I don’t know about you, but in the current medical and economic climate, I am finding my identity as a researcher quite hard to maintain. As Dirk Gently would have put it, its waveform has collapsed. I have been letting correspondence about research projects and plans drop, just because I can’t see through to a point where they will be practical again, and I was already doing this before the pandemic to be honest. I am also, concomitantly, finding it increasingly hard to engage with the research that people are still managing to do, or at least present, like the recent virtual International Medieval Congress, which I didn’t attend. I mention this mainly because it’s one reason I’ve found it hard to get round to writing this post about the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2017; I was there and I learnt things and I had fun, although I wasn’t really presenting anything new, but it seems very far from what matters now. But maybe that means it’s important to retain, and in any case it did happen, however unlikely that large a gathering now seems. So here we are, an account.
The UK teaching calendar makes it difficult to attend a conference in May, but on this occasion I went with a delegation from my department, there to show the flag and, directly or indirectly, recruit postgraduate students, and so we made heroic efforts of rescheduling and red-eye flight and were there, three staff members and a similar number of our own postgraduates. The two other staff members were both late medievalists and the postgraduates all ran later than me too, so we presented together and then I largely proceeded independently and met them all again on the last day. My itinerary through the Congress therefore didn’t resemble anyone else’s, but this is what it looked like.
11th May 2017
- Jamie Wood, “Monasteries and the Exploitation of Territory in Late Antique Iberia”
- Rebecca Devlin, “Competing Networks and Alliances and the Emergence of Episcopal Authority in the Early Suevic Kingdom”
- Molly Lester, “Diversity Statements: Local Liturgies and Religious Reform in Early Medieval Iberia”
- Damián Fernández, “Embedded Power: State Administration and Landholding in the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo”
- Vanessa Wright, “The Trickster Wife: Transgressing Boundaries and Changing Identity in the Old French fabliaux
- Iona McCleery, “Fixed or Fluid Boundaries? Portuguese Attitudes towards African Cultures, Spaces, and Places in the Four Fifteenth-Century Chronicles of Gomes Eanes de Zurara (d. ca. 1474)”
- Ariana Myers, “Opportunism and (Dis)Honor: Apostasy and Infamy in the Thirteenth-Century Conquest of Majorca”
- Jonathan Jarrett, “Who’s In Charge Here? Border Lords and Central Control in North-Eastern Iberia around the Year 1000”
- Trevor Russell Smith, “Scottish identity and the Ethics of War in English Chronicles, 1327–77”
- Regan Eby, “Border Lordship, Communication, and Aristocratic Sociability in Eleventh-Century Northeastern Brittany”
- Danielle Bradley, “Imagining Bureaucratic Identity and Agency in Twelfth-Century British Court Criticism”
- Sunny Harrison, “The (In)Articulate Sufferer: Pain, Lameness, and the Horse as Non-Human Patient”
25. Localism, Regionalism, and Centralism in Early Medieval Iberia
This was probably actually one of the best sessions I went to, with some very sharp observations about the competition for power in the kingdoms of post-Roman Iberia. Jamie, trying to compare textual and archaeological sources for exploitation of territory by monasteries, came up against the thing that Anglo-Saxonists and Celticists already noticed, that archaeologically a monastery looks a lot like a secular settlement. Dr Devlin argued that the élite networks that we see in cases of disputes over primacy between bishoprics or court factions did not differ very much, because the same people were working out the same competitions using whichever set of tools were relevant, heresy accusations, tax liability, political loyalty. Ms Lester had something quite similar to say about the maintenance of local practices of worship in such zones, viz. that it was not really about which practice was more pleasing to God and much more about identity politics, although when quizzed she argued that actual belief would have been at least one of the reasons people took such stands. Jamie suggested that the priority in these case was the best way, not necessarily the right way, a qualification worth thinking with. Lastly, Professor Fernández, whom I’d last seen present most of a decade ago in another country, argued that the states we’re studying here didn’t make our distinction between tax, tribute and rent, and that trying to do so means we can’t understand how they worked. I am always impressed with anything that looks like progress on our understanding of the Visigothic kingdom, given how limited the material is, and this all looked like quite a lot.
71. Medieval Boundaries and Borders I: Intersecting Identities
It doesn’t take much research to realise that this was one of the sessions organised by my home organisation, the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds, with two of our staff members and one of our postgrads along with a special guest from Princeton. Vanessa was arguing that there wasn’t a consistent attitude towards cross-dressing and gender ambiguity in the texts she was studying but that authors with differing views on it still found it a good place to locate ambiguities they wanted to explore. Iona, looking at chronicles written by people who had been and seen West Africa, found them still frustratingly, or intriguingly, full of pre-made tropes that the chroniclers obviously liked better than the difference (and mixing) with which their experience had confronted them. Ms Myers was looking at people who converted from Islam to Christianity or vice versa in thirteenth-century Aragón and found that it never seems to have worked out well for them. Lastly, I was asking if there was scope for lords on the frontier of my favourite patch of study, late-Carolingian Catalonia, actually to get away from central control there, using the examples of the Vicar Sal·la of Bages and the alleged ‘tower scammer’ Hisnabert of Santa Oliva, and argued firstly that if people had gone rogue we probably wouldn’t see them in our source but secondly that when such people engaged with central power they did so for their reasons, not its, which isn’t considered enough. You may think a link between these papers would be hard to find, but Graham Barrett managed it by asking if we severally could tell where the centre and periphery implied by our sources began and ended, a worthy question that led moderator Axel Müller to propose starting a Centre for Peripheral Studies. It may yet come true! Loyalty both to institutions and old acquaintances then demanded that I stay put for the next one…
118. Medieval Boundaries and Borders II: Thresholds of Agency
This time we had [Edit: three postgraduates and a postdoctoral scholar, two of the former being Leeds people]. Trevor argued that by and large English sources about fighting the Scots certainly work to dehumanise and barbarise the English’s actual opponents, but not to a modern total extent where killing their civiliians would have been OK; our cherry-picking these sources for racism misses the wider agenda of justification they had going on. Regan, another long-time-no-see, argued for aristocrats on both sides of the French-Breton border in her period having extensive networks on the other side too, making an unhelpful nonsense of ideas of betrayal and treachery here; any choice of action during conflict had winners and losers for all parties, which they presumably assessed situationally. Ms Bradley showed us twelfth-century intellectual John of Salisbury working to justify both bishops who worked for the king and churchmen who read pagan texts as being OK if they were holy enough to start with and damnable on their own basis if they weren’t, which sounds like John’s brand of special pleading to me indeed. And lastly Sunny argued that medieval horse-doctors understood certain actions by horses, like splaying ears back or playing up lameness, as communication and therefore a kind of rationality, challenging our, rather than the medieval, boundary between human and animal. Here the best question probably came from Iona McCleery, who asked if the concepts of the boundaries in play here existed because of or prior to the physical instantiation of them; from my notes, everyone seems to have favoured setting the physical one within the wider mental landscape, which is interesting to think with even now.
And thus ended the first day, and while I suspect I did go and get the infamous wine and say hello to people, and even drifted into the IMS’s own reception, as I recall quite close to the end, I also suspect that I then quickly got a taxi to where I was staying (not in the dorms, but by my confusion also not in the right branch of the relevant chain to get the conference discount, not that I think I wound up paying any more) and fell over, because I was tired.
Where I was staying was a bit of an Americana experience. It was the first place I’ve ever stayed built on that motel model where your room is just part of a row of effectively terraced cabins opening straight onto the parking lot. If you’ve never before seen one of these for real but only in films, your main mental association with this set-up may like mine be of killers arriving at dawn and bursting straight through the sleeping character’s window, and whether because of that, an excursion to go buy local craft beer or just the timezone shift, I didn’t sleep well. When I had to get up I made the executive decision to give up on attending the plenary lectures and embrace the Americana by going to the nearby Denny’s for pancakes. Thanks to that, the refill coffee and a taxi again, I was in place by 10:00 with something like my brain in, for a day that went like this.
12th May 2017
- Alice Blackwell, Martin Goldberg and Fraser Hunter, “A New Type of Hoard: Europe’s Northermost pre-Viking Hacksilver”
- Rory Naismith, “The Private Lives of Hoards”
- Catherine Karkov, “Response”
- Pablo Poveda Arias, “Conquest or Assumption? The Territorial Implementation Mechanisms of Visigothic and Merovingian Monarchies”
- Nicole Lopez-Jantzen, “Familial Strategies in 7th- and 8th-century Italy: nuancing political history”
- Andrew Holt, “The Templars and the Confraternity of Belchite: a comparison of origins”
- James G. Schryver, “An Archaeology of the Military Orders in the Holy Land?”
- Gregory Leighton, “The Teutonic Order and Landscape Sacralization in the 13th-century Crusades to Prussia”
Here I had done that very classic thing of flying to a different country across an ocean to see two people from my own talk about stuff relating to it, but it has to be said that Dr Blackwell, the lone author of her paper actually present to give it, was someone else I hadn’t seen for a decade, so apparently that is what it took. She had been busy since then, and on this occasion specifically with the Norrie’s Law and Gaulcross silver hoards, 5th- or 6th- century deposits from near monuments either side of the notional border between British and Pictish territories containing a lot of broken-up objects, some of the same sorts in both hoards.
There are a lot of enigmas here, and obvious comparisons to the Staffordshire Hoard, and Dr Blackwell was meticulous at keeping the individuality of the deposits to the fore as the rest of us tried to make them like things we knew better. Rory, meanwhile, was trying to extract some general rules of hoarding from our wider understanding but mainly to contrast them to the Forum Hoard, about which we’ve read here before, which doesn’t fit the rules at all well. Professor Karkov finished off with that classic strategy, what would Derrida do? All three speakers tended to wonder, however, whether religious motives for hoarding could be distinguished or even separated from others, and since that had also come up over Visigothic faction politics the previous day I’m now seeing a theme developing that at the time I don’t think I perceived… Intellect deadened by pancakes, perhaps! Anyway, that got me to lunch, and then we went on as follows.
248. Early Medieval Europe II: Strategies of Power
You can see from the title what drew me to this session, but I did so with some reservations as it was down by a full half of its planned speakers. What remained was:
The first of these papers set up an opposition between expansion of power by warfare and doing it by negotiation, infiltration and replacement or recruitment of élites beyond your current reach. Questions revealed problems with broadening the comparison to anywhere that had powerful external enemies or might have needed to integrate non-élites, but in principle I’m in favour of people actually theorising this stuff. The second paper was asking whether kinship was a political force in Lombard Italy, and found that it was probably less prominent in Lombard Italy than in Roman Italy but had a stronger role for women as brokers of relations on the Lombard side of the border. On the Roman Church or imperial service ties were more useful. Of course, some people had a foothold on both sides of the border, but here the evidence basically runs out. So then, still managing on placebo caffeine, I went on to this:
321. Military Orders and Crusades in Comparative Perspectives: The Levant, Spain, and the Baltic Region
This session was intended, explained Florin Curta, presiding, to get an archaeological-historical dialogue going over the theme of Crusading and its traces. Professor Holt was dealing with a quite in-field question, however, that of whether the Confraternity of Belchite, an Aragonese organisation that knights could join temporarily as spiritually-vowed warriors, was really a Military Order or some Aragonese riff on the Muslim idea of the ribāt; he argued that it was neither, but simply an institutionalised crusade, or rather armed pilgrimage, with a base and premises. Professor Schryver had set out to discover whether the Military Orders left a distinctive archaeological trace in the Holy Land, which he was exploring via consumption patterns, but was having to conclude that they probably didn’t. Lastly Dr Leighton showed us how the chronicler Peter of Duisburg depicted the pagan lands the Teutonic Order had taken over in the Baltic as a domain where miracles happened, generating new foci of the sacred for the new Christian occupants of the land and legitimising their actions. Florin tried to cross two of the streams by asking whether the material trace of the Teutonic Order was the same in other places they worked, to which Dr Leighton answered that it wasn’t, but that they liked to repeat place-names, which indeed bore on Professor Schryver’s findings.
Anyway, after that it was the night of both the BABEL reception, to which I did not get, and the Early Medieval Europe one, to which I did, and there were many people to catch up with, but presumably I didn’t stay out too late, or else just took the hit the next morning, because this time I was there at 9 for the keynote.
13th May 2017
Plenary Lecture II
- The reason for this will probably be obvious when I explain that the keynote in question was:
- Chris Wickham, “The Donkey and the Boat: Rethinking Mediterranean Economic Expansion in the Eleventh Century”
- Elva Johnston, “Living on the Frontiers: Reassessing Fourth- and Fifth-Century Ireland”
- Patrick Wadden, “Creating the Irish and the English: Identity formation in early medieval Britain”
- James G. Schryver, “Response”
- Carine van Rhijn, “‘Not just stultitia, but Outright Nequitia‘: Theodulf of Orléans and his Contemporaries on Stupidity”
- Valerie Garver, “Debating Vanity: Alcuin’s Chastisements Concerning Clothing”
- Max McComb, “‘For Priests are Found to be Insipid’: Hildemar of Corbie and the Corporal Punishment of Monastic Priests”
- Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Visualising Transnational Medieval Economic Networks”
- Andrei Gândilà, “Reconciling the ‘Step Sisters’: Early Byzantine, Numismatics, History and Archaeology”
- Jane Sancinito, “The Monetary Economy of Early Medieval Syria in its Mediterranean Context”
Now, this was excellent, but you don’t have to take my word for it, because it turns out Chris also gave versions of it in one or two other places that year, which means that I can just show it to you instead:
It starts with letters from a woman complaining to her no-good husband and threatening him with the police, if that tempts you at all, and finishes with the complex interplay of traders and the demand for goods in a shifting political context that probably only Chris could express at all coherently, so there is a lot to learn here if one wants. From this, however, I went to something on an entirely different scale, again partly to catch up with someone I hadn’t seen for a while.
388. The Robert T. Farrell Lecture
The first half of this double-headed lecture asked us to see Ireland as a Roman frontier just like the one across the Rhine, with chiefs getting Roman treasure and toilet sets and being enlisted into Christianity, but not necessarily doing with those things what the Romans had intended or with whom. Then Patrick, with whom I taught years ago, asked how far there was an ‘Irish’ people in the early Middle Ages: those outside the island saw all within it as some kind of group but that very much was not the perspective from within, nor was there even really a native word that did that work, something that has tended to be overshadowed by the success of Bede and his ilk in establishing a single identity for the people in the lowlands of his own island. The response focused mainly on Saint Patrick as a crosser of identities, and of course as Patrick W. pointed out, Bede did not apparently know about Saint Patrick—but then St Patrick was from Bede’s out-group, the British…1 Once the session was wrapped up I was able briefly to talk to Patrick (the scholar not the saint), but lunch plans led us our separate ways and once fortified, I was able to resume again.
414. Twelve Angry Carolingians II: Not Angry, Just Disappointed
I did like the conceit for these sessions, and the fliers even more, and choosing the one old friend over several for the previous session had been hard, but now I found one of my other natural groups, speaking as follows:
Carine was looking at the deployment of accusations of stupidity, which in the Carolingian period come mainly from bishops dealing with rustics, and argued that they really only came out for people who, as the bishops saw it, refused to be taught, thus making the big Carolingian reform mission to which these guys were committed impossible. Professor Garver showed us that Alcuin, Anglo-Saxon intellectual at King Charlemagne’s court, had a particular problem with showy clothing as a demonstration of just such power gradients. Lastly Mr McComb looked at an ethical dilemma for monastic rule-maker Hildemar of Corbie: an abbot can administer corporal punishment to his flock where necessary, but what if the guilty monk is a priest? He ends up deciding that the priest can still be beaten, suggesting that priests would not be invulnerable in this way till later. Carine thus raised the issue of priests who were slaves, whom the laws suggest had fewer people worried about their sacred status when it came to raising hands against them. Sessions like this help figure us out where the people I study thought the lines of conduct were in their world.
467. Exploring the Early Medieval Economy: from Macro to Micro
Readers with even fairly short memories will quickly work out what took me to this session when I give you the line-up:
Originally my friend Luca Zavagno had also been supposed to be presenting, which would have completed this perfectly, but as it was I still wanted to know what had been going on with that project I’d briefly been thrown at earlier the previous year. Lee’s paper, although mainly a project advertisement, actually picked up on the closing problems we’d seen there, the obvious one that remained still being the need to use the terms of their source information despite inconsistencies between sources. I still don’t see what they can do about that, but it’s not as if the whole field doesn’t have the problem anyway. Andrei’s paper, meanwhile, was more of an advert for numismatics for archaeologists, but was actually quite realistic about why more hasn’t been done to combine the two as well as offering some suggestions for how it could be done. Dr Sancinito, lastly, gave us a case study, comparing provinces of the Late Roman East by their coin circulation and thus showing that Transjordan seemed oddly isolated from its neighbour economies. She needed more information to give chronologies on this but was showing us micro-worlds in the data, all the same, which is pretty cool.
Now this was the night of the dance, and I tell you with some shock, I cannot remember if I went, or at least if I danced. I’m fairly sure I went, at least, but for how long? No idea, and I don’t think that means anything about alcohol consumption, not least because my notes tell me I was up again for the morning session the next day.2
14th May 2017
- Eleanor R. Barraclough, “‘Halögaland, whose inhabitants often live together with the Finnar’: Norse-Sami relations in the Arctic borderlands”
- Rosalind Bonté, “Bishops, Revenants, and Walrus Skulls: Christianity on the Margins of Norse Greenland”
- John-Henry Clay, “Borders and Boundaries in the Conversion of Germany under the Carolingians”
- Guy Halsall, “From Group to Subject (and Back Again): Rethinking Identity in the Early Middle Ages”
- Christoper Guyol, “Gregory of Tours, Religious Authority, and Modern Sociology”
- Helen Foxhall Forbes, “Calabria, AD 400–900: Late Antique? Early Medieval? Byzantine?”
535. Boundaries and Borderlands
Here again several themes crossed for me, firstly that key-word boundaries and secondly old colleagues, since long-memoried readers might remember Eleanor making me give an impromptu lecture about Æthelred the Unready on a minibus once. Here she was winning extra points by remembering the Sami, something that I have often been annoyed by Scandinavian studies failing to do. Eleanor argued for the overlapping Sami-Norse territory as a shared interspace in a way that might surprise people who live there now, albeit a dangerous one. Ms Bonté took us back into models of centre and periphery, arguing that for the writers of Old Norse literature Iceland was a centre, the home from which heros went out and met the weird stuff, even though archaeology suggests that Greenland was not as alien or disconnected as all that; but the literary gesture made Iceland safer and more real by comparison. Lastly Dr Clay suggested that one of the reasons that eighth-century sources depict the pagan Saxons as so very obdurate and disorganised, even though archaeologically they don’t seem to have been very different to the various other German-side groups that Franks evangelised, is that the missionaries who went to them were largely not Frankish and so found them that much more unfamiliar and alien. This paper was full of archaeological elements that I wanted to check because they sounded too good to be true, and everybody was caught by the Hornhausen stone…
but possibly not everybody because it seemed oddly familiar to them…
It’s not the same, stylistically, I know, even I who don’t really believe in style can see that, and all the similarity means is that men rode horses in this culture and people thought interlace was cool (and we know that that is not very specific).3 Still, it struck me. Still thinking, after much-needed caffeine I moved on.
545. Transformations in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, II: New Methodologies and Approaches
This last session turned out to be good for thinking. Despite Professor Halsall describing his paper as ‘reflective over-sharing’, it wound up saying some quite important things about how we as historians attempt to track identity—itself under-theorised, as he said—in our sources, since what we see is actually identifiers, things that we use to attribute identity, but which cannot themselves convey all of it or do it reliably. It’s not that this revelation suddenly made possible new moves in the detection of early medieval identities, but it did put convincing words round why doing that is difficult. Mr Guyol tracked a similarly careful path for modern theories through the work of Bishop Gregory of Tours about that same question I’d asked, who’s in charge, in this case of the Frankish episcopate, which Mr Guyol thought Gregory was doing by loudly asserting a set of things people agreed bishops could and did do which left the king no grounds to interfere. Lastly Dr Foxhall Forbes posed the question of whether Calabria over the period she was looking at counted as late Antique, Byzantine or early medieval, and of course the answer is all three in so far as they’re all our overlapping labels for the same time-space. The discussion here was very clever, people looking for fixed points or shared planes of discourse and finding very few, so that it would have to be said that it didn’t produce any more certainty despite the cleverness.
So my Kalamazoo ended with categorical uncertainty, and then a few hours hanging round the slowly-emptying canteen with my departmental colleagues before beginning the long journey home. Looking back in writing this post, it seems that it was a pretty good one, but I have to admit, right now it’s hard to imagine another. We’re managing to replicate a lot of the academic experience virtually, but the happenstance and culture shocks, as well as the unguided wandering through either the place or the collision of ideas, will be hard to replicate until we can actually get back together in far-off places, I fear. Well, may this serve to remind us all why they were worth it!
1. A theme now explored in Alan Thacker, “Bede, the Britons and the Book of Samuel” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Janet L. Nelson and David Pelteret (eds), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009), pp. 129–147.
2. On getting up, too, I had a further culture shock, when I discovered the hotel staff member who had checked me in two days before now working in a cast. She had apparently broken her leg the evening before, but couldn’t afford to call in sick, so was trying to manage while in pain and with about three-quarters normal mobility. It’s not my country to judge, but it made me begrudge my National Insurance rather less, I admit.
3. There is some variation in the Pictish style, but it never works out very much like the German example, largely because of the size and squareness of the German horse, but also because of the different shields. See Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain, AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 391-393, describing a distinct group probably by one sculptor, who was presumably not kicking around in Germany a century and more before King Constantine I of the Picts (789-820), who is named on one of the things this guy carved.