Choreographing Mouvance: The Case of the English Carol

By Chaganti, Seeta | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Choreographing Mouvance: The Case of the English Carol


Chaganti, Seeta, Philological Quarterly


This essay sets mouvance newly in motion by asking it to trace the steps of an ancient dance. As an approach to manuscript traditions, Paul Zumthor's term mouvance and the various critical models that revisit and elaborate upon it have proven extremely influential. Taken together, they offer an alternative to the Lachmannian quest for an unattainable original text. (1) While this older model of manuscript study privileged the stability and control that a conjectured original might wield, Zumthor's mouvance and its inheritors instead revealed to manuscript studies the sense of freedom and possibility to be found in a textual tradition's instabilities.

Privileging such a dynamic vision of manuscripts in motion, however, creates an interesting dilemma. Many critics, in their implicit or explicit references to mouvance, rely upon figurative language that seems to value the element of movement inherent within mouvance. We hear about texts "in motion," for instance, or a reading process that takes "steps" from one variant to another, (2) But while this language effectively captures the dynamism proposed in Zumthor's model, it simultaneously produces a difficult bind: verbs and nouns of motion invoke a concept that we rend to experience only through its concrete manifestations, and yet in this context, they ask us to envision movement in a purely abstract sense. What, in other words, does the movement in mouvance look like?

I propose to answer this question through the manuscript traditions of the medieval carol. Well known for its history of combining dance and song, the medieval carol intertwines varied and complex manuscript evidence with a particular tradition of physical movement. Rather than using dance as a cultural practice to reconstruct scenarios of a carol text's production, reception, and performance, however, I want to make a different kind of argument. This essay claims that through dance as formalized movement, we can see, or make concrete, the motion in mouvance. In dance practice, dance aesthetics, and choreography, the tension between control and instability has always played a crucial role. For this reason, I argue, dance can lend illuminating form to this same tension in the study of textual tradition. The dance world's push-and-pull between mastery and abandon provides an embodied shape for the gestures of interchange between manuscript variants.

My primary aim in this essay is thus not to present a positivist account of medieval dance practices. It is, rather, to show that the movement traditions underlying certain medieval dance traditions give us, as readers of the Middle Ages, a set of shapes and structures to assign to the interactions between manuscript variants. The theorization of dance, while not providing a way to reconstruct a danced medieval past, helps us to see anew how we apprehend and comprehend medieval manuscript traditions. In the first part of the essay, the cultural traditions and formal features associated with the English carol in general will illuminate within this genre a charged exchange between control and instability. The second part of the essay turns toward two specific variants of the English "Holly and Ivy" carol. The conventions of the carol as danced practice give shape to the processes of movement we might perceive between one "Holly and Ivy" variant and another when we read them. In this specific case as well, I argue, the movement between variants expresses dance's ambivalence about fixity, preservation, and control.

Editing medieval manuscripts with thoughtful attention to the existence of diverging variants has always posed challenges to our understanding of textual origins, authorship, and intention. One might of course see all situations of scribal transmission as exercises in--or, rather, struggles for--control, with "Adam Scrivyen" raising an unusual but by now iconic outcry. (3) Tim Machan suggests that the exercise of editing such complex and contested forms of transmission in fact requires extensive theorization--of reception, historicity, translation, and literary history. …

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