Catching up, Starting with Conferences

If anybody out there has read my previous posts and perhaps been waiting for more, I apologize. I began this blog enterprise as a way to get myself to write more, to help get my thoughts on the stuff I study into some kind of organization that could be sharable. I may or may not have more along those lines forthcoming to this forum, so we’ll see how that goes. For now, though, I thought I would try to knock off some of the rust from the part of my brain responsible for writing by giving brief reports of the conferences I attended during the past academic year. This first installment will address the Midwest Medieval History Conference (MMHC), held in October of 2014. Yes, yes, that’s a long time ago by now, but the ideas shared at the conference deserve to be known more widely. Regrettably, I had intended to get them up in this blog much earlier—months ago, in fact—but somewhere along the line I misplaced my notes and only just recently found them. In order to make the report more manageable for me to write and digestible for others to read, I’ll break it up into a series of posts, each post being devoted to only one session of the conference.

The MMHC holds a special place in my conferencing heart. During my PhD school days, because Purdue is in the Midwest, I attended that conference about every other year, when it was close enough to drive. The people there were always very welcoming and supportive of grad students, and I got to know a few people quite well. Since I’ve had my job rather far to the east, I’ve only attended twice, including fall 2014, but for several years a group of MMHCers would organize a dinner during the big International Congress at Kalamazoo and would invite me to join them. There, they would encourage me to attend the MMHC more regularly, and I would reiterate my willingness (and also inability) to do so. It really is a neat conference. All the sessions of the Friday-Saturday schedule are plenary, so you don’t have to choose which talks to see and which to miss, and you get to participate in a reception the first evening, the lunch/business meeting on the second day, and then a reception and banquet that last night. The sense of collegiality that develops, especially among those whose jobs are in the Midwest and so attend regularly, is very nice to observe and be a part of. This coming fall, the conference is going to be hosted by Steve, my friend from grad school, at his university, so I really hope to be able to make it. But enough of this… time for my actual report on the scholarship shared at the conference!

We’ll begin on the afternoon of October 17, 2014. To kick off the very first session, John McEwan of St. Louis University presented his work, “Charity and the City: London Bridge, c. 1176-1265.” I know almost nothing at all about the bridge, so learning that there was a chapel on it was interesting to me. The presence of the chapel helped make the bridge and the organization of people who ran it—mostly chaplains—stand out as a charitable institution. The main argument, which revises accepted historiography, is that these people governed the bridge before the city took it over in the thirteenth century. I’ll follow the model of the conference and address Q&A at the end.

Next up was Andrew Larsen of Marquette University, whose paper “Student Violence against Women at Oxford, 1200-1500” led off with the idea that medieval universities were violent places, and that we historians have known that for a long time but haven’t really studied it. As the mace-bearer for my college during the last academic year, I have explained to many people the original significance of the now ceremonial object: namely that violence was perhaps sometimes necessary in order to hold university processions, or at least that symbols of violence were used to convey the importance of the event, so this subject caught my interest almost immediately. In the case of medieval Oxford, Andrew has charted that the homicide rate (a modern statistic more useful for comparison than the absolute number of homicides) was maybe 110 per 100,000 people—fairly high! His main angle in this project is to study violence in the vein of Ruth Mazo Karras’ recent work on constructing masculinity. He has decent records to draw on and has found that Oxford students’ crimes of sexual assault and homicide against women were surprisingly rare at only seven from the period in question (thirteenth trough fifteenth centuries). He noted, however that rape would have been underreported, even though murder would likely not have been. All this led Andrew to conclude that violence against women was not common at Oxford—contra Karras—and to ask why. The conclusion he shared with us was that the availability of easy consensual sex made violence against women largely unnecessary—when it occurred, it must have been because something went wrong. Most of the violence perpetrated by the male students of Oxford (remember that all medieval university students were men) was against non-university men in town.

The final speaker of the first session was Jason Ralph of Northwestern University. His paper was also about medieval university life. “Between Town, Gown, and Crown: The Roles of the University in Freiburg” focused on a German setting, particularly the conflicts about legal jurisdiction between the University of Freiburg, the city, and the Habsburg princes during the late Middle Ages. One key example was that of married university members and the contradictions inherent in their situations: university men were legally clergy, and therefore had to be unmarried. What to do with such a conundrum?! Jason supplied many more examples of legal disputes from the fifteenth century, his argument being that the power of the crown came to be asserted over both town and gown.

In Q&A time, Andrew received most of the attention, likely because his argument was a bit controversial. To lead off, the point was raised that rape is about violence rather than sex, which is problematic for his argument about the availability of willing sexual partners contributing to low levels of violence against women. Andrew acknowledged that, but replied that because of who the students were (young adult men in clerical orders) sex was still important to them. This was followed up by a reminder that legally, prostitutes could not be raped, so even if there had been sexual violence perpetrated against them, it would not have been recorded as a crime. A third question/point got at the spaces where violence was committed and if that could factor into the argument. Andrew replied that the sources do not reveal locations. Finally, someone asked whether using the bishops’ sources—because the bishops had jurisdiction over the university—would yield more insight, to which the reply was that those sources had no relevant information.

Questions turned to Jason’s related paper on university affairs and jurisdiction over them. Basically the courts gave the crown the avenue to take over the university. Originally there had been an opportunity for the town, but the university was more amenable to royal authority. Perhaps, a second questioner raise, this was because the university was seeking to shore up its place in “intellectual and social firmaments”… which Jason acknowledged while also pointing out the competition for resources. Affiliation with the crown would benefit the university in both ways.

Finally, the last part of discussion got back to John’s paper on London Bridge. The idea of resources sparked a question on whether kings and queens of England frequently used charitable institutions to finance buildings. John replied that in this case, it was the city of London putting the charity to work, so to speak (my words, not his) because the civic government lacked the capacity to build.

And then there was “that person” at the conference who took a few minutes to articulate a “question” and then even more time to extemporize on the answer. Not my favorite part of conferences, but because it was the MMHC, at least it was good-natured and not hostile in any way. Just a person thinking out loud (or showing off, if you’re less charitable).

That was not the end of the first day, but it has to mark the end of this post. There’s lots to do this summer! I’ll be back with the rest of the MMHC soon!


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