WMU News

Medievalists make annual pilgrimage to Kalamazoo

May 2, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- Military technology, anger management, protests against priests and labor policy sound like the stuff of modern-day newspapers and television broadcasts.

But when about 3,000 international scholars gather on the campus of Western Michigan University to talk about such issues, the conversation is more likely to be about the Crusades and idle chatter more likely to reflect Chaucer.

Researchers, students, performers and other gallant enthusiasts from around the world will descend on Kalamazoo May 8-11 for the 38th International Congress on Medieval Studies.

They come from universities near--Harvard, Stanford and Yale--and far--Cambridge, Saskatchewan and the Sorbonne; from institutes, monasteries, and convents; and from specialty businesses and professional societies. They all travel to Kalamazoo to ponder matters of the Middle Ages.

Horse training for jousting matches, Arthurian themes in video games, and the fashion practices of Icelandic slayers are just a few of the topics that will be covered during the 600-plus sessions at this year's congress. Attendees also will review research in areas like medieval literature, architecture, cultural and intellectual life in medieval France, manuscripts, and modern-day reproduction rights.

"I think the variety and diversity we have in the congress is where the vitality lives," says Dr. Paul E. Szarmach, director of the WMU Medieval Institute, which is host to the annual meeting and one of the few public institutions in the United States that offers a graduate degree in medieval studies.

"In many ways the Medieval Congress is the statue of liberty of scholarship. We open our doors to pretty much everyone," he says, noting that the diversity and openness of the Congress sets it apart from other scholarly meetings.

For example, participants can drop in on such presentations as "Uncourtly Table Manners: Food Fights and Transgressive Eating in French and English Romance;" "Men's Fashions and Sexuality in The Parson's Tale;" "Listen Up, You Priests! Anticlericalism in Popular Songs of the Late Middle Ages;" and "Hoodwink, Beguile, and Devour: The Habits of Demon Beasts."

Meanwhile, other sessions, such as "Chaucer's Host: Anger Management in The Canterbury Tales," "Food and Drink Served during Medieval Childbirth," and "Local Heroes to the Hood, Public Enemies to the King," illustrate how issues from 500 years ago still matter today.

"In an age that does not pride itself on history, our congress seems to be doing very well," says Szarmach. Contemporary issues such as war, politics and religious discourse, and the popularity of characters such as Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins continue to fuel interest in the Middle Ages.

"What lures many people is that they want to be a future Tolkien. They learn all about Medievalism and then hope to one day produce fantasy literature," Szarmach says.

At the same time, there has been an increased interest in Islam and the Crusades since Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq, he says, noting that sessions focus on Christian, Muslim and Jewish life in the Middle Ages.

But the congress is not all about academics. Hands-on workshops include a "Medieval Calligraphy Boot Camp" and another titled "Reading Chaucer Out Loud," which allows participants to brush up on their script and Middle English. Sessions also will cover J.R.R Tolkien's writings--the inspiration for this year's Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."

The annual Medieval Film Festival is part of the congress and includes screenings of "Francesco, Giullare di Dio" on Wednesday, May 7; "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" on Thursday, May 8; and "The Lion in Winter" on Friday, May 9. All showings begin at 8 p.m. in Kirsch Auditorium of the Fetzer Center on the WMU campus. The film festival is free and open to the public.

Other performances include two for which tickets may be purchased.

Benjamin Bagby, one of the world's most respected early music performers, will perform "Beowulf" at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 8, at Kalamazoo College's Stetson Chapel. Tickets are $15.

Called "North America's most polished vocal ensemble specializing in medieval and contemporary music," the musical group HourGlass will perform at 8 p.m. Friday, May 9, at First Baptist Church, 315 W. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $15.

Tickets can be purchased by check or credit card between 10:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. through Wednesday, May 7, at 100 East Walwood Hall on the WMU campus. After May 7, tickets may be purchased at the congress registration desk in Fox-Eldridge Hall. For up-to-the-minute information on ticket availability, call (269) 387-8745.

Two plenary lectures are also scheduled. On Friday, May 9, Dr. David Nirenberg, professor of history and director of Jewish Studies at John Hopkins University, will present "The Specter of Judaism in an Age of Mass Conversion: Spain, 1391-1492." And on Saturday, May 10, Dr. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, professor of English at Fordham University will speak on "The French of England-A Question of Cultural Traffic?" Both presentations will take place at 8:30 a.m. in the East Ballroom of the Bernhard Center.

Registration for the Congress begins at noon, Wednesday, May 7, and continues through the event. There is no registration fee for WMU faculty, staff members and students or for Kalamazoo County residents. The fee for others attending the event is $115. For students and family members accompanying registrants the fee is $75.

Merchandise offered by some 70 international publishers, book dealers and artisans who specialize in the Middle Ages will be exhibited in the dining hall of the Goldsworth Valley II complex from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to noon on Sunday.

For more information about the congress, call the Medieval Institute at (269) 387-8745. General information, schedule changes, registration information and the full program are available on the institute's Web site at <www.wmich.edu/medieval>.

The Medieval Congress first convened in 1962 with 150 participants and was held biennially until 1970, when it became an annual event. More than 50 professional societies devoted to the study of medieval life use the congress to convene annual membership meetings, including the Early Book Society, the International Arthurian Society, the Christine de Pizan Society and the Texas Medieval Association.

Media contact: Gail Towns, 269 387-8400, gail.towns@wmich.edu

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