Milman Parry Bibliography

This post is inspired by an episode of The Engines of Our Ingenuity, a daily 4 minute radio broadcast produced by the University of Houston's radio station, KUHF. The episode, entitled "Revisiting Stirrups" explores the notion of the paradigm shift, as first articulated by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As Dr. Lienhard notes in the episode, Kuhn demonstrated that "science develops, not by accretion, but by replacement -- by paradigm replacement." In other words, we can't make a scientific breakthrough unless we can somehow step out of our own paradigm and conceive of a new one. Lienhard goes on to talk about how many have attempted to point out flaws in Kuhn's bold assertions, but no one has been able to undermine their fundamental validity. In fact, "[a]s Kuhn's detractors have gone at him, and stripped him of his original hyperbole, they've left him much stronger." Finally, Lienhard compares the attacks on Kuhn's work to the criticism levied against Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution: "I'm astonished by people who try to refute natural selection by going back to Darwin himself. Never mind that we've spent a century and a half weaving the connecting tissue of evolution by natural selection. You'd think Darwin had written the last word on the subject, not the first."

As I listened to this episode, I could not help but think of the paradigm shift caused in Homeric studies caused by the fieldwork of Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the former Yugoslavia. Parry's 1928 doctoral dissertation on the traditional epithet in Homer is a brilliant demonstration of the economy and traditionality of Homeric diction, but even Parry himself did not grasp the implications of this work initially:

"My first studies were on the style of the Homeric poems and led me to understand that so highly formulaic a style could be only traditional. I failed, however, at the time to understand as fully as I should have that a style such as that of Homer must not only be traditional but also must be oral. It was largely due to the remarks of my teacher (M.) Antoine Meillet that I came to see, dimly at first, that a true understanding of the Homeric poems could only come with a full understanding of the nature of oral poetry. It happened that a week or so before I defended my theses for the doctorate at the Sorbonne, Professor Mathias Murko of the University of Prague delivered in Paris the series of conferences which later appeared as his book La Poésie populaire épique en Yougoslavie au début du XXe siècle. I had seen the poster for these lectures but at the time I saw in them no great meaning for myself. However, Professor Murko, doubtless due to some remark of (M.) Meillet, was present at my soutenance and at that time M. Meillet as a member of my jury pointed out with his usual ease and clarity this failing in my two books. It was the writings of Professor Murko more than those of any other which in the following years led me to the study of oral poetry in itself and to the heroic poems of the South Slavs." [The Making of Homeric Verse, 439]

It was only when Parry went to Yugoslavia to observe the still flourishing South Slavic oral epic song tradition that he came to understand that Homeric poetry was not only traditional, but oral—that is, composed anew every time in performance, by means of a sophisticated system of traditional phraseology and diction. For Parry, witnessing the workings of a living oral epic song tradition was a paradigm shift. Suddenly, by analogy with the South Slavic tradition, the workings of the Homeric system of composition became clear to him.

Parry planned a series of publications based on his observations and subsequent analysis of Homeric poetry which were never completed. His surviving writings have been incredibly influential, but he died at the age of 33, long before he had a chance to realize the many implications of his fieldwork. It became the work of his young undergraduate assistant, Albert Lord, to brings these ideas to the world. 

Albert Lord's The Singer of Tales, was published in 1960, just two years before Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but nearly three decades after his and Parry's initial fieldwork. In the intervening years, Lord not only went to graduate school and became a scholar in his own right, he was undergoing his own paradigm shift.

Albert Lord (1912-1991) went to Yugoslavia for the first time at the age of 22, from June 1934-September 1935. Parry described his activities as follows:

"…my assistant, Mr. Albert Lord, is shortly leaving for a month in Greece. His help has been altogether indispensable to me, and I may say that I have done twice as much work since I had his very able assistance. He has relieved me altogether of the very long labeling and cataloguing of the manuscripts and discs, has helped me with the keeping of accounts and the presentations of reports, has typed some 300 pages of my commentary on the collected texts, and most particularly he has ably run the recording apparatus while we are working in the field, this for the first time leaving me free to be with the singer before the microphone, and to oversee and take part in the putting of questions to the singers […] I myself feel the greatest gratitude to him for the help which he has given me and the expedition is under the greatest obligation to him." (From M. Parry, “Report on Work in Yugoslavia, October 20, 1934-March 24, 1935,” Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature, p. 12. )

Albert Lord took photographs throughout the trip and kept a record of his experiences with a view to submitting them to a popular magazine such as National Geographic. The essay that he wrote, dated March 1937, was entitled “Across Montenegro: Searching for Gúsle Songs” and was never in fact published. We can see already in this early essay a fascination with two singers in particular that would shape much of Lord’s subsequent professional scholarship on the the creative process of oral tradional poetry and the analogy between the South Slavic and Homeric song traditions. The first is known as Ćor Huso (“Blind Huso”), a singer of a previous generation who was credited by many of the singers Parry interviewed as being the teacher of their teacher, and the source for all the best songs. Lord recounts one of these interviews (conducted by Nikola Vujnović) as he describes their initial attempts to find singers in Kolashin:

"In Kolashin we got to work. During the last century this was the home of one of the greatest singers. The name of old One-eye Huso Husovitch was a magic one in those days, and still is among the Turks (Moslems) in the region further east where the old masters of Kolashin now dwell. We sought eagerly for every trace of his tradition. What was he like? How did he sing? How did he make his living? How did he die? And so on. We had heard of him first from Sálih Uglian [sic] in Novi Pazar. From Huso Salih had learned his favorite song about the taking of Bagdad and its queen by Djérdjelez Aliya, hero of the Turkish border. In Salih’s own words, caught by our microphone, we have a bit of the tradition of the blind singer’s way of life.

Nikola: From whom did you learn your first Bosnian songs?
Salih: I learned Bosnian songs from One-eye Huso Husovitch from Kolashin.
N:     Who was he? How did he live? What sort of work did he do?
S:     He had no trade, only his horse and his arms, and he wandered about the world. He had only one eye. His clothes and his arms were of the finest. And so he wandered from town to town and sang to people to the gusle.
N:     And that’s all he did?
S:     He went from kingdom to kingdom and learned and sang.
N:     From kingdom to kingdom?
S:     He was at Vienna, at Franz’s court.
N:     Why did he go there?
S:     He happened to go there, and they told him about him, and went and got him, and he sang to him to the gusle, and King Joseph gave him a hundred sheep, and a hundred Napoleons as a present.
N:     How long did he sing to him to the gusle?
S:     A month.
N:     So there was Dutchman who liked the gusle that much?
S:     You know he wanted to hear such an unusual thing. He had never heard anything like it.
N:     All right. And afterwards, when he came back, what did he do with those sheep? Did he work after that, or did he go on singing to the gusle?
S:     He gave all the sheep to his relatives, and put the money in his purse, and wandered about the world.
N:     Was he a good singer?
S:     There could not have been a better."
(Trans. by Milman Parry)

Lord later wrote that for Parry Huso came to symbolize “the Yugoslav traditional singer in much the same way in which Homer was the Greek singer of tales par excellence.” He continues: “Some of the best poems collected were from singers who had heard Ćor Huso and had learned from him” (Lord 1948b:40). Interestingly enough, Parry and Lord do not seem to have questioned the existence of Huso, though, as John Foley has demonstrated, he is clearly legendary or “at most… a historical character to whom layers of legend have accrued” (Foley 1998:161).  So taken was Parry with the analogy between Homer and Huso that before his death he planned a series of articles entitled “Homer and Huso” which Lord completed based on Parry’s abstracts and notes.

The second singer highlighted in the essay is the one whose picture would grace the cover of The Singer of Tales, that is to say, Avdo Međedović. The Singer of Tales, which publishes the results of Parry and Lord’s investigation of the South Slavic song tradition and applies them to the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, was Lord’s fulfillment of Parry’s own plan to write a book of that title. The singer referred to in the title is of course generic, because much of what was groundbreaking about Parry and Lord’s work was their demonstration of the system in which traditional oral poetry is composed, a system in which many generations of singers participate. But Lord’s essay makes clear (as does, to a lesser extent, The Singer of Tales) that there is also a particular singer behind the title that Parry and later Lord used to denote their work. That singer is simultaneously Avdo and Homer himself.

Just as Ćor Huso embodied for Parry the Yugoslav traditional singer, Avdo was for Lord on a practical level a living, breathing example of a supremely talented oral poet to whom Homer could be compared. Lord’s Singer of Tales is remarkable for its straightforward expostion of the practical workings of the traditional system in which poets like Avdo composed their songs; it is no surprise therefore that he found a great deal of power in the concrete example that Avdo provided.  Avdo dictated songs, was recorded on disk, and was even captured on a very early form of video called “kinescope.” After their initial encounter in the 1930’s, Lord found him and recorded him again in the 1950’s. He was in many ways the test case for Lord’s theories about the South Slavic (and by extension the Homeric) poetic system.

The photograph of Avdo that was featured on the cover of The Singer of Tales was one that Lord had taken on his first trip to Yugoslavia and was included among the images that were to accompany his unpublished essay (see image above). The caption reads: “Avdo Medjedovitch, peasant farmer, is the finest singer the expedition encountered. His poems reached as many as 15,000 lines. A veritable Yugoslav Homer!”

Here is Lord’s fuller description of Avdo in the essay:

"Lying on the bench not far from us was a Turk smoking a cigarette in an antique silver “cigárluk” (cigarette holder). He was a tall, lean and impressive person. At a break in our conversation he joined in. He knew of singers. The best, he said, was a certain Avdo Medjédovitch, a peasant farmer who lived an hour way. How old is he? Sixty, sixty-five. Does he know how to read or write? Nézna, bráte! (No, brother!) And so we went for him… Finally Avdo came, and he sang for us old Salih’s favorite of the taking of Bagdad in the days of Sultan Selim. We listened with increasing interest to this short homely farmer, whose throat was disfigured by a large goiter. He sat cross-legged on the bench, sawing the gusle, swaying in rhythm with the music. He sang very fast, sometimes deserting the melody, and while the bow went lightly back and forth over the string, he recited the verses at top speed. A crowd gathered. A card game, played by some of the modern young men of the town, noisily kept on, but was finally broken up. The next few days were a revelation. Avdo’s songs were longer and finer than any we had heard before. He could prolong one for days, and some of them reached fifteen or sixteen thousand lines. Other singers came, but none could equal Avdo, our Yugoslav Homer."

In these excerpts I think we can see how important Avdo was for Lord’s earliest conception of Homer as oral poet. Whereas Parry’s never completed articles comparing the South Slavic and Homeric traditions focused on the hazy figure of Ćor Huso, Lord, when invited to give a lecture on La poesia epica e la sua formazione, entitled his talk “Tradition and the Oral Poet: Homer, Huso, and Avdo Medjedović.”(See Lord 1970.) As early as his 1948 article, “Homer, Parry, and Huso,” Lord links Avdo directly with Parry’s Huso: “During the summer of 1935, while collecting at Bijelo Polje, Parry came across a singer named Avdo Međedović, one of those who had heard Ćor Huso in his youth, whose powers of invention and story-telling were far above the ordinary.”

Lord’s comments about Avdo, especially in these earliest descriptions of him, focus on his excellence as a composer (despite the weakness of his voice), his superiority to other poets, and the length of his songs. It is not insignificant that in his unpublished essay Lord misestimates the length of Avdo’s song at 15,000 to 16,000 verses, the approximate length of the Iliad, whereas in fact the longest song that Avdo recorded was 13,331 verses long. By 1948 Lord was careful to report the accurate total of Avdo’s verses, but he was also careful to point out how extraordinary the length of Avdo’s songs were in comparison with his fellow singers, whose songs averaged only a few hundred lines. Clearly it was Lord’s first impression that Avdo provided the answer to the still hotly debated Homeric Question.

It would be easy to criticize Lord's youthful essay, and few people would find it necessary to do so. And even if we jump forward, decades later, it seems obvious that Lord conceived of the paradigm of a dictating oral poet Homer because he was imagining him in Avdo’s image. The technology used to record Avdo was cutting edge at that time, and Lord would never have been so anachronistic as to suggest that Homer was recorded on audio disk. But to assume the technologies required for writing (pen, ink, loose or bound sheets of readily available paper, skilled scribes, etc) for “Homer’s time” is an equally anachronistic projection. As much as Lord’s work is responsible for the paradigm shift in Homeric studies that has allowed many scholars to abandon the Homer as original genius genre of criticism, he himself had his blind spots on this crucial point. Lord could have his Homer and his oral tradition too.

Few people seem to be aware, however, that Lord all but retracted his dictation thesis in his 1991 collection of essays, Epic Singers and Oral Tradition. There, together with the 1953 article, he included an addendum, from which I quote here:

"As I reconsidered very recently the stylization of a passage from Salih Ugljanin’s “Song of Bagdad” that was found in a dictated version but not in two sung texts, I was suddenly aware of the experience of listening to Salih dictate… the pause interrupted neither Salih’s thought nor his syntax… One might think that dictating gave Salih the leisure to plan his words and their placing in the line, that the parallelism was due to his careful thinking out of the structure. First of all, however, dictating is not a leisurely process… I might add that not all singers can dictate successfully. As I have said elsewhere, some singers can never be happy without the gusle accompaniment to set the rhythm of the singing performance."

Lord himself as far as I am aware never, in print, discussed the implications of this important revsion of his 1953 argument. (Lord died in the same year that Epic Singers and Oral Tradition was published.) But it is also true that Lord never speculated about the historical circumstances under which the Iliad and Odyssey might have been dictated. For Lord, the question of the text fixation of the Homeric poems was not essential; rather he was concerned with the dynamic process, that is to say their on-going recomposition in performance.

Parry, on the other hand, did not get the chance to rethink his earlier work, or to conduct further fieldwork or spend decades studying the the South Slavic tradition and the Homeric poems as Lord did. His early writings on the economy of Homeric diction are a brilliant first step towards an entirely new way of conceiving of the composition of the Homeric poems, but they are only the beginning. Like Kuhn or Darwin, Parry's work has been assailed by many as mistaken in this or that particular, or not sufficiently thorough so as to have worked out all aspects of the system it seeks to describe in detail. As Mary Ebbott and I discuss in our recent book, Iliad 10 and the Poetics of Ambush, much scholarship has been devoted to refining Parry’s initial findings about the economy of Homeric diction and the nature of the Homeric formula. There is strong resistance among those who feel that Parry’s work somehow minimizes the artistry of the poems or that the principles he outlined restrict the creativity of poets composing in this medium. Thus even those who accept Parry’s findings often seek to amend significant aspects of his arguments. We feel that the scope of Parry’s and Lord’s insights has been ignored, misread or misrepresented, or dismissed too quickly. Some (though certainly not all) efforts to revise Parry and Lord are built on a misunderstanding of the principles they documented in their fieldwork and a lack of awareness of, or at least appreciation for, the kind of meaning made possible by an oral poetic tradition. That is not to say, however, that our approach and interpretations in our book have not also greatly benefited from the work of scholars who have sought to better understand such essential concepts as the Homeric formula and the complex relationship between orality and literacy in ancient Greece. There is, however, a significant difference between scholarship that expands the central insights of Parry and Lord’s work, even while modifying certain notions or definitions, and scholarship that sets out to “prove” Parry (more often than Lord) “wrong” in order to conclude, usually with no further justification, that Homer wrote, or somehow “broke free” of the oral tradition of these epics.

These criticisms, like those cited by Dr. Lienhard against Kuhn and Darwin, seem to me to react to Parry as if he had "written the last word on the subject, not the first." As Dr. Lienhard concludes at the end of the episode:

Kuhn, White, and Darwin are fine reminders that nothing is finished in its first incarnation. Did the Wright Brothers get it wrong because they put the tail in front? Was Edison wrong to record sound on a wax cylinder instead of a CD? I suppose if we need only to be absolutely right we'll shy away from any of our important progenitors. But, if we want to see creative change in full flower, we have to go to the delicious flawed beginnings.


Lord, A. B. 1936. “Homer and Huso I: The Singer’s Rests in Greek and South Slavic Heroic Song. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 67:106–113.
–––. 1938. “Homer and Huso II: Narrative Inconsistencies in Homer and Oral Poetry.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 69:439–445.
–––. 1948a. “Homer and Huso III: Enjambement in Greek and South Slavic Heroic Song. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 79:113–124.
–––. 1948b. “Homer, Parry, and Huso.” American Journal of Archaeology 52:34–44.
–––. 1953. “Homer’s Originality: Oral Dictated Texts.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 94:124–34.
–––. 1960/2000. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Mass. 2nd ed., ed. S. Mitchell and G. Nagy.
–––. 1970. “Tradition and the Oral Poet: Homer, Huso, and Avdo Medjedovic.” Atti del Convegno Internazionale sul Tema: La Poesia Epica e la sua Formazione (eds. E. Cerulli et al.) 13–28. Rome.
–––. 1991. Epic Singers and Oral Tradition. Ithaca, N.Y.
–––. 1995. The Singer Resumes the Tale. Ithaca, N.Y.

Parry, A., ed. 1971. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Oxford.

Parry, M. 1928. L’épithète traditionelle dans Homère: essai sur un problème de style homérique. Paris. [Repr. and trans. in A. Parry 1971:1–190.]

Milman Parry (June 20, 1902 – December 3, 1935) was an American scholar of epic poetry and the founder of the discipline of oral tradition.

Early life and education[edit]

He was born in 1902, graduated from Oakland Technical High School in 1919,[1] and studied at the University of California, Berkeley (B.A. and M.A.) and at the Sorbonne (Ph.D.). A student of the linguistAntoine Meillet at the Sorbonne, Parry revolutionized Homeric studies. In his dissertations, which were published in French in 1928, he demonstrated that the Homeric style is characterized by the extensive use of fixed expressions, or 'formulas', adapted for expressing a given idea under the same metrical conditions. Meillet introduced him to Matija Murko, who had worked on oral epic traditions in Bosnia and had made phonograph recordings of some performances.

Academic career[edit]

Between 1933 and 1935 Parry, at the time Assistant Professor at Harvard University, made two trips to Yugoslavia, where he studied and recorded oral traditional poetry in Serbo-Croat with the help of his assistant Albert Lord and Nikola Vujnović. They worked in Bosnia where literacy was lowest and the oral tradition was, in the term used by Parry and Lord, "purest". The two are now famous for their work in orality/literacy, which has come to be known as the Parry/Lord thesis.

In his American publications of the 1930s Parry introduced the hypothesis (first suggested to him by Meillet and amply demonstrated in his own fieldwork) that the formulaic structure of Homeric epic is to be explained as a characteristic feature of oral composition (the so-called Oral Formulaic Hypothesis). It was continued by Albert Lord, most notably in The Singer of Tales (1960). Though the book does not present his argument specifically, the assumed thesis is supported through in-depth content analysis of various singers (performers of the oral tradition or composition process) and interviews of the same singers. Parry moves against structural traditions declaring the original text is the purest form of the text (à la Walter Benjamin); rather, Parry asks us to understand that "the truth of the matter is that our concept of 'the original,' of 'the song,' simply makes no sense in oral tradition" (Lord, 2000, p. 101).

Death and commemoration[edit]

He died in Los Angeles from either an accidental gunshot while unpacking his suitcase[2] or suicide.[3]

Parry's collected papers were published posthumously: The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, edited by Adam Parry, his son (Oxford University Press, 1971). The Milman Parry collection of records and transcriptions of South Slavic heroic poetry is now in the Widener Library of Harvard University.


Parry's influence is evident in the work of later scholars who have argued that there is a fundamental break in the institutional structure between Homeric Greece and Platonic Greece, a break characterized by the transition from an oral culture to a written culture. This line of thought holds that oral poetry, in Homeric society, served as a sort of log of institutional and cultural practices. In a written culture, written logs take the place of oral poetry. This thesis is associated with Eric Havelock, who cites Parry. Havelock argues that the fixed expressions Parry identifies can be understood as mnemonic aids used to help the poet remember the poetry, which was indeed vital to the well-being of the society, given the importance of the information carried by the poetry. It can be argued however that the epithets do contribute to the overall meaning of the epic. For example "swift footed Achilles" can be seen as looking forward to Hector and Achilles' race around the walls of Troy.[citation needed]


External links[edit]

Parry in his 1919 high school yearbook


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *