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Report on the International Medieval Congress, at the University of Leeds

Report by Lawrence Green, CSR Honorary Research Fellow, July 2017

As I had received my first degree at the University of Leeds in 1965 it was with some feelings of nostalgia that I returned during the summer – over half a century later – to deliver a paper at the University’s 24th International Medieval Congress (IMC). Established in 1994 and organised and administered by the Institute for Medieval Studies (IMS), the Congress has established itself as an annual event and is the largest conference of its kind in Europe. The University hosted 2,444 delegates from 56 countries, bringing together researchers from Chile to China, the US, Russia and Algeria. The academic programme, too, swelled to include just under 2,000 individual papers given in 627 academic sessions, spanning the full range of disciplines in medieval studies: topics included medieval Ethiopia, religious conversion narratives, Byzantine architecture, palace cities in Japan, Europe and the Middle East, and Old English riddles – and many more.

In addition, an eclectic programme of public events, concerts, and fairs provided plenty of opportunities for delegates to immerse themselves in the Middle Ages, as well as getting to know each other informally at the many social spaces on campus. Having said that, the conference happened to coincide with the only really hot spell of the summer so that even with the addition of hastily-commandeered room fans there were times when the bar tent proved a more seductive attraction than the lecture theatre. Some 230 of the sessions were related to the special thematic strand, ‘Otherness’, a topic which brought together papers on a wide range of subjects, from monsters and monstrosity to the relationship between otherness and time, via cross-cultural encounters, otherness within individual religious traditions, and the discourses of otherness within individual religious traditions, and the discourses of otherness in contemporary medieval studies.

The strand was brought together by four well-attended keynote lectures. On Monday morning, the traditional double-keynote session featured Nikolas Jaspert (Historisches Seminar, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg), speaking on ‘The Mediterranean Other and the Other Mediterranean: Perspective of Alterity in the Middle Ages’, and Eduardo Manzano Moreno (Instituto de Historia, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid), with his lecture ‘Drawing Boundaries: Inclusion and Exclusion in Medieval Islamic Societies’. Felicitas Schmieder (Historisches Institut, FernUniversität Hagen) gave the Monday lunchtime keynote, entitled ‘The Other Part of the World for Late Medieval Latin Christendom’. Sylvia Huot (Pembroke College, University of Cambridge), spoke about ‘Other Sexualities - The “Natural” and the “Unnatural” in Medieval French Ovidian Narratives’ in the Tuesday keynote lecture.

There was a sense in which I personally represented the notion of ‘Otherness’ since by no stretch of the imagination would I presume to claim kin with Medievalists. The subject of my paper, ‘The Otherness of Shakespeare’s Invisible Architecture’ manifestly breached by fully a century the notion of ‘Medieval’, defined for purposes of the Congress to be c.300-1500. However, my anxieties on this count were soothed with the reassurance that “the reception of the Middle Ages and ideas of continuity across periods” were also regarded as areas of legitimate study.

I shared a panel, ‘Imaginary Objects, Buildings and Currencies in Medieval and Renaissance English Literature’ with a post-doctoral scholar from Lincoln College, Oxford (‘The Economics of Literary in “The Man of Law’s Tale”’) and an independent scholar from Chandler, Arizona (‘Sir Orpheo’s Castle as Reliquary’).The panel was moderated by Dr Heather Blatt of Florida International University. My own paper sought to explore how notions of ‘otherness’ – of inclusion and exclusion, of friendship and hostility in both domestic and civic terms – operate at an interface defined in terms of admittance to or exclusion from the barriers that circumscribe the physical boundaries of the private home and the city; admittance within the boundary bestows identity and security – exclusion signifies suspicion and foreignness, even hostility.

Shakespeare was keenly conscious of such structures, employing a language of architectural components – walls, doors and windows – by which degrees of exclusion and inclusion are defined and negotiated. The walls of the domestic house – like those of the sovereign city – establish a line of demarcation defining ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, distinguishing ‘friend’ and ‘citizen’ from ‘stranger’. Justified as a protection against the ‘other’ they bestow identity to what is enclosed within, while engendering a sense of alterity to what is beyond. Crucial to this negotiation is the potentially ‘magical’ area of the threshold. The domestic threshold marks the ritual point of negotiation of the complex of cultural and behavioural norms we term hospitality that transform ‘stranger’ into ‘guest’; at dusk city gates are ritually closed and guarded by the Watch – the citizen remains secure within while the stranger at the gate, unrecognised and unacknowledged occupies an undefined world ‘beyond’. In brief, the paper explored the varieties of ‘otherness’ which Shakespeare’s invisible architectural walls construct together with the apertures that perforate those walls and by which ‘exclusion’ may be qualified.

Returning to one’s first university for only the second time in over half a century was bound to be an unsettling, not to say surreal, experience. The strikingly new sat cheek by jowl with façades and street names that were curiously familiar whereas the Students’ Union Refectory and the Brotherton Library seemed quite unchanged; it was an experience in which déjà vu collided uncomfortably with half-remembered dream. Quite unforeseen, however, was the contrast between the student accommodation, then and now: even in the 1960s student flats had seemed bleak rather than ‘bohemian’ – and no poster of Che was ever likely to lend a spurious glamour to any of my walls – whereas Storm Jameson Court in the Charles Morris Hall where I stayed for the Conference boasts 4* hotel quality. As I have been invited to join a panel for the 2018 Congress whose umbrella theme is ‘Memory’ it will be interesting to see what further memories are stirred on my return. Interested readers can learn more of the IMC 2017 at: