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On the “Scribe as Performer” and the Homeric Text

Jonathan Ready

This three-part paper introduces Homerists to the concept of the “scribe as performer,” popularized by the medievalist Alger Doane (1991 and 1994). The first part of the paper provides an instance of how Homerists contrast the poet with the scribe. Turning to the model of the “scribe as performer,” the second part suggests that such efforts are out of step with current thinking on the nature of scribal activity. The third part offers examples of the value for the Homerist of the model of scribal performance.

Homerists regularly separate the poet from the scribe. For instance, scholars offer two explanations for the nearly verbatim repetition of a string of verses in the Homeric poems (e.g., speeches by messengers). On the one hand, the Homeric poet was perfectly capable of repeating himself, word-for-word repetition of a run of two or more lines being “one of the characteristic signs of oral style” (Lord 2000: 58). On the other hand, scribes who wrote to a poet’s live performance or who copied manuscripts could be the source of the overlaps: taking advantage of the technology of writing, they ensured that putatively repeated passages were truly repeated (Hainsworth 1990: 32; cf. Lord 1991: 5). In short, poet or scribe could be responsible but for different reasons.

This analysis reinforces a problematic dichotomy between orally performing poets and writing scribes. By contrast, investigators of a range of ancient, medieval, and modern-day (oral) literatures have followed Doane in speaking of the “scribe as performer” (Person 1998, Amodio 2004, Foley 2004, and Carr 2005). A scribe might be quite familiar with the dictional and thematic components of a tradition-oriented (oral) text. Accordingly, he at times substituted his own equally traditional words and phrases for those he heard from a dictating performer or for those in the manuscript he was copying.

Homerists can profit from this reframing of scribal activity. First, in reference to the “dictation theory,” which holds that our texts of the epics descend from acts of oral dictation in the archaic period: scribal performance might have been a factor in such acts of textualization. Second, the model pertains to the variants that appear in quotations of Homeric poetry by Classical-era authors and in the so-called “wild” papyri of the Hellenistic era. Some attribute these variants to the ongoing “performance traditions of rhapsodes” (Nagy 1996: 141) and their appearance to the continued transcription of rhapsodic performance (e.g., Nagy 1997: 111): that is, the variant appears because the rhapsode deployed it at that point. Yet we may also assign their use, but not their invention, to the transcribers (the scribes) themselves. They could have generated these variants both when they wrote to a rhapsode’s dictation and when they recopied texts (cf. Jensen 1980: 108-109 and West 1997: 601-602).

Session/Panel Title

The Performance of Greek Poetry

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