This past 21 April, Bernard College hosted the annual Interuniversity Doctoral Consortium Medieval Conference. Each year PhD students come from the various IUDC participant institutions to present some aspect of their research to their peers and professors. This exchange facilitates both a greater sense of community between the IUDC member institutions and gives PhD students on the verge of defending their dissertations a chance to receive valuable feedback from others of a myriad of disciplinary backgrounds. Students came to present from NYU, Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, CUNY, SUNY Stony Brook, and Fordham. The two Fordham students presenting this year were Nathan Melson and Samantha Sabalis, Medieval Studies alumni and currently of the History and English departments, respectively.
Nathan presented his paper, “Problems of a Portable Saint: Relic Economy and Negotiation in Late Medieval Marseille,” in which he presented the curious instance of the pawning of parts of St Louis’ reliquary held by Franciscans in late 14th century Marseille in order to pay for the defense of the city. Nathan relayed the old truth that, if one needs money, one must take out a loan, and, in order to do that, one must present collateral. It just so happened that the collateral the town government of Marseille presented were pieces of the head reliquary of St Louis, much to the consternation of the Franciscans looking after it. Nathan noted that the central point of contention between the town government and the Franciscans was the notion of ownership. While none denied that the relic of St Louis was in the hands of the Franciscans, the town government of Marseille saw the gold and precious stones of the reliquary as property that was under town protection and, thus, under their authority to present as collateral. During the unstable times of the mid and late 14th century, the relics of the Franciscan monastery outside Marseille were often brought into the city and housed in people’s homes for protection. This gave the town government of Marseille, in their own minds, the right to count the value of the reliquary as part of what they had to draw upon in times of need.
Samantha presented her own paper, “From a Confessor’s Manual to a Text for Lay Religious Instruction: the Transformation of Robert Grosseteste’s Templum Dei in BL Additional MS 32578.” Samantha compared the original Latin version of the Templum Dei, a text meant for clerical instruction, and the vernacular version, directed toward lay use. Looking specifically at the act of confession, Samantha relayed the differences in the presentation of who is authorized to be the receiver of a penitent’s confession. In the Latin original, God is presented as the doctor, capable of curing the illness of sin. The confessor is considered the doctor’s assistant, or the doctor-by-proxy. However, in the vernacular Templum Dei, God retains His position as the doctor, while sin remains the illness that must be cured, but the confessor is overtly absent from the metaphor. If there is no confessor, Samantha presents, then it is upon the penitent to find a person to serve such a function as assistant to God. Under such circumstances, laymen can be such assistants, with the vernacular Templum Dei educating them as to how to serve effectively.
Halfway through the conference, a roundtable was held titled, “Theft: Methods and Theories We Don’t Really Know.” The roundtable consisted of Christopher Baswell (Bernhard College and Columbia University,) Brigitte Bedos-Rezak (NYU), Steven Kruger (CUNY Graduate Center), Sara Poor (Princeton), and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham). The discussion largely was in response to a question posed by Baswell prior to the conference. Baswell’s question emerged from his own anxieties regarding the increasing emphasis placed on interdisciplinary approaches in medieval studies. Concerned over how much a medievalist is expected to know and from how many disciplines a medievalist is expected to borrow, Baswell presented whether our interdisciplinarity has perhaps gone too far or if we are holding ourselves to unreal standards as scholars and humans. The general response from the participants and the audience was that interdisciplinarity does not necessarily preclude specialization. It was suggested that at the heart of Baswell’s and others’ concerns may be an anxiety over the appearance of academic rigour. An interdisciplinary approach to medieval studies may appear to be one that lacks a rigourous approach to any one particular discipline. As the saying goes, “A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none.” However, the counter-argument was presented that interdisciplinary scholarship does not actually require one to be any such “jack-of-all-trades.” One cannot engage in scholarship of every kind of discipline and expect to perfectly comprehend all of it. Nor can one expect to find the products of other disciplines always helpful in one’s own approach. The general answer to Basswell’s question was that, while one can take interdisciplinarity too far, individual specialties and areas of specific interest will always drive forward the scholarship of each individual.
The Center would like to thank the organizers of this year’s IUDC Medieval Conference and would like to congratulate Nathan and Samantha for their outstanding contributions to the field.