After a mad March, April was a quiet (or unmemorable?) month, which was probably for the best as I had to prepare myself for another 12-day trip to North America, built around the 50th edition of the International Congress of Medieval Studies, held at Western Michigan University in the small-ish city of Kalamazoo. It’s been a few weeks since the end of the Congress, in which time bloggers who are far more organised than me have written up their experiences (let me point you towards Medieval History Geek, Beoshewulf and Medievalist in Transit, to name three examples from WordPressland alone), but I thought I’d share my own thoughts on my first ‘Zoo. Furthermore, I didn’t want to truck several thousand miles and see little more of the Midwest than one college town in Michigan, so padded out my time across the Pond with several days in some cities I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. It was almost like a holiday. A tiring and at times intellectually-intense holiday.
Toronto and a date with a sword
I began my trip across the Canadian border in Toronto. I wanted to stay in the city primarily to go up the CN Tower which, by virtue of being so darned tall, has captured my imagination from a young age. As it turned out, like many of downtown Toronto’s loftier buildings, it was shrouded in thick cloud on the morning I wanted to visit (gallingly after three days which all did a very good impression of an Ontario summer). Luckily, I succeeded in my secondary objective, to visit the brilliant Royal Ontario Museum and see its collection of Viking-era swords. I was keen to inspect one in particular; its finest sword, dredged from the River Thames during the reconstruction of Vauxhall Bridge circa 1906. Thought to be of tenth-century date, it’s only by viewing the sword up close that the fineness of the copper and silver filament decoration on the hilt becomes apparent; hopefully the photo below gives you a flavour of the superlative craftsmanship. Though the exhibit text intimates these swords might have been the weapons of “Viking raiders” a little too often for my tastes, all in all it was great to see something of significance to Surrey given such prominence in an international museum.
Detroit to Kalamazoo
From Toronto it was on to Detroit for a couple of nights in what is not the avoid-at-all-costs post-industrial ground zero so many have it pegged as (among other things I went to a baseball game at the anything-but-ruinous Comerica Park – Let’s Go Tigers!). Detroit was and is so much more than the Motor City stereotype, and the Detroit Historical Museum really brings out its enduring capacity for innovation, industry, and knowing how to have a good time. By focusing on civic history rather than displaying collections culled from across the globe, it may well be the best of its kind I’ve been to. As for the Motown Museum, let’s just say the joyfulness of the music is matched by the enthusiasm of the in-house tour guides! I’d been nervous about staying in Detroit until a couple of people I met in Toronto said it’s really starting to go places, and they were right. The city may have declared itself bankrupt not all that long ago, but it felt like more and more ordinary people are investing in creating small businesses and renovating neighbourhoods. Part of me can’t wait to go back and see what further good work they’ve done.
I took the Greyhound to Kalamazoo, by way Jackson (but seemingly not the Jackson made famous by Johnny Cash and June Carter), and roadkill raccoons and a live wild turkey alongside the interstate (American wildlife is much bigger IRL). Other than an entirely unnecessary walk from the bus station to campus of Western Michigan University, I didn’t see much of Kalamazoo, though I’m sure it has its charms. (I did visit Waldo’s tavern on the edge of campus which set me up for a particularly riotous time on the Friday night – beware the regulars at the bar and their offers of spiced vodka shots!)
An introduction to the International Congress of Medieval Studies (in more ways than one)
As you may or may not be aware, the ICMS is the largest annual gathering of medievalists in the world, with a tweet towards the end of the four days announcing that almost 3,000 delegates were in attendance this year (which would have been even more impressive had I not read on the plane over about a medical sciences convention in Washington which attracts more than ten times that number of participants). The accommodation’s not up to much, unless you’ve spent some time behind bars, in which case it’s pretty deluxe. But griping about the quality of your digs and the fear of your next-door neighbour walking in on you in the bathroom unites pretty much everyone in attendance. That, and the abundance of medieval things on offer.
You know how music festivals like Glastonbury and Primavera (and I’m guessing Coachella in the US) generate fervent devotees who go year after year, and spend the intervening months telling you how their event of choice is the best thing ever? To me, Kalamazoo felt a bit like that (albeit a very sedate and largely music-free one), with scattered “stages” and places to get food and drink entailing a lot of walking if you weren’t prepared to hang around for one of the dinky little shuttle buses. Particularly among the North American medievalist community, the ‘Zoo is obviously A BIG THING – and I don’t mean simply in terms of the goodness-knows-how-many sessions and other events that make up the Congress, which are a formidable prospect no matter when you’re from. Many people clearly come every year, or else are seasoned veterans of numerous non-consecutive editions, and seem to recognise every other person in the dining hall or perusing the book fair.
For a newbie, it took a little time to adjust and get into the swing of things, although I ended up having a great time reconnecting with friends from my spells in the IMS at Leeds and IMR at Nottingham (the latter’s session on impact was an early highlight, and I’m not saying that because it’s my alma mater!). I also met a whole bunch of brilliant new people along the way, from fellow bloggers like the book-buying machine that is Curt Emmanuel, to the group from Central European University in Budapest who run Medieval Radio (special thanks to them for rescuing me from loitering by some bins while on my lonesome at one wine reception).
Sessions and papers roll of honour
To return to my music festival analogy, I adopted the same approach as I do at such events and, rather than keep it locked to one of the multi-session strands on a common theme, picked and mixed things that sounded relevant on some level to my research interests. Of course, there are the constraints imposed by timetabling and the general tenor of the Congress. Thus I ended up hearing a lot of papers about Old English literature, but not so much archaeology, and only a smattering of history. My own paper, in the ludicrously well-attended Anglo-Saxon England session, was quite historical by my standards (I try to avoid putting together solely names-based papers as I think they’re dull as the proverbial water in the ditch for non-specialists). I don’t feel like I came anywhere near knocking it out of the park in terms of how I presented (hot room + thick polyester shirt = a recipe for disaster) but from the comments I received from many people after made me think the content was solid. My gratitude to Hilary Fox for organising the session and giving me the opportunity for once to research and present something related to those old crowd pleasers, King Alfred and the Vikings.
Of the other sessions I attended, what stood out? The one that excited me the most was ‘Medieval Data: Prospects and Practices’ late on the first evening, because it gave me a taste of how scholars have used big data to investigate things spatially, which I’m determined to make a central strand of my upcoming PhD project. Brittany Rancour‘s presentation of her not-so-recent MA research into Anglo-Norman settlement patterns in Co. Wexford in Ireland grabbed me because of its interweaving of several types of map and techniques as a means to answer broader questions. Equally inspiring was Amanda Morton‘s paper ‘Fuzzy Maps and Fictionalized Geographies’, in which she discussed how uncertain spatial data is presented visually, and whether the shortcomings of using traditional involving methods involving distinct dots and lines can be overcome by ones that more accurately reflect inherent “fuzziness”. Both had me sold.
Another highlight was the Sunday morning session on ‘Pathways to Power in Early Medieval Europe’ organised by the University of Aberdeen in association with their potentially very important Pathways to Power: Rise of the Early Medieval Kingdoms of the North research programme. (It was the first of two related sessions, but I had a lift to Chicago so missed the second.) Speakers presented on a range of regions within Scandinavia and Atlantic Europe, foregrounding archaeological evidence but drawing upon textual material as well. Oskar Sveinbjarnason‘s paper entitled ‘New Evidence for Emerging Power Structures in Northern Pictland’ shone brightest for me, reporting some astonishing excavation findings at sites like Rhynie in Aberdeenshire (whose name rather brilliantly means “a very royal place”). Showing pictures of wonderful Pictish symbol stones never hurts, either…
Honorable mentions should go to a couple of excellent individual papers in sessions of more, er, variable quality. In the very first session I attended, in a paper entitled ‘The Vernacular Fenland’, Britton Brooks considered the degree to which the Old English translation of Felix’s Life of Guthlac incorporates vocabulary more consistent with toponymy than literature, which raised intriguing questions about audience and influence. The various tellings and retellings of Guthlac’s time in and around Crowland have been repeatedly mined for landscape details to the point where I wasn’t sure there was anything new to add to understanding of the Fens known to the saint (or the authors of his vitae), so credit to Britton for finding a novel angle. The OE translation is dated to a period (late-ninth to mid-tenth century) which was crucial to the evolution of vernacular boundary descriptions, the “classic” forms of which are contained in many Late Anglo-Saxon diplomas, and it dawned on me that more focused cross-referencing of the two sources might reveal further insights.
On the second day, Jill Hamilton Clements’ paper ‘A Tomb with a View’ stood out for its excellent punning title, but more importantly for shining a spotlight on short texts on Anglo-Saxon sculptural fragments which have echoes of the language of the passages in Beowulf concerning the hero’s funeral. As with Guthlac’s Fens, certain sculptures (e.g. Bewcastle) come up so frequently in discussions on this topic that they almost become trite, so it was exciting to learn of some more under-the-radar analogues. In particular, the ninth-century fragment known as Thornhill 3 – see above – bearing an OE runic inscription identifying it as having originally been part of a “bekun on bergi” (in the sense of “monument”, most likely a cross, on the “tomb” of a female named Berhtswith), was a revelation to me, for one thing because of the overlap with the vocabulary of place-names.
Most Kalamazoo summaries I’ve read culminate with the Saturday night dance. It isn’t the end of the Congress, but does mark the point where delegates (save for those unlucky ones who have papers to present the following morning) ease off the intellectual throttle after the best part of three days of sustained academic activity. Moreover, it’s the stuff of salacious legend, or at least it was among many people who in the run up to the night told me about it, most of whom subsequently pronounced this year’s one a disappointment (the consensus is the one at Leeds is reliably better). I kept a lid on it (and, unlike some, my top on) that night, to make sure I was fit for my mid-morning ride away from K’zoo, but it was pretty good fun nonetheless and I got to thank the person who generously loaned her laptop (well, a USB port-less Chromebook – why?!) to our session so that we could run PowerPoints to accompany our papers.
On to Chicago – and Leeds
The trip to Chicago was uneventful save for more roadkill and it being an unusual combination of car, monorail, and alarmingly wobbly metro. What a city Chicago is – the above was the view from our budget hotel room! It’s a monster, both horizontally and vertically, dimensions that are best appreciated from on high, in my case the bar near the top of the Hancock Tower, from where I took the following photo after saying goodbye to the Nottingham IMR high command:
We weren’t in Chicago for long enough to appreciate anything more than a tiny fraction of what it has to offer. Dedicated one afternoon to the Field Museum which, like the ROM, is a vast, multi-themed beast of an institution. Its main exhibition at the moment (and through to 4th October 2015) is simply titled Vikings. This isn’t the same one as people went so nuts for in London last year – apparently that’s in China right now – but organised by the Swedish History Museum and Austria’s Museum Partner (because the Vikings loved the Alps…). The majority of the artefacts on display, a significant proportion of which seemed to have been culled from excavations in Scandinavia (with Swedish finds unsurprisingly to the fore), were small and of decidedly non-martial character. I’d had my fill of swords from the period back in Toronto, so really enjoyed this subtle approach to creating a narrative of the Vikings being so much more than bloodthirsty raiders in horned helmets and ships with stripy sails.
I doubt I’ll make the trip to the 2016 ICMS – though maybe I’ve inspired you to give it a whirl. This year was a little bit of an adventure that I was fortunate enough to be able to fund myself, but there’s no avoiding the fact it’s a right old schlep from the UK to the middle of Michigan. Plus I’d rather knuckle down and concentrate on the initial phases of my PhD! However, as part of my ongoing adventures in medieval conferences, I am going to this year’s International Medieval Congress at my beloved Leeds, where I will be giving a paper as part of a session on slavery organised by the ever-industrious Tom MacMaster. Do come along for what promises to be – if the poster is anything to go by – a really varied and vibrant session. Otherwise, see you at the dance!
This post is dedicated to the memory of Lisi Oliver, whose untimely death in a road accident was announced at the start of this week. I met Lisi for the first time at Kalamazoo, and like so many before me was immediately won over by her personality, knowledge and enthusiasm for her subject area. Medieval studies would be a better discipline if there were more practitioners of Lisi’s mindset involved, and is certainly the poorer for having lost her. When we spoke, she told me about her ongoing involvement in the Early English Laws project – if you’re unfamiliar with it, please check out the website for more information including Lisi’s important work on some of the early Kentish law codes.