In the current debate about Swiss history, the role of oral tradition is not appreciated. Should historians not deal with this issue?
Without commenting on the question of whether “Rütli”, “Morgarten” and other historical images are myths or actual events it is worth remembering that few people were literate in those days. And only a few of those people wrote down the events. And even those rapporteurs of former events were very rarely eye-witnesses of what happened. They relied on oral information which had in some cases been given them long after the event.
This applies to all civilizations. Over thousands of years, people have orally passed on the knowledge of their tribe’s history, of water sources, hunting grounds, flint sources for their spearheads, etc. This awareness of the importance of remembering was, for example, given expression in former times in the East of Africa by calling the dead “those that still have being” as long as they were still alive in the memory of living people.
When Jesus walked the earth, he was not accompanied by any secretary who drew up a report of his teachings, his parables and his images. What he said at the Last Supper, was passed on orally and not recorded in writing until hundreds of years later as part of the Bible.
One of the author’s acquaintances, being very familiar with New Zealand, pointed out to him that the Maori, who had long ago migrated to those territories from the Pacific, had no written language but passed on their whole history orally from generation to generation. So there are many families who still know today on which ship their ancestors rowed from Polynesia to New Zealand hundreds of years ago.
Why did Iceland have such a significant literature? It is located in the sea in the far north and its harsh landscape structure corresponds well to that of Europe millions of years ago. During the long hard winters with their nights lasting up to 24 hours there was almost nothing to do. There were no news and no distractions. The extended families lived under their earth-covered roofs in their far-flung houses which were buried halfway in the ground and told each other the story of their ancestors, and the younger generation later passed them on to their children and then some were written down. In this way literature and history developed.
Here is a typical case of a true oral tradition: in 1819, a boy was born in Zurich, whose last name began with an “E” and who still stands before the main station of Zurich today. The family name of his half-brother, born in 1829, who later became a clergyman, however, began with an “F”, although both had the same father. Much later, in the mid-20th century, a descendant of the clergyman named “F ...” was made guild master in Zurich. In the speeches at the “Sechseläuten” it was often pointed out more or less wittily that the guild master should actually be called “E ...”. But in 1829 and also later it was unthinkable to record in writing anywhere that the clergyman “F…” had a biological father who was not the one whose name he bore. Even when he died, and the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 22 November 1911 dedicated more than the whole front page to him, his biological father was not even hinted at. But thanks to oral tradition and despite of all the written documentation to the contrary, the society of Zurich was up to date even 150 years later.
There is another important argument for not underestimating the veracity of oral lore stemming from the distant past. Today we are all distracted from close and careful listening, from thinking for ourselves and from the reliable storage of information in our minds by the incessant bombardment of mostly utterly unimportant messages. On the other hand, life used to be very boring for the vast majority of people despite their struggle for survival. When 700 years ago, a grandmother told the young people at night, by the light of a little oil lamp, what had happened in former times, they probably remembered the details more easily and more accurately than we would today, when the TV stays turned on during our conversations and we constantly type our mobile phones. •
(Translation Current Concerns)
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