As I mentioned in my most recent post, the start of July was something of a blur for me, as I spent much of my time in conference mode. (In case you’re wondering, by the way, being in ‘conference mode’ tends to involve me bobbing up and down in my seat, enraptured by my fellow medievalists’ wonderful presentations and panels.) Last week’s post saw me sharing some particularly juicy pickings from the enormous International Medieval Congress in Leeds, a four-day smorgasbord of panels, networking and roundtables. This week, though, we’re dialling back on the intensity somewhat, and looking at a conference I attended in York the following day; a conference that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Leeds.
Okay, so that last sentence was just an excuse to get a Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy reference in there. There’s a nugget of truth hidden within the painfully-obvious reference, though: while both Leeds and York would be described as ‘medieval conferences’, the two events did feel very different to one another, and each demonstrated in its own way how conferences really are shaped by the people who organise them. This was particularly on show in the York conference, ‘Researching and Publishing the Medieval Now’, as it, unlike Leeds, was organised around the work of one individual. #MedievalNow, as I took to calling it on Twitter, was a one-day event that served as a collective ‘thank-you’ from medievalists up and down the country to Caroline Palmer. Caroline has worked for 25 years at my favourite medievalist publishing house, Boydell & Brewer, as a commissioning editor and editorial director, and as such, she holds a special place in many medievalists’ hearts as the first port of call for book proposals, proofreaders, and a great deal more besides. I myself only met Caroline recently, when she was on the panel for a bursary competition; while my application was ultimately unsuccessful, I was struck by her generosity in seeking me out afterwards and encouraging me to reapply in future years. She is, though, a real luminary in the medieval studies scene, so with that in mind, and given the stellar programme, it really was a no-brainer for me to hop on the train from Leeds to York and extend my summer conference trip by a further day.
In many ways, #MedievalNow reminded me strongly of the postgraduate conferences on which I’d cut my medievalist teeth. The one-day nature of the event, coupled with the genuinely ‘collegiate’ and slightly festive mood amongst the attendees, left the presentations feeling both accessible and incisive. The attendance list read like a ‘who’s-who’ of medievalists: I was particularly excited to meet Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, whose Festschrift I was able to snap up at a massive discount. Jocelyn is a Big Deal™ in Anglo-Norman studies, and in recent years has played a central role in the renewal of scholarship surrounding the precise nature of what she terms ‘the French of England’. I also had the opportunity to meet Elizabeth Tyler, a York early-medievalist who’s been doing some wonderful work exploding the myth that English ‘died’ after 1066 and arguing instead that language contact, rather than conflict, was the key influence on post-Conquest speech and writing. As far as I’m aware, I didn’t embarrass myself in front of either of those luminaries in my field, although knowing my luck one of them will probably comment on this post telling me that I left my phone behind or something.
The bread and butter of any conference, of course, is the papers themselves, and York certainly didn’t disappoint. The day was split into three sessions: “literatures and histories”, whose contributions were loosely based around the relationship between publishing and scholarship; “material cultures”, which offered a series of more “hands-on” case studies in how to interpret medieval texts and manuscripts; and a plenary discussion informed by Caroline Palmer’s own work in publishing. Of particular interest to me was Jane Taylor‘s presentation, as Jane is my ‘grand-supervisor’ by virtue of having had one of my current supervisors as a PhD student! Jane’s presentation was a masterclass in both how to present and what to present: building her talk around a single sixteenth-century publisher, she took what might appear to be a dry subject (his indexing practices) and used it to draw out a range of fascinating conclusions and further questions. Over the course of the day, I posted a series of ‘catch-up Tweets’ based on my own notes under the hashtag #MedievalNow; if you’re curious, I’d encourage you to peruse the hashtag and enjoy the warm, fuzzy feeling that only 140-character summaries of medieval conferences can provide.
Jane certainly wasn’t the only presenter ‘on form’, though – the day was characterised by presenters of all disciplines and interests reaching out across traditional subject boundaries and offering insights as to how we might work in a genuinely interdisciplinary way. Appropriately enough, Sarah Kay began the day with a plea for us all to come together under the banner of ‘medieval studies’, rather than hiding away in our individual departments of French, English, or History; she certainly struck a chord, as interdisciplinarity was on show across all the panels. If #MedievalNow’s presentations were anything to go by, ‘medieval studies’ as an idea certainly isn’t going anywhere any time soon – which, of course, makes it a very, very exciting time indeed to be a postgraduate student.