Leeds International Medieval Congress 2017: Part 1 – four days, 16 hours, 20 minutes

Last week was largely taken up by attending what was my third Leeds International Medieval Congress (if we discount an accidentally-larcenous first experience of the IMC a decade back when I worked as one of the people who looks after a group of session rooms). I blogged about the 2015 and 2016 editions, and can’t help but notice from the introductions to those posts that I’ve set to work on my reflections on this year in record time.

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The thing is, I don’t even like Game of Thrones…

The reasons for this are three-fold. First, I have the time to do so (although I must confess this is eating into the time I had earmarked for other writing). Second, this year’s IMC was the most stimulating and productive one I’ve been to – something to do with being present for all days, perhaps? – and many others would seem to have had a similarly superlative experience. Third, and very much interlinked with the previous point, I met a host of great new people and reconnected with many from IMCs and other conferences gone by. I even went out for a few pints with my Leeds first year undergrad tutor (from the days when I had visions of being a transport planner!) who had taken time out of his schedule earlier in the week to come and see me give my paper.

I have some pretty big fish I want to fry in the wake of this year’s IMC, but also want to talk about my paper and the session – The Medieval Landscape / Seascape II: Landscapes of ‘The Other’ and Identity (#s217) – of which it was part. Rather than try and combine personal reflection and polemic in a single post, I’ve chosen to write two, beginning with some thoughts about my own contribution to the Congress and the host session for the paper.

Let’s get the travelogue bit over and done with first. I spent the Sunday night into Monday morning travelling to Leeds from Killarney in Ireland, a journey that took 16 hours door-to-door, and involved three buses, one plane, and finally an uphill walk from Leeds Coach Station at 5.10am because this was Leeds and not London, so there were no night buses. (It also included a whistle-stop tour of the historic Limerick, which is worth a look as you’ll gather from the pics above.) All of which meant plenty of time sat around in airports but very little time for sleeping. Therefore, given I was operating on scarcely an hour’s sleep when I stood up to speak, I reckon my paper went ok!

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Central Leeds at 5.10am Monday morning. The design of the new John Lewis store doesn’t convince when you’re running on a few minutes of sleep, and doesn’t fare much better when you’re feeling much more rested.

Ever since seeing the CFP and putting together a proposal while travelling across the US last summer, I wanted to use my paper as a means for taking a really good look at the social identities and attendant processes of othering embodied by the -ingas group-names that I study. It gave me the opportunity to flesh out an idea I first hit upon a couple of years ago and presented as a postscript to a paper I gave at a workshop in Leicester; namely, that -ingas name formations were self-legitimating through ancestry and the choice of titular figureheads, and that these had wider resonance, meaning the group’s name could be applied to land or landscape features in order make/defend its claims in a period which lacked written title deeds. I investigated this through a series of case studies drawn from points named in Old English charter boundary clauses, culled from the database of the brilliant LangScape website. This culminated in a discussion of Sunningwell in Oxfordshire based in part on observations I made during a visit to the village and parish precisely one week before.

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As I said at the start of my paper, it’s not a proper place-names presentation without at least one picture of a signpost

The two papers that followed mine were different in their approaches to the topic of otherness, as well as in their particular geographical foci. Daryl Hendley Rooney looked at representations of the Irish as constructed by Gerald of Wales in his Topographia Hibernica. Gerald did something of a hatchet job on those west of the Irish Sea, making them out to be a barbaric “other” by comparison with their Welsh contemporaries, and Daryl gave a brilliant introduction to how this was reflected in part through descriptions of the Irish landscape. This was followed by Marta Sancho i Planas presenting some preliminary findings from her excavations at a remarkable site named Els Altimiris in Spain. This has been revealed to be an unusual example of a religious community that established itself in an elevated, isolated site in order to assert its right to exist outside of the control of powerful local archbishoprics and bishoprics. I especially liked Dr Sancho i Planas’ final conclusion that this was a pioneering community of others, paving the way for a “new normality”.

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The excavated remains of the church at Els Altimiris. The church was of two cells, first built in the 5th or 6th century CE, and rebuilt or remodelled in the 7th century, when the buildings whose remains you can see beyond were also erected. Photo from the Els Altimiris project website.

As I think I say after every conference I speak at, I much prefer presenting in sessions like this one where there’s a spread of themes, rather than everyone dancing on the head of pin, as it makes audience and speakers alike work that little bit harder to make connections between the papers, which I find much more rewarding. The questions that followed our papers and the discussions they stimulated were similarly diverse. One thing which struck me was all three papers were presenting research that’s a few years away from being completed, whether as doctoral thesis or published excavation report. I like the idea of all three of us coming back to IMC 2022 and reprising our paper subjects to give the full story about our research!

More immediately, for anyone who wasn’t at the session (and also for anyone who was!),  I’ve tidied up my paper script and uploaded it to read right here. I’ve added it to my Academia profile, too, where, for what it’s worth, you’ll also find the abstract I submitted to the session organisers way back when. I’ve reintroduced some material back into the paper that I had to cut in order to get it to around the 20-minute mark. Bonus content yo! (If you would like the PowerPoint slides that went with the paper, email me at surrey medieval.blog@gmail.com and I’ll hook you up.) I wrote the paper before reading James Harland’s debut article for Medieval Worlds, which among many things emphasises the important point that otherness is not the same as difference, rather it is the opposite of sameness. I think this view has a lot of applicability to -ingas names, which (as linguistic items anyway) are so obviously variations on a theme. However, I’m not prepared to cast out all talk of otherness in conjunction with -ingas just yet (and certainly not rewrite large chunks of my paper!), as I think it is an interesting concept with which to examine the strategies behind such name formations, particularly in a landscape context.

Without committing myself to something that will never happen, I hope to be able to find the time during this summer to do put together a short blog summarising my trip to Sunningwell and why it was crucial to my thinking on the place-name and history of the estate/parish. But these things have a tendency to take months to happen, not weeks, so bear with me!

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The spring-fed pond in the centre of Sunningwell village, almost certainly the source of the place-name. Overlooking it is the medieval church of St Lawrence. But just how significant is this pairing?

Lastly, thanks to the wonderful Drs Kimm Curran and Karl Christian Alvestad for organising the session and another successful Medieval Landscape / Seascape series; to Prof Sam Turner for moderating; and most of all to my fellow presenters for presenting such interesting research.

Part 2 will be with you shortly…

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About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Barrows, Charters, Conference, Landscape, Leeds, Old English, Place-Names, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Leeds International Medieval Congress 2017: Part 1 – four days, 16 hours, 20 minutes

  1. Sara says:

    Your paper was so packed with detail, I look forward to reading it in addition to having heard it!

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