Sean Alexander Gurd
Revision happens when a text is changed. Its most common name in Greek was διόρθωσις; in Latin, emendatio. It was practised by writers of all styles and levels of ability, working alone and in consultation with others, and in many different genres. Evidence for revision comes from papyri and from descriptions in ancient literature. It occurred on papyri, in wax tablets, and in authors’ minds as they prepared a text, and it was understood by ancient writers as either the inevitable consequence of error or as a valuable exercise leading to greater cognitive and political skill. In addition to reminding us of the fluidity of textuality and the always contingent nature of every literary formation, the study of revision provokes reflection on the relationship between literature and natural language, and on writing’s place in social exchange.
Any attempt at defining popular literature with some precision is fraught with difficulties. A flexible and pragmatic approach is the most rewarding, since it allows one to look at the subject from a few different viewpoints: “popular” can be understood as referring to the Roman people as a whole, or only to its lower social strata; a text can be defined as popular because it has been composed in a popular milieu, and/or because it addresses a popular audience. A mode of reception of literature can also be labelled “popular.” The traditional Roman elite only conceived literature as something useful, which could and should contribute to the instruction of its readers and to the well-being of the State. However, gradually a different attitude emerged: one that appreciated literature, and especially narrative, mostly or even only for its pleasurable and escapist qualities, sometimes even without any concern for its cultural sophistication.
This rather loose definition allows us to discern a popular streak in many literary forms. For example, it is often surmised that ancient drama addressed the Roman people as a whole, without distinction of social class or cultural level. Other forms of theatre, such as Atellanae, mime, and pantomime, had a more farcical nature and were especially favoured by a less sophisticated public, but at least on some occasions they made some demands on the education of their audiences and contributed to the diffusion of traditional Roman culture. Non-elite social classes had literary activities of their own, especially during the Empire, when literacy increased. These texts are extant especially thanks to epigraphical sources, and are often written in an unsophisticated and colloquial language. Narrative in its various forms could address very different audiences, but the possibility of reading a good tale for entertainment more than for instruction was always open, for sophisticated novels such as Apuleius’s Metamorphoses as well as for simpler tales and collections of mirabilia. Edifying Christian narratives were programmatically written in order to be understandable to and appreciated by a large and not necessarily cultured public, whose faith they intended to strengthen and promote. Playful poetry and didactic literature also had a space among midlevel literary activities.
Folktales are traditional fictional stories. Unlike works of original literary fiction, they are normally anonymous narratives that have been transmitted from one teller to another over an uncertain period of time, and have been shaped by multiple narrators into the form and style that are characteristic of oral narratives. The transmission of traditional tales is predominantly oral, but in literate societies such as Greece and Rome, transmission also takes place via written works.
“Folktale” is an umbrella term for a number of subgenres: the wonder tale (commonly known as the fairytale), the religious tale, the novella, the humorous tale (with its subforms the joke and the tall tale), the animal tale, and the fable. Since there was no ancient notion of folktales as such, no compilation of folktales exists from antiquity—only compilations of particular genres of folktales such as the fable and the joke.
Unlike myths and legends, folktales are narrative fictions, make no serious claim to historicity, and are not ordinarily accorded credence. They differ from myths and especially from legends in their handling of the supernatural.