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).
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‘.
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.
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.
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
What better way to celebrate the end of exam marking at Exeter than to spend a summer’s day wandering around medieval sites in the Southwest?
On 1 June, two PhD students and I took a day trip to the parish church at Haselbury Plucknett in Somerset and Forde Abbey in Dorset. The main reason for this outing was the visit to Exeter of Joshua Britt, a PhD student from the University of South Florida, who is working on medieval anchorites. Anchorites were individuals who pursued the religious life by being enclosed in a cell, often attached to a church. Josh had come to Exeter to meet with our resident anchoritic expert, Prof. Eddie Jones, and to look through the archive of the late Rotha Mary Clay (author of The Hermits and Anchorites of Medieval England), currently in Eddie’s care. Josh was also interested in talking to me, having heard that I will soon be working on a new Latin edition of the Life of Wulfric of Haselbury by John of Forde. Wulfric was an anchorite who lived in a cell attached to the parish church of Haselbury Plucknett from 1124×25 until his death in 1154. In his time, he was a very well-known figure: his reputation reached the ears of the pope and St Bernard, and he was consulted by King Stephen. In the early to mid-1180s, at a point when memories of Wulfric were beginning to fade, his life and deeds were documented by John, prior and subsequently abbot of the nearby Cisterican house of Forde. Josh’s presence in Exeter provided the ideal excuse to indulge our mutual research interests and to visit both sites. One of our own PhD students, Tom Chadwick, also came along for the ride. Tom was happy to take a break from writing up his thesis and to offer his in-depth knowledge of local ales and ciders (the latter being much appreciated by Josh).
We set off from campus by car at 9.30 and arrived at Haselbury Plucknett just before 11.00. Here we met Jerry Sampson, a local archaeologist interested the medieval structure of Haselbury’s church. A thorough renovation by the Victorians means that little now remains of the church’s medieval fabric so Jerry’s help in interpreting the site proved crucial. He pointed out the extant medieval features and explained that the northern side probably retained the footprint of the twelfth-century church and Wulfric’s cell, the latter lying underneath the current vestry. The Life offers interesting glimpses into Wulfric’s cell, which seems to have consisted of an inner and outer room, with one door into the church and one window to the outside world. Much of our discussion centred on the exact arrangement of the cell and any other buildings, such as a stable and a room for Wulfric’s servant, which might have been part of the complex. Jerry has plans to carry out a geophysical survey on the site so some of these questions may be answered in the near future.
Next we wandered round the village, looking for the bridge and ford over the river, scenes of two of Wulfric’s miracles. The probable location of the latter was found down a public footpath at the side of the village inn – although, it must be admitted, the gentle stream at the bottom isn’t particularly impressive. By now, it was 13.00: like any good medievalists, we had managed to spend quite a lot of time looking at very little.
We then made our way to Forde Abbey and the home of Wulfric’s biographer, John of Forde (c.1150-1214). Forde Abbey was a Cistercian house and the second home of a community initially founded in 1136 at Brightley in Devon. Brightley proved unsuitable and five years later the community relocated to the present site, a crossing point on the River Axe – a ford – from which the new house took its name. The abbey was dissolved in 1539, shortly after Abbot Chard had undertaken an ambitious building programme and much of what remains of the medieval complex dates from this period. The estate passed through several hands until the Prideaux family bought it in 1649 and remodelled the extant buildings to form an impressive, if architecturally dissonant, stately home.
The Chard Tower, the abbot’s lodgings, the north side of the cloister, the east range (which contained the monks’ dormitory), and the chapter house are the most visible extant remains of the Cistercian abbey – and of these, only the chapter house and the east range date from John’s time. The chapter house and the ground floor of the east range (now the cafe) can be accessed without tickets to the house. Those venturing inside the house may find it difficult to get to grips with the monastic geography of the building – the historical information provided focuses more on its early modern and modern inhabitants.
Fortunately, the final room of the house leaves you to your own devices with a selection of Cistercian habits, so even if the medieval history of the house is underplayed, you can still look the part. Outside, the gardens are nicely landscaped, very well maintained, and include a number of water features. At the far end of the gardens, the Great Pond seems to be monastic in origin, but, while of interest to the medievalist, it is not as impressive as the Centenary Fountain, which shoots a spout of water surprisingly high into the sky several times a day.
All in all, this was a fun day out – and we happily toasted the success of our trip with some ale and cider when we returned to Exeter. However, for those with a more general interest in medieval history, these sites are of limited interest. Unless you’ve read the Life of Wulfric (which is readily available in translation), you won’t really get much out of the church at Haselbury Plucknett – this is a site for Wulfric enthusiasts only. Indeed, the carved wooden ceiling and “Norman” cellar of our lunch stop, Oscar’s Winebar in Crewkerne, probably has more to appeal to the general medieval tourist! In contrast, Forde Abbey is certainly worth a visit, but is better suited to a family outing on a sunny day than a research trip. While there are significant medieval structures remaining at Forde, the estate is oriented more towards its later history and horticulture than those seeking the medieval.
Haselbury Plucknett Church: Entrance is free.
Forde Abbey: Entrance to the house and gardens costs £13.00 (although there is a 10% reduction if you buy tickets online) and opening times are restricted.
Dr Helen Birkett, Lecturer in History
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.
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
On Friday night I attended a screening of the 1922 film Robin Hood at the Barbican Centre in London. In addition to bringing a silent cinema classic back to the big screen, the event also showcased Neil Brand’s rousing new score for the film, which was performed live by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The new music is certainly an improvement on the soundtrack attached to the film on Youtube, however, as with most film scores, it is the visual spectacle rather than the music that stays with you.
Robin Hood was one of the most expensive and extravagant films of its day. It was an unashamed vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks, as clearly indicated by the film’s official title: Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. Fairbanks helped to adapt the story (he is credited under his middle names ‘Elton Thomas’) and gave himself, in effect, three roles to play: first, the Earl of Huntingdon, a virtuous, chain-mail clad knight; then his alter ego, Robin Hood, marked out by his hose, goatee beard, and bow and arrow; and, underlying both, the charming matinee idol version of himself. The latter is alluded to most obviously following his defeat of Guy of Gisbourne in the opening tournament, when it is revealed that the Earl of Huntingdon/Fairbanks is afraid of women. The physically imposing and jovial Richard the Lionheart, played with gusto by Wallace Beery, finds this hilarious – and encourages all the female spectators at the tournament to mob him. Poor Fairbanks is forced to dive into the moat to escape and, luckily, isn’t hindered by his stunt chainmail.
The pace of the film is somewhat surprising. The first hour and a quarter of the story is devoted to the initial set-up in which the Earl of Huntingdon falls in love with Marian, is wronged by Guy of Gisbourne, and then abandons the crusade to save England from Prince John’s tyranny. At this point, Robin Hood makes his first appearance and the final hour of the film gallops along at a much merrier pace: Robin’s outlaw band prance all over the screen as they save the oppressed people of England; Robin rescues Marian, brutally kills Guy (the new score includes a rather nasty crack as his spine snaps), is captured by John and saved from a Sebastian-like martyrdom by the arrival of King Richard. At the climax of the film, Robin and Marian marry – and poor Richard, who seems to think that, as their monarch and their chum, he is entitled to hang out with them on their wedding night, finds himself locked out of their chamber. There is much to raise the modern eyebrow in this film, not least the bromance of lingering looks between Robin Hood and Little John – particularly in contrast to the rather chaste and motherly relationship between Marian and Robin.
For the medievalist, there is also much to amuse. The films opens with the statement that ‘history – in its ideal state – is a compound of legend and chronicle’, which, while irking the purist, probably represents popular attitudes to medieval films both then and now. The same liberal approach is evident with regard to the sets. Robin Hood’s landscape draws on the extant architecture of the medieval past and the distorted structures of medieval illustration. When the camera follows Richard’s crusader army to France, the audience is presented with an open plain and turreted castles perched on rocky outcrops, which seem culled from later medieval manuscript imagery. Back in England, Nottingham has been given similar treatment: it has the small, warped structures and large doorways of dwellings in manuscript-land. Finally, the cavernous inside of the royal castle mixes the height, space and light of a Gothic Cathedral with romanesque arches that could never have supported such a structure – and is quite different to the pokey palaces of medieval reality. This strange world also finds expression in the intertitles, which are deliberately archaized to the extent that they are sometimes a little difficult to understand on first reading. There is also a classic piece of medieval-sounding gibberish textually uttered by Friar Tuck as he prepares to test the fighting skills of a mysterious stranger:
So what did 1920s audiences want from Robin Hood and the Middle Ages? Well, above all, they wanted Fairbanks and they wanted him in an extravagant setting. Robin Hood was a high-end, lavish production that came hot on the heels of Fairbanks’ smash hits The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921). The film offered a suitably strange and archaic ‘impression of the Middle Ages’, which both accorded with audience expectations and provided Fairbanks with the fantastic backdrop needed for his latest swashbucking epic.