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Sunday, May 24, 2015

50th Annual International Congress of Medieval Studies

This is my fifth time at the Congress, the 50th Annual Congress, and the first time that I have actually made it to the dance on Saturday Night. I love dancing, but the first three years I either came with one person, like my mom, and so it was a bit awkward for the two of us to go to the dance, or I went to the Congress solo. Last year I went as a student at Western Michigan University, but my presentation was Sunday morning, and since I work to the last minute, I didn't have time for a dance. It is great fun. Apparently playing the Last Saskatchewan pirate by the Arrogant Worms is a tradition. Odd. As is playing some polka music.

I listened to some very interesting presentations and had some great talks with old colleagues and fellow kingship/medievalisms/Viking enthusiasts. Here is the schedule I followed and the papers I went to:


1:30 - Bodies that Matter II: Impact and Outreach in Medieval Studies (A Roundtable)

As I say, I like to work to the last minute, so my first session was my own. I was asked to participate by the lovely Dr. Christina Lee, who was one of my professors when I did my Masters at Nottingham. We had a hard time keeping to the ten minutes, but it is always hard to keep it short when you are excited about what you are talking about, and we all were. Because it was a panel about outreach I was the only one who spoke on script.

Vikings for Schools: Engaging Children in Medieval Research 
Emma Vosper, Centre for the Study of the Viking Age, Univ. of Nottingham 

Emma's talk was very interesting: she broke down the program they bring into the schools, including what the target schools were, what the schedule was like and the material they were able to get their hands on to have a hands on program. She also talked about funding and how they are able to carry on the project. It seems like a very successful school program. Here is more about the program.

The Midlands Viking Symposium: Community Engagement with Research
Christina Lee 

Dr. Lee demonstrated the importance of having community sessions along with more academic sessions, and how a conference can both tap into popular interest and help inform the public.

Accessing the Medieval: Bridging Gaps between Author and Audience 
Nicola Royan, Univ. of Nottingham Community

Historical fiction workshops sounds like great fun, though as Dr. Royan points out, it can be a bit like wrangling cats, as you try and gather participants, authors and funding. It sounds like a great way to make the public and the medieval meet though.

Archaeology: Medieval Southwell 
Christopher King, Institute for Medieval Research, Univ. of Nottingham Community 

The project was well-outlined in the presentation. It looks like there is some interesting work being done in Southwell.

Archaeology II: Oakington Anglo-Saxon Cemetery
Duncan Sayer, Univ. of Central Lancashire 

The project sounded like a great community builder for Lancashire. This presentation covered the community benefits of a local archaeological dig, as well as some of the ethical implications that you have to deal with if you are going to undertake excavations of burial sites and involve the public in the excavations.

Heritage and Tourism: Putting Vikings on the Map
Megan Arnott, Western Michigan Univ.

Some oldies and some newbies. I talked about the impact of Viking heritage tourism on landscapes, so L'Anse aux Meadows came up again, but I also worked in some Scandinavian examples.

3:30 - The Public Medievalist: A Roundtable on Engaging the Public with the Middle Ages 

Susan Morrison, Texas State Univ.–San Marcos

Dr. Morrison showed us her student projects. They were really interesting, fun and creative interpretations of medieval topics and texts. The students came up with interpretations of the texts that mimicked popular online magazines like Buzzfeed or offered interesting comparisons between medieval figures and modern popular culture. She is working on some final edits before she releases it to the public.

Paul Sturtevant, Smithsonian Institution

Dr. Sturtevant reminded us that using popular methods, like the website, you reach a different audience and might actually have a much larger impact than any of the academic work that we do.

David Perry, Dominican Univ.

Dr. Perry echoed these sentiments. He also asked us to be kind, and not to tweet or message anything unkind about someone's presentation at Kalamazoo, because often those aren't meant to be fully polished work, and you can put a blackmark on someone's career. He is not arguing for a lack of public accountability, but he asks us to question whether or not anything negative really needs to be said. If you've thought about it and the answer is still yes, still think about the way you phrase things, but the critical tone we often adopt is often counterproductive.

Bruce Holsinger, Univ. of Virginia

Dr. Holsinger said something quite similar. He is the author of Neomedievalisms, Neoconservatisms and the War on Terror.

Sandra Alvares,

The presenter was a bit wary of public speaking, but the content was very interesting. has now been up and running for seven years. It is the site I always refer to for my medieval news, which sounds like an oxymoron, but isn't.


1:30 - Anglo-Saxon England

Alfred in Expeditione: Assembling the Evidence for a West Saxon Campaign against a Viking Host in South-East England in 882 
Robert Briggs, Univ. of Nottingham/Univ. College London 

This presentation argued for the correlation between modern Epsom and medieval Hebesham, and it was very convincing. Not actually being a place-name specialist, the presenter went on to argue that the documents and the place name indicate that in 882 King Alfred was playing a role in London's defense. The presentation also exhorted historians to reach out to linguists.

Under the Influence: Reassessing the Relationship between Viking and Anglo-Saxon Towns in England during the Ninth and Tenth Centuries 
David D. Crane, Salem State Univ. 

This presentation showed that the link between Danish and Anglo-Saxon towns in England was great, because these so called Danes seem to have been doing things largely in an Anglo-Saxon way, including minting coins and frankly building towns to begin with.

Æthelred’s Shameful Rule: Treachery, Tribute, and the Heroic Code 
Tahlia Birnbaum, Univ. of Sydney

This was a great presentation that talked about the two kinds of medieval shame (there may be more than two, but really I can't think of any others that are expressed in literature, so I find this very convincing). Namely, they are penitential shame, which often has a beneficial role in bringing you closer to God, and honorific shame, which results from cowardice in battle or bad dealings with others and causes you to be ousted from your community. this paper argued that Aethelred should be feeling the latter, because he runs away, but seems to turn it into the former, though not always very successfully.

3:30 - New Frontiers in Old Norse 

This session was sponsored by the Viking Society for Northern Research and it was chaired by Dr. Lee who also organized my session.

Masochism and Paranoia, Sex and Violence in Völundarkviða
Peter Sandberg, Univ. College London 

This presentation shows how Völundarkviða is a whole text, despite the stand alone nature of the first four stanzas. It showed the economy of cruelty in the text.

The Controlled Decline of Viking-Held Dorestad 
Christian Cooijmans, Univ. of Edinburgh

This presented a convincing argument that the reason that Dorestad fell wasn't just that the Vikings came to raid it every year in the ninth century, but that the Carolingian powers that be made no effort to save it and transferred the economic centre to Deventor where they had better control over the trade and system of vassalage.

Medieval Identity in the North Atlantic
Dayanna Knight, Independent Scholar

This paper presented a convincing argument for the transition of North Atlantic identities in the medieval period. Dr. Knight showed how kin as an identity determinant becomes kin and affiliation as more continental ideas about identity seep into the North Atlantic.


10:00 - The “Good,” the “Bad,” and the “Ugly” Ruler: Ideal Kingship in the Middle Ages 

This session was sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence; Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies Univ. of Florida. It was a very international session.

Speech is Silver, Silence is Golden: Usurpers’ Deeds and Historians’ Verdicts in Merovingian and Carolingian Chronicles 
Gerald Schwedler, Historisches Seminar, Univ. Zürich 

The presentation opened with a great joke about things unspoken to show the power, and argued that the Chronicles intentionally left things unsaid, like talking about the children of usurpers or certain revolutions, in order to make statements about the rights of certain people to rule.

“One Man’s Villain Is Another Man’s Hero”: Concepts Which Medieval Historians Employed to Construct the Images of Central European Princes as Good or Bad 
Grischa Vercamer, Freie Univ. Berlin

The conclusion of the paper was that the sources he looked at portrayed the villains of the texts as cowardly, cunning and arrogant when they wished to convey disapproval of certain personalities.

“Wise as Solomon / Cruel as Rehoboam”: Ancient and Biblical Models for Portraying Good and Bad Rulers in Medieval Central Europe 
Robert Antonín, Ostravská Univ.

This presentation looked at who became the biblical and ancient models for kings, and showed that Constantine, David and Solomon were the most commonly used examples.

In Search of Rule Models in Saint Erkenwald and Lydgate’s Saints Edmund and Fredmund 
Rebecca Huffman, Univ. of Michigan–Ann Arbor

What was interesting here was that these texts were presented to the king by Lydgate as instructional texts. However, Rebecca Huffman points out that the kings, although they are saints, are not always the most kingly (maybe not even the most saintly). It can't be said if this was intentional or not, but it is interesting that Lydgate would present the king with imperfect models.

1:30 - Scandinavian Studies 

This session is always sponsored by the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies.  Unfortunately I missed the first paper, but I'm sure it was interesting. However, here are the ones I did catch.

Playing with Conventions of Propriety: The Subversion of Etiquette in Lokasenna 
Edward Currie, Cornell Univ.

This paper argued convincingly that Lokasenna is a parody of the values espoused in Havamal.

The Old Norse Equitan and the Dignity of Kingship
Molly Jacobs, Univ. of California–Berkeley

This presentation compared Marie de France's Equitan with the Old Norse translation done for Hakon Hakonarsson's court. The long epilogue on the Old Norse version is part of the amplification of the kingly roles implicit in the original text. The Old Norse version plays down the love aspects and plays up the king's responsibilities.

3:30 - The Icelandic Sagas as History

This session was sponsored by the New England Saga Society (NESS). For the last little while they have been podcasting about sagas at and it has been very successful.

Moderate Heroism: Outlaw Family Sagas as Social Scripts and Spin Control
Randi Anderson, South Dakota State Univ. 

This paper supported Theodore Andersson's conclusion that the main value in the sagas was not honour but moderation, showing how this manifests itself in the Outlaw sagas, and in Gisli's saga in particular. When Gisli is restrained the world moves forward as it should.

Viking Age Cleveland: A New Runic Inscription in Context 
Pragya Vorha, Univ. of Leicester

Pragya and I had lunch one day. She is lovely and very knowledgeable. This presentation went over the finds and teh progress at the excavations in Cleveland, and specifically the runestone that they found at the site, since it is only the 18th Viking Age runestone discovered in England.

Visualizing Space and Place: A Literary Mapping Project of the Outlaw Sagas 
Mary Catherine Kinniburgh, Graduate Center, CUNY

This presentation gave some great visuals for the outlaw sagas, showing visualizations for all of the place-names in the Outlaw Sagas and showing where the major centres are. It garnered the most questions during question period as people tried to understand the context of the information they were looking at.

Some of my friends also wrote about some of their Kalamazoo 50th experiences. If you just can't get enough Kalamazoo, here are links to the things they wrote about:

Dani Alexis Ryskamp
Marca Hoyle
Dayanna Knight

Friday, May 15, 2015

"Vikings" Travelling Exhibition showcases the talents of museum storytellers

If you think about the popular response to Vikings, it is actually quite extraordinary, because, due to their propensity to build things out of wood, or peat as the case may be, Vikings have left a lot less behind in terms of artifacts as compared to say Romans or really anyone who preferred to build things with stone. When you visit the site at L'Anse aux Meadows, really we are getting super excited to visit some light impressions in the ground and a pin. But look how excited I am to visit the Vikings exhibit at the Field Museum.

Compare a Viking exhibit to say an exhibit on ancient Greece or Egypt. It is much harder for the artefacts to speak for themselves, and what I was struck by at the exhibit was the careful work that the curators of the exhibit put into storytelling. 

The exhibit placed artefacts on loan from Swedish museums next to re-creations of larger items that can't leave Sweden, like some Gotland picture/rune stones, next to re-creations like this ship which is based on original material, but combines evidence from several sources. 


What you see is largely Swedish artefacts here, as it is put on by the Swedish museums, but the story is being told in a general way so that the Swedish specific material applies to all of Viking Age Scandinavia. I wouldn't have called the exhibition 'Swedish Vikings' either, though it is a little what you are seeing.

The curators put the exhibit together thematically, taking you through several aspects of Viking life and filling in the blanks with visuals as well as text. There were some good interactive elements teaching about the origins of the names for the days of the week and making comparisons between Viking life and our life. I took away a recipe for Viking bread.

The most spectacular piece in the exhibit is also a good example of the role museum curators have to play in making visuals out of the meagre Viking remains. The rivets of the ship suspended in the shape of a ship turns what would look like a pile of metal into a living thing that really captures the imagination. This may be old hat at places like the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, but it was new to me, and I have done my fair share of Viking tourism.  

The Viking exhibit is well worth a look. It will be at the Field Museum until October 4th.