Or as most of us medievalists like to call it….”KZOO”. Yes, it’s that wonderful time of the year again where nerds, old and new come together for the medieval version of Lollapalooza: Kalamazoo’s annual Medieval Congress. This year, being my final conference for a long time since I’m moving across the pond, I decided to blog about the experience for those new to the conference and for those of you (family and friends) who wonder: “What the Hell does Sandra do in Michigan every May?”…Well, here is your answer.
We got in late last night after a long drive from Toronto to Kalamazoo. The conference starts Thursday morning but PK and I always try to get in the night before to prep, unwind and figure things out. As much as it’s a fun trip for us, it’s also serious work. KZOO is the biggest conference outside of Leeds and over 3,000 medievalists come to this Medieval Mecca to share new ideas, schmooze, vie for work and meet up with old colleagues. We spend our days going from session to session capturing (as faithfully as possible) the information shared by scholars. Then, we summarise it for our readers because not everyone is a six hour drive from KZOO and not everyone is Donald Trump.
Today was fantastic. Seriously – I picked some gems to attend and I’m happy to say they were all hits and no misses. The first session got off with a bang and was entitled, “I just don’t want to die without a few scars”: Medieval Fight Clubs, Masculine Identity, and Public (Dis)order”. 10:00 and I’m sipping coffee and listening to papers on medieval violence. There were only two speakers, but both papers, one on violence at Oxford University and the other on chivalric violence in medieval Florence, were amazing. I love papers where I’m really stunned by what I’ve heard. The paper on university violence did just that – I couldn’t believe how violent medieval universities were and sadly, how little research has been done on this topic. Given that I’m enamoured with The Borgias as of late, I also loved the second paper on violence by the Florentine chivalric elite. These knights had money, lots of armour, and massive beef. These guys were the medieval Italian equivalent of road rage meets The Sopranos. They invented vengeance. Medieval Florence – not the safest place to be if you were in one of the quarrelsome noble families. Both Andrew E. Larsen, who gave the paper on university violence, and Professor Peter W. Sposato, who spoke about violence in Florence presented fascinating papers and fielded plenty of comments and questions from the audience. To say I enjoyed this session would be a gross understatement.
After lunch, I scored once again with a session that delved into Early Medieval Archaeology entitled,“Early Medieval Europe I”. This time, there were three speakers, and three great papers. The first paper examined medieval feasting, the politics behind it and the types of animals used in sacrifice for pre-Christian Northern communities in Denmark and Iceland. The second paper also touched on early archaeology by exploring the similarities and differences in infant burials in medieval Poland and Anglo Saxon England shortly after conversion to Christianity. Lastly, the final paper gave us an in depth look at Louis the Pious and the conversion of the Danes. These things excite me. Nothing boring or dry here and lots to report on – I was in my medieval happy place
The final session was a great way to end off day one - “Mental Health in Non-medical Terms”. This was a set of four papers all focused on mental and intellectual disability in the Middle Ages. The first paper looked at mental disability through iconography and various other contexts like Philosophy, Law, Literature and Language. The second paper, (and my personal favourite of the four) was a humorous talk about the effects of animal venom. That delved into some really curious and crazy medieval descriptions of what happens to you if you get bitten by a poisonous snake or a rabid dog…the answer? You might start barking, see images of dog entrails in reflections of water and lash out at people with your teeth. Not very pretty but very damned funny. The third paper looked at French notaries during the reign of Charles V and how they got people off murder charges by carefully crafting letters to prove insanity. It was an interesting topic but it’s times like this I wish I had stuck with my French because when it starts getting into language and philology, I can get a bit lost. My final paper of the day was about civic and religious understanding of disability. How were the disabled understood? Understanding and treatment could depend on how they were afflicted by their illness, i.e., if they were born with an impairment, or became impaired at a later stage in life. Factors such as lucidity and degree of comprehension also came into play in order to understand things like sacraments, and if a person could be baptized if they weren’t fully aware of what they were receiving. All in all, highly enjoyable papers and good speakers.
It was a fun first day with lots of interesting summaries to put out work wise and so much learned. Learning while having fun – BEST.JOB.EVER. Now that I’ve regaled you with my nerding, this sleepy medievalist is going to bed to dream of swords, castles and chain mail.