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Ten Things We Learned at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America

By Peter Konieczny and Danièle Cybulskie

Over 400 scholars came to Toronto for the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, which took place from April 6th to 8th. With over fifty sessions, the conference covered a wide range of topics from religious relics to open access. Here are ten things we learned about the Middle Ages at the meeting.

Old Vic at the University of Toronto was the main hub for the Medieval Academy of America meeting – photo by BRJ INC. / Flickr

The Cairo Geniza and the Middle East’s Archive Problem

The conference began with Marina Rustow delivering her keynote paper on the documents created by the Fatimid state, which ruled Egypt and parts of North Africa from the 10th to 12th centuries. She is challenging an assumption that states in the medieval Middle East failed to keep archives, which prevented them from having an administrative memory and contributed to political instability.

Instead, Rustow explains that such documents do exist, and the main problem is that they are languishing in libraries with few people trained to look for them. However, examples of medieval government documents do exist, and can be found in a variety of places. For example, the Cairo Geniza – the massive collection of Jewish documents that had been kept for hundreds of years in the Ben Ezra Synagogue – has between 1000 and 1300 Fatimid documents. These were originally official decrees by the government, written out on extravagantly long paper (one such document was 8 metres long). Once they had been used, these documents would be reused after they were were cut in half so that sensitive information could not be learned.

Re-using old paper was a common practice in the medieval Middle East, so it is not unsurprising that old official documents eventually would find themselves being written over a second time. Rustow also notes that copies of these documents were kept by the government in Cairo in small folios, a much more practical method for storing and preserving them.

Resources for K-12 History Teachers

In both Canada and the United States, learning about the medieval period is part of the curriculum. Although children learn about the Middle Ages at different times and in different ways, depending on the region in which they live, there is a common need for resources and activities for teachers, most of whom are unlikely to be medieval specialists. In a round table discussion, six scholars looked at ways to connect teachers with reliable information from experts.

Concepts of direct improvement in curriculum were looked at by two of the panelists. Elza Tiner discussed her success in making Latin and classical texts relevant to students of all majors by giving them projects in which they traced early examples of thought in their fields. Emily Sohmer Tai looked at advanced placement courses as areas that could use some TLC in order to interest and better prepare community college students. Both found students enjoyed and benefitted from this increased exposure to the Middle Ages.

Some exciting technology to assist teachers was also on the agenda. Anne McClanan demonstrated some VR technology and augmented reality technology through Google and Timelooper. Shennan Hutton showed the rich resources of the California History-Social Science Project, including maps and lesson plans. Elizabeth Morrison also demonstrated fully-developed lesson plans and resources to be found online at the J. Paul Getty Museum’s website. Finally, Carrie Swartz gave an overview of the educational resources of the Art Gallery of Ontario, including online sources and school tours.

All six delegates deftly proved that there is some wonderful medieval work out there to inspire our North American K-12 students.

Ship Names as Religious Expression

Maryanne Kowaleski has revealed some of the findings of three decades of research tracking the names of ships from medieval Europe. By examining port accounts, pilgrimage licences, piracy inquisitions and other administrative documents, she uncovered over 3,533 references to the names of ships between the years 1290 and 1500.

From this sample, Kowaleski determined that 77% of the ship names were religious, and that the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw a growing trend of naming a vessel after God or a saint. There were regional differences, with Castilian and Genoese ships being the most religious, while Venice was the least.

The most popular name for a ship was Mary, with 19% of all ships referring to the Virgin Mother. This was followed by references to God, which had 12% of ship names – this category would include names such as Trinity, Grace Dieu or God’s Boat. Most of the remaining ship names would be to one of many saints, with Catherine, John, Nicholas and Margaret being among the most popular.

Islands and Sailors’ Religion in the Mediterranean, ca. 1100-ca. 1600

The Mediterranean island of Lampedusa was uninhabited during the Middle Ages, but it was home to a cave shrine that housed altars to both the Virgin Mary and an Islamic holy man. Christian and Muslim sailors respected both sides of the shrine, and even left offerings of supplies here that could be used to assist men who found themselves shipwrecked on the island.

This interesting piece of information was revealed by Amy Remensnyder in her paper dealing with the strong spiritual beliefs that Christians and Muslims had towards islands. There are over 5,000 islands in the Mediterranean Sea, including tiny rocky islets and crags, and they could be a source of anxiety or comfort for those who sailed through those waters. While islands could present dangers such as rocks to crash on, or the hiding places for pirates, they were also places that ships could find refuge from storms, or take on much-needed supplies like water.

Remensnyder explains that many of these islands took on added religious significance, with chapels and shrines being placed on them. Moreover, hermits were known to live on these isolated bits of land.

Questions of Mass Expulsion

In another round table discussion, three scholars looked at questions of mass expulsion and forced migration in medieval Europe (and occasionally touched on later incidents). As a good round table sometimes does, this session stirred up more fascinating questions than conclusive answers.

Rowan Dorin noted that expulsion as a tactic to rid society of those it deemed undesirable (whether for religious or secular reasons) increased as time went on, with later incidents basing their reasoning on precedent. He posed some interesting questions: of all punishments, why expulsion? And why for some crimes and not others? Dorin is curious about at which point expulsion becomes “thinkable” as a viable option – the tipping point, as it were. During the question period, another scholar postulated that expulsion may have been a way of avoiding massacres that might otherwise have occurred without a developed system of purging society of those it considered dangerous. Some interesting threads to pursue.

Mark Meyerson, a scholar of medieval Spain, mused on the sheer size and scope of a bureaucracy which could forcibly baptize (and later expel) hundreds of thousands of people, and noted that a nation would have had to build ideologies and mechanisms of religious purgation directly into is bureaucracy in order to have accomplished this. He also touched on the psychological impact of mass expulsion, not only on those expelled, but on those left behind when a huge part of the population is removed; how this warps people’s views of others, as well as their concepts of nation and religion.

Nicholas Terpstra noted that often, the reasoning and the discourse surrounding an expulsion or forced migration comes about after violence has occurred, especially since not all expulsions are formal. He remarked on the many instances in which expulsion or forced migration were not overtly physically violent, but rather “mundane and banal”, pointing to this as being the most striking thing about them, and the most noteworthy. We need to better understand how forced migration and expulsion could sometimes end up having so little impact on the remaining people overall.

This was a timely topic, and gave everyone in the room much to think about.

Fact vs. Fiction, Theory vs. Practice: Muslim Attitudes towards Fighting Women in the Crusading Period

While early Islamic law noted that only men, and not women, were expected to take up arms, Niall Christie explains that in practice Muslim females did take part in combat. He notes several examples of women in combat, usually in situations where a city or fortification was under attack and it may have been necessary for all individuals to take up arms.

Moreover, Arabic literature from this period, including the Arabian Nights, have stories where women are involved in warfare, with some role-reversal tales of wives defending their husbands in battle. As Christie notes, there was a “mixture of anxiety and admiration” among this literature towards the idea of women warriors, something that we also see in today’s society.

Mercenaries, States, and Organized Violence: North Africa and Europe, c. 1100-1500

Michael Lower examined the question of whether or not pre-modern mercenaries were an obstacle to state-building? Military historians have often noted that these paid soldiers were expensive, unreliable, and very troublesome for local populations. There is much evidence to support this view when looking at Europe in the Later Middle Ages, particularly France and Italy, where mercenary forces were usually uncontrollable and destructive.

However, when examining the role of medieval mercenaries in North African states, a different picture emerges. Along the Maghrib, Latin Christians could be found in large numbers serving as mercenaries for various Muslim rulers. Not only did the serve in armies, but these mercenaries took on roles such as tax collectors, bodyguards, diplomats and even assassins. Lower explains that North African rulers found these Christians mercenaries very useful and controllable, since they were isolated and distinctive from the local population. The mercenaries could never take power for themselves because of their outsider status, and were never a threat to the a ruler.

Close Cousins: Manuscripts and Ivories

Katherine Sedovic, an art history scholar, looked at the interesting similarities between manuscript illustrations and carved ivory in the High Middle Ages. She pointed to the streets in which books were created in Paris, Oxford, York, and London, noting that they were all situated very close to cathedrals. Perhaps, then, local artisans used these cathedral sites to inspire the gothic arches and accents which appear as borders in manuscripts and frames in ivory carving.

Similarities also exist between spiritual and secular figures in manuscripts and carvings, Sedovic demonstrated, and sometimes both appeared in the same works, such as Musée du Louvre OA 122. This is a fourteenth-century ivory casket which features the story of Perceval on its four sides, with four saints on the lid: Christopher, Martin, George, and Hubert. Fascinatingly, Sedovic pointed out that reading the saints on the lid from right to left also potentially told Perceval’s story; another religious/secular artistic crossover.

Given the many similarities in different media of medieval art, Sedovic wondered at the possibility of “stock” images which artisans could use to create evocative scenes, adding their own individual touches to a predesigned outline. She postulated that this may have helped increase productivity to meet increasing demand, to the benefit of artisans across communities of different media, and explaining the marked similarities between beautiful and varied medieval media.

History in a Hemispheric Mode: Redrawing the Medieval Map

The final paper of the conference came from Monica Green, who has been looking at ways medievalists can work with other disciplines. In what she called ‘A Medieval History Manifesto’ she called on her colleagues to embrace big data, whatever it source, to embrace digitization and the projects we can create, and to form partnerships within and beyond the medieval studies discipline.

The Aga Khan Museum

The closing reception was held at the Aga Khan Museum, which offers a fascinating look at the medieval world. As these tweets show, this museum was very much enjoyed.

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