Unsurprisingly, medieval literature and its production– creation– as well as its performance, how it was used, is quite different from contemporary usage.
In the modern times, we read texts silently, by ourselves. This is either pleasure reading or it is research, as part of a school or university assignments. When we read aloud it is only because we are reading to small children, such as part of their bedtime story, or because it has been incorporated into a lesson plan while we attend school (the classic teacher assignment ‘we will each read a paragraph’ class). Few people read aloud to themselves for mere pleasure.
Back during the middle ages, however, reading was a social function. Preachers would read aloud to those unable to read as part of the conversion, and Bards would recite legends and well-known poems to lordly courts and halls (Elaine Treharne 28-9, Medieval Literature: A Very Short Introduction). More than a mere professional function, however, reading aloud as part of the auditory culture, that which enabled the transmission of cultural heritage and tradition across the generations during a time when producing paper and writing utensils was both costly as well as time-consuming.
In the everyday existence of the uneducated, oral recitation was often the only form of entertainment they could afford. With light usually coming from a single fireplace or window, a reader’s ability was more than merely repeating what was on the page– it was truly performing the text and making it come alive for the listeners; reading aloud for an audience in medieval times was akin to putting on a one-man show.
The fact that so many labels for the best of these performers exist throughout the cultures, attests to the importance of professional story-tellers; Anglo-Saxons called them bards and scops, the Old Norse tradition named them as skalds, while the French named them as troubadours and trouveres. So it is not surprising that by the 14th and 15th centuries, troops of performers would turn the performance into a living by touring the lands, plying their skill in rousing people to a great story.
Indeed, authors of works would often attempt to win their audiences over to their rendition of the text. Why? It was more than mere vain grandiose desire. Since texts often transmitted important fragments of codified information, they often took the form of epics or educational pieces concerning spirituality or history. In order to convey the importance of those pieces of codified information, the performer of the text would need to pay close attention to the individual groups which they preached toward in order for the narrative to resonate with its audience; an incorrect audience would result in disfavor upon the poem and the performer’s livelihood.
While it sounds a bit archaic to today’s ears, it is actually very modern: after all, a writer of science fiction (Space Opera) would do well to not sell his novel with Jane Austen Romantic fan-fiction.The two genres are very different. As such, a performer in medieval times would need to think about what genre he is performing and for who; Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, and his elegiacal poem The Book of the Duchess, was written as a eulogy for John of Guant, and it would be wise to perform in in such a manner as to emphasize its tragic but loving nature to a deceased ruler’s son (38).
So, as we have seen, while it may not be apparent on the surface that performing texts has significant weight under the surface, there is, in fact, true depth; not only does the piece and performance differ by class, but also by genre in how the performer will recite and enact the text. This performance, in turn, becomes a transmitter for history and culture, and so becomes not merely an entertainment device (though it was that as well) but a delineation of space and artistic practice before a time where the internet enabled a streamlined dichotomy of interests and genres.