International Congress on Medieval Studies 2013: Sessions, Commentary, and Bookses

Kalamazoo Cherry Blossoms

Everyone calls it the Zoo, and I suppose if you’re staying in the dorms and/or eating in the dining hall, if you end up at the book exhibit during lunch time or between sessions, then I expect it can be rather zoo-like. But I managed to side-step all of that. It felt like a regular day on campus to me. Only without the anxiety I usually associate with school.

So! I loved it and I want to go back every year FOREVER. Yay! I feel even more that I have found my people. I now consider all medievalists family. Dysfunctional, like every other family I’ve ever known, but family nonetheless. Doesn’t mean I’ll like all of you, but there’s a recognizable kinship.

The rest of what follows is just an outline of where I went and what I bought. Mostly as a record for myself.



10am: Medicine in Medieval Iberia
Sponsored by Ibero-Medieval Association of North America (IMANA)
Comments: omgomgomg: Medical Cosmetics? An Ekphrastic Approach by Cristina Guardiola was SUCH a fantastic paper. It wove together the disparate-seeming fields of courtly aesthetics and medicine. Loved. It. So. Hard.

1:30pm: Bos Motz: Well-Chosen Words in Occitania
Sponsored by Société Guilhem IX
Comments: Cha-ching! I loved all of these papers. The first one gave me excellent leads for one of my research projects. The third one was an exquisite bait-and-switch with the best sort of poetry that I So Wanted To Be Period-Authentic. And written by a woman. Y’know, I like pornographic lesbian poetry a lot less when I know it’s written by a man. Go figure. And the second paper? speaking of pornographic. oh yes.

For the record, if you can read the following and we don’t already know each other, feel free to introduce yourself. 😉

A vos volgra metre lo veit que’m pent
E mos colhons desobre’l cul assire
Eu non o dic mais per ferir sovent
Car en fotre ai mes tot mon albire,
Que’l veit chanta, quant el ve lo con rire,
E per paor que no’i venga’l gelos,
Li met mon veit e retenc los colhos
(Bec, Burlesque et Obscenité, p. 171) PC 461, 35

3:30pm: Troubadours and Philosophers: A Roundtable on De nobilitate animi
Sponsored by Société Guilhem IX
Comments: Must email the person who did the second paper because he made all kinds of interesting points.



10am: The Medievalism of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Volumes
Organizer: Carol R. Dover, Georgetown University
Comments: So. Freaking. Cool. I have an all-new appreciation for the obsessive, expansive extent of Rowling’s efforts. Little things like Hermione’s name being a feminized form of Hermes, aka Mercury. The periodic symbol for which is HG… Hermione Granger. I remarked to a friend that there needs to be a compendium elucidating all the hermetic, linguistic, classical, medieval, folkloric, etc. references that Rowling makes because it’s all just so mind-blowing. I’m pretty certain Carol Dover is organizing something like this, but not specifically a compendium. Just a book of essays, iirc. Still, I would so buy that. And this is where I learn the difference between being a fan of something and being a geek about something. I am a fan. Were I a geek, I’d be writing paper proposals and submitting them to Dover for acceptance.

1:30pm: Book Exhibit!
Yay! Whoa, holy crap, books! And all.that.amber……

3:30pm: Last Things
Sponsor: The Lollard Society
Comments: These are not the themes of death I was looking for. I now more fully appreciate all those ridiculously specific paper titles. I got terribly excited about the first two papers, the first being on Care of the Self and the second being What We Talk About When We Talk About Death, except that each was on specific texts and bodies of work about which I neither knew anything nor cared to. Alas. I skipped out about five minutes into the second paper and went to:

Performances of Marie de France
Sponsor: International Marie de France Society
Comments: two performances and I missed all but the last 5 minutes of the second one. Boo to that, but what I saw I liked. Alas, ’twas my biggest disappointment of the entire trip. I still has a sad.

Note: Just to give a frame of reference for how ridiculously extensive this conference is, by this point, there have been 352 sessions slotted into a total of 7 start times (there’s an evening session on Thursday that I didn’t go to). Pretty much no one gets to see everything they want to see. Suck it up, Buttercup. You’re still in Awesome-Land. 😉


10:00am: Somatic Identities in Medieval Iberia
Sponsor: Ibero-Medieval Association of North America (IMANA)
Comments: Well this is completely fascinating. I now know that the quality of narrative associated with dark (non-white) skin in manuscripts is highly contextual and can reference a highly moral, wise, upper class figure, as well as a debased, sinful, sexually immoral being. Nice. O_o Also, I now have an additional research topic regarding the feminine embodiment of Christ. Caroline Walker Bynum and I have some quality time to spend together.

1:30pm: Astrology and Magic
Sponsor: Societas Magica
Comments: Standing room only by the time the papers started. I remain utterly disinterested in anything related to Judaism in the Middle Ages. Even Marla Segol’s lovely paper on Cosmogony, Astrology, and Power in the Late Antique Yotzer failed to inspire the least bit of pique within me. I keep trying and it keeps not happening. With all the Jewish friends I have, I can’t help but feel guilty about this. Enough already! I don’t need the Jewish guilt on top of the Italian Catholic guilt I have already managed to divest myself of. Sheesh. 😉

The paper I came to see? “High Times: Astral Magic and the Curious World of Psychoactive Substances in the Picatrix” by Daniel Attrell, Univ. of Waterloo. OH HELL YES. Suffumagation. Entheogens. Hermetic correspondences. And it left me wanting more. I suppose because I’m not new to this topic. At the end, I felt a deflated sort of, et alors? But everyone else seemed pleased and he did do really well. It was just, I suppose, that I’m not a beginner and was wanting something a bit more in-depth. Guess I’ll be needing to get a copy of The Picatrix myself. I’d not heard of it prior to this conference.

The third paper attempted to make assertions about the types of people (social status, etc.) using the Picatrix by what types of spells were contained therein. The problem with that is that the text began as Arabic, was brought to Moorish Spain and translated into Spanish. It was thereafter translated into Latin. So attempting to discover too terribly much, I think, would be quite the challenge. Particularly since it is likely not listed within the text when each addition and edit was made. And in the recopying, there are typically changes made, things left out, things added. It seems too enormous a task. However, the presenter did provide an interesting breakdown of the types of spells contained therein, which was useful to learn.

3:30pm: Mystical Gets Physical: The Bodily Element in Female Spirituality
Sponsor: Magistra: A Journal of Women’s Spirituality in History
Comments: The second paper was interesting enough. It featured a slide of a 14th century codex related to Beatrice of Nazareth. In Belgium, of course. Beatrice, that is. The codex had an illustration of the lance wound of Christ that was absolutely fascinating. I so wish I had the time to do more research on this topic. It’s just completely riveting for me. The third paper was the best, though. The presenter, Carol Heffernan, spoke about the erotic and sensual nature of Julian of Norwich’s descriptions of God and it just completely drew me in. As well, her paper tied together elements of the second paper, elements from the second paper in the first session on this day, and the core of an argument I’d been making over lunch with a friend just a couple of hours prior to this session, I’d apparently walked into synchronicity-land again. I was just floored by it all and went up afterwards to talk to her and tell her how very much I enjoyed everything she’d wrote about. Anything that fuses the sensual and erotic with the spiritual and the medieval is just so completely up my alley y’all just don’t even know. She said she felt like an interloper because she usually deals with Chaucer and the bawdiness therein, and here she was giving a paper on the devotional eroticism of Julian of Norwich in a session lead by a Benedictine sister. I was thinking, “I know that feel, sister. I know it well.” She was very relieved to know that several of us were thrilled with her paper.

5:30pm: This is when we go to Fetzer to stake our claim on seats for the 8pm session of the Pseudo Society. Wherein I laugh so hard I can’t even breathe. I bruised one of my knuckles from pounding my fist in hearty approval on the table. Jesus, it was awesome.

10:00pm: The Dance. Fucking Fantastic. Except I canNOT dance to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s music. What the shit is that? And I really only managed to seriously get my groove on during half of one song I didn’t even recognize. But the showing off was met with approving compliments from a couple of people, so that was ego-stroking enough. Next time, I will know how to do the Electric Slide. That is my homework.



8:30am: hahahahahahano. SLEEP.

Got to the Book Exhibit for about 10-ish and scored a veritable butt-load off books. A Gargantuan Butt-Load. Because 50% of already-marked-down books, glory glory hallelujah!


Precious Bookses
Lark in the Morning, Kehew, ed.
Ennobling Love, Jaeger
The Old French Fabliaux: Essays on Comedy and Context, Burr, ed.
Ermengard of Narbonne, Cheyette
The Romance of the Rose, Dalhberg
Le livre du duc de vrais amans, Christine de Pizan
Dante’s Inferno, Hollander, transl.
Astrology in the Middle Ages, Wedel
The Song of the Cathar Wars, Shirley, transl.
Memory and Re-Creation in Troubadour Lyric, Van Vleck
Love Words: The Self and the Text in Medieval and Renaissance Poetry, Regan
Catherine of Siena, Noffke
Erec and Enide, Raffel, transl.
Cligès, Raffel, transl.
The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Watson

All for a glorious $135.00.

Zoo Books 2013

Notes from the train

On May 8th, I took a train to Windsor, on my way to the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI. This part of the trip was 4 hours long, so I managed to write a little between reading and prepping for Congress. What follows is what I wrote while riding.


I’m on a train!

My, this seat is terribly uncomfortable.

A few minutes later, I find myself wishing for seat belts. I like the secure feeling they give me, wrapped around my middle like a life-saving hug.

I am in 9C. 9D is a woman attentively working on her tablet, sorting email, shoe shopping. People are chattering as they settle into their seats and she’s looking around periodically, intently searching. I ask if she’s looking for someone and she says no, she doesn’t understand why people have to have conversations loud enough so that everybody else can hear them. She finds it terribly rude. Ooookay, I reply. I hadn’t even noticed the woman on the other side of the aisle a few rows back having a phone conversation. I will be quiet as a mouse next to Type A seat companion.


I have pulled out a work of fiction, perfect for the 4-hour trip. Helen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side. A collection of stories with threads of the middle ages woven through.

I typically don’t read fiction, but this spoke to me for several reasons. I discovered her book at a table at the Bazaar of the Bizarre. Two tables covered in books. A man by the name of Peter Chiykowski had a comic book he’d drawn and self-published displayed for sale. Flipping through the pages, I was moved to laughter by his sweetly cynical wit and his artistry.

We began a conversation and I don’t remember how it came up but he mentioned the middle ages. I perked up. No, that’s inaccurate. What actually happened is that every ounce of my attention suddenly shifted to him, like thirsty plant cells opening up to receive life-sustaining rain. Even in a town as middle-ages-rich as Toronto, I remain starved. Granted, that has more to do with my own life than it does with the shortcomings of this fine city. I asked if he had gone to U of T. He graduated from Dalhousie and is doing writing and publishing now. I was in the MA program at CMS at University of Toronto. When I said that, he said I should check out Helen Marshall’s book. She’s in the PhD program at CMS and this is her first book of short stories. She focuses a lot on manuscripts –> hair side, flesh side.

He said all the right words. CMS, manuscript, newly published writer. I have a train ride in the near future to get me to the International Congress on Medieval Studies, I think to myself. There and back. This would make an excellent way to pass the time and beg off on all the other stuff I “should” be doing.

I hand over $20 and bring home the book.


On finishing the first story, I feel like I got the wind knocked out of me. It’s as touching as it is horrific. The second story leaves me amused and intrigued. With both endings, I am left wanting to know more about each of the characters, more about the world they live in. It is all very compelling for me. I’ll pick this thread up later.


Coming into London, there is a man who has started to seize. An announcement comes on asking if there is a nurse or a doctor on the train who could come to this car. There is a doctor. He ascertains that the man is likely diabetic and is seizing from a lack of medication or sugar or both. He wants to test the man’s blood sugar and give him some sort of medication. The man, dopey from sugar-starved brain, refuses. On stopping at the London train station, EMTs arrive. They don’t really find him any more cooperative, but he’s able to be led off the train. Thankfully, this is where he wanted to get off anyway. We are all grateful it wasn’t any worse.


A little while outside Windsor, a man behind me sees me working on my macbook and asks if I have a charge cord for an iPhone. I don’t. Suddenly, 9D perks up and offers him the use of hers. She IS human. That’s heartening.

Pulling into Windsor, on time, despite the delay in London, the first leg of the trip is done. Now for a car ride to Kalamazoo.