Minsters Preaching, Outlaws Feasting, Ships' Scribes Trembling

I’m woefully late writing about this year’s pilgrimage to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kazoo or Kzoo), so my notes are now a collection of enigmas. But here goes the first installment!

The first session I attended was a roundtable, on the 2014 NEH Summer Seminar for College Teachers in York: Arts, Architecture, and Devotional Interaction. York—that’s why I chose it, and so glad I did. The six speakers described the experience as energizing their teaching, writing, research, while the networking opened doors in remarkable ways. Their research interests included baptismal fonts, alien abbeys, processional shrines, Beverly Minster’s sculpture, the sculpture on Lincoln Cathedral’s Last Judgment porch, and James Joyce and the medieval Eucharist. Each speaker described how exposure to each others’ ideas and interests in conversations in the evenings, at meals, during field trips informed their own research and broadened their outlooks. Unfortunately, the NEH is cutting such programs. A loss to us all.

I particularly appreciated Julia Perratore’s comment regarding Beverley, that “the building itself [was] continually preaching” to the parishioners. Gregory Erickson, the Joycean, had not realized until exploring the medieval churches how deeply this architecture informed James Joyce’s work. As I listened I realized that architecture is a primary source we rarely mention.

I was so taken by all the participants that I gave my email address to one of the organizers and invited them to share it if they were interested in contributing a blog post. So we shall see!

The value of the conference isn’t just the sessions, it’s also the encounters throughout the day. At the end of this first session I was introduced to Anthony Masinton (anthropology/architecture) from the Christianity & Culture group, and we began a conversation about old cemeteries, particularly the crypts at Spitalfields, and how the overcrowded burial prevented the bodies from decomposing, contributing to the cholera epidemics in the 19th century. We continued our conversation the next day when he was giving me a demonstration of the group’s latest product, a thumb drive providing wonderful information about Micklegate Priory, York, in the 15th century (which will figure in my new series). Everything this group does is invaluable. Check out their website.

In the afternoon I attended a session, Food and Feast in Medieval Outlaw Texts. I confess I was so enjoying these presentations that I forgot to take notes (it was right after lunch, after all), so what I remember are the images that inspired daydreams that have stayed with me. Guildhall feasts were more about theatrics than anything else, with many courses. Rituals, the hierarchy and display were most important, and these are parodied in many outlaw tales. Brawls often broke out during processions. Lorraine Stock, a friend who is steeped in Robin Hood, made a fascinating point about post-World War II gender tension (women working in factories during the war, but had to step aside when the men returned home to reclaim their jobs) reflected in a Robin Hood film of that period. (Which one?!) And now I know that the Robin Hood TV show was written by top notch blacklisted writers who worked under pseudonyms!

From outlaws to pirates…. Saturday afternoon I attended a session on piracy in the Mediterranean. It seems it was quite an organized practice, sanctioned by authorities as a means of patrolling/controlling the waters they considered their territory. And now I know that in this context pirate and corsair are interchangeable. I gained an appreciation for the thankless position of ship’s scribe (maritime law required one on each merchant ship). He was the mediator between the ship and the merchant. His account, the ship’s cartulary, was an important legal document meant to keep the captain honest. It was kept in a strongbox on board. But here’s the rub—his neutrality was difficult, if not impossible, because the power once the ship was under sail lay with the captain, not the merchant. A scribe would have his right hand cut off for a false entry. He was often tortured under investigation. Not a profession I would have chosen!

That’s it for now. More to follow!

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