Conference Report: The Material Middle Ages

The Material Middle Ages

The Material Middle Ages: An International Graduate Student Conference

Held at the University of California, Berkeley, from February 28-March 1, 2014

Report by Dayanna Knight

The Material Middle Ages

Though the weather outside was grey and wet the medieval light shown bright in Wheeler Hall at the Material Middle Ages Graduate Student Conference organized by the UC Berkeley Program in Medieval Studies. Thanks to an interesting topic and a well written abstract I was invited to participate and present on my doctoral research undertaken with the Department of Archaeology at the University of Nottingham. This was a fantastic opportunity for me as I have had little chance to take part in conferences since returning home to the United States.

The first session was themed Relics and Reliquaries. Corinne Kannenberg from Princeton University began the session with her work “Materializing devotion: The Hyper-reality of Reliquaries and Other Medieval Devotional Objects.” In this Kannenberg examined the multi-layered social elements of the reliquary of Sainte Foy in comparison to those of Dominican nun Margarethe Ebner’s devotional Figure of the Infant Christ. She skillfully explored the fact that these religious items were more powerful in practice and action than what they were meant to represent. Hyper-reality is expressed in the way these objects became more real than the original figures for medieval populations. In the session’s second paper, “What are Saints’ Relics? Some Thoughts about Matter and Ideologies of Time,” Helena Skorovsky from the University of Michigan explored how saints’ relics become reused and repurposed by generations subsequent to the initial fabricators of the reliquary. She commented on the shift from the early medieval practice of affirmation and association with the saint via touching the reliquary towards the later practice of affirmation and association by sight evidenced in reliquaries of the later medieval period and the Renaissance.

The second session of the conference was entitled Le Haut Moyen Âge Matérial. Eva Maschke of Universität Hamberg led off with a fascinating presentation on international musical manuscript forensics in “Parchment Fragments in Motion: On the Afterlife of Dismembered Music Manuscripts and their Reconstruction.” This followed a manuscript from medieval Paris to the endpapers in the collection of Jacob of Soest in Westphalia then onto the manuscript collections of both Cambridge and Yale. The second paper in the second session, “Plumes e pennes: Expressions of Self-Identity and Belonging in Marie de France’s Ysopet” was delivered by Gareth Love of UC Davis. In this Love discusses the role of the quill as being under-represented in manuscript studies in general. By focusing on quills and the birds they come from via the repetition of the phrase plumes e pennes he was able to highlight the localized application of universal medieval truths: the anxiety associated with shedding formerly held social status during social mobility.

Following the afternoon coffee-break was the keynote speaker, Dr Cynthia Brown, Professor of French and Italian at UC Santa Barbara, who presented some of her recent work in “Paratextual Cues in Late Medieval Books: Detecting Female Networks.” Dr Brown related her research into medieval texts commissioned, and in some cases written, by women for women. In particular she focused on the books associated with Charlotte de Savoie, Anne de Bretagne and Claude de France. Several of these texts, such as Anne de France’s Enseignements written for her daughter Susanne de Bourbon, moved from their private relationship into the public sphere via the mediation of print and men.

The second day of the Material Middle Ages Conference began with the third session entitled Manuscripts: Matrices and New Methodologies. Sara Petrosillo from UC Davis began the discussion off with her presentation “Form and Materiality in Frederick II’s Falconry Manuscripts.” Petrosillo explored the movement of falconry knowledge and practice from the physical world to the manuscript page. These treatises, at times, acknowledge the mediary nature that must have existed between learned communities and falconers to produce the works. The second discussion of the session was presented by Joseph Stadolnik from Yale University, “Breaking up the Hours: Digital Reading and New Manuscript Study.” In this Stadolnik explores the ramifications of a current project digitizing the more modest examples of medieval Books of Hours. Here algorithms are being applied to create a searchable database capable of producing a more nuanced reading into the richness of the genre.

The fourth session of the conference was themed Questions of Identity. Maia Farrar from the University of Michigan led off with “Creating a ‘Trewe’ English Identity.” Farrar exposed some of the difficulties when working with early printed editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In particular the heavy impact of the hand of editors provides a difficult set of biases to consider when looking at medieval English identity. Following Farrar was my own presentation, “Reconstructing North Atlantic Identities.” Other than being a bit flustered by a technology hiccup which was quickly sorted I think I got my point across. I introduced the audience to the difficulties of working with archaeological data which seemingly presents a concrete view of the medieval establishment of European long distance trade. By utilizing methodology employed in historical anthropology a variety of evidence has illustrated how medieval identity was constructed in this period before national identity is concrete. And with that the conference broke for lunch.

Following an excellent lunch was a post-graduate roundtable session entitled “Teaching the Material: Pedagogical Approaches.” Ideas for gaining and maintaining undergraduate interest were explored and expanded upon.

The fifth session of the Material Middle Ages Conference was themed Art of the Trecento: Visual and Verbal.” Elizabeth Bejarano from UC Santa Cruz started the session off with “Objects Coming Home, Objects Becoming Home: the Art of Ornamentation in Boccaccio’s Medieval Mediterranean.” In this Bejarano compares indications of power within the royal court and the bedroom while exploring political space and the symbolic act of exchange. In particular she cites Boccaccio’s portrayal of Saladin as integral in illustrating how tokens of affection carrying social power can be given in place of real affection. The second paper of this session, “Feeding the Body and the Soul: The Stained Glass Windows of Orsanmichele, Florence,” was presented by Margaret Larimer from UC Davis. In this Larimer explores the former palazzo styled medieval grain market via examination of the four lunette windows which flank and adorn the Tabernacle of the Madonna of Orsanmichele with scenes of the Miracles of the Virgin. She explained how the stained glass existed in dialogue with the rest of the site as both devotional aids and by filtering the ambient light into manifestations of the Divine. This session was completed with “Mediality in the Decameron: Visualizations between Boccaccio and Pasolini,” presented by Andrea Privitera from the University of Western Ontario. He presented the medieval source of Boccaccio’s Decameron in light of Wolf’s Theory of Intermediality. By examining references to painters and painting Privitera highlights both intracompositional and extracompositional elements from several versions of the work ranging from before AD1375 to Pasolini’s 1971 film.

The final session of the conference was themed The Medieval Body. Kristen Aldebol from UC Davis began this session with “Immaterial Bodies, Material Effects: Allegorical Bodies and Late Medieval Devotion.” In this Aldebol compared the more monstrous elements of the visual allegory of the sin of Avarice in comparison to the allegory of Penitence. By doing so she illustrated how text and illustration invoke the multiple uses expected from medieval devotional texts. The second paper in the session, “The Elemental Fire of Love,” was presented by Jeanie Abbott from Stanford University. Abbott explored one of the works of fourteenth century mystic Richard Rolle, focusing on the heat element of the tripartite repetition of heat, sweetness and song. By doing so, she connected to nuanced concepts of Aristolean Elements and the Holy Trinity for the audience. The final paper of the conference, “Materializing the Moral: On the Rhetoric of the Sculpted Body at the Cathedral of Chartres,” came from Agata Gomolka of the University of East Anglia. Gomolka highlighted the fact that changes in sculptural style is not enough to answer questions about the forms of jamb figures flanking the West Portal and the North Portal of the cathedral. By viewing the figures from their base looking up it is possible to see how the blocks were shaped to minimize the loss of material while accommodating the narrow nature of Paris Llais limestone strata.

I’ll take the opportunity offered here to extend both congratulations and thanks. To the conference organizers from UC Berkeley’s Medieval Studies Program, Brock Imel, Joel Pattison, Jenny Tan, Spencer Strub and Jason Treviño, be very proud of yourselves and the excellent conference your hard work has produced. To the faculty session chairs and graduate student respondents thank you for leading incredibly interesting question and answer sessions. Finally, thank you to my fellow presenters for producing such stimulating medieval presentations I truly look forward to hearing about your research in the future. Thank you all for making my first post-doctoral defense conference memorable.

Click here to visit the conference website

Since graduating from UC Berkeley with a BA in Anthropology, Dayanna Knight has focused on the historical anthropology of the Viking Age. Since then she has earned an MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of Nottingham and gone on to work on her PhD in the same field. Her final corrections have been recently submitted on her consideration “Identity Construction and Maintenance in the North Atlantic c AD800-1250.” Now back in the US Dayanna provides instructional support for community college students.You can read Dayanna’s website Viking Specialist at Large, and follow her on Twitter @DayannaKnight

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