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Tradition in TransitionWomen Writers, Marginal Texts, and the Eighteenth-Century Canon$
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Alvaro Ribeiro and James G. Basker

Print publication date: 1996

Print ISBN-13: 9780198182887

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198182887.001.0001

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‘Oral Tradition’: The Evolution of an Eighteenth-Century Concept

‘Oral Tradition’: The Evolution of an Eighteenth-Century Concept

(p.161) 10 ‘Oral Tradition’: The Evolution of an Eighteenth-Century Concept
Tradition in Transition

Nicholas Hudson

Oxford University Press

‘Oral tradition’, in a recognizably modern form, is a coinage of the 18th century. Yet even in the 18th century this concept was controversial and its acceptance slow and uncertain. Two major landmarks in the ultimate acceptance of oral tradition as a legitimate scholarly idea are works that remain relatively neglected in our time, despite their immense historical significance. These are James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian and Robert Wood’s Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer, both published in the 1760s. Macpherson and Wood made bold claims for the powers of oral tradition — claims that were hotly disputed by major intellectual figures of the time. Their ideas none the less signalled a new willingness to believe that pre-literate peoples are not merely lawless savages, but can possess a valuable cultural and artistic heritage. This chapter traces the various intellectual currents that made possible this new understanding of oral tradition.

Keywords:   oral tradition, James Macpherson, Poems of Ossian, Robert Wood, cultural heritage

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