Jun 3, 2015

The International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo - A Review

Kalamazoo in May (detail). Image: Yin Liu, 2013.
The International Medieval Congress held annually in Kalamazoo, Michigan is well-known by all of its regular attendees for being a unique combination of rigorous scholarship, expertise, and answer-seeking tainted with ribaldry, camaraderie, and an incorrigible excitement for books and imbibing. This year, May 2015, marked the 50th anniversary since the congress’ inception. I was fortunate enough to attend, playing the part of an envoy on behalf of the Medieval Codes project from the University of Saskatchewan. Approximately 3,000 medieval scholars gather at the congress which itself features more than 550 sessions of papers, panel discussions, round tables, workshops, and performances. Evening meetings and receptions are sponsored by academic institutions and societies. Nearly 70 exhibitors, including publishers, used book dealers, as well as artists and craftsmen fill the exhibits hall with their wares.

One of the many facets of research currently being explored by the Medieval Codes team involves letters and information security in the Middle Ages. Session 98, Expressing Emotions in Medieval Latin Letters, consisted of three papers that, although did not shed much light on the subject of information security, made interesting observations about the culture and conventions of letter writing in the medieval period. Letters of Peter Damian, a letter by Hugh of Fouilloy, and a correspondence between two anonymous lovers were the subjects of the three presentations. Each presenter explained how these medieval writers used emotion to persuade or manipulate those who received their letters. Moreover, the structure of the letters and the order of the emotions presented therein were deliberately arranged in a way that had the greatest effect upon the reader. Such rhetorical methods had roots in the Classical letter writing tradition and letters composed by society’s elite were required to adhere to a strict set of rules. Inquiries into exactly how information is laid out, encoded in persuasive language, and meant to evoke certain emotions in medieval letters would benefit from a qualitative analysis of a large number of letters. Examining just how far down medieval society’s feudal chain these methods seemed to have been employed would also be of interest. 

Session 403, Students’ Texts Are in Their Pockets: Does That Make a Difference?, evolved into a round table discussion during the question period. The main concern was whether technology and digital texts should sit at the head of the table of learning in university English and history classes. In his paper, Michael Crafton from the University of West Georgia lauded technology as a “friend to codicology.” Crafton dismissed anxieties shared by some regarding the negative effects laptops, tablets, and cell-phones might be having upon the classroom atmosphere and asserted that in small group classes, these devices can be more advantageous to classroom dynamics and group research rather than a distraction or hindrance. Vaughn Stewart from the University of North Carolina created his own E-books and conducted research in the form of polls asking students whether they preferred print or online based resources. The bulk of his results speak in favour of online resources, although a significant number of students said ideally they would like to have the option to use both print and digital books. It would have been interesting to see Stewart calculate the averages and measure any increase and decrease in learning and reading comprehension as he transitioned his classes to using his digital formats. Stewart’s presentation, including graphs and charts delineating his findings can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/vskzoo. The third speaker, Barbara Bordalejo, presented the new and upcoming mobile phone app for the Canterbury Tales, called the CantApp, that will allow users to engage with the text on a number of intertextual levels (even an audio component) intended to make reading Middle English less difficult for newcomers to the original language.

I attended Session 559, Technology in Medieval Studies: New Innovations and Recent Applications because Cassandra Tucker’s presentation, titled “The Spread of Ideas across Medieval Europe,” appeared to coincide closely with our goals at Medieval Codes. Tucker’s project (based out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha) is still in its prototype stages, but she hopes it will eventually allow scholars and archivists to search and map manuscripts present in libraries and universities across the globe. Her search application would also allow one to follow the dissemination of particular manuscripts – beginning with their origins and ending with their current location. The same tool could be employed to trace the currency of a particular word according to its appearance in extant manuscripts. Tucker’s project is both impressive and audacious. She expressed many of the difficulties and obstacles she is encountering, especially since she is currently working on this project as a “one man team.” As typical of the courteous Kalamazoo atmosphere, many of the session’s attendees offered her helpful advice on what next steps she might take, and other problems she will need to consider in the future. 

The International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo provides a unique academic conference experience. Punctuated with evening wine hours, mead tasting nights, and kiosks selling medieval-themed t-shirts, drinking horns, and Anglo-Saxon harps, Kalamazoo defies the stereotypical boredom and reserve of scholarly atmospheres. Yet an academic setting of sharing, learning, and contending ideas about the medieval world remains the foundation. I attended the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress three out of four years of my undergraduate degree and each time found myself excited at the prospect of attending as a presenter and I am planning on submitting a paper for next year’s congress. I would recommend the conference to anyone interested in edifying their academic experience, deepening their love of medieval studies, or even observing a special, eclectic sub-species of mankind known as The Medievalist.
Megan Wall
Medieval Codes Project Researcher
May, 2015 

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