MEMS and the 54th International Congress of Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, May 2019

Every May, thousands of medievalists descend on the town of Kalamazoo, Michigan, to attend the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, catch up with old friends, and visit Bilbo’s, Michigan’s premier Tolkien-themed pizza restaurant. This year, a large contingent of medieval researchers from the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies attended the 54th annual Congress, showcasing a variety of exciting projects and new research.  

Noah Smith, Angela Websdale, Roisin Astell, and Cassandra Harrington organised a session titled “Visualising Gothic: Social and Spatial Contexts”, in which they each presented on their current PhD work, presided by Dr Emily Guerry, also from the University of Kent. Angela Websdale and Roisin Astell both examined artistic transmission and contexts of invention in thirteenth-century England. Angela looked at the way in which the local conflicts which took place in Faversham influenced the design of the wall paintings in the church of St Mary’s, while Roisin challenged the accepted framework for workshop production in English illumination using digital mapping to track collaboration between different artists. Cassandra Harrington and Noah Smith looked towards the continent, with Cassandra focusing on the thirteenth-century drawings of Villard de Honnecourt to examine the different types of foliate heads found in the collection and the language used to describe them, while Noah unpacked his new reading of the so-called Courtrai Chest (also known as the ‘Oxford Chest’) and the commemoration of conflict in fourteenth-century Flanders. Altogether, the four speakers in this MEMS panel highlighted their innovative approaches to workshop production, marginal imagery, and the impact of local conflict on artistic choices.   

Jack Newman, also a PhD candidate from Kent, organised a session on “Crisis, Corruption, and Entropy: England ca. 1250-1450”, presided by Jeremy Piercy from the University of Edinburgh. Jack spoke on English crown corruption in the fourteenth century, looking at the way in which crown officials were able to profit from the wool trade, while Daniella Gonzalez, also from Kent, discussed royal power and the relationship between the king and his barons in London during the reign of Richard II. Along with two speakers from Rutgers University and the University of Toronto, the session focused on new ways to examine political and economic history in the high middle ages through the lenses of corruption, entropy, power, and religious ideals.  

In addition to these sessions on the high and later middle ages, MEMS researchers also represented the early medieval period across a number of sessions. Dr Edward Roberts, the centre’s co-director, spoke in a session on “Forging Memory”, presenting his new research on Ottonian bishops and textual culture in the tenth century to examine ideas of historical consciousness, memory, and episcopal authority. Dr Rob Gallagher gave a paper on the conception of empire in the later Carolingian period, focusing on the way in which the idea of empire was used in England during the reign of King Æthelstan. Finally, Han Tame (PhD candidate and current author!) co-organised a pair of sessions with Professor Jill Hamilton-Clements from the University of Birmingham, Alabama on “Hellscapes”, looking at conceptions of Hell and damnation across textual and visual culture between the ninth and twelfth centuries.

All of these sessions and papers demonstrated the breadth of new research currently undertaken by researchers in the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, and staff and students acquitted themselves brilliantly in both the presentation of their research and performance at the annual medievalist dance. Large conferences are always a wonderful opportunity to see old friends and make new ones, as well as to share ideas and plan projects with medievalists from other universities and in other disciplines, and we are all looking forward to next year!

Han Tame