Tag Archives: Jeffrey Cohen

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

    Christ in Majesty from the Codex Amiatinus, ink and dyes on sheepskin

    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.

Kalamazoo and Back, II: ritual, chronicles and arm-wrestling

Resuming the Kalamazoo blogging, then, as mentioned before, there was no kettle, and before that in reverse order, there had been geese, an electrical storm and a small hours arrival in a room which we will not discuss further. Result, really not much sleep, and there was no kettle. Therefore to become at all coherent for the day I had to negotiate the canteen uncaffeinated, and no sooner had I uncertainly done so than a voice I didn’t know hailed me by name. This turned out to be Michael who writes the Heptarchy Herald, and he was not like I’d imagined him at all (though if I had stopped and thought back over one of his comments, I might have had a better idea). He amiably put up with me while I diluted the blood in my caffeine-stream enough to talk with joined-up words, and then we headed off to sessions.

Session 4. Carolingian Studies: Secular Culture I

(Also covered by the Medieval History Geek here.)

  • Obviously, having travelled thousands of miles to a strange country filled with people I’d never met, the first thing I did was go to hear an old friend. But Christina Pössel is always thought-provoking. Here, her paper, “Was there such a thing as Carolingian secular ritual: comparing oranges and apples in order to learn something about fruit”, was aimed at tackling the problem in ritual studies (which she tends to prove are still interesting) that circulate round the fact that rituals are usually directed at the supernatural, which pretty much excludes them from secularity. She wound up arguing that non-supernatural rituals did exist, and that several may be in the Salic Law; she also, more controversially, suggested that they might be almost as new as the writing of the code, as they give a large rôle to kings despite supposedly harking from an era when there supposedly weren’t kings in the same way. In particular, a ritual for breaking your kin ties and their rights to inherit your property makes the fisc your heir, which could hardly be the case before there was a fisc… Her general pitch was that these were ways of generating a memorable spectacle that no-one could later easily deny knowledge of, and that makes sense to me and fits with some work of Jinty Nelson’s (which Christina namechecked) about the Franks getting children to witness transactions so that their memory, which should be beaten into them if necessary, would persist in subsequent decades.1
  • Paul Kershaw then presented a paper about a particular one of the poems of Theodulf of Orléans, in fact just a few lines of it (also singled out by Paul Dutton in his reader of such things2) in which Theodulf mocks an oversize courtier by the name of Wibod (and Curt Emanuel has posted Paul’s translation if you’re curious). Paul’s paper, “Membrosus heros: Theodulf, Wibod, and Carolingian categories of secular identity”, went deep into questions of physical versus intellectual and how far our sources let us see the rough side of the court culture, but also put some much-needed context to Wibod himself. This was a paper where the questions actually wound up considerably altering the slant of the presentation, as Paul had left me with the familiar impression that Theodulf was basically being malicious from a safe distance whereas several questioners seemed to think that the joke wouldn’t work unless Theodulf and Wibod were already old sparring partners and Wibod understood the jibe, which lets Wibod a lot further into the court culture than we might otherwise have thought.
  • Lastly in the session, Professor Lynda Coon presented a paper called “Lay Bodies” in which she described the kind of access the lay population had to the imaginary monastery laid out in the St Gall Plan, which was not just extremely schematised (as is everything else in that plan, and some of schemed in much older lists as I had recently been discovering3) but also complete with built-in hierarchy, one side of the church for nobles and friends and one for the plebs4), although still only a sixth of the whole floor plan with lay access at all. This, interestingly, didn’t apply in the crypt where monks and pilgrims might mingle almost ineluctably. Lots to think about with boundaries of secular and religious space here, especially since the scheme of saints’ chapels got more and more male and monastic the further into the church you would have gone if it existed (that last being the fundamental problem with this source of course: I helped by suggesting that recent archæological work at San Vincenzo al Volturno suggests that that site might have been built a lot closer to the ideal than was St Gall).

Then there was lunch, by which point I had located the estimable Another Damned Medievalist, or rather she me, and so I was able to let her take over my social calendar for the day, which was just as well given my disorientation. Over lunch we spotted and accosted Mary Kate Hurley and she of the Rebel Letter, one of whom I knew was charming and about the other of whom I was proved right to suspect similarly, and I avoided the book exhibit until more rational. After that, it was back to Carolingia!

Session 59. Carolingian Studies: Secular Culture II

(This one also covered by the Medieval History Geek here.)

  • The second of these sessions was led off by Jennifer Davis, whom I turned out to remember from her time in Cambridge unbeknownst to me, and she was talking to the title “The Court of Charlemagne: lay aspects in the aula renovata“. Here again we met the problem of largely ecclesiastical sources for a project, the Carolingian court, that was also or even more meant to involve the lay population, and she negotiated those problems to suggest especially that the assignment of persons to tasks was probably done by their particular skills and connections more than by any office or rank they might hold, and also that quite a lot of Charlemagne’s reign was spent reacting to crises so that a fully-developed and implemented policy is probably too much to expect anyway. Obvious, you may think, but often someone first needs to say these things before they seem that way.
  • Cullen Chandler is of course my officially-appointed nemesis or arch-rival or something, though this has been a lot more difficult to maintain since we were actually introduced and got on OK. He was presenting to the title, “Königsnähe and Rebellion in the Ninth Century”, and suggested that the long string of rebellions on the Spanish march by Frankish marquises could not be seen as a struggle for Königsnähe but as a means of forcing the king to open negotiations around which power might be rearranged in this or other areas. I wasn’t really aware that people had seen it the former way, because as usual my perspectives are formed from the local scholarship where sometimes a more global perspective would be useful. The Catalan historiography isn’t interested so much in vindicating the marquises, since out of their forfeitures comes the success of the local dynasty, but it is pretty clear that Barcelona is not somewhere one runs to to get people’s attention, but because it’s a long way away and damned difficult to reduce.5 It’s not at Barcelona that Charles the Bald finally catches Bernard of Septimania, after all, but his notional home capital of Toulouse… But anyone else who is pointing out that interesting things happen in this area that affect the rest of Carolingian history is fundamentally OK with me and that was certainly happening here. There is more I could say about a particular theme of Cullen’s and one or two other papers, too, but I’ll come back to that separately.
  • The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

  • Lastly, and heroically defeating transport difficulties to be there at all, came Helmut Reimitz, speaking on “Ethnicity, Identity, and Difference: the future for lay people in the Carolingian Empire”. There were some very interesting takes from the social sciences on what constitutes an identity deployed here: the most cynical, but also useful, was one from a chap called Hall to the effect that identity is a cover story to assert continuity during an episode of change,6 but Helmut pointed out that over time this cover story also changes, noting it especially in the fact that when Charles the Bald gets a kingdom of Alemannia in the fateful divisio of 829, it’s not an Alemannia with any historical or ethnic basis, but one with which, nonetheless, Walahfrid Strabo goes on strongly to identify. Interesting stuff, and Helmut pulled it out to an Empire-wide successful formulation of the Frankish identity as Christianity-plus-membership-of-the-Frankish-polity, wherever its constitutents had come from. I think it might be interesting, in a full version of this paper, to look at some areas where this identity doesn’t triumph, for example, northern Italy or, indeed, the Spanish March though there things are a lot more complex. But I would say that wouldn’t I? This was a good paper and that’s what matters.

Session 129. Accessing the Medieval in Nottingham II

  • Refreshed by further coffee, I now struck out, because there was developing a danger here that I do what can be done at Leeds with the Texts and Identities sessions and listen to nothing outside my own field of study; there was enough Carolingiana all conference that I thought breaking out would be a good plan. Instead, I went to a session some way off in an incredibly huge lecture theatre that I didn’t then realise I’d be presenting in two days later, where sadly Dayanna Knight was no longer going to talk about “Cultural Contact in the Norse North Atlantic AD 800-1500″, which I’d thought might hit some of this blog’s less common interests, but John Quanrud was still there and presenting on what I thought was a title full of potential, “Annals, Scribes and Kings: revisiting the origins of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, and which did not disappoint, either. His pitch was basically that there has been quite a lot of work on the possibility of precursor texts to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as supposedly assembled somewhere near King Alfred c. 892, by Janet Bately and Frank Stenton especially, but that they were all working in different directions.7 Quanrud’s paper brought them all into line, or at least a number of them, and demonstrated that there is a particular point around 878 when all of the models seem to emphasise a discontinuity in the texts. He proposed that the solution to this was that there were two precursor texts, an annalistic compilation from which most of the bald annals come and a dynastic propaganda text covering the sons of Egbert, 825-878 basically, which he supposed was done for circulation when Alfred was on his uppers in the marshes that autumn and which may have helped motivate support for the king against the Danes. I was less convinced by the stylistic arguments that these two were distinct than I was by the argument that this was the best way to resolve the apparent oddities of focus by region and person that the earlier work was picking up on. But whether you credit it or not, it just goes to show that there is no such thing as a worked-out source…
  • Follow that, you may think, but Malte Ringer did a reasonable job with, “Heathendom in the Laws of Medieval Norway”, which took a very sober and careful view of what the Old Norse laws actually say about paganism, wisely refused to entertain any of the extreme interpretations that have been placed on this material, and separated a number of different senses of the word ‘heathen’ in them that don’t want to be confused for each other, ‘unbaptised’, ‘idolatrous’, ‘inclusive of anyone who might not be Christian’, ‘unchristian’ in the sense of needing to be excluded from Christian society by reason of ill conduct, and ‘foreign non-Christian’. It sounds like a dry paper but it wasn’t; maybe I just have a high tolerance for social philology or maybe it was just that Malte is a good speaker who prizes accuracy enough to be interesting about it; I thought the latter, myself.
  • I would have liked the third paper too, but these two were worth coming across the site for.

Of course there were more papers in the evening, but at that point I let society overwhelm me. First there were wine hours (and was it perhaps then that I met Michelle of Heavenfield? I did this at some point that day) and secondly there was an excellent early medievalists’ dinner arranged consummately by Deborah Deliyannis. I didn’t perhaps meet as many new people as I should have but I got to introduce separate sets of friends to each other and talk Tom Waits and that’s a definite success as far as I’m concerned. Then there was, after a while of getting there, entry into the élite circles of the blogosphere in as much as there was an after-party for the launch of the book of Geoffrey Chaucer’s blog. This has been reported elsewhere, of course, with claims of arm-wrestling and generally decadent comportment, but who are you going to believe on a matter of fact over interpretation, me or Jeffrey Cohen? Don’t answer that… Instead, let me merely say that In the Medieval Middle stock a mean beer fridge, that Eileen Joy has some impressively strong students, [edit: that it was delightful at this point to meet Adrienne Odasso of Lost in Transcription, whose fame had reached me long before and who was quite frightened to discover this—she should have been in this post from the beginning, I apologise—] and that just because I’ve met Brantley Bryant doesn’t mean I have to stop referring to the Chaucer blogger as Chaucer does it? It was fun. Thankyou guys.

Quote of this day of the conference, a toss-up between the following:

  1. “Of course! Literature is left-handed!” (Eileen Joy)
  2. “A corner of tenth-century whoop-ass!” (Brantley Bryant)

I invite judgements in comments! Of course, some might have said that I needed an early night. I think I did say this, in fact, but it was obviously wrong.


1. I think this is Janet L. Nelson, “Gender, Memory and Social Power. Elisabeth van Houts, Memory and Gender in Medieval Europe 900-1200 (Macmillan, London, 1999). Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: women and power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (Routledge, London, 1999)” in Pauline Stafford and A. B. Muller-Bakker (edd.), Gendering the Middle Ages, Gender and History Vol. 12 Pt. 3 (Oxford 2000), pp. 531-771; repr. separatim (Oxford 2001), pp. 722-734.

2. Paul Edward Dutton (ed./transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Readings in Medieval Civilization and Cultures 1, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2004), p. 106.

3. I need to mail this to Professor Coon, in fact, and ‘this’ is: Wolfgang Metz, Das karolingische Reichsgut: eine verfassungs- und verwaltungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (Berlin 1960), pp. 26-45, which is ostensibly about the Brevium exempla but also uses the St Gall Plan as one of the texts that he shows were using late antique plant lists to source their supposedly contemporary lists of crops and garden patches.

4. I remember being very surprised when I first discovered this word was singular. Now I surprise other people with the fact.

5. For this reason I still think the best and clearest account of the politics in southern France during the second half of the ninth century that I know comes from Josep María Salrach i Marés, El Procés de Formació Nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX). 1: El Domini Carolingi, Llibres a l’Abast 136 (Barcelona 1978), pp. 91-127, because he places the rebel magnates in both their regional and central contexts rather than just the latter.

6. Apparently Stuart Hall, “Ethnicity: identity and difference” in Radical America Vol. 23 (Somerville 1989), pp. 9-20.

7. Quanrud’s excellent handout allows me to list these as especially: Janet M. Bately, “The Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 60 B.C. to A.D. 890: vocabulary as evidence” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 64 (London 1978), pp. 93-129; R. Hogdkin, A History of the Anglo-Saxons (Oxford 1935); and Frank Merry Stenton, “The South-Western Element in the Old English Chronicle” in A. G. Little & F. M. Powicke (edd.), Essays in Medieval History presented to T. F. Tout (Manchester 1925), pp. 15-24, repr. in Stenton, Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Doris Stenton (Oxford 1970), pp. 106-115.

Leeds report 1 (Monday 13th July)

So yes. As recounted elsewhere I travelled up to Leeds on the Sunday before, installed myself and then went to a party, which has no business being reported here so I’ll move on. Anyway, I was there for all of the actual International Medieval Congress, and the best way to report so that it doesn’t entirely swamp all else seems to be the way I did the Haskins Society Conference, with session and paper titles and minimal comments; I can always say more if you want to know. Of course the difference between Haskins and Leeds is that Leeds runs many sessions in parallel, typically 29 or 30 this year. By my reckoning that means that even if one went to only the regular sessions and not the round tables, plenary lectures or excursions, one could still attend 2914 different combinations of sessions, so this is only one possible Leeds of, er, more than 10 million billion (and I do mean billion not milliard you crazy US types with your smaller numbers). I don’t imagine there will be that many other write-ups however…

One has to get up very early to get a decent seat at the keynote lectures at Leeds, which is how it starts, but I snuck in at the back and managed. I’d wanted to go especially on two counts, because I’ve worked for one of the speakers and know him to be extremely clever, a good presenter and a genuinely decent fellow, and I’ve argued with the other speaker all over the Interweb, and thought it would be interesting to hear him speak in person. The former is John Arnold and the latter is of course Jeffrey J. Cohen of In The Medieval Middle. Both were very good in different ways: John was dry, discerning, careful, thorough and deeply involved in his material, and Jeffrey was persuasive, emotive, intelligible and working (also carefully) with some fascinating material. Happily, for deeper analysis I can point you to Magistra’s write-up of the session, and that will allow me to get back to the structure and minimalism I was just promising you. So, that was:

1. Keynote Lectures 2009

  • John H. Arnold, “Heresies and Rhetorics”
  • Jeffrey J. Cohen, “Between Christian and Jew: orthodoxy, violence and living together in medieval England”

And then there was coffee and then the papers themselves started, and I went as follows.

105. Charters and Communities

  • Jinna Smit, “Per dominum comitem: charters and chancery of the Counts of Holland/Hainaut, 1299-1345″
  • Charter from the archives of Count of Hainault, by the scribe Richard Fleck

    Charter from the archives of Count of Hainault, by the scribe Richard Fleck

    Thoughtful little paper showing those things you get with offices producing a lot of documents that somehow we forget to expect with the Middle Ages, officials signing things off that they didn’t write, other people using their name, but here with the additional complication of a single rule of provinces with two different vernaculars, meaning that some scribes could only work one half of the territory; the really cool thing was that quite a lot of the scribal identification work had been done using OCR hand recognition techniques, which only a short while ago I was being told was impossible and then only possible with Glagolithic

  • Arnved Nedkvitne, “Charters and Literacy in Norwegian Rural Societies in the Late Middle Ages”
  • One of the reasons I wanted to get someone in my sessions talking about Scandinavia was that it goes through some of the changes that Western Europe goes through sufficiently late that we get to watch in more detail; so, here, the point that really struck me was that though there might be no schools, actually even training a choir equips some boys with rudimentary Latin literacy of a kind, and that might, as here, wind up being sufficient for document production.

  • Karl Heidecker, “Rewriting and ‘Photocopying’ Charters: the multi-purpose rearrangement of an 11th-century Burgundian archive”
  • Karl, who was leader of the very important St Gall Projekt, is now working on Saint-Bénigne de Dijon, which is fascinating for a range of reasons; the one he had picked is that one of its cartularies contains graphical copies of the originals, with script grades and chrismons and all that fine stuff but not with the actual layout, the layout shunted round to fit the cartulary pages; just the effort of working out how the cartulary had once fitted together was enough to bamboozle however.

Food for thought over lunch, and then I foolishly decided to try and get something written, with the end result that I was late for…

225. Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Medieval Grand Narrative, I: the marriage of theory and praxis

  • Joaquin Martinez Pizarro, “Doomed Window-Shopping in Late Antique Gaul: thoughts on the literary study of historiography”
  • Jeff Rider, “The Uses of the Middle Ages”
  • Guy Halsall, “Dialogue, Interlocution or Just Plain Cultural History? What (if anything) do we mean by `interdisciplinary’?”
  • You may guess here that I was here for the last paper, in which Guy very approachably and without too much scorn went for the throat of the interdisciplinary endeavour, arguing that the valuable work it has produced is far far outweighed by the deadweight of its necessity as a buzzword in funding applications making it meaningless, and that in any case even when the few people who really can work in two disciplines with equal facility, rather than just raiding another for ideas, do this and do it well, nonetheless what they produce is something that, before we used this word, would have been called cultural or maybe even social history; that is, whatever discipline you mix with history, you always wind up doing history at the end, in as much you are studying the past rather than the present. I actually think that a lot of the `literary turn’, not least that showcased by Eileen Joy of In The Medieval Middle, is more about the present than the past whose light it turns on us, so I don’t know that Guy is right here, but I confess that I would side with him if pastists and presentists were forced to segregate. As to the other papers, I missed the beginning of Martínez’s but his basic point appeared to be that Gregory of Tours used style that his victims wouldn’t recognise to elevate his position in the eyes of his peers, which sounded familiar, and Jeff Rider’s paper and the best question he got asked because of it have already been taken up by Magistra better than I could manage.

So, tea, and then across the campus in order to be in time for…

303. Architecture, Archaeology, and Landscape of Power, III: the royal vill in Anglo-Saxon England

  • Alex Sanmark, “Anglo-Saxon Royal Manors: location and communication”
  • Stuart Brookes, “Royal Vills and Royal Power in Anglo-Saxon Kent”
  • Ryan Lavelle, “West Saxon Royal Sites”
  • I confess that I made a nuisance of myself in this one by asking about the statistical validity of the distribution maps that all the speakers were using. As one commentator said to me afterwards, “Yes, they should absolutely be allowed to map what they like against whatever they want – but then they should map it against telephone boxes and see whether that correlation doesn’t look significant too”. Dr Brookes knew what I meant and brought up Kolmogorov-Smirnoff without being prompted, so his pattern of the development of the power structure of royalty in Kent may have been better founded than his paper allowed one to understand. In that case I think his choice of dumbing down was ill-advised; the people who could understand his material would have survived the full-strength version, the others aren’t interested enough anyway. A disappointing representation by a branch of the field we should all be listening to.

I now stepped back to the flat to make a rapid dinner and just made it back out in time for…

401. Special Lecture

  • Maribel Isabel Fierro, “Heresy and Political Legitimacy in Muslim Spain and Portugal”
  • An interesting and accessible guide to exactly how Islam recognises and expresses heresy and which of the relevant examples of this made it to al-Andalus, but not really so much to do with political legitimacy and, er, enhanced, by some of the most garish and confused use of Powerpoint I’ve ever seen someone get lost in.

There were three different receptions that night, too, and I don’t think I had to buy any drink, but I’m also fairly sure that I made it only to two of them and spent part of it writing a book review, so it was with an odd mixture of inebriation and mania that I retired in good time on the first night of Leeds.