Public Speaking, Medieval to Modern

Learning Objectives

Recognize the variety of approaches to rhetoric and oratory in different times and cultures.

As the Roman Empire fell and the historical period known as the Middle Ages (c. 400–1400) dominated, rhetoric fell from grace. It was no longer a valued and honored skill but instead was thought of as a pagan art. This view coincided with the Christian domination of the period, as “Christians believed that the rhetorical ideas formulated by the pagans of classical Greece and Rome should not be studied and that possession of Christian truth was accompanied by an automatic ability to communicate the truth effectively.” [1]

Fortunately for us, the teachings of classical rhetoric were not lost forever: Even as the teachings of Aristotle and other classical rhetoricians were being expunged in Europe, they were finding new resonance in the Islamic world.

Rhetoric in the Middle East

Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (Persian: ابو نصر محمد بن محمد فارابی‎, c. 872–951) was a renowned, early Islamic philosopher and jurist who wrote in the fields of political philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, and logic. He was also a scientist, cosmologist, mathematician, and music scholar.

In Islamic philosophical tradition, he was often called “the Second Teacher,” following Aristotle who was known as “the First Teacher.”[2] He is credited with preserving the original Greek texts during the Middle Ages because of his commentaries and treatises, and influencing many prominent philosophers. Through his works, he became well-known in the West as well as the East. Al-Farabi had a great influence on Maimonides, the most important Jewish thinker of the middle ages.

Ibn Rushd (Full name in Arabic: أبو الوليد محمد ابن احمد ابن رشد‎, c. 1126–1198), often Latinized as Averroës, was a Muslim Andalusian polymath and jurist who wrote about many subjects, including philosophy, theology, medicine, astronomy, physics, psychology, mathematics, Islamic jurisprudence and law, and linguistics. Averroës is best known for his comprehensive commentaries on Aristotle, as well as his contributions to Islamic theology, including the argument laid out in Fasl al-Maqal (“The Decisive Treatise,” c. 1178) that philosophical thought was not incompatible with Islam. Mark Schaub has argued that “Averroës and his fellow Islamic thinkers served as a kind of ‘filter’ through which Aristotelian discussions of logic, theology, and also rhetoric reached the West.”[3]

In the Islamic world, the notion of rhetoric intersected with two concepts in Arabic: fann al-khatāba, or the art of oratory, and ilm al-balāgha, the study of eloquence.[4] The science of al-balāgha can further be broken down inline with the categories offered by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Qazwini (d. 1338):

  • ‘Ilm al-ma’ani (the science of meanings [making your language appropriate to the audience and the situation])
  • ‘Ilm al-bayan (the science of clarity [of language])
  • ‘Ilm al-badi’ (the science of ornamentation) (Halldén, p. 21)

Even if these words are unfamiliar to you, you’ll certainly learn a lot about these three areas in the course of this public speaking class! Whether reflecting on how to get your meaning across to a specific audience, deciding how to express your ideas in the clearest way, or constructing elegant, compelling sentences with effective tropes and rhythms, modern understandings of effective speaking still carry echoes of its early history—whether in Greece, Rome, or the Middle East. Each of these cultures, in turn, was influenced by the teachings of earlier civilizations in the region, such as Sumeria or ancient Egypt.

The Jeli or Griot Tradition in the Mali Empire

Wooden sculpture of two figures seated at a balafon instrument, which looks like a xylophone or a marimba.

Pair of Balafon Players, 18th–early 19th century, Dogon peoples. “This work may… refer to a series of events related in the epic narratives surrounding the formation of the Mali empire (ca. 1230)… According to these oral histories, a balafon player had a central role in the defeat of the Soso kingdom and its invincible ruler Soumaworo. In a ruse, Mali’s ruler Sundiata Keita sent his sister Sologon and the court musician Bala Fasséké Kouyaté to Soso as spies to discover the source of Soumaworo’s power. Through Sologon’s beauty and Kouyaté’s masterful balafon playing, they learned Soumaworo’s secret and Keita defeated him on the battlefield.” Source: The Met Museum

The Mali Empire (Manding: Nyeni or Niani; also historically referred to as the Manden Kurufaba, sometimes shortened to Manden) was an empire in West Africa from around c. 1235 to 1670. The empire was founded by Sundiata Keita, whose exploits remain celebrated in Mali today. In the Epic of Sundiata, Sundiata Keita has a trusted advisor named Balla Fasséké. Fasséké has an important role in Sundiata Keita’s royal court: he is a griot. In Mandé society, the jeli, or griot, was an historian, advisor, arbitrator, praise singer, and storyteller. They essentially served as history books, preserving ancient stories and traditions through song. Their tradition was passed down through generations. The name jeli means “blood” in Manika language. They were believed to have deep connections to spiritual, social, or political powers. In his account of a visit to the Mali royal court in c. 1352, Abdalla Ibn Battuta describes the performance of the griots:

It was mentioned to me that their poetry is a kind of preaching. In it they tell the sultan that this banbi [throne] on which he is, such and such of the kings of Mali sat on it, and such and such were the good deeds of one, such and such another’s. “So do good, that good will be recounted after you.”[5]

A man in traditional West African clothing sitting on a cushion and playing a string instrument

Mandinka Griot Al-Haji Papa Bunka Susso performing songs from the oral tradition of the Gambia on the kora.

From this story, we see an important function of the griot: to speak truth to power as a representative of the will of the people.[6][7]

The griot tradition has continued, expanded, and evolved over the centuries and remains a thriving profession in West Africa and in the African diaspora more generally.

Public Speaking in the Aztec Empire

In his 12-volume General History of the Things of New Spain, written between c. 1540 and 1585, the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún reports that amongst the Aztecs, “learned, virtuous, and enterprising rhetoricians were held in high esteem” [8]

What Sahagún calls “rhetoric,” the Aztecs themselves referred to as huehuetlahtolli, a Nahuatl word formed by combining huehue, “old man” or “men of old” and tlahtolli, “word, oration, or language.” [9] Huehuetlahtolli were spoken in a variety of contexts, from the royal court to the individual household. In fact, an important category of speeches in Aztec culture was that of lectures given to children by parents  [10]  In one parental speech, a father tells his son to be modest and moderate in all things and “to speak very slowly, very deliberately; thou art not to speak hurriedly, not to pant, nor to squeak, lest it be said of thee that thou art a groaner, a growler, a squeaker. … And thou art to improve, to soften thy words, thy voice.”[11]

The Aztec rhetorical tradition was highly developed and complex, and children learned public speaking in special schools. (Hopefully, your experience of public speaking isn’t like the teaching strategy reported by Sahagún: “If [a student] spoke not well, if one greeted others not well, then they drew blood from him [with maguey spines]” (4:64–65)). According to Dibble (1974), “the Aztecs conceived of their orations and prayers as the stringing of a strand of beads and the huehuetlahtolli is just that—a series of metaphors one after another.”[12]

Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe (1400-1800 CE)

Powered by a new intellectual movement during the Renaissance period, secular institutions and governments started to compete with the Church for personal allegiances. As more people felt comfortable challenging the Church’s approach to education, reinvigorated attention to classical learning, and fresh opportunities for scholarly education reemerged.

A medieval painting of a woman speaking with three men

Christine de Pisan giving a lecture (1413)

Christine de Pisan (1365–1429) has been praised as “Europe’s first professional woman writer,” writing 41 pieces over a 30-year period.[13] Her most famous work, The Treasure of the Cities of Ladies, provided instruction to women on how they could achieve their potential and create for themselves lives rich in meaning and importance. According to Redfern, while “she neither calls herself a rhetorician nor calls The Treasure a rhetoric, her instruction has the potential to empower women’s speech acts in both public and private matters. Her most important lesson is that women’s success depends on their ability to manage and mediate by speaking and writing effectively”[14]

Francis Bacon (1561–1626), a contemporary of Shakespeare, believed that the journey to truth was paramount to the study and performance of communication. Bacon was an English philosopher who was well known for being the father of empiricism, the theory that all knowledge is tied to the senses. Empiricism is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on tradition, intuition, or revelation. Elsewhere in this course, you’ll learn about argument and evidence; the insistence that arguments are built on evidence in the Western academic tradition owes largely to Empiricism and scientific method. Scientific method and rationality were particularly emphasized during the European intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, from around 1600–1800.

Indigenous Storytelling in North America

Every year, highly trained speakers spend up to eight days reciting the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy entirely from memory. The speakers have learned the law from older mentors who guide and correct their narration, and use wampum beads to track the order of the recitation. This process of oral transmission has been in place for over 1,000 years.[15]

In all the cultures indigenous to North America, oratory and storytelling have long been used for instruction, entertainment, and the transmission of cultural memory.[16] These oral traditions are as diverse as the populations who have been living on the continent since prehistoric times, from the Seminole and Choctaw in the Southeast to the Chinook and Tlingit in the Northwest.

Although it is impossible to generalize about cultures as varied as these, some experts have identified common patterns amongst some North American indigenous oral traditions, especially as a pointed contrast to European ways of thinking and speaking. Vine Deloria Jr., an author, theologian, historian, activist, and member of the Standing Rock Sioux, described what he saw as a key difference between Western scientific knowledge and the knowledge systems of the Western Sioux:

If the Western Sioux obtained their knowledge by accepting everything they experienced as grist for the mill, Western science has drawn its conclusions by excluding the kinds of data that the Western Sioux cherished. Western science holds that ideas, concepts, and experiences must be clearly stated, and be capable of replication in an experimental setting by an objective observer. Any bit of data or body of knowledge that does not meet this standard is suspect or rejected out of hand.[17]

Indian knowledge is designed to make statements that adequately describe the experience or phenomenon. That is to say, they include everything that is known about the experience even if no firm conclusions are reached. There are many instances in the oral traditions of the tribe in which, after reviewing everything that is known about a certain thing, the storyteller simply states that what he has said was passed down to him by elders or that he marveled at the phenomenon and was unable to explain it further. It is permissible within the Indian context to admit that something mysterious remains after all is said and done.[18]

In these passages, Deloria draws a contrast between Western analytic or scientific method, which looks for contradictions or discrepancies in a body of information and rejects it if it is inconsistent, and “Indian knowledge” (more specifically, that of the Western Sioux), which attempts to describe the entirety of an experience, even if parts of that experience are difficult to explain or contradict each other. Deloria’s point here serves as a reminder that the modes of argumentation we’ll learn in this class—which fall squarely within the Western analytic tradition—are not not “correct” or natural, but are the products of a specific historical development. 

Storytelling continues to be an important part of contemporary American Indian life, whether passing along knowledge from one generation to the next, entertaining crowds with sketch comedy[19], or promoting wellness. [20]


  1. Foss, Sonja K., et al. Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. Waveland Press, 2014, p. 8
  2. López-Farjeat, Luis Xavier. "Al-Farabi's Psychology and Epistemology." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by Edward N. Zalta, 2016.
  3. Schaub, Mark. "Rhetorical studies in America: The place of Averroës and the Medieval Arab commentators." Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 16 (1996): 233–253.
  4. Halldén, Philip. "What is Arab Islamic Rhetoric? Rethinking the history of Muslim oratory art and homiletics." International Journal of Middle East Studies 37.1 (2005): 19–38, p. 20.
  5. Batuta, Ibn, Said Hamdun, and Noel Quinton King. Ibn Battuta in Black Africa. Markus Wiener Pub, 2005. AQI Campbell, Kermit E. "Rhetoric from the Ruins of African Antiquity." Rhetorica 24.3 (2006): 255–274, pp. 271–272.
  6. Campbell p. 272
  7. Hale, Thomas A. Griots and Griottes Masters of Words and Music. Indiana University Press, 2007, p. 79.
  8. Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, edited by Angel Maria Garibay K., 4 vols, Porrua, 1956, 2:53.
  9. Abbott, Don P. “The Ancient Word: Rhetoric in Aztec Culture.” Rhetorica, vol. 5, no. 3, 1987, pp. 251–264, p. 262.
  10. Sullivan, Thelma D., '"The Rhetorical Orations, or Huehuetlahtolli, collected by Sahagún," Sixteenth-Century Mexico: The Work of Sahagun, edited by Munro S. Edmundson, University of New Mexico Press, 1974, p. 82.
  11. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, trans. Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles Dibble, 12 pts., School of American Research and University of Utah, 1950–69, 7:122.
  12. Dibble, Charles. "The Nahuatlization of Christianity." Sixteenth Century Mexico: The Work of Sahagún (1974): 225–233, p. 228
  13. Redfern, Jenny R. “Christine de Pisan and the Treasure of the City of Ladies: A Medieval Rhetorician and Her Rhetoric.” Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition, by Andrea A. Lunsford, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995, pp. 73–85, p. 74.
  14. Redfern 74.
  15. Malott, Curry Stephenson, Lisa Waukau, and Lauren Waukau-Villagomez. "Native American Literacies and the Language Arts Curriculum." Counterpoints 349 (2009): 173–200, p. 180.
  16. Hodge, Felicia Schanche, and Larri Fredericks. The Circle: an Anthology of American Indian Women's Stories. Center for American Indian Research & Education, 1996.
  17. Deloria, Vine. "If You Think about It, You Will See That It is True." Spirit & Reason: The Vine Deloria, Jr., Reader. Fulcrum Publishing, 1999.
  18. Deloria, Vine. "Higher Education and Self-Determination." Spirit & Reason: The Vine Deloria, Jr., Reader. Fulcrum Publishing, 1999.
  19. The 1491s,
  20. Hodge, Felicia Schanche, et al. "Utilizing Traditional Storytelling to Promote Wellness in American Indian Communities." Journal of Transcultural Nursing 13.1 (2002): 6–11