The 36th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies took place this past 5-6 March in the Lincoln Center Campus. The aim of the conference this year was to explore the employ, design, intended use, and, most of all, the physicality of the manuscript as a medium. While studies of English and French manuscript use and culture formed the majority of the presentations, this year’s conference saw also presentations on German and Irish texts, the interplay between Byzantine Greek and medieval Latin, Jewish and Arabic texts and languages and Buddhist texts in translation between Korean and Japanese texts. Aside from analyses of textual content, promising new methodologies of manuscript research and study were also brought up that look at illuminations, the social context in which a text was produced, and the material composition of a manuscript with the intention of showing how the field of manuscript study is rapidly expanding.
The first day of the conference began with a plenary lecture, “Medieval Mediations” delivered by Jessica Brantley of Yale University that served as an excellent summary of the purpose of the conference and provided the foundation of what we mean when we say that manuscripts served, and continue to serve, as a medium. Showing, by the presentation of scrolls in medieval art, that medieval peoples were just as keenly aware of the roles codices and parchment rolls played in their societies and private lives as mediums as we are of our own media, Brantley presented the shifts from parchment roll to codex as a more dramatic one than what is heralded as the most dramatic shift in book studies traditionally: the advent of the printing press. From this lecture began the first concurrent session of the conference, with panels split between “Manuscripts in the Digital Age,” “Materiality: Beyond Parchment,” and “Organizing Knowledge.”
After lunch began the second plenary lecture by Kathryn Rudy, hailing from the University of St Andrews. Her presentation, “Dirty Books: Approaches to Measuring Reader Response in the Middle Ages,” took a novel approach to seeing what medieval readers were most interested in reading. Many surviving manuscripts are, fundamentally, filthy. They are covered with the dirt and grime of their readers’ hands where they were held open along the edges of each page. By analyzing the reflectivity levels of each page with a device used to measure suntans, Rudy was able to quantify the depth and severity of individual stains on each page. By doing thus, she was able to quantify the interest individual readers took in different parts of books of hours. Relaying a number of examples, including a rather amusing anecdote about a medical text a few
pages of which were stained with varying volumes of blood near glosses saying how some treatment methods didn’t work, Rudy demonstrated that we are able to see what parts of different books appealed the most to their contemporary reader(s). After this lecture, the conference broke again into concurrent sessions. These panels were:”Manuscript as Agent,” “Transmitting the Rule,” “Authors and Scribes: Making Meaning,” and “Format and Meaning.” The first day concluded with a flash session in which six scholars presented in mere minutes their own research ideas roughly relating to the subject matter of the conference, leaving the audience’s minds, already begging for mercy, spinning well into the evening.
The second day began with the final plenary lecture of the conference, delivered by Andrew Taylor of the University of Ottawa. His presentation “Freedom and the Portable Reader: 1992 and 1281” compared the programs we load into our portable digital devices and the book collections of medieval readers to illustrate how much we can learn of an individual person’s psychological state and intellectual interests by looking at what they read. Looking at the book collection of the priest William of Winchester, Taylor constructed a narrative episode of William’s life around the documentary evidence of his having been punished for an affair with a nun and his interests as presented by his book collection, which suggested he was interested in music and the noble pastime of hawking. After this lecture, the final concurrent session unfolded with three panels: “The Body in the Manuscript,” “Compendia,” and “Manuscripts Between Languages: East and West.”
While the physicality of manuscripts was a common topic of the panels and lectures of the conference, how readers used their manuscripts and new methodologies in how scholars may approach texts as sources of information about their original owners and producers seemed to steal the show. Numerous thought-provoking and innovative ideas were introduced to an audience that was both receptive to new ideas and ever questioning of what we think we know. The Center would like to thank again all those who presented their evocative works and ideas during the conference and those who worked tirelessly behind the scenes for this year’s great success.
By Kevin Vogelaar