Most written accounts of historical events are based on information from oral tradition. Whether we are dealing with early reports or historiographical works written centuries after the events, the information was spread by word of mouth before it reached the author. For this reason alone historians should familiarize themselves with the ways in which oral tradition preserves and transmits memories of historical events. In order to judge the reliability of a source, one should always try to reconstruct the way by which the information reached the author, for even the most objective narrator is only as reliable as his most reliable sources. Despite the importance of oral tradition in history, a truly systematic study of oral tradition started relatively late. One of the founding fathers of this systematic study is the Belgian anthropologist Jan Vansina, whose Oral Tradition as History (1985) is still authoritive to this day.
Jan Vansina (1929) studied history at the Catholic University of Leuven and was initially trained as a medievalist. He soon became intersted in the ethnographical aspects of history, however, and went on to study the medieval civilizations of Central Africa. Since most of these civilizations have not left us any written records, Vansina had to rely on the oral traditions of the contemporary descendants of these Central African peoples. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Vansina was doing his research, oral tradition had a bad reputation. Oral traditions were seen as fairytales that had little historical value. Vansina, however, recognized the fact that much information about the past is ultimately derived from oral tradition and that in some cases oral tradition was all that was available to a historian. In order to determine unto which extent oral tradition could be used as a historical source, Vansina set out to study the living oral traditions of contemporary African peoples. By trying to understand the way in which information was preserved and transmitted, he drew up criteria by which information from oral traditions should be judged. His findings were first published in his Oral Tradition – A Study in Historical Methodology (1965) and later in his Oral Tradition as History (1985), which is basically a revised and more accessible version of the former book.
Past & Present
To me, the most important principle stated by Vansina is that oral traditions are reflections of the present as well as the past. Although oral traditions are thougt to embody a message from the past, they are told in the present and shaped by present conditions. Each message is preserved and transmitted for a reason. Stories about the past often have a moralizing nature and can be used to justify situations in the present, like the rule of a certain dynasty, a feud between two kingdoms or the existence of certain social institutions. Oral traditions often idealize the ancestors of contemporary rulers and villify contemporary enemies. Oral traditions like these may still contain kernels of historical truth, but they can only be found by adequately understanding the society in which these accounts are retold.
The Process of Oral Transmission
In order to determine the reliability of an account, one also needs to understand the way in which the information was transmitted. Messages of a ceremonial nature, for example, are often transmitted in the form of memorized speech. These messages are preserved by priests or shamans who recite the message over and over again in exactly the same way and take great care to preserve the actual wording. These messages usually remain consistent over time, although they contain little historical information. Most accounts, however, are told in narrative form. These accounts are more prone to embellishment and innovation and are also more likely to be lost after a few generations, especially when the oral tradition is left uncontrolled. Some accounts, however, like the history of a certain royal house, may be standardized by the ruling elite. These standardized accounts may preserve information for a longer time, but they are also biased to fit the interests of the ruling elite. A special kind of narrative is the epic; which can be defined as a narrative couched in poetic language. Epics are usually created through improvisation, which makes them even more prone to embellishment and innovation. Although these epics are based on historical events, these events are adapted to a certain pattern that fits the practice of storytelling.
The Dangers of Distortion
Information that is transmitted only by word of mouth may be distorted in many ways. Beside the facts that even eyewitnesses do not have absolute knowledge about the events that they have witnessed and narratives often carry a bias in favor of the group that preserves the tradition, there are a lot of subconscious reasons why storytellers may distort oral traditions. First of all, a narrative can never be more than a selection of information presented from one particular point of view. Second, this selection of information is presented in a way that captivates the audience. This is why storytellers may choose to focus on certain aspects of an event that are seen as important, or to leave out certain information that is considered to be irrelevant or embarrasing. When the story is retold for generations on end, the information is increasingly made to fit a fixed plot structure that fits the practice of storytelling. In this process, much information is lost or distorted. This also explains why many myths and legends are so similar: they all tend to follow a limited set of popular plot structures.
Since oral traditions about the past are reflections of present situations, they usually contain anachronisms and misattributions. For example, anecdotes that were originally attributed to various individuals have the tendency to be attributed to a small number of idealized rulers or culture heroes from the past. This makes these so called attributions very unreliable. However, if a pointless massacre is attributed to king who is otherwise mainly remembered for his peaceful and just reign, or if certain admirable deeds are attributed to a notorious tyrant, these attributions are likely to be true. Similarly, certain events from a distant past about which little is known, like the foundation of a certain monument or the invention of a certain social institution, are often attributed to either mythical culture heroes or to more recent kings. Finally, anachronisms may also seep into a story if the storyteller has access to written accounts on the same events. It is often hard to figure out whether some information is derived from ‘genuine’ oral tradition or whether it has entered oral tradition via later written traditions.
Oral Tradition as History
When one first becomes aware of all the problems that come with determining the reliability of oral tradition, it is easy to lose all hope of uncovering any historical information. Nevertheless, Vansina offers a comprehensive overview of what to look out for when dealing with oral traditions and also points out in which cases information from oral tradition might be reliable. Although a lot of information has to be discarded in the search for historical truth, Vansina’s methodology makes it possible to identify the few gems of accurate historical information that may be contained in oral tradition. One of the things that I like most about his Oral Tradition as History is that Vansina illustrates his principles with concrete examples from his own field work. This makes it easy to understand for everyone and also makes it possible for researchers to compare their own case studies to those conducted by Vansina. For this reason, his Oral Tradition as History is still authoritive among anthropologists.