I’ve been thinking about this series. I want to say what I did, saw and learnt, even if only briefly, but I also want to give a very general idea of what it’s like to ‘do Leeds’, some of which would not be related to this year; for example, in previous years one of the best things about Leeds has been having a seriously substantial portion of European medieval studies sprawled on the same lawn sunning themselves and whomever you might want to ask about something in your material being right there if you know what they look like. This year, it mainly rained and so the canonical lawn-sprawling wasn’t an option, and yet it definitely belongs in any general post of Leedsness. So what I will do is I will save that one till last, and do the detailed reportage on IMC 2008 in a post for each day here first.
I came up to Leeds from London on Sunday night, carrying far more books than I actually had time to read and one that I intended to sell which was the heaviest single thing I took either way except for my bicycle, which I have over the years found a damn sight more convenient and less frustrating than relying on the city’s buses. It’s not that they’re irregular or unreliable, it’s just that in Leeds the whole traffic system seems to be set up to drip-feed the vehicle flow through its traffic lights in sections of fifty yards, so you actually spend more time sitting at lights than you do moving. This also applies to bikes of course (yes, I believe that, I’m aware many don’t, they will be first against the tarmac when the truckers go berserk), but it still places one’s journey under one’s own control and so on. On the other hand, the route up to the IMC venue is almost entirely uphill, and is quite easy to get confused about in witching-hour mist.
I tell you all this, not as part of the general detail I just claimed I was saving for elsewhere, but because it explains why I missed the keynote lecture this year. I was later up, and very tired, than I might have been, and this year unlike last year, they were not doing admission to the keynote by ticket. This meant that though I could have crossed the campus to get there in technical time, there was no guarantee that I would get in, and the theme didn’t really interest me, so I didn’t bother. Instead I milled around and met people as they arrived, including a very few of my session contributors, which was reassuring, and then got coffee and made my way to the second session.
I had had some trouble the previous night choosing what to go to this year. The conference has a special theme each year, and although there’s no requirement to conform there is an effort to focus by both contributors and programmers that means that that theme is strongly in evidence. This year’s was the Natural World, and this is problematic for me for two reasons, firstly that I am mainly a historian concerned with human endeavours and while you can’t separate that from the natural world, I’m still post-natural in focus (argh! I’ve been reading and listening to too much po-mo waffle) in as much as I’m interested in what happens to the natural world after man has been let in to ruin it. And what sources have we got where he hadn’t, anyway? That’s the other thing of course: for anything with such a strong component of thought-world and mentalités, you have to use at least high medieval sources because there’s so little to go on before, so most of the papers on these themes were focused too late to interest me. I did mean to make it to at least one session on-theme, but in the event more relevant or shiny things distracted me. By and large, however, I could tell that the programme was thinner than usual for me because I didn’t have to choose between two alternatives, not because there was nothing to do.
So I sold the book I’d meant to sell, then bought four more from the same guy which cost me all I’d gained and two fifty extra, but which were still lighter and more useful in combination than what I’d shed, and then for second session I went to this one. Here we got David Rollason saying how strange it was that scholars of Insular and Carolingian palaces respectively tended to ask different questions, the latter in particular seeing them very much as space controlled by the palace owner but Insular scholars tending to see them as meeting places where the king or whoever had to negotiate. Sarah Semple brought this out in the Insular context by relating palaces to settlement and pointing out that the link isn’t always immediate, and Alex Sanmark gave the paper with the best pictures talking about prehistoric sites in Norway which seem to have been seasonally-occupied meeting places. I can’t help wonder who kept them from falling apart the rest of the year though: if I was holding a big meeting of the local pre-Vikings, I’d want to be sure the hall was safe and impressive-looking before I arrived…
Then there was lunch, and then it was showtime. The first of my Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic went well, mainly because Wendy Davies, talking about the length and elaboration of her Spanish charters and whether that mapped to anything useful about the status of those involved (answer, roughly, yes, but apparently only in donations not sales), and Bernhard Zeller, talking about the way that the St Gall scriptorium was organised with the same scribes working not only on each others’ books but also each others’ charters, had a perspective on each other’s material that let them answer each other’s questions in a way that led to a very good discussion. Alaric Trousdale also did sterling work making what could have been a terribly narrow subject interesting (and amusing) to all and I was very pleased with the way that this one just sort of made itself. A good start. The second one I was less happy with, mainly because I was presenting in it. The laptop I’d brought had developed a new and exciting way of crashing, the paper proved to be too long and had to be cut on the fly, which is much more obvious with a presentation because you have to click through things, and I felt that I’d handwaved and not made my impact; I was very grateful to Simon MacLean for asking a question that I could basically answer with the conclusion I’d glossed in order to finish quicker. Charles Insley‘s paper was much better, as we have come to expect, and Allan Scott McKinley had me worried at first but eventually revealed what he was talking about in such a way as to leave us fascinated at the end, which I suppose is better than the other way round. Allan had also worried me by turning up only fifteen minutes beforehand; this, he claims, fails to beat his previous record of five minutes late for his own paper, and therefore I shouldn’t even have started getting worried yet… He claims he had to leave out a lot because we’d already said it, which only goes to show that circulating papers in advance can help; I was the only one this year who did… Anyway, there was again good discussion but I was quite glad it was over and rather annoyed with how much better I’d wanted my paper to be than how it actually turned out.
I had wanted to get along to the Gender round table, if only to see if Eileen Joy talks as she blogs, but inclement weather, distance and the proximity of friends and free wine all overcame me and I prowled bookstalls and gossiped instead. I have in any case been able to read about it instead, which is perhaps better than attending would have been for me. And so the evening ended drinking with St Andrews people, a theme that would develop over the week, largely because there were so many of them there: one St Andrews medievalist claimed they’d brought down eighty people, which can seriously not be true, but it was hard to avoid them if one had had any reason to; I didn’t, some of them are my friends and the others I was happy to meet. So yup. First day down, late to bed, not much sleep, lots of new inspiration, a few books, thick head in the morning, this is how it goes…