Cambridge to Siena and back part two: the actual conference

The Università per Stranieri in Siena is just opposite the station, a little way out of town proper. This had the rather strange advantage that I could walk in with my bags and register, more or less straight off the train. I almost immediately ran into Eileen Joy too, which added to the feeling that I’d walked into a weird parallel-universe version of the Academy. The New Chaucer Society are to be congratulated on the quality of their freebies and the friendliness of the staff, and also on the quality of the nibbles and the coffee, though the latter did keep running out. It being, you know, a university in Italy, I don’t believe they can have been unprepared for how much Italian coffee conferring academics can drink, I think it was just parsimony somewhere which was a pity. Otherwise, though, initial impressions good.

Università per Stranieri

Università per Stranieri, Siena

Unfortunately I now tried to be clever. I decided that I didn’t really stand to get much out of the keynote, but that I could use that time finding my hotel, getting a much-needed shower and then popping back down for sessions that looked more likely to interest me. Sounds cunning doesn’t it? But friends, it is hot in Italy around midday in July. By the time I found the hotel, with only one wrong turn but a long one, caused by a road with both its ends on the same roundabout (see reflections on Siena’s geography elsewhere for context to this sort of confusion), I was very much more in need of a shower than I had been. And I was too early for check-in, which opened at the same time as the sessions I wished to return to, so they wouldn’t let me in. The guy on the desk could have been less helpful, but only by refusing to speak English. So I had to climb back down the hill in the full afternoon sun, with all the same bags I’d schlepped up there. And of course I’d had really very little sleep, so this came hard and I sweated the more. I arrived back at the conference with white bands across my shirt where the bag straps had rubbed my sweat dry and very much less than presentable. So bad did I look and feel that I dived into the loos to try and sponge down a bit, both me and the evil-smelling shirt, and found that of the two men’s loos one had a working dryer and one had working taps, if by working you mean they ran for two seconds if you held your hands just right beneath them. It was not easy to look like a scholar or indeed smell like one in these circumstances. I later discovered in fact that more or less everyone was feeling like this, because the room containing the keynote had had no functioning air conditioning, but I still think I looked more obviously freaky than most because of the sweat-stains, which I could only partially wash out with the resources to hand, so I spent most of the day shamefacedly keeping safe distances from people and trying not to stink, which probably didn’t help me make friends.1 As you may imagine, my good impression of the Università per Stranieri’s facilities had now sunk rather.

Università per Stranieri

All very fine till the air conditioning fails

But, I was indubitably at at least part of the 17th Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society, on the 17th July 2010, my notes tell me so. So, the papers!

45. Animal Theories and Methodologies

I chose this one because it looked like the best opportunity I’d ever get to collect a set of legends, Bruce Holsinger and Carolyn Dinshaw being names I’ve seen in many a place, spoken with awe or envy often, but until now names only. So this was something of an education.

  • Bruce Holsinger, “Membrane Æsthetics”. This was a cunning conceit, which Professor Holsinger set up with the idea of extracting DNA from manuscript parchment. We know this can be done, of course, albeit not yet with useful results, and he mentioned most of the projects doing it (though not Michael Drout‘s, to which I took the liberty of alerting him afterwards). Then he set about describing one that he was purportedly involved in but had had to abort when it transpired that, as he revealed in deadpan Hammer horror style, “the parchment… is human!”

    Christ in Majesty in the Codex Amiatinus

    This was of course a spoof, but the idea was presumably to get us reflecting on the sheer amount of death involved in medieval manuscript culture. Yes, it probably took 500 sheep to make the Codex Amiatinus (I pulled that figure out of the air, but of that order I believe), we take this too easily—500 sheep man, that’s how many families’ entire herds? How many individual throats cut and bled out? More than the monks could eat, we can be fairly sure. Yes, OK, we do forget this too easily. (Though it bothers us far more than the people of the time, presumably.) And of course the idea was—I supposed, he merely said, “was I doing that?” when it was suggested—to reinstil the appropriate horror to the source material.

    Skulls in the burial pit at Ridgeway, Dorset

    Skulls of dead Vikings unearthed at the Ridgeway, Dorset


    Now, this bothered me, but it took me a while to work out why, fully. My notes indicate some frustration: I find “[cf. eating]” signalling my recognition that this is in some ways just the vegetarianism debate again: in what ways and for what purpose is it acceptable for humans to kill animals? But more annoyingly yet, it finally came to me, look, there are actually a whole bunch of people out there whose subject material is actually human remains, they’re called archæologists. And they, especially in Prof. Holsinger’s country of employment what with NAGPRA, face these dilemmas that he had jokingly raised, for real all the time and it’s not funny. So I thought in the end that by trying to make animal work more serious he wound up diminishing those who work on the human in a direct way, and thus opening questions he hadn’t really given any space to at the cost of the point he actually seemed to be making.

    Can it be a bad paper that makes one think so, you might ask? And should I really be annoyed, therefore? Am I actually failing to demote the human from its state of privilege and thus fundamentally out of step with the session’s ethic? Or was he just floating something about which taste and interdisciplinarity might both have counselled wider frames of reference? I leave that to you to decide.

  • Sara Schotland, “Talking Bird/Gentle Heart: bonding between women and across species in the Squire’s Tale“, argued that the bird in the Squire’s Tale that consoles the heroine needs to be read as dually female and animal, and not together; it’s almost Christological. She also suggested that Chaucer here let women express themselves through painting, thus giving them access to authorship. This is tangled stuff for someone like me still wrangling with intentionality and authorship, so I’ll move on.
  • Petrarch's preserved cat

    Petrarch's allegd cat


    Sarah Stanbury, “Derrida’s Cat”, working off Derrida and setting out of how the category of animal is one that has historically licensed and still licenses genocide (though see of course the vegetarianism debate referenced above) and yet seems to end, in this respect, at the doorstep over which the pet may cross, and then took this into the Miller’s Tale where a cat is allowed to pass into the scholar’s otherwise private space thus enabling the narrative. Sadly, the third and only surviving, physically at least, cat mentioned, Petrarch’s, is likely to be a fake. I liked this paper, it was both sparklingly clever and had a point that even one so non-literary as me could grasp.
  • Lastly, Carolyn Dinshaw, “It’s Not Easy Being Green”, scoring easy points with the audience with the title alone, then went deep into the iconography of the Green Man, a figure who turns up repeatedly in medieval church architecture and appears to have subcutaneous foliage. My notes may be simplest:
    This flouts boundary between human and plant, organism and environment, deconstructing whole world by dissolving absolute separation of our categories: “nothing exists independently”. Subcutaneous foliage! Under-things under things… A horror of interdependency betrays our incompleteness and provokes fright/fight reaction. We should stop being part of something bigger and work on intimacy, which is queer and terrible.

    She has the gift for this stuff, does Professor Dinshaw and it was easy to see why she’s become so legendary.

    Green Man at Llangwm Church, Monmouthshire

    Green Man at Llangwm Church, Monmouthshire; loads more linked through

  • So that was a good one to end with, and there were lots of questions, not least from Karl Steel and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, about animals and materiality respectively, and Mary Kate Hurley suggesting that animals’ wishes (like the cat that wants to go out) ought to lead us to question our self-determination. Mary, blog more will you? Cheers. (These people get mentioned because I knew them by name; there were other fine questions asked too, especially about parchment production by people who knew their stuff, but I can’t name them alas.) All lively and clever, anyway, even if far out of any field where I could say who was saying new things and who wasn’t. Sadly, I didn’t quit there.

51. Latin and its Rivals, 2: Chronicles in the Age of Chaucer

I chose this because it looked like the most hardcore historical thing on offer and I figured it would be nice to get back to an area where I could evaluate a bit more rather than being dazzled by big smiles, human and non-human warmth and bait-and-switch rhetoric. I was quite wrong.

  • George B. Stow, “The Author of the Continuation of the Eulogium Historiarum
  • Sylvia Federico Bates, “Walsingham’s Dictys in Chaucer’s Troilyus and Crisede
  • Andrew Prescott, “Thomas Walsingham and the Peasant’s Revolt”
  • James G. Clark, “The Audience of the Monastic Chronicler in late Medieval England”
  • Neither Bates nor Prescott had actually been able to get there, and their papers were therefore read for them. Not a good start, but actually those were the better two, short (despite not being in control of the text) and punchy; I enjoyed the Prescott paper so much that I wound up fruitlessly engaging the guy who’d given it about it afterwards, to little avail as of course it wasn’t his work. Stow overran by ten minutes and I personally tuned out when he revealed that he was summarising a paper in EHR.2 And Clark, I don’t know how much he overran by because I was the second person to walk out, I gather he went on right till the end of the session and nobody stopped him. It wasn’t uninteresting, even, being as he was suggesting that chronicles were actually getting out of their houses and being read, for example, at universities, but some of the audience might have liked to discuss at least a bit…

Anyway, there it was. Realising that I still wouldn’t be able to get to the hotel I made another slightly more successful attempt to wash and brush up and dry out—I must have been doing something right as I was told I resembled Johnny Depp by a lady I shan’t name and shame; before I had the beard I only ever got compared to Hugh Grant—and headed for dinner. Dinner, at a place called the Enoteca Italiana, was gorgeous, I mean sumptuous, I could see immediately why the conference fee had been so high and suddenly I didn’t mind. They served excellent wine and rather good food (albeit with almost no vegetables…) to a gathering of maybe a hundred and twenty people without let or hindrance and we all left very merry. Also, I found myself accidentally sitting at the same table as Derek Pearsall, for one, someone I knew vaguely from London with whom I turned out to have a lot in common for two, and last but not least Dr Virago, who is awesome (as indeed I had been told, but it’s always nice to find one’s friends are right). A wander through the streets afterwards with various of the party and some less recordable discussion was a welcome tonic too, and when I did, eventually, get into my room at the hotel, and shower at LAST, I was able to sleep sound and satisfied.

I have no notes on what happened the next morning, which is hardly surprising because it was US (as in, we have seen the enemy and he is…)

60. Blogging, Virtual Communities, and Medieval Studies

  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Blogging Past, Present and Askew
  • Carl S. Pyrdum III, who is ‘kind of a big deal’, “Blogging on the Margins: Got Medieval, Medieval Blogging, and Mainstream Readership”
  • Stephanie Trigg, “How do you find the time? Work, pleasure, time and blogging”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “An Englishman’s blog is his castle: names, freedom and control in medievalist blogging”
  • David Lawton, “Response”
  • I thought we were pretty awesome personally, as were our various learned commentators, blogarific and otherwise, but it’s weird how little any of us have blogged about it. My paper’s here, with the Powerpoint presentation here, for what it’s worth; I don’t see myself doing anything further with it, but I should warn you that it’s nothing like as humane as Jeffrey’s or as deep as Stephanie’s, and features 100% fewer robot Chaucers than Carl’s. Mainly what we learn from this panel, I think, is that it’s a very bad idea to let me near the controls of a computer with a live Internet connection that’s hooked up to a projector. The urge to improvise illustrations for other people’s remarks is very very strong.

Now after that I went to find lunch with Eileen Joy and Karl and Mary and a range of other people less blogular but equally good company, and it was nice, and then thanks to Eileen’s great kindness in letting me drop stuff in their flat for a short while, I was able to actually do some touristing. And that will come post after next, but first, I am long overdue with a range of important newses and they will come next.


1. But would embracing the stench have helped more, that’s the question isn’t it. I like to think mine was the path of a gentleman.

2. “The Continuation of the Eulogium Historiarum: Some Revisionist Perspectives” in English Historical Review Vol. 119 (Oxford 2004), pp. 667-681, if that’s of interest.

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15 responses to “Cambridge to Siena and back part two: the actual conference

  1. Petrarch’s cake is most likely a fake and was probably installed in the 17th century as part of the cult of Arquà.

    Petrarch did however have a dog and he wrote a beautiful carmen for it.

  2. I’m awesome? Cool! :)

  3. I have had exactly that problem with James Clark and I was chairing. It didn’t matter what I did, he would not stop. At one point I was tempted to engage the fire alarm. Yes, people left.

    You’ve been using ‘important newses’ as an excuse for at least two months now. When are you going to put us out of our misery? Someone somewhere must be running a book…

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  5. In re number of sheep to make the Codex Amiatinus, a learned commentator informs me by e-mail:

    R. L. Bruce Mitford, The Art of the Codex Amiatinus, Jarrow Lecture 1967 calculated that an entire calf (not sheep) skin was used for each bifolium of 505 mm x 780 mm and thus that 515 skins were used for the entire volume. As it was one of three that was a huge pile! See Carolingians and the Written Word for discussion of how many skins used to make books, p. 139

    The work to which my informant latterly refers there is of course Rosamond McKitterick’s The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge 1989), which generally has far more in it than I took in on first reading all those years ago and which I thoroughly recommend to the readership.

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  9. Hey Jonathan,

    this is fun – I just put some quotes of the Holsinger paper into the ppt for my lecture and found your blog when looking for pictures of parchment making. I have been fascinated with that article ever since it came out (working on human skin myself) and am still SO sorry that I missed Holsinger’s talk because … I got lost over the lunch break in VERY HOT Siena. I made it into the lecture room just when his talk was done (I was the woman with the bright red face…) I am sure it was the same street you got lost in – I just couldn’t find a way out!!!

    Greetings from presently very cool Switzerland! NIc

    • Aha, I hadn’t realised it had gone into print. With gimmick intact? Quite an achievement, given how little fun peer review will usually let through. I don’t know whether I should be sorry I don’t remember you, given your description which I’m sure is exaggerated, but I’m afraid that my insufficient attempts to keep my personal, er, aura from messing up anyone else’s that day must have kept my attention off the door. Thanks for the comment!

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