I just got back from the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. For those of you new to this site, I’ve been going to this conference since I was an undergrad at the University of Toronto. I love this conference, it panders to the historian in me and my inner nerd. This year was special because I’m living in England so it’s not as easy for me to attend anymore. This is the biggest annual conference for medievalists in North America, and from it’s humble beginnings, it’s sprawled to over 3,000 participants. What does one do at a medieval conference you ask? You attend papers (or give one), meet up with old colleagues, professors, and mentors. You check out music events, taste mead, go to wine hour, and dance. Lastly, there is a massive book room selling all kinds of fantastic new medieval books, shirts and other knick-knacks. What papers did I go to this year? Here is my overview of my favourite papers from the 2015 Congress.
For Thursday, I’d have to say hands down, the winner was Session #47: Medieval Prosopography II. Prosopography is the study of characteristics of a particular group, then taking that information and deciphering relationships and other activities to form a better picture of their daily lives. It’s a fascinating study area and one in which I’m keenly interested. This session featured three papers: A Missing Voice: Johlin z Vodnan’s place in Late Medieval Bohemian Preaching by Reid S. Weber (University of Florida), Fourteenth-Century London as a Pole of Attraction for Immigrants: Banished Flemings and Their Assimilation by Milan Pajič (University of Strasbourg/University of Ghent), and The Glovers of Medieval London, by Caroline M. Barron (Royal Holloway, University of London). Weber’s paper focused on Bohemian reformers and preaching before Jan Hus, an area of study that is often ignored in favour of Hus’s celebrity status in Reformation studies. Johlin z Vodnan was a contemporary of Hus and produced a lot of preaching material that gives historian a line of sight into late medieval Bohemia at the end of the 14th century. Pajič’s paper focused on the Flemish immigrants to London after banishment from the Low Countries and whether their attempts at assimilation were successful. In the final paper, Barron examined glover’s wills to see where they fit in on the London mercantile scene and what place they had beside other, larger and more established guilds. Three diverse and fascinating topics.
For Friday, my favourite session was put on by DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation, and Study of Textile Arts, Fabric and Fashion) and entitled, Session #300: Dress and Textiles III: Texts and Techniques. First, we heard from Christina Petty (University of Manchester) about looms and weaving in, Weaving Tool? An Examination of Anglo-Saxon England Pin Beaters. Then came a fun and light-hearted look at Early Modern beauty remedies from Venice in Courtney Hess-Dragovich’s, (Independent Scholar) Deodorants, Hair Dyes, and Diet Drinks: Renaissance Remedies from a Sixteenth-Century Venetian Beauty Manual. This paper had everyone laughing as Hess-Dragovich described the various vile concoctions she inflicted on her friends to test out the recipes. White wine and nutmeg deodorant, anyone?! We also learned dieting isn’t a modern day thing – people were making diet drinks and practising calorie restriction hundreds of years ago. Last, but certainly not least, was the extremely talented Matthew Gnagy (Parsons University of Fashion Design). In his paper, The Manipulated Plane: Modern Tailoring Practices in Early Seventeenth Century Menswear, he talked about the history of tailoring, and the discovery that men’s seams were manipulated by tailors hundreds of years before it was assumed that the practice was in use.
Saturday, the last full day of the conference, brought me to, Session #500: Martin and More: Genre Medievalisms, sponsored by the Tales After Tolkien Society. This last paper of the day appealed to my inner nerd – when fantasy meets the medieval. Kicking it all off was Kavita Mudan Finn with her brilliant paper, Medievalism, Feminism, and “Realism” in Game of Thrones. A paper devoted to Cersei Lannister – could it get any more perfect? Following up with a discussion about how Sci-fi and Fantasy have become mainstream and how TV and movies have brought historical characters to life, we turned to Save the Cheerleader, Save the World: Yesterday’s Heroism Today. Valerie Dawn Hampton (University of Western Michigan/University of Florida) looked at the resurgence in pastimes like Dungeons and Dragons, fantasy card games, and how comic book heroes, Cesare Borgia, Henry VIII, Vampires, and Vikings have become commonplace characters on our screens. Finally, Geoffrey B. Elliot (Oklahoma State University – Stillwater) closed the session with his look at the popularity of the American cowboy and how he gives a nod to the chivalric Arthurian knight in, White Hats for White Plume: The Western as Arthurian Romance Reimagined.
Sunday is a half-day that is usually sparsely attended as people raid the early morning book sale, pack up and slowly meander home. I was pleasantly surprised to find so many people staying on to listen to the Sunday sessions. I attended only one session, Technology in Medieval Studies: New Innovations and Recent Applications. All three papers looked at how technology can be applied to further research and study of the Middle Ages. Kyle Dase (University of Saskatchewan) spoke about the improvements being made to archiving The Seafarer and other Old English texts online in Reconfiguring The Seafarer: The Editorial Challenge of a Revised HTML Edition. Danielle Trynoski (Independent Scholar) explained some of the fascinating research being done in surveying and mapping Viking Camps and Settlements in Targeting Viking Winter Camps with Geospatial Survey Models. Cassandra Tucker (University of Nebraska – Omaha) closed this year’s KZOO for me with her paper on the SKEIN Beta Project and searching for archive data across various dates and sources in, Visualizing Medieval Thought: Mapping the Dissemination of Ideas Across the Medieval World.
One added note…PK and I were part of 2 roundtables this year that focused on Medievalists in the public realm. My panel was The Public Medievalist: A Roundtable on Engaging the Public with the Middle Ages. We had some interesting discussions about how to make history relatable, how to protect yourself online as an academic, the limits of private vs. public, and what our responsibilities are when we write in the public sphere. The second roundtable was Medievalists in the Media, which discussed the TV and interviews side of things: how to avoid being misquoted or misrepresented in interviews, using every opportunity in front of the camera as a teaching moment, how to engage the general public, what to ask for and what to expect from media, TV shows and productions people, and the thorny issues of being a “subject matter expert”.
All in all, it was a great 4 days. Hopefully, money and time permitting, I will be able to come back next year. For now, I’m looking forward to my very first International Medieval Congress at Leeds University in July!