A few months ago one of my ERC nerds asked me how long it would have taken to recite the entirety of Orlando Furioso. We spitballed a bit: it’s fairly easy to imagine reciting a canto in about an hour, which would give you 3 cantos in a big sitting and a fortnight to recite the whole thing. Master Fries helpfully commented that Beowulf is meant to be recited in nine nights.
One thing that is a little hard to wrap the head around is just how long a sitting may have been. In days of yore when the sun went down, that was it for the day. There were few diversions beyond feasting, making babies, and sleeping. So it’s no stretch to imagine a recitation of more than three hours–maybe as many as six?
That kind of attention span to a live speaker is hard to imagine, although of course plenty of audience could/would/did drift off to other revels. But if you consider it in comparison to modern television or video games, it’s not hard to imagine at all. What adolescent boy hasn’t smirked at the idea of six hours of gaming being a long time? Shoot, we’re not even talking about crazy stupid until you hit the 16 or 24 hour mark.
(Don’t let your kids play video games, or put heavy shackles on it, parents)
It reminds me of a Shakespeare class I took in college. If you want to get uncomfortable, and realize just how badly we’ve damaged (or transformed) our attention spans, watch a theatrical production of Shax on film. It’s agony to have the camera fix on speaking characters for 10 or 20 seconds; we’ve addled our brains with movies that flip through shots like the cameraman is on speed.
Where was I? Right, Orlando Furioso. So while I was listening to carols on Christmas morning, I realized I could just time myself reciting a canto, or even just a sample to get a per-stanza rate, and calculate for the entire poem.
So with a simple digital egg timer and my trusty Nook, I recited the opening 10 stanzas of Canto I in a time of 4:09. I used medium inflection, meaning not overly dramatic but with invested delivery (not adolescent monotone). Curses, for the sake of my math, I was not done in 4:00! Luckily the rounding works out well either down to 4:00 or up to 4:10.
That’s a bit of a surprising result and shows how inefficient the ERC is when we try to get 10-12 adolescent boys to take turns. At my pace most of these cantos take well less than an hour! The entire 4841 stanza (by my count, possibly erroneous) monster would take 1936 minutes, or a mere 32+ hours.
It’s a long enough poem that my rounding down by 9-10 seconds is an issue, so take the 4:10 result instead. That can either go in as 250 seconds or 4.16 minutes; add about an hour and twenty minutes to the total run time then–33.5 hours.
Now that’s at a steady, inflected clip. What happens with more pauses, some melodrama, and some inevitable rests? It’s hard to say what kind of pace a Renaissance performer would have set. And we still have unresolved the length of session. But if we were in the middle of winter and did a week of big feasting, you could conceivably knock out the entire poem in a week. A fortnight would be trivial.
But why stop there with some calculations? Why not do a podcast series of the entire poem? And get the ERC nerds to chip in? Suddenly, this has the makings of a Big Project. Might I bind myself to such a thing? Let’s see what the nerds say when I return to school in January…