Tag Archives: Alex Sanmark

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.

Leeds report 1: Monday 7th

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…