes can be understood as a type of ‘transitional literacy’ between primary orality and Latinate derived literary practices. They act as a way of composing and recording thought as text while still maintaining elements strongly associated with the construction of a primary oral culture in how the texts are interpreted by a culture familiar with writing. Therefore clarification must be made when understanding Old English as a transitional poetic form, namely that the nature and degree of transition contained within Old English poetry builds upon runic inscriptions as it represents a transition between a Germanic and Latinate forms of textuality and literacy.
runic writing, Old English poetry, secondary orality, transitional literacy, textuality
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