The 45th installment of the International Congress of Medieval Studies was another highly successful affair, bringing in over 3000 scholars and delivering hundreds of papers. Medievalists.net was on hand to listen to the papers and enjoy the conference. Here is our personal thoughts about the congress:
Sandra: As always, I had a great time in Kalamazoo with Peter attending some really interesting sessions. I enjoyed most of the sessions, although as always, there were some hit and miss moments. Some sessions that I thought would be great turned out to be rather boring and some that I thought were going to be boring really grabbed my attention. The sessions I enjoyed most this year were: Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, New Directions in Castle Research, and Rural Experience in Late Medieval England. I also found the session on Poison and Medicine in the 14th Century intriguing.
The Eastern Europe session peaked my interest because I’m Polish and it dealt with a part of history I was not privy to going to school in Canada. We get a lot more of the British perspective and I know little to nothing of my history. Even in university, the number of courses that deal with England and France far outnumber any on Poland or Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages. I love English history, and I’m usually drawn to sessions on medieval England but this caught my eye and I had to go learn more about medieval Eastern Europe. I’m very glad I did; I found the topics on Gift-giving culture, Bishops in Kraków and Pomeranian-Polish relations captivating.
The sessions on Castles were archeology papers. I love archeology; all 3 papers were very interesting. The surprise session for me was the Rural session – I initially took a look at the papers and thought Peter would have really enjoyed them since he is very interested in this topic outside of his usual military leanings. I actually liked all 3 papers and found the explanation of the manorial rolls and what information they provide scholars fascinating. I was pleasantly surprised and glad that I attended something outside of my usual areas of interest and enjoyed it that thoroughly.
The session on Poisons was packed but worth the time to attend. Three interesting papers on the topic of poison, it’s uses, laws and regulations surrounding it’s sales, and the treatises written on the subject.
What did I dislike? Three things mainly….wi-fi use. I found it extremely annoying to have to lug my laptop downstairs to find a quiet place to be able to post and work when I have a perfectly good desk in my room and all the quiet I need. I ended up in the lobby or in a session room with Peter late at night after everyone had left so we could work. I’d like to know if the university would do something to fix that next year. I’m sure people coming to Kalamazoo would much rather work on their papers and research in the privacy and quiet of their rooms rather than a few couches in the lobby where it’s louder than a bus terminal.
My second issue: appropriate rooms. I found that some sessions, the one on Poison in particular and another one on Sorcery were bound to draw a large crowd due to their catchy topics. The room was small and cramped and I ended up on the floor behind the speaking podium. A lot of people ended up sitting on the floor. There was no A/V for these papers so I don’t understand why they were given such a small room? One of the Valley rooms, like Valley 202, etc, those large rooms or an auditorium in Fetzer or Sangren would have been much better. Hopefully, the planning committee will work these kinds of kinks out for next year. Also, airing out the rooms…some of them were hot. Especially since the end of the 3pm session going right into the 3:30pm sessions – they need to be aired out, I found some of them suffocating.
Lastly, due to the sheer size of the Congress now, a lot of sessions are holding more than 3 papers per session. I dislike this and avoided those sessions. I saw a few that had 5, and quite a few that had 4. I find that a lot of sessions just make the mark. 4+ papers per sessions makes it rushed and leaves inadequate time for question period. I think the organizers are relying on people withdrawing papers (also a bone of contention this year that Peter will to speak to in his summary). I understand the Congress numbers have exploded, but I think they should still keep it to 3 quality papers per session instead of jamming 5 papers in and hoping someone drops out.
**Lastly, I forgot to mention in the initial post on our trip that I interviewed author Emma Campion about her upcoming book, The King’s Mistress. It will be released in July and I am about halfway through, and really enjoying it. Emma was interesting to interview, and I had a very good time speaking to her. She gives a bit of background on the history of Alice Perrers, and why she selected the character for this novel. She also goes into Alice’s origins, and her reputation and how she portrays her character in the book. Peter will be posting this interview shortly (as he is the “techie” in our partnership :) ). I will finish the book this week while I am in D.C. and pop the review up (hopefully) this weekend.
I had a fantastic time and I’m already looking forward to next year!
Peter: The congress is going to have its collection of great and not-so great papers – one of the best I heard from this year was “Bloodletting in Monastic Customaries” by Sarah Matthews of the University of Iowa, which was also one of the first papers I heard. Matthews covered an issue that is considered by many people one of the follies of medieval people – the practice of bleeding oneself for health reasons – and gives us some real insights into how people in the Middle Ages, in particular monks from Germany and France, had a fairly balanced view of how to use this treatment. Admittedly, I dont have much background in medieval medicine, so I was under the impression that bloodletting was just some misconceived notion that was applied to sick (and in all probabality just made the sicker). Matthews showed me that these monastic communities did practice bloodletting regularly, but it was for healthy people only, as a kind of treatment to keep up one’s health. These monks established good rules for carrying out the procedure and taking care of the men afterwards. And she also does note that the bloodletting may indeed have had some beneficial health effects.
I spent more of my time on military history and the crusades – and heard really insightful papers by David Bachrach, Daniel Franke and Robert Howell, all of which focused on a regional study within England that looked at the process of how armies were organized and provided for. I enjoy how scholars dig deep into records and try to piece together a comprehensible story of how things were done back in the 14th or 9th centuries. I did miss out on listening to Kelly DeVries and Clifford Rogers, two great medieval military scholars who always draw crowds for their lively and interesting papers, but I did get to see Jochen Burgtorf talk about the Templar’s base on the Island of Ruad, which is actually something that concerns my own research.
I must also note the great paper delivered by Steven Muhlberger for the Journal of Medieval Military History Annual Lecture, in which he talked about his research on the Chronicle of the Good Count, a 15th century history account of warfare and chivalry. I am eagerly looking forward to more of his research and hopefully a translation of this chronicle.
I won’t name any of the papers that failed to impress me, but there were only a few. What I will comment on is that scholars should be prepared to defend their papers in the question and answer period – especially if you are putting out a new theory or challenging existing notions – and do not respond by claiming that the evidence supporting your ideas wont be available until it gets published in a few months.
There was another paper that we heard outside of the formal sessions – a young scholar working on her Master’s degree was presenting her first paper at Kalamazoo, and late on Friday night she came into the lounge where Sandra and I were working. She told us she needed to cut down her paper by several minutes (last-minute paper editing is something nearly everyone has to do at congress), and we asked her to read it so we could help out. She proceeded to give us an excellent paper dealing with love potions and medieval literature. It really made my night and I suggested that she only slim down the introduction and conclusion, and leave in as much of the main story as possible.
One complaint I would have about the congress is that amount of people who say they are attending to give papers, but then do not show up. I attended one session where two of the three speakers did not come in, and heard that the a session dealing with Transylvania had not only two of its presenters fail to show, but also the presider. While in many cases, the people who could not give their papers had good reasons for their absence, session organizers should also make it clear that if you do not have an appropriate excuse (or even worse, just not show up without telling anyone), there will not be a spot open for you in the next year.
The other activities at the congress were great too – the book room was packed with a lot of wonderful stuff, but I successfully resisted urges to bankrupt myself from buying everything that I was interested in. I also hope that we did some good business with publishers, letting them know about Medievalists.net and seeing how we could work together in the future.
Finally, going to Kalamazoo is an opportunity to meet up with many friends and colleagues, which is something I really cherish. Just like Sandra, I am already looking forward to next year!