scribal habitus and usus scribendi

Here I post the opening frame for a paper I read at the Fifth International Conference on Piers Plowman, held in Oxford, in May 2011. The paper was titled, “Scribal habitus and usus scribendi: or, observations on an alliterative formula.” In it, I presented a study of the formula “clerkes woet þe sothe” (and variants) in Piers Plowman and affiliated works.

My title means to engage supportively with George Kane’s “profile textual criticism,” and to do so by connecting the concept of scribal and authorial “profiles” to the sociological concept of habitus. The point, I hope, is that Kane’s method of distinguishing layers of textual accretion receives a friendly challenge from sociology’s concept of habitus, understood as a historically specified and historically generated collection of durable dispositions, and, more specifically, of dispositions towards a certain way of using language.

The term “habitus” had a celebrated run in scholastic philosophy, where it has a rather different sense from the one developed in sociology. Since these differences have been elided in recent discussions, and since I mean to refer specifically to the sociological use of this term, let me briefly differentiate between the two. In scholastic philosophy, habitus named a cognitive, moral, or practical aptitude, usually acquired through deliberate training over an extended period of time and tending, once acquired, to manifest itself in regular and teleological action. Hence, the habitus of correct language use is acquired through long study and manifests itself in actions ordered towards the systematic communication of ideas. By comparison, the concept of habitus developed and employed by Pierre Bourdieu is at once more comprehensive of an individual’s orientation within a world, more finely expressed in matters of taste and bodily comportment, and less securely linked to deliberate instruction. On account of its socio-historical specificity, its fine-grained expression and its always uncertain relation to conscious intention, the sociological concept of habitus might provide a valuable instrument for thinking about patterned textual variation in manuscript traditions.

So, by linking the terms “scribal habitus” and “usus scribendi” I mean to suggest a way of building socio-historically grounded accounts of the different layers of textual composition that Kane and his co-editors sought to isolate. In this paper, I test this approach on the formulaic phrasal units that were part of the metrical grammar of alliterative verse.

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