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Conference Report: the Ecclesiastical History Society Conference 2017

Last week I went to the annual summer conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society, which was held here in Exeter.  This year’s theme was Churches and Education, and it attracted a large turnout from scholars working on all periods, from the early church to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.   The president of the EHS this year is Exeter’s own Morwenna Ludlow from the department of Theology and Religion, and Morwenna gave a plenary lecture relating to her own area of specialism.  This lecture, given jointly with Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe (Cambridge) focused on what early Christian writers in the Latin and Greek traditions said about the pleasures of Bible study – a fitting opening to an academic conference.

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Three other Exeter medievalists also gave papers: history PhD student Des Atkinson, talking about the education of the fifteenth-century archbishop of Canterbury John Morton and his contemporaries; theology research fellow Hajnalka Tamas, talking about a fourth-century theological controversy relating to the teaching of a layman, Heraclianus; and me, talking about the medieval church and education relating to pregnancy.  As ever, the EHS offered an interested, sympathetic and knowledgeable audience.  It is a good place for PhD students and early career scholars, in particular, to offer papers.  The audiences offer helpful feedback and the proceedings, published as Studies in Church History, offer an early publication opportunity for many scholars; indeed, one of my first papers was published there, back in 2006.

Overall there were fewer papers on late antiquity and the Middle Ages than at some of the other EHS conferences I’ve attended.  Perhaps for some reason (despite the attractive medieval image on the call for papers) the theme appealed particularly to specialists on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It is also possible that the Leeds conference, held two weeks before, is providing ever more competition for medievalists’ time, as well as their conference budgets. Nevertheless there were a number of interesting papers on medieval subjects: on Bede, on hagiography, on Pope Gregory VII, and on twelfth-century pastoral care, among other topics.  There were also papers on other periods which dealt with questions and topics relevant to medievalists:  I particularly enjoyed a plenary lecture on the role of (early modern) convents in educating girls.

Next year’s conference is on the Church and Law, and will be held in Cambridge, so I’d recommend medievalists take a look!

Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History

Leeds Report 2017

The annual International Medieval Congress hosted by the University of Leeds in July (and known affectionately as the ‘IMC’ or ‘Leeds’) is the highlight of the European medieval calendar – and this year saw a particularly large number of Exonian intellectual pilgrims make the journey north.

The theme of the 2017 congress was ‘Otherness’, which meant that what tends to be a rather historical gathering took on a more literary tone (be that good or bad, depending on your perspective). Medievalists certainly took the theme to heart – the word ‘other’ could be found on session or paper titles on almost every page of the programme. However, while inspiring a wide variety of takes on the topic, it proved less conducive for amusing paper titles (and meant my slightly risqué effort got more attention than expected).Twitter

Fortunately, other members of Exeter’s Centre for Medieval Studies made their mark in less frivolous ways. The elusive James Clark helped to kick off proceedings with a paper in the very first session, while his PhD student, Henry Marsh, was among those presenting towards the end of the conference on Thursday. Other speakers from our extended PhD community included Lorena Fierro-Diaz, Edward Mills, Eddie Proctor, Lenneke van Raaij, Teresa Witcombe, Tabitha Stanmore, and Ryan Kemp. Among the staff, Richard Flower, John Wilkins and Sharon Marshall carried the banner for Late Antiquity and Classics, while I represented History and the High Middle Ages. In addition, Philip Schwyzer and Naomi Howell hosted two sessions drawn from their new HERA project, ‘Deploying the Dead: Artefacts and Human Bodies in Socio-Cultural Transformations‘.

Levi et al
Levi Roach with DTP-student Ryan Kemp and Lenneke van Raaij from Sarah’s ‘After Empire’ HERA project

Stealth participants (attendees not listed on the programme) included PhD student Imogene Dudley, Sarah Hamilton, and our man of the moment, Levi Roach, who received a number of hearty congratulations for receiving the Longman/History Today book prize last week. Both staff members also took the opportunity to hold supervisions in person with PhD students who are usually absent from Exeter due either to their status as DTP-award holders or employment through international research projects. Alongside current members of the Centre, a number of former Exonians were also present: Prof. Julia Crick, Drs Daniel Roach and Matt Mesley, and Kieran Ball, an undergraduate at Exeter and now a DPhil student in Oxford.

Evening Drinks
An al fresco wine reception at Leeds

Meeting up with old colleagues and friends, as well as networking with other scholars, is the lifeblood of Leeds – and while the latter normally takes place during scheduled sessions and roundtable discussions, it also frequently occurs in the coffee breaks and wine receptions that break up the action.

The Dance
A packed dancefloor at the Leeds disco

This year, networking even made its way on to the dancefloor when, after several hours of enthusiastic dancing at the annual disco, I was propositioned by Aberystwyth PhD student Nathan Greasley about possible sessions for 2018. Nathan had attended my paper on Monday and it was this, rather than my dance-moves (always a triumph of stamina over style), which prompted the request. It may have been after 2am, but, evidently, keen medievalists never rest…

With the conclusion of yet another Leeds (and with my ears still reeling from what had been a frighteningly loud disco), my thoughts turn to the value of this event. It is hard overstate the importance of the IMC to the European medievalist community. Despite the wide time period and different disciplines covered by Medieval Studies, medievalists have managed to forge a strong and cohesive sense of identity – and, on this side of the Atlantic, Leeds has played a significant role in this. It provides a venue for European medievalists to meet regularly en masse and to present and discuss the latest research in their fields. The to-and-fro of scholarly exchange and the general bustle of the congress helps to re-energise tired teachers and to reassure PhD students of the wider value of their work. And, as the relationship between the UK and Europe fractures, it seems even more important to attend the congress and maintain long-forged links between scholarly communities on opposite sides of the Channel. But Leeds is also, simply, an opportunity to celebrate the arcane pursuit of Medieval Studies and the joy of working with medieval sources.

Having said this, attendance at Leeds remains an expensive affair and means that younger scholars, especially those without external funding, don’t always find it easy to join in the fun. The cost of registration and accommodation is pretty high and unlikely to decrease, especially as the financial effects of Brexit hit the UK economy. The bursaries offered by the IMC organising committee go a small way towards mitigating this cost. Yet, despite the barriers to attendance, I believe it is important for PhD students to experience this event at least once. It offers an opportunity – unrivalled in Europe – to share ideas and network with a wide variety of junior and senior scholars. This can lead to future collaboration and can help to establish reputations in a very competitive job market. The best way to participate in Leeds is, firstly, by presenting a paper and, secondly, by doing so in a pre-organised session rather than submitting an individual paper for consideration by the organising committee. Being part of a pre-organised session helps to ensure the coherence of your panel, which, in turn, will help to attract a larger audience. So, if you know others working on similar research themes, be pro-active in organising a session and don’t be afraid to invite more senior scholars to join you – even if it is just in the role of session moderator. The theme of next year’s congress is ‘Memory’ (which looks set to reassert history’s dominance at Leeds), but sessions and papers can be proposed on any topic – the theme is there to prompt rather than define content. The deadlines for submitting proposals are 31 August for individual papers and 30 September for sessions. These dates aren’t that far in the future so it might be best to follow Nathan Greasley’s example and start your preparations now… See you there next year!

Helen Birkett, Lecturer in Medieval History

2017: A Year of Reformation

As any veteran of the funding process knows, the next best thing to the elusive gold dust of ‘reveIance’ is the calendar-bound quality of ‘timeliness’. And nothing demonstrates timeliness or engages the public more effectively than a significant anniversary. Anniversaries are potent application fodder for a variety of topics, but have been particularly important for those wishing to raise the profile of the Middle Ages in recent years. So if 2015 was the year of Magna Carta and 2016 can be remembered for the great re-enactment of Hastings, what medieval commemorative delights can we look forward to in 2017? Well, this year’s historical headlines look set to be dominated by one man and the movement in which he was prominent: Martin Luther and the Reformation.

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Martin Luther: Face of 2017

2017 marks 500 years since Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberger church in an act widely recognised as the start of the Protestant Reformation. This heralded decades of religious conflict, violence and destruction, and reconfigured the cultural and political face of Europe. Whatever your feelings about the Reformation, it must be recognised as a major milestone in European history and the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses an event worthy of commemoration. Unsurprisingly, Germany is the focus of this year’s celebrations. The Luther 2017 project has been gearing up for the anniversary for several years and a full list of commemorative, largely non-academic, events can be found on its website. For those with a more scholarly interest in the topic, a list of the various Luther- and Reformation-themed conferences taking place across Europe and the US this year is provided by the Reformation Research Consortium. Many of the events listed concentrate on the significance of the Reformation for the early modern and modern world and look forward rather than back. However, there is also much to engage those interested in later medieval religion – and several such conferences are occurring within the UK.

The University of Huddersfield and Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, both use the anniversary as a prompt to bring medievalists and early modernists into further dialogue. In Huddersfield in April, scholars will investigate the impact of the Reformation on material and visual culture between 1400 and 1600, while September’s conference in Cambridge will explore how people chose both to remember and to forget aspects of the Reformation. In contrast, in June, scholars in Oxford will use the anniversary as the end-date for the ‘After Chichele’ conference, which focuses on the intellectual and religious character of the later medieval English Church.

Characterising 2017 as a year of Reformation also offers food for thought in terms of contemporary politics. It is undeniable that 2016 saw seismic political shifts in Europe and the US, the effects of which have yet to make themselves fully known. Although there are relatively few truly useful parallels to be drawn between now and the early sixteenth century, those relating to new media and social division carry at least some resonance. As in 1517, new communications technologies have already had a major impact on events and look set to influence things yet further – be that through attempts to regulate the fake news circulating on Facebook or the inauguration of a president who threatens to govern via Tweet. Likewise, we must feel a similar sense of unease to our sixteenth-century counterparts as we witness the unexpected overturning of a status quo and see our communities fractured by fear and mutual misunderstanding. We live in uncertain times – and, if 1517 is anything to go by, then this will only set the pattern for many years to come.

Helen Birkett, Lecturer in Medieval History

Gender, Emotion, and a prize-winning Conference

Having recently passed the viva for my thesis ‘Painful Transformations: A Medical Approach to Experience, Life Cycle and Text in British Library, Additional MS 61823, The Book of Margery Kempe’, it seems like a timely moment to reflect on the past few months and years of my postgraduate study at Exeter. I am grateful to Professor Vincent Gillespie (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford) for being my external examiner, Elliot Kendall for being my internal examiner, Eddie Jones for being an ever-patient and supportive supervisor, Catherine Rider as my other, wonderful second supervisor, and James Clark for his encouragement and advice on all things postdoctoral. The Centre for Medieval Studies at Exeter is such an exciting and dynamic environment and I am excited about all of the events that lie ahead.

It might also be an apt moment for me to remind colleagues about the Gender and Medieval Studies Group, which holds an annual, peripatetic conference. The steering committee, made up of medievalists including Liz Herbert McAvoy (Swansea) and Diane Watt (Surrey), ensures the continuation of this important, multidisciplinary event each year. The group, which has gathered each year since the 1980s and which seeks to further the study of gender in medieval culture, was organised this year by Daisy Black at the University of Hull, on the theme of Gender and Emotion.

The history of emotions is a topic of growing interest in the field of Medieval Studies, with projects such as Hearing the Voice at Durham University, the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions accelerating the prominence of such enquiry. The Royal Historical Society Postgraduate Speaker Series Conference, Emotion and Evidence in the Late-Medieval and Early-Modern World’ (Cardiff, May 2016), at which I was fortunate to be presenting, also offered the opportunity for early career researchers and established scholars to exchange ideas, with a plenary from Professor Miri Rubin (Queen Mary).

Niccolo dell'Arca pieta
Niccolo dell’Arca, Compianto sul Cristo morto. Terracotta group in the Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna. Mid fifteenth century.

Questions of gender, and the interplay with the history of emotions, made for a stimulating conference programme at the 2016 GMS. Notable papers included Amy L Morgan (Surrey), ‘“reueyd out of hir witt”: Extreme Emotion and Queer Responses in Sir Orfeo, and Jonah Coman (St Andrews), on ‘Grimestone’s book, Grimestone’s body: Freudian melancholy and creation of identity in the Advocates MS 18.7.21’. Linda E. Mitchell (Missouri), in considering the person as political in her paper, ‘“Give Me Back My Son!”: Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Political Use of Emotion’, prompted fruitful discussion on the idea of queens as suffering mothers. The keynote lecture from Katharine Goodland (City University of New York), ‘Ghostly Presences: Mariological Mourning and the Search for Justice in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy’, took reference from several medieval mystery plays in considering the ghostly presence of the Virgin Mary and Kyd’s allusions to medieval depictions of Christ’s Passion.

As well as presenting my own paper on questions of emotion and melancholic woundedness in The Book of Margery Kempe, I was also honoured to be awarded with the annual GMS Graduate Student Essay Prize – an internationally-open competition. The prize was awarded for my essay ‘“Slayn for Godys Lofe”: Melancholia and Mourning in The Book of Margery Kempe’, and includes two years’ free GMS conference attendance. The article is now published in the peer-reviewed journal Medieval Feminist Forum. As I was applauded and congratulated, I felt some heartfelt emotion of my own, proud to be the recipient of the award.

I am now co-editing a volume arising from the conference: Gender and Emotion in Medieval Culture: Uses, Representations, Audiences, with Daisy Black and Amy L. Morgan (under consideration by Boydell and Brewer).

Miniature of a fool, Bible Historiale, Paris and Clairefontaine, 1411, Royal MS 19 D III f.266r
Detail of a miniature of a fool, from Bible Historiale, Paris and Clairefontaine, 1411, Royal MS 19 D III, f. 266r

The GMS conference is a great opportunity to share research and make networking connections with other scholars who are interested in all questions of gender in the Middle Ages. It is hugely inclusive, and welcomes diverse approaches and cross-disciplinary papers from both postgraduates and established scholars. The graduate student essay prize is an excellent opportunity, and I encourage Exeter PGRs to enter a piece for the next round. I highly recommend becoming involved – perhaps at the next conference in beautiful Canterbury, in January 2017 – when Anthony Bale (Birkbeck) and Leonie Hicks (Canterbury Christ Church) will be giving keynotes. There is also a mailing list that you can join via the website to keep up to date on events.

This year’s conference closed with a riveting performance of ‘Bawdy Tales’ with Debs Newbold, a one-woman storyteller. Based on Boccacio’s Decameron, the tales were bawdy and comedic indeed, with plenty of audience participation and foolery, providing pathos and hilarity in equal measure. The show was a fitting emotional rollercoaster for what had been a conference of intellectual rigour and medieval felyng par excellence, and certainly one from which I returned with an unusually big smile on my face.

Laura Kalas Williams

Researcher in medieval literature and medicine and Associate Tutor (English department, University of Exeter)

Twitter: @LauraKalasW

https://exeter.academia.edu/LauraWilliams

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