Digital Humanities, Events, Medieval Studies, Vernacular Languages

37th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies: Part 1

This past 25 March, the Center held its 37th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies. This year’s conference, “The Generative Power of Tradition: A Celebration of Traditio, 75 Years,” explored both the power of tradition in producing new ideas and movements and the role and history of Traditio in the humanities.

This year’s conference was divided into two panel sessions and two roundtables, with Father Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., beginning the conference with a brief history of Traditio’s origin, its current role in facilitating discourse in numerous disciplines in the humanities, and its future under both Fordham and Cambridge University Press.

The first session was dedicated to mysticism, with the current state of the discourse surrounding mystics and their written experiences forming the central focus of the presenters. Barbara Newman (Northwestern) began the panel with her paper, “New Seeds, New Harvest: Thirty Years of Tilling the Mystic Field.” Discussions of medieval mysticism were, prior to the Second Vatican Council, dominated by authors with some kind of tie to religious institutions or orders. These men and, very occasionally, women approached medieval mystic experiences with a particular eye toward their agreement with established orthodoxy. While these earlier discussions thoroughly traced genealogies of influence and, when the reader’s Latin comprehension was not assumed, provided exceptional translations of the source material, the discourse, dominated as it was by the same communities of scholars, fell into certain assumptions that prevented the discussion from expanding. Women mystics, for example, were only discussed if they were considered saints. After Vatican II and the explosion of interest in mystical experiences in the 1960s, the discourse began opening up to a wider body of scholars of more diverse disciplinary backgrounds. Mystics came to be understood through less a spiritualist lens and more through a material, bodily, and terrestrial one. In conclusion, Newman challenged medievalists to now explore mystics in relation to political roles. Saying that mystics strove for an otherworldly ideal while still remaining grounded in this world, Newman expressed her desire for medievalists now to look to mystic vernacular writings not as inferior to the well-worded Latin copies, but as attempts by mystics to reach out to a wider audience in more tangible ways.

Concluding the first session was Sara Poor (Princeton). Her paper, “From Author to Textual Construct: Changing Approaches to Female Mystics in the European Tradition,” explored how female mystics have been discussed in relation to the often contentious notion of authorship for the past few decades. Looking to Mechthild von Magdeburg as her prime example, Poor discussed how the role of author can be, and is often, denied medieval women. By denying the notion of an author, as we often do when considering medieval texts, we allow for reinterpretations of the persona of the author that eliminate the possibility of a female origin of a text. Some interpretations of Mechthild’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead relate that Mechthild was herself a textual construct: an invented author figure meant to facilitate a description of a mystic experience that would have been unwelcome if openly coming from a man. Poor related that, while we willingly contemplate such possibilities concerning the existence of female authors, we rarely seem to apply such critical reinterpretations to supposed male authors, revealing an incongruity that medievalists and scholars of mystic texts need to be made aware of.

After the first panel came a roundtable concerning editing medieval manuscripts in the digital age. The first speaker, William Noel (University of Pennsylvania), addressed rampant problems with the current methods of production and use of digitized manuscripts and source material. Such problems he brought up were the tendency for libraries and museums to make their digitized manuscripts look as nice as they can aesthetically, covering up valuable information in the process. Likewise, while Noel by no means intimated that individuals or institutions engaged in this kind of activity, there is a very real possibility that one could digitally alter an image to provide information it actually does not. Ultimately, Noel presented a general need for institutions to digitize their manuscripts, provide the digitized versions free of charge, and provide with them the metadata that proves their legitimacy and gives scholars the information needed to know what to do with them.

William Stoneman (Harvard) presented the uses and applications of the programs Jeffrey Witt (Loyola Maryland) is developing to make use of the versatile nature of digitized manuscripts and texts. Witt’s programs will allow for the digitizing of a manuscript’s text and the embedding of links within the text which will allow a user to click on a certain word and bring up a list of translations and explanations which could be provided by the user base itself. In effect, this program would allow for the creation of a potentially unlimited number of editions of digitized texts to be produced online while hybridizing the digitized text and edition into a single entity. Stoneman commented on Witt’s project, bringing up questions of sustainability, where the data behind these hundreds of crowd-sourced editions would be kept, and for how long.

The final speaker of the first roundtable was Raymond Clemens (Yale), who presented a program he had been employing for some time that seeks to lower the barrier for entry into paleography and text editing. His program, the Digital Platform of Textual Editing Projects, has graduate students working together in workshops on editing and digitizing manuscripts while being taught by other graduate students who are familiar with the software and methods needed to do so. This provides the teaching students with valuable experience in pedagogy while introducing the students participating in the workshops to digital editing and paleography in a minimal-stress environment.