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Historic Dance I: 1450-1550

Like all 10 volumes in this series this is an A4 book by Dr John Gardiner-Garden with nearly 740 pages of research, discussion and analysis, with hundreds of illustrations, musical scores, dance reconstructions, source extracts, transcriptions and translations, and with each volume divided into five parts.

Part 1 (Dance context) explores the social, political and geographic contexts in which dance and the institution of the ball was evolving.

Part 2 (Dance forms) examines the nature and evolution of the period’s main types of dance.

Part 3 (Dance Technicalities) has in-depth sections on ‘Style’, ‘Etiquette’, ‘Honours’, ‘Holds’, ‘Formations’, ‘Figures’ and ‘Steps’.

Part 5 (Dancing Masters) is devoted to developments in dance teaching, notation and publication, and offers an annotated bibliography of primary sources.

Part 4 (Dances in Detail) offers reconstructions, music and source comparisons for the following dances of the period: 

Alenchon; Alesandresca; Amaroso for two & three; Anello; Barcelona; La Bassa de Castille/Spayñ; Belfiore; Belriguardo for two & three; Chastelana; Chirintana; Colonnese; Corona; La Danse de Cleves; Eglamowr; Esperans; L’Esperence de Bourbon; La Figlia Guglielmino (1) & (2); Francho cuore gentile; La Franchoise nouvelle; Gelosia; Gioioso for three; Gioliva; Grazioso; Ingrata; Jupiter; Lauro; Legiadra; Libeaus Desconus; Lioncello Nuovo for three; Lioncello Nuovo for 2 & 3; Malgratiosa; Marchesana; Mercantia; Northumberland; La Partita Crudele; Petit Rinense; Le Petit Rouen; Pizochara; Prenes a gard; Prenes on gre; Prigionera; Reale; Rostiboli Gioioso; Sobria; Spero; Talbott; La Tantaine; Temperans; Tesara; Venus; Verçepe; Villanella (1); La Vita di Cholino; Voltati in ça Rosina / Rossina. 

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This volume also contains an  Introduction to the Series that is not found in the other volumes in the series, so in case someone purchases later volumes in the series but not this first one and want to read the series introduction, I provide it in a compact form here:

~ Dedication & Plea ~

I would like to dedicate these Volumes to all those scholars who years ago kindled my love of philology. Though I never danced a step with them and have hardly seen any since, this book would not have been possible without their inspiring teaching and example. Though none would know the use to which I have applied their lessons or how lasting my gratitude for their early guidance in a field seemingly far from dance, they are as much my master as have been the wonderful dance teachers (both inside and outside of books) from whom I’ve learnt, and as Juan de Esquivel Navarro wrote in his 1642 Discursos sobre el arte del danzado:

Si en ellos el lector hallare algun acierto, el loor de el se le deve a mi maestro, mas si apuntare algunos yerros, considerelos por mios, pues aquel nacio de su enseñança, y estos de mi unsuficiencia:

If in these matters the reader finds some wisdom, the praise is due to my master, but if any errors are noted, consider those my own, since the former was born of his teaching, and the latter of my insufficiency.

After many years labouring on these 10 volumes of ‘working notes’ I feel as exhausted as Fabritio Caroso must have been when he wrote at the beginning of his 1600 Nobiltà di Dame that improving upon the earlier edition of his dance manual had involved disrugginare il mio ingegno, & studiare notte, e giorno, ‘racking my brains and studying night and day’, but unfortunately I do not yet share Caroso’s sense that perfection has been achieved. In this respect I feel more like Saltator who wrote in A Treatise on Dancing, Boston, 1802:

The first design of the work was intended for private friends; but having found nothing of the kind in pu-blic, this is now presented with all its imperfections.

Fortunately, however, perfection is not a prerequisite for utility, and my great hope is that my volumes will help address a pressing need.

~ Note on need ~

Imagine if our classical music inheritance was lost. That only a few knew the names of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and still fewer had any knowledge of their works. Or imagine the same with art and Rembrandt, Renoir or Van Gough, or literature and Shakespeare, Austen and Tolstoy. Imagine all that was left of football, cricket or basketball was a vague notion that you kick, hit or hand a ball around and we weren’t really sure which you did in which, let alone how to organise a game. This is the situation we are in with one of western civilisation’s greatest cultural inheritances—that of the 1450 to 1900 ballroom. We might read in Shakespeare of galliards, in Molière of minuets, in Austen of cotillions and in Tolstoy of the mazurka, but who today has any understanding of what these dance forms involved—let alone of the artistic language at play within the thousands of variations within these forms. As glorious the achievements of those years, it’s an inheritance that has all but been lost and modern dance forms and imagined folk dance forms now have almost nothing to do with it.

It’s not simply a matter of fashion having moved on. There has been a complete change in expectations, definitions and understanding. A gulf has opened up between artist and community, show and participation, ‘dance’ and ‘dancing’, knowing and doing, stage and ballroom—indeed our understanding of what constitutes a ballroom has changed (they can even be a carpeted venue with a small optional portable floor). Between 1450 and 1900 the participatory dance of the ballroom was an art people spent years studying and in which the leading choreographers of the day created works. Dancing masters moved between the court, the theatre, the assembly hall, the private manor house and the village—and everybody, no matter what their capacity, shared the estimation that they should know more and be able to acquit themselves better—and the latter included the understanding that they should be able to not only follow but also when necessary improvise, invent and take a turn at leading everyone else. Books and pamphlets with social dance choreographies and guidance on how to dance, improvise and lead sold like tune downloads today. In some places in some seasons social life and the economy revolved around this dance. For example, the Paris Opera in the 1770s made more money from their public balls than from their Operas and many plays and novel had scenes set at these dances—but how much of the relevant music and dance is performed today?

Thanks to the efforts of many over recent decades, valuable ground has been gained in recovering our pre-1900 ballroom dance heritage. But where today do those who want to learn more and teach/research for themselves go? For music, art and sport we have academies with libraries and facilities, but what do we have to help bring back to life our rich ballroom inheritance? Dance books, though central to the ballroom art-form for 450 years, have for many years been seen almost as the antithesis of what dance is about. Those interested in our dance heritage might learn a dance at a workshop, enjoy one at ball or see one on a video, but without ready access to the original texts and sound discussion, might have no way of pondering interpretations for themselves, let alone of confidently passing on interpretations to others or doing fresh research of their own.

Over recent years many have been doing a wonderful job writing-up dance reconstructions or presenting, transcribing and translating primary sources, but we are all at the beginning of the task of bringing this world back to life and the two types of writing are often happening at some distance from each other. There are exceptions, but printed works tend to offer either recreationally-worded dance instructions without presentation of sources, problems or context, or academic attention to sources, problems and context without venturing reconstructions of use to would-be dancers. I’ve felt we need to fill the gap and offer danceable reconstructions while paying attention to sources, problems and context (including the broader one of dance evolution).

In addition to all the above is the pressing need to get young people involved and to bring on the next generation of dancers, leaders and researchers. Some people’s instinct for achieving this is to make things simple. In my experience, it’s not simplicity that attracts and keeps the attention of young people, its fun and romance and physical and intellectual challenge. These are not mutually exclusive and you get neither by dumbing things down. I believe we do better by being ourselves fit, competent and engaging, by being alert to young people’s interest in dress, in famous setting of the past, in socialising, in being simultaneously inside and outside the mainstream and in doing something that is simultaneously weird and wonderful, by being able to point to illustrations which help connect what they are doing with what young people did centuries ago, by being prepared to add in details of etiquette and steps, by being prepared to do things that might exhaust us, by giving them (and ourselves) something to practice, and by making them part of solving interpretational problems—indeed by doing all the things people did in the past.

Pondering the above has encouraged me get this resource of mine out for use. It’s far from definitive but may help enhance people’s understanding of our historic ballroom inheritance while at the same time enhancing their capacity for sharing and enjoying it.

~ The purpose of dance ~

The historian William H McNeill in his 1995 book Keeping Together in Time argued that although dance in other species (and indeed our own too) may be about relieving tension or impressing or challenging others, it is only in humans that rhythmic movement has become sufficiently prolonged and co-ordinated to produce feelings that strengthen social bonds and contribute to shaping the group, and that this end has played back into shaping the nature of that movement.

Whether dance was a subconscious genetically-driven urge to express oneself or a product of a positive feed-back loop offered by the physical experience, it seems dance long ago become essential part of human life, a part linked with social ceremonies and spiritual rituals, with law, rites of passage, sympathetic magic and healing. All the time it was also working as an agent for communal cohesion, helping people understand their relationship to each other and the world beyond, helping both transmit belief and confirm beliefs by acting them out, helping to communicate identity and to reinforce it.

It was long ago that the seeds of some influential beliefs were sown—the belief that mimed movement can bring luck, that stomps and kicks enhance fertility, that a circle can generate community-nourishing energy (especially when about an object of reverence), and that a particular dance might be appropriate to a particular time of year, or type of celebration or invocation. Such beliefs, crossed with a myriad of needs, gave rise to a variety of dance types common in European folk traditions—sung circle dances, intricate chain, serpent and spiral dances, processional dances, seasonal maypole dances, mumming, hobby horse and horn dancing, initiation/rebirth ‘thread the needle’ dances, earth fertility-associated hopping, stomping and leaping dances, vocation-associated work dances, weavy pattern dances and, the latest-of-all, the courtship couples dance.

Arising in parallel with the folk dance have been the dances of ‘the ballroom’ that are the focus of my study. Understandings of original purposes fell away and dance became an entertainment, a means by which people affirmed their social status, a way young people met, and a way heritage was transmitted inter-generationally. All who could, insisted their children be taught dancing, and the dancing master was a central to social life. Dance became a form of personal expression, but in the context of communal communication—and just as conversations are shaped by an intersecting of language and interests, with both of these in constant flux, so too social ballroom dance over the 450 years covered by these Volumes was shaped by an intersecting of the meanings that came to be attached to certain movement choices and changing contemporary political and social contexts.

The purpose of dance and the nature of dance are thus equally simple and equally complicated.

~ The purpose of this work ~

These volumes have grown out of the research I’ve done, handouts I have prepared, notes I have made to myself and lessons I have learnt in the course of running dance classes, socials, balls and displays over the last 25 years. They were not planned or written in one go. Although initially my notes simply reflected dances we were doing, soon the dances we were doing were reflecting the latest corner of dance history I was exploring in my notes. Throughout this two-way process these notes have progressed, and they are still notes in progress. I’d like to revisit most pages, fill many gaps and make many more connections, but that might take more years than I have in me and people interested in our dance heritage deserve every possible tool now. So I’ve ‘hit print’.

Hopefully through this work people already involved in dance will gain a deeper appreciation of the art and discovered how the pleasure of socialising can be enhanced by an understanding of period etiquette, the pleasure of exercising enhanced by an understanding of period style and technique and the pleasure of dressing up enhanced by doing dances that were fashionable when the dress was fashionable. Hopefully they will also be tempted to try dances across the full breadth of our social dance inheritance, knowing that the dance of any one period and place was never just made up of dances of one formation, style, step and level of challenge. I’m not averse to dancing purely for the enjoyment or for the performance but feel if you add in a little understanding you can enhance both, and better to inspire others to create more enjoyment and performances.

I should note that I’m not averse to playing with, inventing within, building upon, and going beyond that which tradition or sources offer us. I did it myself when writing the 64 dances in my 2002 The Christmas Carol Dance Book and when writing the 128 dances and 400 tunes in my Lost Dances of Earthly Delights Volume 1 and 2 published with 8 accompanying CDs in 2005. I feel, however, that to create a meaningful conversation with the past, it helps to first understand something of the tradition which one seeks to go beyond.

I should also note that although I have tried to synthesise relevant scholarship, I do not intend my notes substitute for it, and have not attempted to match the rigour of the referencing etc found in scholarly works devoted to particular topics or primary sources. My notes are intended to be just one means by which to better understand that beautiful institution that is the ball and that under-appreciated side to our culture that is social dance—and by bettering that understanding help people keep this institution and this side of our culture alive.

~ Approach to the subject ~

Living in Canberra, Australia, so far from the longer-established and more populous northern hemisphere dance scenes, my wife Aylwen and I have had to create the dance scene in which we’ve been able to enjoy and develop the material here presented. Though this has meant a lot of organising and a lot of learning by myself with nothing but my books to aid me, it has also meant I’ve been unencumbered by dance practises and approaches which have evolved inside some dance scenes overseas and remained in place even when knowledge has moved on. In our dance scene, as in my writing, I’ve never felt the need to put dances into boxes labelled ‘Renaissance’, ‘English Country’, ‘Baroque’, ‘Contra’ and ‘Vintage Ballroom’. I have thus never been tempted to divide up dances so that when doing those in one box I forget all about footwork and just enjoy the figures, and when doing those in another I not see the simple figures for all the concentration on footwork, when doing those in one box I overlook anything that is quick or couples dance oriented and when doing those in another I overlook anything that is slow or formal. Although such boxing has clearly been a useful way for different clubs to delineate that which they do and attract people who want to do just that, it has nothing to do with how dance was divided in the 450 years covered by these volumes. The ballroom dance of every period and place was a combination of couples and set dances, some slow some fast, all with opportunities for either easy or fancy steps and figures, for uniformity and improvisations.

~ Approach to sources ~

My intention in these works has not been to offer a definitive overview of dance, taxonomy of forms, glossary of terms, set of instructions and bibliography. It has been to offer readers windows into the process of understanding dance by context, form, technicalities, instructions and writers, and to explore a range of possible understandings while producing a work that can be put to practical use. To this end I have attempted to frame my discussions, arguments and interpretations around words and illustrations drawn from historic sources. I’ve felt this important for three main reasons.

Firstly, although many teachers, performers, participants and audiences are happy to imagine what they are enjoying is historical dance without feeling any need to appreciate the limits of their engagement with the relevant history or dance, to more seriously understand historical dance the choreographers’ intentions and participants’ expectations which went into its development, and the limits of our knowledge of the same, I think it is useful to look closely into the historic material that offers a window onto the past. Direct quotes from sources help keep this window open.

Secondly, everyone will have different dance interests, experiences and competencies, and these are all likely change over time, so rather than writing different set of notes for all possible permutations, I have chosen to write a single set of notes which, layered as they are with source material, translations, commentaries and summaries, can be used in different ways.

Thirdly, I believe sources help transport the reader back to the times under consideration, and this can be simultaneously entertaining and stimulating, as the reader both enjoys the pleasure of time travel and starts to ask his or her own questions.

Fourthly, I hope that by giving the reader the primary source material upon which I am basing my translations, understandings and reconstructions, they will be empowered to correct and improve upon my work, and as these are just working notes, perhaps some will share their corrections and improvements with me.

~ Approach to presentation ~

In an effort to make this work as useful for both private study at home and public presentations as possible, I’ve tried to include enough citations for the pursuit of private study, but not too many to cloud easy public use. I’ve tried to make maximum use of space on every page, but not so cram content as to make public use in dimly lit halls difficult. In such situations I feel dance leaders need to be able to quotes text, read instructions, point to scores and show dancers illustrations with minimum fuss. To this end, I have used a small font for this preface that you will not need to consult in public, but a relatively large font for everything else. Rather than footnoting or end-noting all credits, references or extra points, I’ve opted for no such linked text. Rather than putting quotes from original sources in a smaller or italicised font, I’ve put them in more conspicuous bold font. Rather than reproducing source pictures or illustrations in their entirety, I have cropped them to focus on the elements of most relevance to the point being made. Rather than reproducing source texts at original sizes, when font size allows I have reduced pages so that several can be shown, studied or played from at one view, and where the original text is too small to read easily, I have enlarged it. I’ve tried to offer detail contents and cross-referencing. For technical reasons an index has not been possible.

~ Transcriptions & Translations ~

With readability of transcriptions in mind I have expanded most standard textual contractions, replaced obsolete characters with modern letters, italicised words in a language foreign to the source, favoured minimum capitalisation, and offered my own paragraphing. My transcriptions of tunes have been similarly guided by purpose and, for those who need to see the original dance or tune text, facsimiles are included nearly time.

When it comes to translations, I have tried to minimise the use of capitalisation and italics so the eye can more easily pick up those foreign dance terms I do make a rule of italicising and those key expression I have chosen to underline. Where the original text has an abbreviation I have in most instances expanded this out in the translation. I have also avoided introducing abbreviations of my own into my translation, except occasionally when a text is very dense I might use M or W instead of ‘gentleman’ or ‘lady’ or equivalent, and except that for ease of spotting, I put most numbers pertaining to steps into numerical form. So that the eye does not double count, where an expression of step numbers is followed by a qualification of how many steps in this direction and how many in that, I will express the overall number as a numeral and the subset number as words. Where the original text is using future tense to offer a dance instruction, I have often rendered it in the present tense, this seeming more natural in English, so instead of ‘They will do 2 steps’, I might have ‘They do 2 steps’, and then to highlight the imperative within this for calling purposes I might underline the expression thus: ‘They do 2 steps’. Where the original lacks a direct verb and just has participles I have occasionally change a participle to a present tense verb or imperative (e.g. instead of ‘doing 2 steps’, I might say, ‘He does 2 steps’ or ‘Do 2 steps’).

I usually put my translations of original texts in plain font, but where the translation I’m presenting is a period one, and thus to some degree became a primary source in its own right, I have presented it in bold

~ Abbreviations ~

Throughout the Volumes A1, A2, B1, B2 etc denote successive playings of successive tune strains or part strains—and their corresponding dance section. 1M, 1W etc denotes the first man and woman in a set, with the identity of 2M, 3W etc depending on the set formation and number system specified.

Further abbreviations are used in my Part 4 summary boxes (and occasionally in tabulation tables and discussion notes). There are orientation ones such as:

acw        anti-clockwise

cw          clockwise

dsd         do-si-do

l.f.          left foot

l.h.          left hand

l.o.d.      line of dance, acw round or straight up        left shoulder

r.f.          right foot

r.h.         right hand         right shoulder

There are also step specific abbreviations. I have tried to confine my use of these to my summary box and to spell them out more fully elsewhere. Most can be deduced from context. There are just a couple of ambiguities that come to mind and are worth mentioning.

When dealing with 15th century Italian, or 15th or 16th century French or English texts, S might stand for sempio, or simple or single, and D for doppio, double or double, but when dealing with 16th and early 17th century Italian dance texts, P might stand for passo, an unclosed single while S stands for seguito ordinario or ‘the ordinary sequence’, which is more like a double.

When writing on French bassedances B might stand for branle and R for slow single or compound reprise, but when writing on late renaissance Italian dances B might stand for battuti or beaten step and R might stand for a much quicker ripresa. You cannot assume that even when the abbreviation is standing for the same word in a language, that the word has the same meaning in texts of from different eras. Thus the C for continenza in Volume I might imply a short branle-like step but in Volume II it might imply a fuller/slow longer

In the busy late 16th early 17th century Italian texts I have used F for fioretto, T for trab(b)uchetto, Sp for Spezzato (or Seguito spezzato), short word forms such as riv. for riverenza, gall. for gagliarda/galliard,  trang. for trango or trangato, cad. for cadenza etc. I have also been inspired by Negri to use an * to vary the meaning of some abbreviations. Thus my P* stand for a passo puntato and S* for a seguito ornamented with a semi-doppio. Similarly, when dealing with ‘classical’ French terms (from late 17th to the 19th century) I might use bal. for balancé or balance step, rig. for rigaudon or rigadoon, bour. for pas de bourrée, and when dealing with pattern dances of any era prom. might stand for ‘promenade’.

Abbreviations might be italicised if thought in context to be derived from a foreign language word. My abbreviation practice is not be perfectly consistent throughout all 10 Volumes—these working notes have evolve over many years and my summaries are intended to be used in conjunction with my fuller notes.

~ Note on limitations ~

These Volumes, as comprehensive and dense as they are, are not a complete guide to all dancing.

With respect geography, I am only dealing with western European traditions—though often these lead us as far east as Russia, west as America and south as Australia.

With respect function and social context, the focus is on the dances that were designed for ballrooms—even if danced also in palace courtyards, manor houses, etc. I do not consider all the martial, ritual and acrobatic dances that may have been had a place in other settings. The focus is also on social dances—though this can include everything from a renaissance sword dance intended as a contribution to a masquerade to a baroque ballet intended to be displayed at a ball. Although mention will be made of ecstatic dance or theatrical dance, the main focus is choreographed (or at least choreographable) social dance.

With respect chronology, I have restricted myself to dance sources from between 1450 and 1900. Although the dance traditions with which I am concerned almost certainly stretched back before 1450 and some elements persisted beyond 1900, so different was the landscape off in these directions that I have resisted following the trail.

I have also not attempted to offer any comprehensive survey of anti-dance treatises and have kept my focus on those much more numerous sources in all the periods which reveal the high degree to which dance accomplishment and knowledge was valued.

Even within the above parameters this work is necessarily incomplete. The sources that survive are of limited geographic and social provenance, missing explanations of elements the author assumed we’d know, and have generally not been as fully considered by scholars over the last century as much as have the sources for the musical, theatrical and visual arts.

~ Note on dance reconstruction ~

I hope readers might not only use the reconstructions I offer but attempt their own of dances not here presented. In doing either it may helpful to ponder the following:

What was the purpose of the dance description? Is the writer simply intending to offering a mnemonic (such as John Ramsey is perhaps doing when in Source D from the Inns of Court manuscripts we find him describing the cinque-pace as One, two, three, four, & five, or are they clearly trying to describe ever step and movement? As more often than not, a dance writer is doing something part way between these two extremes, what do they seem to be happy to assume the reader understands? Is the writer in an explicit or implicit dialogue with others in his profession, others who perform the dance or even himself? Considering such questions as these may help us when it comes to judging whether what is being described is what was being done or what the writer thought should be done, and how much freedom we might have when it comes to solving problems and filling out detail.

What is the purpose of the dance? Do you imagine what is being described was intended for virtuosic theatrical presentation, the formal showing-off of aristocratic grace early in a dance event, or the fulsome enjoyment of all at the end of party?  As a dance may enjoy parallel lives in slightly different forms suited for different contexts, and as a dance writer may sometimes betray an awareness of this being the case in with respect a dance he’s describing, what seems to be the main function of the dance which the writer is describing? Considering such questions as these may help us when it comes to making judgements about dancers’ orientation and the level of complexity that might be expected/accepted.

What is the dances’ essence/theme/storyline? Several writers commented on how their dances told stories reflected in their titles (e.g. Cornazano writing of his balli. Mercantia and Sobria and Blasis of the quadrilles presented under Blasis’ New Quadrilles (see Volumes I and VIII). Sometimes the storyline is obvious (see the argument in La Fricassé (1) ). Sometimes it changed as the dance evolves or inspires different versions (see my discussion of various dances under the name Menuet de la Cour). Every dance, however, be it a popular one of uncertain origin which survives in many forms or a paper invention with no record of ever being danced, has to some extent a simple distinguishing theme. Too often reconstructors (by themselves being dancers capable of doing the most complicated hard-to-remember patterns) miss the essential beauty and simplicity which originator or originators of the dance were trying to achieve or were enjoying, or (by themselves being too narrowly focused in their own period or dance-form interests) miss the analogous dance to which an originating-choreographer was referring. Having identified a dance’s essential story-line, meaning or allusion, it may be possible to bring out this dimension in the judgements made in the course of the reconstruction. This gives the dancers who follow your reconstruction an opportunity to bring out the perceived story-line when they perform/enjoy the dance. Trying to be faithful to the meaning that was once put into a dance is also, I believe, a necessary part of showing respect to the artists who created the dance, to those of our ancestors for whom it was created and to the dance itself as an artistic creation in its own right.

 What is the purpose of your reconstruction? When faced with several different descriptions of what seems to be essentially the same dance, are we trying to represent a possible original form that may lie behind several textual descriptions, are we trying to produce a dance which captures the most common form a dance might have taken? When faced with several different possible interpretations of a text are we trying to create a dance which brings out themes which we believe were once believed to be central to the dances’ identity or are we trying to create a dance which gives us the best physical sensation? For those dances which would seem to have had both a theatrical manifestation and an easier social manifestation, are we trying to capture the form in which experienced dances might express it or a form that which novices will find accessible?

How do we capture, reconstruct and bring to life the embellishment and improvisation that we know was such an import part of all the dance forms considered?  How do we teach what we are reconstructing? Dancing is not just about the feet, but also about using the ears, eyes brain and heart—and about having an enjoyable physical, social, emotional, intellectual and aesthetic communal experience while moving and relating to music, a partner and a group, so how do we factor all this into deciding, writing up and teaching our reconstruction?

Considering questions such as these may help us when making our own judgements and attempts, and may help us be more generous in our assessment of other people’s judgements and attempts. Of help to us as well may be some understanding of how ideas persist, on which I’ll now offer some thoughts.