So, by this time slightly broken from lack of decent sleep, I headed into the fourth and final days of this year’s Leeds by filling myself with fried food and heading for “Texts and Communities in Early Medieval Europe”, on the grounds of a friend presenting. The other two presenting were St Andrews grad. students, one speaking on the Vita Columbani and the other on the communities of St Filibert; the latter paper, by Christian Harding, revealed some interesting faction in the longtime-fugitive monks apparent in the hagiographic texts and was nicely argued. The final paper was James Palmer complaining that computistical texts are actually really complicated and that no-one, particularly Arno Borst, has really come up with an explanation of what they’re for that satisfies all or even most manuscript cases. He did say it was mainly a rant but he managed to make it interesting despite his lack of conclusions as yet.
Then much-needed coffee and collecting books that had been put aside so as not to weaken displays, and then the second session of the day and last session of the whole thing, “Rethinking Early Medieval Narratives”. In this Adrian Smith told us that Gregory of Tours sets up King Theuderic of the Franks as the bad guy in his Ten Books of Histories (or at least the one of them where he appears) for what must have been mainly rhetorical purposes as he makes him a good guy and his enemies the evil ones in his Glory of the Fathers; this was an interesting observation, if as yet unexplained. Marios Costambeys became the latest of many a scholar to get his hands dirty in the manuscript transmission of the Liber Pontificalis, the papal biography collection which sources so much of Roman history in the Early Middle Ages; and Steven Robbie argued energetically for a closer dating of Widukind of Corvey’s Deeds of the Saxons by suggesting that Widukind’s depiction of the coronation of Otto I must be based on actually having witnessed Otto II’s. This seemed, as I recall, to set up as many problems as it solved, because Otto II’s coronation is not mentioned in the text, so you then have to argue why there was time to redraft lots of the earlier text but not mention even briefly the patron monarch’s crowning glory (no pun originally intended). But such was the energy of the argument that it only became clear it didn’t work once we’d wrapped up.
And then, well, it was over. I got my things together, left the bike briefly in charge of the estimable Gesta while handing in papers, and got myself down to the station, getting lost and missing my train by minutes but happily being allowed onto the next one with no difficulty. Home by just late enough not to need to go into work. Which leaves me wondering how to try and give an idea of the whole Leeds thing. You’ve got some idea already, I guess. It probably comes over as very intense the way I tell it, but I spent most of it either panicking, desperately short of sleep or drunk or all three, and I expect many people might play it differently. There are for example excursions on all the four days if you want to do some medieval tourism instead, and there are plenty of local possibilities. I don’t see the point of missing out on the networking and learning myself, but if you’re not from the UK I guess that seeing some of these things with expert guidance may have more appeal.
Basic things. The conference is split between two halls of residence, Bodington and Weetwood, about ten minutes’ walk apart. This means that a half-hour gap between sessions is just about enough to both caffeinate and travel between if you need to. At Weetwood the accommodation, food and drink is expensive and the coffee is drinkable; at Bodington the accommodation is cheap, the food lousy, and the beer acceptable but the coffee is not worth the name. Neither venue really makes tea possible and one of the best moments of getting home is a cup of tea in which boiling water actually formed part of the process. Eating conference food all through is not only unpleasant but unnecessary, though the breakfasts are good reinforcement if you don’t value your arterial clearances and the packed lunches are reliable and filling. For dinner, however, I recommend nipping down the road to Headingley and buying some stuff you can cook in a microwave; you’ll have one (you may even have hobs, but you can’t tell this till you arrive so bringing a pan may be pointless) and this will see you eating more cheaply and healthily. The buses into town are half-hourly, but regular; the conference shuttle buses between the campuses and accommodation are less regular, but numerous and usually adequate. The buses at either end of the process, from conference to station (like the campus shuttles, free) are horribly over-subscribed and not over-particular about timing, but I didn’t do much better on the bike, so hey.
I always stay in Bodington, partly because it’s cheaper and the accommodation, being student rooms in term, is adequate for a few days, indeed it’s better than two of the rooms I had as an undergraduate. The pictures below give you some idea. Also, Bodington, being the bigger and older of the two halls, has the computer lab (though as it won’t let Java applets run and has no SSH I effectively can’t check mail from there so I never use it), the big and cheaper bar, and the lawn on which people sprawl during sunny conferences. As I’ve said, this point where everyone relaxes together is one of the best bits for me, though there are plenty of people organising private or family parties—there is family accommodation, though it’s further away. Weetwood is probably a nicer place to chill, however, and because it has the high-tech presentation equipment tends to be where the trendy and literature studies types wind up socialising. Actually there isn’t an obvious causal link there but it does seem to work out that way. Perhaps it’s their beer choice that determines it? Anyway.
On the last night there is a dance. This would doubtless occasion ridicule from some quarters, though some people really can dance and they’re not all the ones you’d expect. Mainly I stay clear because by my lights, the music is terrible: eighties and nineties AOR and chart-pop, school disco fodder that I really can’t summon up a dancing urge to. As this in turn makes me feel like a wallflower when so many other people are able to enjoy themselves, I tend to spend it in the bar talking to people from Utrecht, Helsinki or Sheffield (or, this year, St Andrews, by the law of averages as much as anything). The point though is that lots of people do not, that even European medievalists can manage to let their hair down and have fun and if you think such-and-such an author doesn’t read like someone who would, you might be surprised. There is no harm in this except in the reinforcement of the idea in the DJ’s head that this music is what people want to hear. The football (soccer, that is) match that happens before is a different matter, mind. I gather Helmut Reimitz is a bit good…
Also, there are huge numbers of cheap books. Five or six second-hand sellers are far outnumbered by stalls from most of the big publishers with medieval interests. This year Cambridge University Press were conspic. by their a., and Brepols and Oxford University Press were inviting mockery with their prices, but I bought something from both so again, hey. There are many bargains to be had, and the offchance of being able to find the author if you so choose.
Mainly this is a forum where plans are made. You hear something that someone else is doing and perceive a link, an angle on your own stuff; you talk to them afterwards and you find, or I did, that next year the two of you are presenting a session. Next year it’s a strand, and there’s a book planned; you meet other people in the field and applaud some of their ideas, think others are useless (but probably don’t say so). You hear about texts and sites you didn’t know existed; you get new details on stuff you thought you knew; and sometimes, you nearly fall asleep being told stuff that doesn’t matter, but this can usually be avoided. You keep up with things and get the impetus to get ahead a short way in time for next year. You also see friends, but you’ll make more, even if only academic ones. (But sometimes more, you know: I’ve seen one marriage and a long-distance relationship disintegrate because the husband got together with one of the long-distance partners at the dance, but because I know them not the wife or the distant partner I only saw the happy side. No I am not naming names for this one, do you think I’m mad? But it happened at Leeds.)
I don’t know if Kalamazoo is like this, though I may yet have to go you know. But I know that other conferences in the UK aren’t. This is a congress that deserves its name, people are not conferring together but going about together. Its huge size allows this to happen, but also makes it very expensive: registration plus accommodation and food is in the realm of £150 sterling, and you have to factor in beer and books too as well as travel (though there are reductions and bursaries for students, unwaged, etc.) It is also hectic, high-pressure, crowded and usually very hot. But I guess I’m doing it again next year, because although I can see why someone would prefer not to and it’s not like I lack for medievalist chatter compared to many of my readers, Leeds has managed to make itself where things happen and it’s always nice to be part of a happening, isn’t it?
Sleep, however, that’s a trick I really need to remaster…