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Movement and Mobility in the Medieval Mediterranean (6th-15th centuries): Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 6th Biennial Conference in Memory of Simon Barton
Alun Williams reports on the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean conference, held in the Institut d’Estudis Catalans (IEC), Barcelona.
The 2019 Conference of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean took place in the historic centre of Barcelona between 8 and 11 July in the beautiful and (mostly) neo-classical surroundings of the Casa de Convalescència, a seventeenth-century building close to the Rambla. Our friend and colleague Simon Barton had been an early enthusiast for this venue, and we were all excited that the conference would be held, for the first time, on the shores of the Mediterranean itself. Following Simon’s sad and untimely death in December 2017, the executive committee of the SMM resolved to dedicate the conference to his memory and legacy. Simon had served as society president from 2013 until his death and had been an innovative and inclusive choice, initiating society book and article prizes and student bursaries; there was, therefore, a great determination to make the event a fitting and warm celebration as well as one that reflected the debt to Simon and his work for the society.
Thirty-two panels presented papers over four days, each with the overall focus chosen by the Scientific and Organising Committee. Because the society has always welcomed contributions from History, Archaeology, Religious Studies, Art, Literature and other disciplines that comprise Medieval Studies, conference papers reflected the complexity and diversity that has characterised the medieval Mediterranean. Furthermore, many papers discussed areas where earlier ideas had received comparatively recent attention: the mobility of Muslim minorities in Iberia and Jessica Tearney-Pearce’s fascinating paper entitled “Turning the Sea into a Church: Maritime Devotion in the Medieval Mediterranean”. Despite this inevitable range in scope and discipline, the conference was coherent and stimulating. It attracted scholars from Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East, with numbers from southern and south-eastern Europe up sharply on previous conferences.
Two excellent keynote addresses were delivered by Petra Sijpesteijn (Leiden) and Amy Remensynder (Brown University). Petra has long served as a member of the editorial board on al-Masāq – the society’s house journal – and her paper was entitled “Global Networks: Mobility and Exchange in the Mediterranean (600-1000)”. This set the tone for the conference, concentrating as it did on the period following the founding and early centuries of Muslim dominance in the Mediterranean. It was chiefly concerned with the ways in which trade, the movement of people, and cultural exchange proved to be more enduring and determining influences on mobility and intellectual integration than political or religious divergence and conflict. Amy Remensynder, who knew Simon well and has an established link with Exeter, gave the second keynote speech on “The Restless Mediterranean, a Sea in Motion”. In places, it was a lyrical, almost poetic presentation, the restless sea itself and its relentless motion providing a kind of metaphor for human movement, travel and mobility in the Mediterranean Basin and its hinterland. The sea was, furthermore, part of that mobility, providing not just a backdrop but a powerful, pervasive and determining element within it.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in the conference came at the end when a special session in honour of Simon Barton, chaired by his former student Antonella Liuzzo Scorpo (Lincoln), was convened specifically to remind delegates of Simon’s work – as well as to highlight further areas of research. The session, “New Directions in Medieval Iberian Studies: Simon Barton’s Scholastic Legacy” comprised papers from a former colleague, Therese Martin (IH-CCHS, CSIC-Madrid) and two of Simon’s PhD students, Teresa Witcombe and Teresa Tinsley. Therese Martin spoke on “Once and Future Queen: Urraca Redux (1109/2019)”; Teresa Witcombe’s subject was “’Reconquista’ and Crusade in Thirteenth-Century Burgos”; and Teresa Tinsley’s paper was entitled “Reframing the ‘Reconquista’: Hernando de Baeza’s Slant on the Conquest of Granada.” As well as presenting papers of exceptional insight and originality, each speaker acknowledged, sometimes with considerable emotion, her debt to Simon’s careful, diligent and inspirational guidance. The session prompted a wide range of questions from the audience and was, certainly from the perspective of those of us who knew Simon, the highlight of the conference and a fitting denouement.
I have now retired as society secretary after twelve years in post and was awarded with an honorary fellowship at the conference. This was a wholly unexpected honour for which I record my deep gratitude. We now look forward to the society’s 2021 conference, also to be held in the Mediterranean, at Rethymno on the island of Crete – and at which I hope to play a full part.
The Centre for Medieval Studies here at Exeter is well-known for its sense of community, and for the value it places on the exchange of ideas in an informal and relaxed setting. One of the key events in our research year, the annual Orme Day, aims to achieve exactly that with a postgraduate symposium followed by the Nicholas Orme lecture, a public lecture on medieval studies by a visiting speaker. This year’s event – affectionately known as the ‘Feast of Orme’ – took place on Tuesday 12th March. After the unfortunate disruption to last year’s event caused by industrial action, we were delighted to be able to run the event in its traditional format once again.
The day began shortly after lunch, with a series of 20-minute presentations from current postgraduate students. The topics of these presentations reflected the wide range of research undertaken at the Centre. Philip Wallinder’s talk, ‘Apocryphal? Who, Me?’, examined John Trevisa‘s approach to translating the Gospel of Nicodemus into Middle English and was informed by both translation theory and the close-reading of Latin and Middle English texts. Trevisa’s concordance of several distinct calendar systems and his use of intertextuality offered fruitful topics for discussion, as Philip drew on texts from St. Jerome’s Chronicon to recent editions of the Latin Nicodemus to illustrate the relationship between the Middle English ‘Nicodemus’ and its sources.
By contrast, Ekaterina Novokhatko, a visiting PhD student and member of the HERA After Empire project, focused on more geographical questions in her presentation. She outlined her attempts to map the spread of martyrological texts (and their attendant communication networks) in eleventh-century Europe. Her talk showed how Catalonia functioned as a zone of contact, within which French interest in the life of St. Gerald met the northern Italian focus on St. Alexius; using mapping tools, she neatly illustrated how these two ‘models of the layman saint’ circulated together in the area in which a contemporary pope, Silvester II, had studied in his youth.
There was a similar saintly focus to Henry Marsh‘s talk, albeit in a less conventional sense: Henry explored the Gesta Henrici Quinti (1413-16), a text that has typically been interpreted as a paean to his namesake’s celebrated martial prowess. Henry, however, focused squarely on those readings that emphasise the almost-hagiographic elements of the text, arguing that in order to grasp the anonymous author’s full understanding of the king, it is necessary to acknowledge those readings that look beyond the commonly-cited sources of chivalric texts and to consider the Gesta as a response to challenges posed both by France and by Lollardy. The text, Henry noted, frames the King’s physical struggles as spiritual struggles, down-playing traditional ‘hack-and-slash’ romance-inspired elements and aligning the monarch, perhaps counterintuitively, with saints who had faced off against temporal power. While the Gesta might be useful for analysing myth-making, Henry suggested, it is equally important to ask precisely which myths its author was attempting to create.
Following a short break, the gaggle of medievalists reassembled in the plush surroundings of the Business School for the keynote Orme Lecture, delivered by the inimitable Miri Rubin. Prof. Rubin’s talk concerned urban societies in the Middle Ages and was entitled ‘(Italian) Cities of Strangers: Some Ways Medieval Cities Thought About Their Diversity’. As she explained, this topic was just one of many that would have paid tribute to the work of Nicholas Orme, but it was probably the most effective in allowing the assembled audience to engage with the ‘search for the human’ that has been at the heart of his research.
Over the course of her lecture, Prof. Rubin examined attitudes to ‘strangers’ and ‘foreigners’ in medieval Italy and beyond, charting how the ‘Great Transformation’ of the fourteenth century led to a shift in views on non-locals. Thinkers and legal theorists, she stressed, increasingly moved away from ‘pathways to citizenship’ and embraced a ‘rhetoric of exclusion’. Her startling final slide – showing a post-Black-Death ‘ideal’ city as one that appeared to be empty – left us all with plenty to think about. It was a talk that talk invited comparisons with contemporary attitudes towards immigration and integration, and stressed the complex relationship between medieval and modern attitudes to the ‘other’.
It certainly was a fascinating and stimulating day for all involved, and a reminder of the vitality and vision that characterise the Centre for Medieval Studies’ research community. The Centre would like to thank all of those involved in planning, organising and contributing to the event, from postgraduates to our keynote speaker; in particular, however, we would like to show our appreciation for Nicholas Orme, whose generous funding of the lecture series allows us to invite many of the leading lights of contemporary medieval studies to challenge, inspire, and invigorate us all.
Ed Mills, PhD student
The Medieval Research Seminar has been particularly active of late. Hot on the heels of Anne Lawrence-Mathers’ fascinating discussion of medieval magic and Sarah Hamilton’s insight into reading and understanding rites, we were very fortunate to play host, on 10 March, to Miriam Cabré. Miriam works at the Universitat de Girona, Catalonia, and has published widely on courtly cultures of medieval Occitania and on the troubadours more broadly. Miriam’s presentation was entitled ‘Literary landscapes and real itineraries: The reasons for mapping the troubadours’. Her paper offered an insight into her latest project, which explores the role played by the troubadours in a broader pan-European culture, while focusing specifically on one particular aspect of her research: attempts to ‘map’ the networks of production and patronage of these works and poets in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Maps, as Cabré noted, are powerful tools in the hands of literary scholars, and have formed the front-matter of many an introductory text on the subject of troubadours. The production and use of any map, however, is fraught with implicit choices, which can have an important impact on how the works that they accompany are represented. Should the ‘boundaries’ of the map, for instance, represent borders of a linguistic or a political variety? In the context of the troubadours, how should maps represent the relative political importance of individual regions, or individual courts? Many maps (re)produced as front matter to troubadour anthologies ignore Catalonia entirely, and focus totally on the south of modern-day France: what is gained (or lost) through this decision?
Cabré outlined some of the opportunities that her project presents, particularly in emphasising the role of Catalan courts within the broader realm of Occitania. The map being produced by her team, she explained, will be digital: built from the ground up, it will use dynamic ‘layers’ to represent the movements of the troubadours’ courtly patrons, the activity of individual troubadours themselves, and key topographical features as they affected movement and literary production. Miriam offered an advance ‘sneak peek’ of some early builds of her map, demonstrating how useful it will be in visualising the itineraries and disparate geographical references implicit in works by troubadours such as Guillem de Berguedà. She presented an extract from Guillem’s Be·m volria q’om saupes dir (‘I wish someone would tell me …’), replete with place-names, as a particularly compelling example of the insights that this kind of mapping can offer:
Ja·N Ponz Ugz no·s lais adurmir,
qe segurs es q’om li deman
Rochamaura, qe fai bastir,
e la forza de Carmenzon;
e·ls murs q’a faitz a massa gran
lo reis los fara desrochar,
e·ls vals de Castellon razar.
[‘Let Sir Pons Uc not slumber, / For it is certain he will be asked to hand over / Rocamaura, which he had built, / And the stronghold of Carmenzon; / And the king will tear down / The thick walls walls he has had built / And raze the valley of Castellon.’]
Maps, as recent endeavours such as Medieval Francophone Literary Cultures Outside France have shown, can be powerful tools in helping researchers to appreciate the physicality of the literatures that we study. As Cabré’s Troubadours and European Identity: The Role of Catalan Courts project will aim to demonstrate, maps remind us that texts such as those contained in troubadour chansonniers were, ultimately, products of a particular time and place, composed in the context of specific geopolitical events. As Miriam herself explained, the broad scope of her project is reflected in the composition of the project team, which includes specialists in multiple disciplines and benefits from a healthy variety of approaches. The intersection between disciplines of ‘medieval studies’ was reflected in the audience for the talk itself, which boasted a healthy attendance of both literary scholars and historians.
All of us at the Centre for Medieval Studies would like to offer our thanks to Miriam for a fascinating and thought-provoking presentation, which certainly gave us all an opportunity to reflect on the potential of digital and multidisciplinary approaches for our own research. Miriam’s visit was organised by Dr. Thomas Hinton, a lecturer in French at Exeter who himself specialises in medieval Occitan (and who, in the true spirit of interdisciplinary, provided the translations for this blog post).
Edwards Mills, PhD student