Conferencing in the Third Year of the Age of COVID, Or Reflections on the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America 2022

Ceiling decorations in Gökhem parish church, Västergötland, Sweden. The decorations are fromthe 15th century, and are probably the work of Master Amund. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

I have always enjoyed going to conferences. Even though I am an introvert and not particularly good at networking, I go to conferences anyway. I do it to meet new people, put a face to a name I already know, and to get an idea of the newest and latest research.

When I was a doctoral student, I went to conferences all the time. At that stage of your scholarly career in Sweden, it is comparatively easy to get funding for attending conferences, and with Europe literally on your doorstep, there are plenty of gatherings to choose from.

After I moved to the United States, I stopped going. There were several reasons for this. First, I dedicated my first few years to getting a Green Card and finding a job.

Second, for a medievalist there aren’t that many conferences to choose from. There is the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, which changes location, and the Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, which is also ambulatory. There are of course workshops at universities here and there, but they usually cater to small, specialized groups.

Third, money. Traveling to any conference costs money and as contingent faculty, there is little to no funding to apply for. As for time, the conferences tend to be during the semester, which means that while the conference is happening, I am busy teaching. Or, as in the case of the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Society, the conference takes place in the first week of January, usually a day or two after the New Year, when travel tends to be more expensive because people are traveling after the holidays.

Also, the hotel deals on offer for conference participants (again, I am looking at you AHA) are still very expensive. Add to that the fee to attend the conference, which can be pretty hefty. Most conferences do offer tiered conference fees where the fee is reduced for students and contingent faculty, but not all do. And then there is the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, UK, which offers a discounted rate but only for a limited number of attendees who first need to submit paper work of proof of income to demonstrate that they are of the deserving. (They do know that the Victorian and Edwardian eras are over, right?)

Then, COVID happened. Everything shut down and there was total confusion everywhere. Organizers of academic conferences scrambled to find a solution. Some canceled out right. Others went ahead as planned. Others hooked themselves up to various online conference platforms with varying success rates.

By 2021, things had settled. The pandemic was still raging, but vaccines were rolling out, and we had all become Zoom aficionados. As for conferences, they all went virtual. And for the first time in many years, I could start attending them again. So, I signed up for the Medieval Academy of America, the ICMS in Kalamazoo, and the IMC in Leeds (where I paid the full fee because the IMC discount requirements are undignified).

Now, in 2022, the pandemic is still going on, some of us are vaccinated, and we are slowly learning to live with COVID-19 as an unwanted, intrusive presence in our lives. As for conferences, they are either virtual or hybrid, that is to say, they are in person and virtual at the same time. Which means that I can attend conferences this year as well.

Last weekend I attended the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, a hybrid conference that took place at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and on the Whova virtual conference platform. What follows are my thoughts and experiences of this and other MAA meetings that I have attended.

Over the years, I have had an on-off relationship with the MAA. I first joined out of curiosity as a doctoral student and even attended the annual meeting when it was held at Yale University in New Haven, CT, in 2010. I felt then that the MAA as an organization was outdated, and eventually, I let my membership lapse. Recently, though, the MAA has developed into one of the more interesting academic organizations, and to support the work they are doing to make the field of medieval studies more inclusive towards contingent faculty and scholars of color, I am a member once again.

The MAA’s work towards inclusivity is visible in the program of the 97th annual meeting, at least when it comes to topics. Medieval studies is a notoriously white-dominated field, which has not changed much despite the MAA’s new direction. This is a systemic problem in medieval studies as a whole, and to address this issue, we all need to work towards a solution, not just the MAA. However, the annual meeting does show in distilled form how homogeneous the field currently is, and, judging by the doctoral students and early career scholars who participated, will continue to be for quite some time.

As for the sessions I attended, I chose which to attend based on the teaching and research that I am currently doing. I ended up attending four sessions out of 65, not counting breakfasts, social gatherings, and committee meetings of which I attended none. (What am I going to do, watch people while they eat?)

The sessions I attended were session 19. Technologies of High Medieval Science, which I selected based on my research into the Codex Gigas; session 21: Northern Seas and Liminalities, which I selected based on my expertise in the Scandinavian Middle Ages; 47. Teaching (and Learning) the Global Middle Ages; and finally, 57. New Religious Histories. I had also wanted to attend session 20. Finding Meaning in Global Medievalism, but since it was scheduled at the same time as session 21, I had to make a choice.

As for what I got out of these sessions, the results were mixed. A recurring issue with the sessions at the MAA is that the session titles promise a wider scope than the individual presentations ultimately deliver. A case in point is session 19 of this year’s program where the title was the far-reaching “Technologies in High Medieval Science,” which ended up consisting of three papers that focused on specific aspects of specific primary sources.

Session 21 was very interesting, mostly because all three presentations, and the discussion that followed, succeeded in balancing the narrow with the broad. For example, Jonas Wellendorf’s presentation about the mythical island of Hvítamannaland, imagined to be located off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, taught me something new about the medieval Icelandic worldview, while Krystin Christy’s presentation on slavery among badgers and beavers in the writings of Gerald of Wales provided me with a deeper understanding of bestiaries and animals as medieval allegories. Session 47, meanwhile, made me want to write an op-ed on how the Global Middle Ages so easily become Western Imperialism by another name, even when the scholars involved consider themselves proponents of post-colonial scholarship. Session 57 was interesting, mainly because an argument was made in favor of taking seriously how people of the Middle Ages related to the supernatural; we need to take it seriously, because they took it seriously.

As for the hybrid format, I support the continuation of a virtual component because it enables so many more people to attend conferences. Starting last year, conferences like the annual meeting of the MAA have extended their reach with scholars and attendees connecting from all parts of the world, which is great.

However, when comparing the hybrid format to a complete virtual format or a conference that is entirely in-person, the hybrid format is the least productive when it comes to scholarly interaction.

In session 47, all speakers were virtual, as were the attendees, which resulted in a group of people speaking on a screen in front of an empty classroom. When I logged out of that session after it had run almost 10 minutes over time and showed no signs of stopping, it had become a fully-virtual conversation between the speakers, who also had written a book together.

In session 57, the speakers were both virtual and in-person, but at the start the mic was picking up sounds in the room and it was difficult to hear the speakers before it could be fixed. Also, one of the in-person speakers had a weaker voice, and because there was only one mic in the room, it was difficult to hear parts of his presentation. In this session, the classroom was full, and the audience was in a good mood and talkative. All this is great, but the result was, as a remote participant, the session ended up an experience similar to watching live-TV. One of the moderators addressed us who were attending virtually and asked if we had any questions, but if I had turned on my camera and unmuted myself to speak, it would have felt as if I were intruding, rather than contributing.

Overall, my experience of the 2022 MAA annual meeting is similar to my experience of the 2021 and 2010 MAA annual meetings in that this is not a meeting for me. I don’t mean this as criticism of the MAA; they are doing a great job putting these meetings together in an age where everything is in flux while also working to make the field more welcoming towards scholars of color and scholars who, for one reason or another, are on a professional trajectory other than the traditional path.

The feeling I get when I attend the MAA, regardless of the conference format, is one of alienation. I am on the outside looking in. I think the reason why is because the community of medievalists in the United States is small, and the group of scholars who would attend a meeting such as the MAA is even smaller. Personal contacts are key, and these personal contacts are mainly established during post-gradual studies.

Coming from the outside with no connections to any parts of the American educational system makes it nearly impossible to break into a conversation that has been going for decades, unless you yourself have participated in at least some part of it. (I am aware that all scholars who move between countries face challenges like this, but, what sets the American higher education system apart is that universities here claim to be places where scholars can come from anywhere and thrive, which is not true. Classism and xenophobia is rife, is what I’m saying.)

Also, the view of the medieval world that is presented at the MAA, whether it be in its original Eurocentric form or in its expanded Global form, is decidedly American. At its core, the study of the Middle Ages is the study of European history, but as a person from Europe with a terminal degree in medieval history from a university in Europe, what I find when I attend the MAA are ideas about an abstract Europe in the distant past with little to no connection to the actual Europe existing today and how this Europe interacts with its own past.

Yes, the MAA is the Medieval Academy of America, so it makes sense that the participants are either Americans or based at an American university. However, to come across references to research done on medieval Europe in Europe by scholars at European universities that are not Oxford and Cambridge is rare.

The problem here is that positioning yourself among other American medieval scholars matters more than engaging with research outside of American medieval studies. After all, this is how careers are made, regardless of where your university is located. However, if you are studying a part of the world that is not where you live, you need to start paying attention to what is going on there. And here I’m not talking about American scholars traveling to European archives and reading the primary sources in the original languages; that they do and they are very good at it. But any kind of production of knowledge is ultimately a conversation among scholars, and that conversation is here being ignored.

With the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America behind me, the question remains what I will do when the 98th annual meeting comes around in 2023. Right now, all I can say is that it remains to be determined.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

THE BRIGHT AGES by Gabriele & Perry, or What It Means to Be New.

It’s rare that there’s a buzz surrounding a book on medieval history written by two academic historians. It’s also rare that I get swept up in a book’s pre-publication hype. But The Bright Ages by Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry is the exception to both of those rules.

Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval history at Virginia Tech and David M. Perry is an academic adviser at University of Minnesota with a PhD in history and several freelance publications under his belt. Active on social media, Gabriele and Perry each have a substantial number of followers who are happy to participate in a major book launch, hence the buzz and the hype.

The Bright Ages is Gabriele and Perry’s contribution to the ongoing discussion about what the Middle Ages were really like. The Middle Ages was a time of violence, persecution, misogyny, and bigotry that we like to point at as a deterrent to make ourselves feel better about the violent, persecution-ridden, misogynistic, and bigoted times we live in. Or, we use the Middle Ages as inspiration for how to create an intolerant society in the present. But, as Gabriele and Perry demonstrate in their book, the Middle Ages are so much more than that.

The purpose of The Bright Ages is to wrest the Middle Ages out of the hands of political pundits and other unsavory characters and show that the Middle Ages were a time of sophistication, light, colors, complexity, and diversity, a purpose I agree with wholeheartedly.

Still, once I finished the book, it left me with a strange aftertaste. On the one hand, The Bright Ages is one of the best books I have ever read. On the other hand, I am flabbergasted by the liberties taken by the authors in order to make their point.

The Bright Ages is one of the best books I have ever read because of its beautiful prose, its clever storytelling, and for turning your expectations on their head at every twist and turn. The book opens beautifully with a description of Galla Placidia’s mausoleum, built c. 430 CE in Ravenna, Italy, and then seamlessly transitions into a discussion on the arbitrary nature of historical periodization. The life of Maimonides cleverly opens with Rambam’s brother David, a Jewish merchant from Spain living in exile in Egypt who sets sail for India to trade but never makes it there because his ship founders. By starting the story with David, Gabriele and Perry quickly establish the global inter-connectivity of the medieval world, where for the duration of the Middle Ages the center of the world economy was the Indian Ocean, not the Mediterranean or the Atlantic Ocean, which we tend to assume.

The term The Bright Ages serves three purposes in the book. First, it’s the book’s attention grabbing title, placed at the center of a gorgeous dust jacket wrapped around a beautifully bound book complete with a blind stamp on the front cover. Second, it’s the rhetorical device around which the entire argument revolves as the antonym of the Dark Ages. Third, the authors introduce it as a time period of its own.

According to Gabriele and Perry, the Bright Ages can be said to have lasted from the year 430, when Galla Placidia’s mausoleum is estimated to have been built, to 1321 when Dante Alighieri, of The Divine Comedy fame, died. During this time period, the authors argue, the Middle Ages were particularly bright, complex, diverse, and sophisticated. There are a couple of problems with this. First, the beginning and end of the Bright Ages are based on the Middle Ages in Italy, and apply only to the developments there. This in contrast to the book’s full title (The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe) which claims to be a new history for all of medieval Europe. Second, the time period from the fifth century to the fourteenth century is also known as the Early Middle Ages and the High Middle Ages, respectively, two subperiods of the Middle Ages that in traditional history writing are considered as, you guessed it, brighter, more complex, and more sophisticated than what came after, namely the late Middle Ages, in this book represented by the Black Death.

The problems with the Bright Ages as a time period and how it connects to the book’s full title is further underlined by the geographical scope of the book. The Bright Ages claims to speak for all of medieval Europe, when, in fact, it is mainly focused on the Roman Empire in the west and its descendants. For example, on the only map in the book, Kiev is the only included “key location” east of the river Rhine and north of the rive Danube (in Ancient history known as limes, that is the border region of the Roman Empire in the northeast). On this map, the area between Aachen in the west (where Charlemagne was based) and Kiev in the east is a place where nothing happened.

Yes, the book does mention what is there, namely the Holy Roman Empire, Poland, and Hungary, but they do not give the Holy Roman Empire its own chapter, even though the Holy Roman Empire played a crucial part in the development of European society of the Middle Ages and served as a nexus in the connections between east and west. Instead, this part of medieval Europe is included in the book so that points can be made about other things, e.g., the controversial person of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the city states of northern Italy, and the Mongols. What is more, Bohemia is conspicuously absent from the account of the Mongolian presence on the European peninsula even though Bohemia was one of the very few who defeated the Mongols in battle.

Which brings us to the Vikings.

Any history of medieval Europe needs to include the Vikings, and The Bright Ages dedicates an entire chapter to them. To the authors credit, in addition to the more famous raids on England and France, the focus is here broadened to include the Scandinavians who traveled through Central Asia (this is why Kiev is included on the map, while, interestingly, the home region of the Rus who traveled there is not; the map cuts off north of Denmark).

There are several problems with the chapter on the Vikings. First, the authors date the Viking Age to 793–1066, a period that only carries significance in British history and is not related to the developments in medieval Scandinavia. Second, the authors oscillate between mentioning medieval Scandinavia as an afterthought and using the terms “Viking Age” and “medieval Scandinavia” as if they are interchangeable. They are not. (In Scandinavia, the Viking Age is a subperiod of the Iron Age, i.e., neither part of history nor the Middle Ages.) When the authors claim that “the Vikings seem to be a quintessential medieval phenomenon,” they are bending history to fit their narrative, something that becomes even more apparent when they also state that the Icelanders of the Icelandic Free State “loved democracy.” The Icelandic Free State was many things, but democracy it was not.

Which brings us to the Italian city states.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the city states of northern Italy, some of Ancient origin some of medieval, were economic, cultural, and political powerhouses. You can’t discuss the Middle Ages without also discussing the veritable explosion in urban life, and you can’t discuss medieval urban life without talking about the city states of northern Italy. Just as with the Vikings, the book dedicates an entire chapter to them. And just like the Vikings, the city states (Florence in particular) are credited with creating a society based on democracy. The authors do admit that this democracy was more similar to the democracy of Ancient Athens and Rome, that is based on an “elected oligarchy” rather than one-person-one-vote. But, medieval merchant and artisan guilds were not democratic organizations and they did not run their cities based on democratic principles. These were organizations with closely guarded memberships. Yes, their members were of what we today would call the middle class, and the middle class, according to how we explain the development of modern society, is the carrier of representative democracy. That does not mean you can apply this causality to the Middle Ages.

As The Bright Ages wraps up, it becomes clear that the claim to be a “new” history of medieval Europe has little bearing. Here, the authors place Dante in Galla Placidia’s mausoleum, which works as a narrative device but is ultimately fiction. To get there, the authors weave a tight tapestry where time is linear with a determined direction while exulting the importance of Dante in relation to the stars and the universe in the mausoleum’s ceiling. All of this put together creates an evocative blend of history as fiction within a Christian view of time and the male genius of the West at the center of the universe. It can’t get anymore old fashioned than that.

But in the end, this entire discussion on the merits and demerits of The Bright Ages is, as the saying goes, academic. The intended audience for this book is not Gabriele and Perry’s fellow historians such as myself. They wrote this book for the general public to combat the appropriation of the Middle Ages by those who wish to use it for their own nefarious purposes. For that, I applaud them, and I hope that as many people as possible get to read The Bright Ages.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

The Puzzle of the Banquet Hall of the Dukes. A peer-reviewed article in History and Theory

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Akershus Castle, Oslo, Norway. King Haakon V (r. 1299–1319) began construction on the castle during the first year of his reign in 1299. Haakon V is the father of Duchess Ingeborg Haakonsdaughter, whose wedding in 1312 is at the center of my article published in History and Theory (1:2020). Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

I have a research article in the latest issue (1:2020) of the peer-reviewed journal History & Theory (Wiley). In this article I am studying how incorrect facts survive the transition from pre-scientific scholarly work to scientific scholarly work and consequently become labeled as truth. The paywall that this article is usually behind has been lowered so here’s an opportunity to read the article while it’s available.

If you wish to read the article in its entirety, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

The Stockholm Bloodbath

On the upcoming anniversary of the Stockholm Bloodbath, a public mass execution of members of the nobility and clergy in the middle of Stockholm on November 7-9 in 1520, a portrait of the man held responsible for it all. Kristian II, in Sweden nicknamed Kristian the Tyrant, the last reigning king of the Union of Calmar.

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The last reigning king of the Union of Calmar, Kristian II (r. Denmark and Norway 1513–1523, r. Sweden 1520–1521). Source: Historiska Museet.

100 noblemen and clergymen were executed for having been in opposition to the King or for being perceived as threats to his reign.

The executions took place at Stortorget (Main Square) in Stockholm. I took this picture of the square when I was there this summer.

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Stortorget, Gamla stan, Stockholm. The location where the Stockholm Bloodbath took place. The building on the left is the Nobel Museum. Photo: E.H. Kern.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

10 Things You Need to Know about the Sana’a Pentateuch

On August 4, 2017, I published the following post on Book Riot.

10 Things You Need to Know about the Sana’a Pentateuch

Yemen is a country that somehow feels further away than most. Located on the south-west part of the Arabian Peninsula, news about Yemen only seem to reach us when there is a tragedy.

But Yemen is so much more than the occasional news story from a far away land. Yemen is a country with an old civilization capable of wonderful art.

Book art.

One of the most famous books from Yemen is the so-called Sana’a Pentateuch.

If you would like to read this post in its entirety, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.