Tomorrow there will be marking again, if I am to write here at all, it must be tonight… If that sounds a little hunted, I apologise, but the effect of my workload on my ability to blog sadly cannot be denied. At the end of last October I promised you about five posts; here is the first of them, in which I report on an afternoon spent in the bosom of my then-freshly new department, Leeds’s Institute for Medieval Studies, on a day when it was in some sense on display, and since it showed it up so well I thought it would be good to remark on it here, even after such a long time.
There are in the IMS two long-running seminar series—most of the institutions within the IMS have a long and venerable pedigree by now—and one of these, Medieval Group, is slightly less formal than the other. Whereas the regular medieval history seminar is exactly what one would expect, the Medieval Group has members who are not part of the University and also does extra-curricular activities. Naturally enough that requires some publicity to get people to come, and on Saturday 24th October, 2015, there was therefore held the 22nd Annual Medieval Research Afternoon, and I was there and indeed part of the display.
The afternoon was broken into three parts, ‘Resources and Opportunities’, ‘Collaborations and Projects’, and ‘Research Presentations’. The first of these, maybe obviously, was intended to showcase the various medieval research things you can do in Leeds you can’t do elsewhere, and so we had short presentations from each of Elizabeth Linville, speaking on behalf of the Royal Armouries Museum, Lucy Moore, an ex-IMS student herself and speaking for Leeds Museums and Art Galleries for whom she now works (and indeed used to blog about coins), Rhiannon Lawrence-Francis, on behalf of Special Collections in the University of Leeds itself, and Dr Marta Cobb speaking for the International Medieval Congress, which among its other good works also provides a paid internship for one of our graduate students a year. We tend to have collaborative projects running with the Armouries because we have two staff members who work on, and supervise students in, medieval warfare, and so that was all very clear; we don’t have as much to do with the Museums and Art Galleries because they are cruelly overloaded, and indeed I was even then struggling to put something together with Lucy myself, but watch this space all the same, things are now afoot; and about some of the ways a medievalist might get working with Special Collections you have already heard. So all that made sense and was good and impressive.
‘Collaborations and Projects’ was more like normal paper presentations, so I’ll do it with the now-traditional bullet arrangement:
- Rene Hernandez Vera and Mike Spence, ‘Digitising the Monastic Past’: this was a report on a project then just winding up to test the possibilities for digitising the very substantial archive of Fountains Abbey, which was the richest Cistercian abbey in England, which would be documents from 1146 till the 1300s, including both originals and their registrations in various record books. To me that sounded like the most interesting bit, the possibility of comparing the originals to what people thought worth preserving, but then I am a colossal charter geek as we know, and it may be that such a database would also serve people who just want to know more about Cistercian land management or the economic structures of pious intercession and so on, and of course of those we do have some famous ones…
- Romina Westphal, ‘Shedding Light on a New Science in the 12th Century: an iconographic study of the Hildesheim candlesticks’: this was a project on two small but intriguing candlesticks that now live in the Hildesheim Domschule. One of them is adorned with images of the three continents (as were then known) and the other with philosophical personifications. At this point Romina and her project boss, Dr Eva Frojmovic, had only just got hold of decent images of the objects and had from that managed to work out that the latter was indeed that, and not as it was previously thought to be images of the medieval school curriculum, the trivium, and further progress was soon expected.
- Sophie Harwood and Iason Tzouriadis, ‘Leeds Postgraduate Culture and War Conference’: this was more of an advert than a paper, as the conference was then about to happen: entirely postgraduate-organised, but fully academic in its speakers, it’s now heading for its second iteration and is one of the more impressive things we do, I think, though it’s now bigger than just us.
Then there was tea and biscuits, because we are a civilised institution, and then it was the last part of the programme, which broke down like this:
- Jonathan Jarrett, ‘Low Down and Edgy: Frontier and Settler Societies in Medieval Iberia and Beyond’
- Pietro Delcorno, ‘Crossing the Alps with Dante: Preaching the Commedia in Fifteenth-Century Europe’
- Venetia Bridges, ‘Interpreting Alexander the Great in the Middle Ages: Medieval and Modern Challenges’
Three speakers from three different schools in the University—while the IMS is in institutional terms part of the School of History, it was born as a more genuinely interdisciplinary cluster and it still has extensive collaborations with other schools. Thus, I spoke for History, as it were, Pietro for Languages (and specifically Italian) and Venetia for English. Long-term readers here may not struggle to guess what I was talking about, though you may justly wonder how I squeezed what was here five long blog posts into ten minutes’ talking; for those without that memory or time to read the blog posts, I basically suggested that all our current models for how medieval frontier societies developed have problems when used as generalisations and that we needed way more case-study data before we tried to develop decent new models, and I asked for people’s help. Pietro had been searching for evidence of people using Dante’s Divine Comedy in preaching, which it turns out is a thing that happened, but it happened especially in a sermon collection he’d found in which a pilgrim with a guardian angel followed Dante’s track and learned preaching points along the way, and of which he had found 15 manuscripts in total, making it a quite important way in which Dante came to be known across the Alps. Dante is quoted and cited in the gloss, so it was not an effort to appropriate; it was genuine use of him for spiritual understanding, which given how weird he is I found quite surprising. Lastly, Venetia described to us her then-forthcoming book on the various medieval romances about the fictionalised adventures of Alexander the Great, and since there is now a book you can read her publisher’s blurb, but it sounded like fun.
I think that looking back on this the thing that now strikes me is how dynamic the IMS’s population has been in the time I’ve been there already. Of the speakers who spoke for the IMS on this occasion, only Marta, Michael Spence and myself are still there. OK, Marta and I are permanent staff and it’s three years plus on from the event, so that’s not surprising really, but it still strikes me. Rene Hernandez is now at the Universidad San Tomas in Colombia; Sophie Harwood is now teaching English in Berlin and still publishing; Romina taught for me one year and got an ongoing job in a museum in Germany just before the end of that; Iason was one of my postgraduate advisees, passed his doctorate in very good standing and is now “the assistant archivist and assistant curator for the Worshipful Company of Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers”, already; Pietro but lately flew from us to Central European University; and Venetia went to Bristol and is now at Durham. (Links are given above for all of them if you want them.) As I sat in the Le Patourel Room that day I thought I was watching a display of the department’s research power, but I think now that I was actually watching its potential as a professional springboard, and mostly these papers were the first small jump the diver takes to flex the board before making the big plunge…