Friday, March 16, 2012

Medieval Studies Conference

Western Michigan University campus, Kalamazoo

It's conference time again. Well, actually it isn't, yet, not until May, but The Book is here. I have before me the conference book for the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies, to be held in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and can now begin to thread my way through the 574 sessions listed, which offer three papers apiece, on average. There are also the plenaries, the exhibition (medieval ivories, from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London), and the many business and social meetings of the sponsoring organizations. Also, we must not forget the truly amazing shopping - mostly for books, but I've been known to come away with other treasures as well: medieval coins (see earlier blog post about Talismans), t-shirts, icons, jewelry, coffee mugs, casts of medieval seals, an authentic scrap of parchment with an illuminated letter on it, CDs, and a bar of glycerine soap containing a plastic Excalibur. Oh, and a copy of the first Harry Potter book in Italian. Yes, that counts as a book, but not the sort one usually shops for at Kalamazoo.

Over 3000 people attend this conference each year. Attendees range from distinguished professors to eager graduate students to high school history teachers, who may be teaching the American Civil War, but who nevertheless harbor a secret love for the middle ages, as well as members of several religious orders and a healthy contingent of independent scholars. Quite a few people from other countries attend. It can be difficult to decide among the many sessions available in each time slot (as many as 40-50 possibilities per each hour-and-a-half period).

[Henceforth, session names will appear in italics and paper titles will appear within quotation marks, for clarity.] There's a vast range of topics, from the general (Fifteenth Century English History and Culture) to the very specific. A few examples of papers in the latter category include: "The Response to Canon 13 of the Council of Lyons II by Bishop Oliver Sutton of Lincoln (1280-1289)"; "Trinitarian Exemplarism in Rupert of Deutz's Theology of Creation"; "Thirteenth-Century Byzantine Gold Hyperpyra: Stylistic and Technical Problems of Attribution"; "Lifestyle of the Medieval Population from the Bucharest University Square Cemetery"; "Paradoxes of Pitch Content in Franco-Burgundian Polyphony: The Illuminating Case of Liebert's Plainsong Mass (ca. 1425)"; and "Combat Training for the Longsword: The Efficacy of the Proliferation of Options following a Single Entry in to Any Mode of Combat in the Flos duellatorum."

A very specific topic

That last one is also an example of titles so lengthy that you can have no doubt about the topic covered. Others include "Retrieval of the Medieval Sources Underlying the Concept of Tradition as Developed in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council" and "The Invisible Horse-Eating Monster as Divine Agent in Thebaid Chariot Racing and Consequent Medieval Jousts."

The Invisible Horse-Eating Monster suggests another category that is quite subjective: the titles one finds particularly intriguing. For me, these include "Episcopal-Monastic Interactions under the Early Capetians (or, Bishops are from Mars, Abbots are from Venus"; The Outrageous Middle Ages: Transgression, Perpetration, and the Scandalous II; "It's Not Over Until It's Overkill: Mixed Messages from the Archaeology of Violence"; and "What the Puck? Discerning Demons and Fairies through Corpus Analysis", a paper presented as part of the session called Conjuring Fairies. One that especially appealed to me was this: "Popular Tudor Drama: What We Thought We Knew, What We Thought We'd Find, and What We Think We Know Now." The presenter of this paper can only be someone thoroughly familiar with the Platonic concept of twice-ignorance.

What We Think We Know Now

Sometimes sessions will be scheduled to commemorate a particular event, for example, The Seven Hundredth Anniversary of the Suppression of the Templars. Next year will see the seven hundredth anniversary of Boccaccio's birth, so I expect much hoopla and many lively sessions for those of us who study the Italian middle ages.

The conference does not neglect the modern entirely. Note, for example, The Medievalism of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels; Kindle-ing the Codex: Are d-Books the New Lindisfarne?; Electronic Medievalist Games (A Festive Workshop and Poster Session); and the paper "Reincorporating the Medieval: Morality, Chivalry, and Honor in Post-financial-meltdown Corporate Revisionism". It can also wax self-referential, as in "This Is Your Brain on Medieval Studies."

Your Brain on Medieval Studies

These sessions are sponsored by groups with wonderful names, such as the Societas Daemonica, the Medieval Foremothers Society, the Lollard Society, the Goliardic Society, Tolkien at Kalamazoo, Mens et Mensa: Society for the Study of Food in the Middle Ages, and the appropriately-acronymed DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation, and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics, and Fashion). One of my favorites, Heretics Without Borders, is not in evidence this year, but I trust they'll be back. It is tempting to scan the list of business and social meetings and ponder whether one can read anything into the fact that the International Boethius Society is hosting a reception with an open bar, but the International Society of Hildegarde von Bingen Studies only has a cash bar at its business meeting.

Cash bar or open bar?

Sessions are held in five different buildings on campus, not necessarily close to one another, which makes it extremely difficult to paper-hop. If, for example, you want to hear the first two papers in one session and the third paper in a different session, your success will depend upon each moderator's ability to parcel out presentation time equally among presenters, and on your own ability to cover the ground between sessions quickly enough. It will also depend on everything going as scheduled, with no cancellations or changes of sequence. It helps to have a sense of direction. I once sprinted between buildings trying to reach a session on Dante in time for the third paper, got turned around, and somehow found myself listening to a paper on York Minster. I like York Minster, you understand, and it was a very good paper; it just wasn't quite what I was expecting.

York Minster?!?

Other popular conference activities have included concerts, mystery plays (I recall one in which Mary Magdalene's sandals revealed red toenail polish), a swordplay demo, sessions involving free samples of medieval food and beer, readings of plays, movie screenings (it's Knightriders, this year), and the ever-popular Saturday evening session by Societas Fontibus Historae Medii Aevi Inveniendis, vulgo dictis, "The Pseudo Society", which presents parody papers, often very clever and lavishly illustrated. This last, which also features a cash bar just outside, is so well attended that it spills over into a second auditorium, where the presentations are broadcast live. Some early papers presented by The Pseudo Society are in print; you can find them here. There is also a Saturday night dance, but I've never attended it, so I can't describe it.

A very popular session

And the books. Rooms and rooms of books: newly-published, classic texts, used books. Many major publishers of scholarly works have booths and displays, and if you don't want to burden yourself with heavy books, they will give you a form to send in later, to purchase books by mail and still qualify for the conference discount. The conference even has a mailroom set up for the many people who will buy too many books to carry home, so that they can send them instead. On Sunday, after a certain time, prices on remaining books drop, and there is a stampede into the book rooms for one last shopping spree before the conference ends.

Used books

And that's Kalamazoo. I don't go every year; I don't know yet if I'll be going this year. But it's fascinating, fun, and absorbing, and even perusing the schedule ahead of time can be useful. I've contacted presenters about their work, if it caught my eye in a year I was unable to attend, and the publishers' ads in the conference book are well worth a look to see what's newly published.

If you have an interest in the middle ages, and this conference is a possibility for you, do give it a try. You won't be sorry.

Images in this post are either my own photos (campus, mug) or in the public domain and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

No comments: