It’s little over a week since I returned from Leeds and this year’s International Medieval Congress. Previously when I’ve been to big conferences I’ve prevaricated about writing up my experiences and observations as, well, it requires quite a lot of time and words to do it justice. In spite of this, I’ve fast-tracked my IMC 2016 write-up because I was keen to set down my thoughts on the event, as it was a really significant one for me. Not so much because of its theme (‘Food, Feast & Famine’, which was something of a fertile topic – heck, I even contrived to get in on the act in a roundabout manner) but because there were certain things about the congress that were truly inspiring, and reassured me that, whatever the future holds (both for higher education and my place within it), the next generation of medievalists has an abundance of passion and energy for the period that is sure to take their various disciplines to better places.
Swings and round tables
Truth be told, I arrived at the Congress on a massive downer about the prospect of days hearing (and speaking) about the medieval period when things in the present day are in such a rotten state. The vote in favour of Brexit was the last thing anyone needed, and the issues it raised about real and perceived inequalities in British society got me thinking that, on a personal level, is it really worth dedicating so much time and attention to things that took place so long ago as to be essentially irrelevant to the here and now? As someone looking for work in a new field to the one I have been employed in for the past few years, could/Should I not be focusing on “real world” activities that serve to address and remedy some of the things that motivated people to vote for the illogical and self-destructive option? Yet the subsequent three days restored my faith in medieval studies and convinced me that the discipline is one worth sticking with in some capacity.
But hang on, I hear you ask, what’s with three days when the Congress lasts four? Last year, I hared around IMC bouncing from session to session to wine reception, to the extent that I burnt out by the Thursday lunchtime and skipped the final session in favour of sinking a couple of bottles of Congress Ale while trying to work out what the hell had happened over the past few days. My attitude this year was less is more. If there’s precious little in the programme that appeals for one or more set of sessions, is it really worth being present on the off-chance something might prove far better than its advertised title? I thought not, and skipped the entire first day in favour of doing other things outside of Leeds, finally arriving mid-morning on the Tuesday. (Apologies to anyone reading this who organised, moderated and/or spoke at a session on the first day, I’m sure it and you were great – this was about me being mercenary, not a negative personal judgement against you!) Thereafter, for various reasons, I went to three sessions a day, plus a couple of plenaries (including foraging!) and a non-programmed meeting, and came out the other side feeling pretty good all things considered.
There was a lot of talk at last year’s IMC about utilising social media to reach out beyond the academy and engage with wider audiences, which was (and is) all well and good, but in retrospect had something of a self-congratulatory, I-have-this-many-followers air about it – thinking something is a solution to an issue without ascertaining if that is truly the case. This year I felt there was more of an edge, and for good reason. The anti-expert tone of some of the debate in the run-up to the EU Referendum in the UK was a worrying turn of events and, in an age of state austerity measures, medieval studies is an obvious soft target, a luxury that can be dispensed with to focus on proper, useful subjects (let me add that I don’t for a second presume that most or all of the aforementioned issues also apply wherever else in the world you might be reading this). Medieval studies – what’s it good for?
Quite a lot actually. Among the things that reinvigorated my positivity towards the field, the first was the off-programme IMC Anti-Brexit meeting, held on the Tuesday evening and representing the coming together of a bunch of brilliant people – mostly junior academics and PhD students – concerned about how medievalists can best respond to the issues thrown up by Brexit. I dovetailed the meeting with a round table (in name only – the participants were sat in a long line) entitled ‘Are The Middle Ages Relevant?’ (Session 926), which took a much-needed global perspective in addressing the question. It hammered home that the period can be (more) relevant to (more) people if the concept of a thing or things being medieval is applied to different parts of the world rather than just Europe and the Near East as is so often the case. Fast forward to Thursday morning and Session 1503 – ‘Medieval Modern: The Use of the Medieval in Modern and Contemporary Arts’ – was excellent, a hangover-beating 90-minute reminder that Old and Middle English literature shouldn’t be left to ossify in standard scholarly editions but merits performance and publication in new and different formats.
Probably the most important event at this year’s IMC was one I did not attend (for good although not entirely unavoidable reasons – I wish I had made more of an effort to sort other stuff in advance so as to free up my time to be present). The Wednesday lunchtime round table ‘Embracing the #Femfog’ (Session 1198), was a last-minute addition to the programme, and a powerfully progressive statement on the part of IMC’s organisers. If you’re not familiar with the Femfog controversy and how it tore through the medievalist community (and beyond) at the start of this year then there’s plenty of online articles that give the necessary background – I’m linking this one because its author summarises other responses as well as offering their own opinion. Since then, there’s been a reappropriation of the term/hashtag for the purposes of highlighting structural inequalities and abuses of power within academia as it’s presently configured and staffed, and the round table provided a public forum for discussing these and ways of overcoming them. I urge you to read the tweets that resulted from the session, helpfully Storified by Shyama Rajendran. If there could be a single instance of something at IMC 2016 demonstrating why medieval studies is a vibrant, diverse and dynamic field of scholarship, and what is more one that can look forward to a brighter, better future, this was it.
A few quick shout-outs to other papers in other sessions I attended that I thought were especially good. Walter Pohl is a titan of Late Antique/Early Medieval studies, and I foresee some of my coming years spent reading through the breezeblock-sized volumes he’s edited as part of the Transformation of the Roman World programme. Thus it was a delight to hear him in Session 1612 present (at greater length than planned owing to a speaker dropping out) on ‘Ethnicity and the “Nation” in 9th- and 10th-Century Europe’ and the many theoretical implications of his title. Another Austrian highlight was a session that formed part of a strand linked to the ongoing project Digitising Patterns of Power, notably the contribution from cartographer Alexander Pucher setting out what post-Google Maps cartography might look to achieve in the context of historical research. Last but by no means least, in Session 1337 James Chetwood gave a fantastic paper, underpinned by statistics and intermittent Paul Simon lyrics, on changes to dithematic personal naming practices in England circa 700-1100 that did away with the old chestnut of the Norman Conquest changing everything (someone should tell English Heritage) in favour of a period of gradual transition, one in which the ninth century was a more significant motor for change.
Looking at the pig picture
My paper was in Session 1221, ‘Hunting and Husbandry’, and a very good session it was too, thanks to my fellow speakers and audience of course, but especially the input of the moderator, László Bartosiewicz. The main focus of my research lies elsewhere but, as longer-term readers of Surrey Medieval may be aware, I have been working away at an article about pig farming on and off for the best part of the past three years. I dealt with what will hopefully prove to be the final set of corrections suggested by the editors last month, so all being well it will be published in Volume 99 of the Surrey Archaeological Collections before the year is out. It dawned on me at some point after last year’s Congress that the food-y focus of the 2016 edition would fit well with the article’s subject matter and so I put together a paper proposal, which was duly accepted by the IMC Programming Committee and pooled with two others into the aforementioned session.
I like conference panels where there’s a diversity of subject matter and disciplinary perspectives among the papers, and this session was all that and more. I kicked off proceedings, following which came Sirpa Aalto of the University of Oulu looking at the wealth of medieval hunting regulation texts from medieval Sweden and some of their zoological implications, and Zoe Bartliff of the University of Glasgow examining whether recurrent topoi related to hunting episodes in medieval Welsh literature could stem from a pan-Celtic fertility mythos. It all hung together very well and made me reevaluate how I have understood forests (in the geographical rather than legal sense). Coming from a background where I look at place-names as a source of testimony about settlements and other centres of archaeological significance, I realised I had fallen into the trap of seeing woodlands as not merely marginal, but largely deserted environments. The reality is that in the medieval period they were places full of both animal and human life.
Other than overrunning the allotted 20 minutes by a little bit, my paper went well, and in the concluding discussion and afterwards people said things about it which were far more complimentary than perhaps it merited. Preparing it had led me to reevaluate elements of the model at its heart and, had I had the time, there were one or two of which I would have changed, but as it was they had to remain in there and likewise will do in the published article. However, on the whole I stand by its contents and the coherent system it depicts. I’ve never come across another attempt to distill early medieval pig husbandry practices into a model so, regardless of its minor flaws, I’m satisfied it will contribute something to future discourse on the subject.
One significant point was raised in the questions at the end of the session, concerning the nature of the most famous (and very possibly only) Anglo-Saxon depiction of humans and pig-like creatures in a wooded setting – the September page of the so-called Cotton Tiberius Calendar manuscript, held at the British Library, and reproduced below. The questioner (whose identity I neglected to note, but my thanks to him for his contribution) pointed out that the details of the illustration make it much more likely that it depicts a wild boar hunt than the driving of a herd of pigs to a mast pasture (what would become the pannage of this post’s title). It just so happened that something Sirpa said in her paper made me think of this scene and caused me to reach the same conclusion in the time between my paper and questions – honestly! So, at the risk of seeming to wander off-topic, here’s a short explanation-cum-justification for my change of heart…
I knew there wasn’t consensus as to the subject matter of the Calendar illustration, but the majority of things I read that mention it interpret the scene as one of swine herding/pasturing, not wild boar hunting, so I went along with that in my paper and article alike. Earlier medieval pigs were probably little different in appearance to wild boars, so the key is to focus on what the men have with them: two dogs, a horn, a spear, and a sword. The gentlemen who made the comment during the questions characterised such accoutrements as ‘aristocratic’; I wouldn’t go quite so far along the social spectrum but they are at odds with what other sources of information tell us about the swineherd’s toolkit. Later manuscript illustrations of swineherds show them with long sticks with which to beat acorns down from trees, but never so far as I know with anything more weapon-like (other than for slaughtering the beasts come winter). The OE version of the Rectitudines Singularum Personarum notes that a tenant swineherd had to be gehorsad (“horsed”) at all times – there’s no mention of being “gehundad” (“hounded”, i.e. “having a hound” – I’m improvising the OE here) but elsewhere in the same text there’s a reference to a headorhund, “hunting dog”. So, all in all, I think we’re on firm ground rejecting the September page of the Cotton Tiberius Calendar as a (unique) depiction of Anglo-Saxon pig pasturing under trees; instead, it shows well-armed men hunting wild boar in a wooded environment. Spread the word!
Time to be realistic
If IMC 2016 got me thinking more positively about medieval studies and the future, it also made me think more practically about where I’m going with my PhD research and what it’s likely to lead to. It seems to be the default setting among PhD students that becoming a doctor is a stepping stone to a career as an academic, which of course it is, but it’s not as simple or linear as that. Many (and, based on personal anecdotal experience, I would hazard most) get no further than graduation, and maybe publishing a chapter of their thesis, before finding employment in other sectors. Not being the youngest of guns, I’ve been grappling with what I want to achieve with my PhD, and mid-Congress I came to the conclusion that I want to complete my thesis and thereby make what I hope will be an important contribution to my sub-field(s), but abandon the pursuit of forging a career in academia off the back of it. I met plenty of brilliant current PhDs and early career medievalists with a true ardour for the period and for teaching others about it, and have no doubt that the best of them will become the leading academics of tomorrow. I’ll be back at Leeds next year and aim to present on some aspect of my PhD research (I’m toying with the idea of proposing a group-names-related session). By then, I may have a kickass new job/career as well!
Oh, and to reference the second part of my title, the disco (or dance, or whatever you want to call the gloriously non-academic blowout on the Wednesday night) was every bit as good as last year. These guys are the bomb.