Thursday, April 28, 2011

On Medievalists

A few weeks ago I attended the Medieval and Renaissance Forum at Plymouth State University, It was an incredibly interesting experience. The Forum is an academic conference, most of the presenters were English professors who specialize in Chaucer, Middle English, some fairly obscure old texts. I was there as a volunteer, I assisted the organizer and her assistant by running errands, staffing the registration desk, and by looking pretty in my kick a$$ landsknecht clothing during the Medieval Feast on Saturday evening. I also got to meet a ton of cool medievalists, attend some fascinating sessions, and hear a totally titillating talk on sex in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

But, I have a confession to make: I have never studied Medieval or Renaissance European history in a classroom setting. Well, not since about the 4th grade. I have never read Canterbury Tales, or Beowulf, I’m scared to death of Dante, Dunn, and Milton. I have quite a bit of academic learning in American History, but I came to the Middle Ages once I was out of college, so I’m practically completely self-taught when it comes to my current area of expertise. I’ve done a lot of studying, I know how to do my own research and can slog my way through most academic papers. So while I was not lost in any of the sessions that I attended, I did feel bad when any of the attendees would ask me where I taught or if I was a student.

Despite feeling like an interloper I had a great time! So many of the people giving talks at the conference were energetic young professors. They were all a bit on the nerdy side; they made Chaucer jokes, and laughed at Chaucer jokes. Some of them did not have the highest level of social skills, which made me feel right at home. I had great conversations about reenacting and Living History, about clothing and textiles, about sources and resources. I got some good book recommendations, and I am a lot less scared of Milton. It made me really want to take some college courses in Chaucer and the like, because I’d get so much more out of a class than I would trying to read it on my own. Maybe I’ll have to try to arrange something for a summer course or the fall semester.

One thing that I’ve taken away from my attendance at the forum is that just because I do not know about a medieval text on some subject or another, does not mean that it does not exist. The disconnect between academic scholarship and what information is available to me as a non-scholar is an even wider chasm that I had suspected. I have done quite a few database searches at college libraries for articles and research on Medieval and Renaissance Germany, and I have not come up with a whole lot. But I met two scholars studying Germany at this tiny conference in Northern NH. They both have published themselves, and have extensive bibliographes, of books and articles I have never heard of! When I got back I went into the library of the college where I work intending to talk to a reference librarian about finding some of these sources that had eluded me thus far and hopefully picking up some tips for future searches I may run. But it is finals time, and I am not the highest priority. I’ll try back in the summer when they’re bored.

I was also amazed that no one asked me if I was a member of the SCA. When I told people that I did Living History, that I was a reenactor and dressed up to perform daily tasks and learn about the timeperiod by doing, most people were politely interested and asked about the sorts of venues in which I did these things, about the other folks who did it with me, about the types of research I was doing. I got very little of the stereotypical responses to reenacting. It was refreshing, though it did perpetuate some of the stereotypes I have of sheltered academics.
After all the presentation sessions and hands-on workshops (most of which were lead by Plymouth State professors or the Medieval and Renaissance Society (PSU’s undergraduate club))there was a “Medieval Feast” on Saturday night were “costumes were encouraged.” Other than the undergrad club (who were all dressed up in various levels of in-authenticity) there were only about 8 attendees total who were dressed up in anything resembling a costume. Two of the female attendees had polyester satin and velvet costumes, they were very much costumes, but fairly well done. One woman had an outfit that looked like it had come from the costume closet of a theater and one male attendee was in a velvet Cote, but unfortunately he was wearing women’s pantyhose. There was a pair of reenactors, a father and daughter I think who had found out about the feast online and wore renfaire standard garb, then I had dressed the organizer in my blue linen “Medieval” dress which is not totally period in the lacing, but with a fairly standard basic shape. I wore my Kampfrau get-up which I have been improving in the three years since I made it with a lot of additional accessories, hats and undergarments. I turned quite a few heads.

The most surprising development for me was at the end when the conference organizer, who I had been helping all weekend proclaimed to the table where we were sitting at the feast that I was now her go-to person for historical information. I knew more about daily life in the Middle Ages and Renaisasance than she did, since she was an English professor so she mostly knew about Chaucer, Shakespeare and other literary sources. I’m not sure that was an entirely true statement, but it was flattering and made me feel good about the studying and learning I’ve done on my own even if it also spurred me to do a ton more research.


  1. Fantastic post! The event sounds like it was extremely productive. Not only for your own edification, but also in terms of getting the word out about Living History to the academics. We couldn't have a better person making such a good impression with the academics.

    What sort of hands-on workshops? Did they relate to daily life, or more about medieval literature?

    Kudos to you for getting such high praise and recognition from the conference organizer you certainly deserve it!

  2. The Hands-on workshops run by the Student group were: Chainmail making, a Trebuchet demonstration, and a Live chess match. Very typical college club stuff. The PSU faculty/staff demos were on Longbow archery and on letterpress printing.

    Daily life did not get much focus at this conference. Maybe I'll attempt to change that for next year!