Mutable stability in the transmission of medieval texts

I’ve just checked in at and was alerted to this article:

Stephen G. Nichols, Mutable Stability, a Medieval Paradox: The Case of Le Roman de la Rose, Queste 23 (2016) 2, pp. 71-103.

I’ve not yet read it, but a quick skim makes it clear that it speaks to a current debate in cultural evolution concerning the high-fidelity transmission of “memes” (Dan Dennett) vs. the variable transmission of objects as guided by “factors of attraction” (Dan Sperber). I’ve not yet read it, but here’s some tell-tale passages. This is from the beginning (p. 71):

Yet even those who argue, to the contrary, that ‘transmission errors’ often represent creative ‘participation’ by a talented scribe, must recognize the attraction of a stable work.After all, despite an extraordinary record of innovation, invention, and discovery, the Middle Ages are an era that resisted change in and for itself. And yet this same veneration of conservative values underlies a fascinating paradox of medieval culture: its delicate and seemingly contradictory balance between stability, on the one hand, and transformation, on the other. It may be that only an era that saw no contradiction in promulgating an omnipotent, unchanging divinity, which was at the same time a dynamic principle of construction and transformation, could have managed the paradox of what I want to call ‘mutable stability’.

Here’s Dawkins in the 2nd chapter of The Selfish Gene:

Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation–rocks, galaxies, ocean waves–are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms.


Back to Nichols, a bit later in the article (p. 77):

In this case, however, it’s one that allows us to understand the paradox of medieval narrative forms whose ‘stability’ over time – in some cases over several centuries – depends on what I call the generative – or regenerative – force of transmission. Why ‘regenerative’ if transmission involves reproducing the ‘same’ work from one representation to another? The answer to that question involves recognizing the complex forces at play in the transmission of me- dieval texts, beginning with concepts like ‘the same’ and ‘seeing’ or ‘perspective’. After all, in a culture where the technology of transmission depends on copying each text by hand, what the scribe sees, or thinks she or he sees, must be factored into our definition of ‘sameness’ when comparing original and copy.

In the event, ‘sameness’, for the medieval mind had a very different connotation from our modern senses of the term. Indeed, it even involves a different process of perception and imagination. Whereas in our age of mechanical and digital reproduction, we are used to standards of ‘exactness’ for things we recognize as identical, me- dieval people had neither the means nor the expectation to make ‘same’ and ‘exact imitation’ synonymous. Indeed, one may even question the existence at that time of such a concept as ‘exact imitation’, at least as we understand it.

Here’s the concluding paragraph (p. 100):

Yet, at the end of the day, is this the whole story? Is it really the case that we’re forced to choose between a concept of the work ‘as somehow above or beyond any manifestation of it’, and ‘the work-that-has-its-being in a given manuscript version?’ I think not. After all, for a work to manifest what I’ve called ‘generative force’ sufficient to motivate a transmission history lasting well over two centuries and running to hundreds of manuscript versions, it must also generate in its readers a very strong ‘hyper-concept’. If, as noted above, that is matter for a different theoretical study, we can at least see that the starting point of the inquiry – and the ending point for this article – lies in contemplating the tensile strength of literary form. Poetic structure in the manuscript age is dynamic; it constantly accommodates the stress of modification without losing its ability to adjust to load changes or to suffer any reduction in performance or loss of identity. That is the basis for the medieval paradox I call ‘mutable stability’.

And here’s something from the very end labeled “Summary”, but it seems like what I’m used to called an abstract (p. 100):

The medieval codex fostered textual mutability as opposed to the ‘fixed text’ made possible by print.Yet, the Middle Ages resisted change in and for itself.This paper ex- plores the delicate balance between stability, on the one hand, and transformation, on the other in medieval vernacular literature. Only a culture that saw no contradiction in promulgating an omnipotent, unchanging divinity, which was at the same time a dy- namic principle of construction and transformation could have managed the paradox of ‘mutable stability’. While this principle operates in a number of domains – not least in the myriad art forms known as ‘Romanesque’ – this paper focuses on manuscript transmission of vernacular literature. In particular, it examines the concepts of ‘sameness’ and ‘resemblance’ that shaped the concepts of vision in the Roman de la Rose, and thus manuscripts transmission. Using the idea of generative or regenerative transfor- mation of the text, the paper illustrates a basic principle of stability, namely,‘the ability of an object to adjust to load changes without any reduction in performance’.

2 thoughts on “Mutable stability in the transmission of medieval texts”

  1. No need to read Dawkins, but he’s right about stability. As for empirical questions and data, I’m no medievalist, much less a specialist in codex studies (or whatever it is), so I don’t know whether this is a competent account of existing texts of Le Roman de la Rose or not. And if so, is Le Roman de la Rose an outlier or is it typical? But I’ve got colleagues who know more about medieval codices than I do and they like this article.

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