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Kenneth Fockele

University of California, Berkeley

The Fluid Text in a Manuscript Culture


Kenneth Fockele is a PhD student in German Literature and Culture at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his AB from Princeton University and MPhil from the University of Cambridge. He has also studied in Berlin at the Freie Universität. His research interests are poetry, early film, and medieval German literature.



This paper examines medieval manuscript culture and the modern editorial response to it.  Using the example of the German love lyric “A wise man,” by Reinmar the Elder, a Viennese court poet of the late twelfth century, I argue that editions have not done justice to the fluidity of the medieval text and have thereby obscured the flexibility of medieval thought.

One of the great challenges for the modern reader approaching the literature of the Middle Ages is recognizing how fundamentally different medieval texts are from modern texts.  For all texts it is true, as John Bryant argues in The Fluid Text, that “the only ‘definitive text’ is a multiplicity of texts” produced by the process of composition and editing (2).  But medieval texts possess, due to the mixed oral and textual culture of their production, an even deeper fluidity and potentiality for creative reappropriation than most modern texts.

In 1972 the philologist Paul Zumthor coined the term mouvance to denote the fluidity of medieval oral compositions that were expected to be creatively reworked by subsequent redactors.  Composers anticipated that their songs would be reimagined by other performers, and the surviving versions of their songs reflect this with a radical openness that modern editions efface.  The edition that silently resolves the differences among versions or consigns them to the apparatus produces a text that hides fluidity instead of illustrating how it shaped medieval composition.  By bringing mouvance to the fore, we can reconceive the edition as a site of interaction between different versions of the fluid text.  In this paper, I address theories of textual fluidity across time, the issue of the “definitive” edition, and the role of the composer in the afterlife of the text.

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