Catching up, with Conferences (Part Two)

Well, it has taken longer than I thought it would to get to the second installment of my report on the Midwest Medieval History Conference 2014 meeting at Dominican University in Oak Park, Illinois. But I’m glad to say that it was because I was making progress in other endeavors that I didn’t spend time on this.

Without any further delay, I’ll get right to the second session of October 17, “Medieval Women.” If you somehow missed Part One, feel free to go back to that first.

Miriam Shadis of Ohio University led off this group with her paper, “Three Sisters: The Portugues Monarhcy, the Cistercian Order, and the Communities of Lorvão, Arouca, and Celas.” As I know basically nothing about Portugues history, I found the talk interesting. The daughters of King Sancho I of Portugal were named as heirs in his will—heirs to landed resources, in the cases addressed here, convents. During this period, the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the monarchy was in a period of insecurity and needed allies. Through charter evidence, Miriam showed that Sancho’s oldest daughter, Teresa, took control of the convent of Lorvão, becoming its domina (lady or mistress, for those of you who may not have much background in Latin). The youngest daughter, Mafalda, achieved something similar at Arouca, and their sister, Sancha,founded two houses: Alenquer in around 1217 and Celas in about 1220. Beyond simply making these facts known to a largely ignorant audience, the paper argued that these royal women helped to establish the Cistercian order in Portugal, all because of their inheritance from Sancho. I know there was more to it than that, with plenty of corroborating detail, but my notes don’t reflect the sophistication of the paper. I seem to recall something about the sisters being able to control the land more as abbesses than they would have had they married.

Next up came Yvonne Kathleen Seale, a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa. Her paper, “The Abbey of Saine-Élisabeth of Genlis: A Case Study of Patronage and Affiliation in Thirteeenth-Century Northern France,” investigated the Premonstratensian movement through the lens of women’s participation at the title house. Women were a major part of the Premonstratensian movement, but their involvement declined in France—and only in France, contrary to long-held belief—during the thirteenth century. Genlis was originally a hospital, then a house for Victorine canonesses, then a Premonstratensian male house before it became an institution for Premonstratensian women. Yvonne’s main question was “why?”, as in why they switched away from Premonstratensian anything. Her answer was that women wanted out of the contemplative lifestyle that the order had become, a move away from its evangelizing prior nature. (As I look back through my notes, I find myself nearly overcome by my ignorance of this subject, so I may have horribly mangled things related to this paper. Going to conferences is both energizing and embarrassing simultaneously. Energizing because you can feel the energy of people gathered to talk about research, and you can’t help but to get infected with it. But also embarrassing, especially at all-plenary conferences like the MMHC, because there will inevitably be people speaking on subjects about which you know very little. Or at least if “you” are me, and early medievalist in a world where most medievalists study the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.)

Bobbi Sutherland of the University of Dayton was last in this session. She tested my familiarity with fourteenth-century history with her paper, “The Menagier de Paris: A Product of the Black Death.”  The Menagier is an instructional text, written by a man for his young wife. But Bobbi argued that the anonymous author’s true purpose was not to teach his bride how to keep house so much as it was to record cultural knowledge in the context of the Black Death’s resurgence in 1361, which of course was accompanied by other calamities, namely the Hundred Years’ War, the Avignon Papacy, and eventually the Papal Schism. The Menagier’s author wrote things down in order to bring order to a disordered world, in something of a quest for memorializing the way things were in his own day. Bobbi compared the text to conduct and merchants’ literature and cookbooks, as well as similar works for lay audiences like The Canterbury Tales. I thought this was pretty cool.

And then there was discussion. (I’ve been reading some things in the last couple of months about etiquette, or the lack thereof, at academic conferences, and so for this post I’ve taken to calling the Q&A period “discussion,” rather than Q&A, because it lets people off the hook for not asking real questions. Anyway…) I have in my notes that four people raised points to our speakers, and I happened to know them all. Barbara Hanawalt asked Bobbi why authors like that of the Menagier didn’t write straight-up encyclopedias to record cultural knowledge. Bobbi said it was because the other kinds of texts were more intensely personal (but also, as I thought, that the genre of encyclopedia was not yet invented). Barbara pointed out that these authors didn’t write in Latin, and that the kind of people who would write encyclopedias would have done so in Latin, so maybe it had something to do with the register of literate culture.

David Perry, Vice President of the MMHC and our host (Dominican is where he teaches), asked for Miriam what it meant to the royal daughters of Portugal to “be Cistercian.” Miriam answered that they were more closely associated to their local bishops than to the Cistercian formal plan. (In a sense, I might say that made them more Portuguese than Cistercian, maybe.) Leah Shopkow and Amy Livingstone asked similar questions along the lines of whether the daughters’ inheriting could have been part of a royal strategy. Miriam admitted that such could well have been the case, but, because that angle was not part of her study at that point, she would have to think on it further. The follow-up went to Yvonne, asking her for more examples from her wider work to flesh out her ideas, which were quite interesting. She complied, but I didn’t record those examples in my notes.

Thus ended the first day’s sessions of papers. My next post, hopefully in less than a week’s time, will feature the featured keynote speaker, Barbara Rosenwein. Tune in!