The goddesses among us

Houghton Library Blog 2017-07-17

jmw-90thbirthdaygregsmithdetailThis post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select, on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

At the time of his death, Professor John M. Ward (the donor of our Ward Collection) was writing a book on the history of social dance, from the 16th century through Dirty Dancing. His research was painstaking, and he had been working on this project off and on for many years. With this in mind, many of his purchases reflected this interest, and one particular purchase was close to his heart: what locally we have come to call The Ward Manuscript. In honor of the professor, I’ve chosen this little manuscript volume for our current exhibit, Open House 75.

Table of contents, the Ward Manuscript

Table of contents for the Ward Manuscript, listing The goddesses as the first dance.

This manuscript is the first item I think of when I remember John Ward. During my tenure here as one of his catalogers, I spent many an evening at his home, discussing my work, his work, music, life, the universe, and Everything. As he aged, his pleasure in these discussions, good scotch, and Houghton, never dimmed. He related to me his wonder at finding this manuscript, which dated to the time of Playford, but which provided several alternate versions to Playford’s choreography. Ward delighted in variants, and used them in his teaching to remind us that while performing materials may not evolve, performances did. What we see printed and fixed on a page was not fixed in reality, but a living, breathing, growing being, separate from its documentation. This manuscript, he would say, shows us that from the beginning of recorded social dance, for every dance which was written down, many others were flourishing, undocumented. So we must always keep an open mind about sources, and what constitutes a legitimate transmission of a work. This was a new concept for me, Oberlin- and Juilliard-trained to respect one “critical edition” and to consider all others to be of secondary interest. The idea that a variant might teach me as much about the people who recorded it, and about the nature of the work itself, allowed me to enter into discussions of performance documentation on a level I’d never imagined.

The goddesses

The goddesses

Not only did we occasionally discuss the Ward Manuscript, but I later cataloged it, and wrote a bloglet at the time about an unusual addition to the contents, lurking upside down among the back flyleaves. Sadly the professor was no longer with us by then, and how I wish he had been (as I so often do) because he didn’t include any information about the provenance of the manuscript when he gave it to us in 2004. Someone is going to have a major project looking into the history of this document one day!

To help those of you who, like me, are not fluent in 17th century copperplate, here is a transcription of the text:

The Goddesses: Lead upp twice, sett, fall back, cast off all back down through, back in your places againe, men goe half round the women, back in your places, cast off all and back in your places as be= fore, women goe halfe round the men, back in your places, cast off all as before, Men goe round the women untill you come to your places, cast off all as before, women goe round the men untill you come to your places, cast off as be[-] fore, Men doe the hayse, cast off as before, Women doe the hayse, cast off as before, Men take hands and goe around in a ring, cast off as be= fore, women goe round in a ring, cast off as before, men and women the dou[-] ble hayse, cast off as before: men and women go all round in a ring, cast off as before and come upp in the middle.

Playford’s 1650 version, the plate of which remained the same through the 3rd edition.

Playford’s 1650 version, the plate of which remained the same through the 3rd edition.

I dated this manuscript as “after 1660,” because there is a dance later in the volume named “May the 29th”; King Charles II entered London to claim his throne on this day in 1660, and this dance most likely refers to that date. For this information and so much more, I’m indebted to Aaron Macks, who has been researching this manuscript for an article soon to be published in the Harvard Library Bulletin. With his expert assistance, I was able to interpret the Ward Manuscript instructions for this dance, and compare them to Playford’s printed version: of the 11 lines of dance instructions here, if you look carefully, you’ll see that the first five are the same, but six through 11 are slightly different, and happen in a different sequence. Was this dance written down in a different city than Playford’s? Was this just another variant that the folks down the street were dancing? Did Playford misunderstand his source? As you can imagine, a document like this raises many fascinating questions, which will keep the John Wards among us (like the goddesses) dancing through eternity.

Thanks to Andrea Cawelti, Ward Music Cataloger, with invaluable assistance from Aaron Macks, for contributing this post.