Interesting conference variations: ‘Emotions in Medieval Media’

So this is really late, as conference wrap-ups go, but let’s not be deterred by arbitrary constructs like the progress of time!

Some time ago – mid-June kind of some time ago – I had the pleasure of attending a two-day workshop at the University of Lausanne entitled “Emotion & Medieval Media“, organised by the fabulous Mary Flannery and sponsored by the Swiss National Fund. I quote Mary’s description:

EMMe brought together medievalists working in a variety of disciplines in order to explore how different media shaped the experience and practice of emotion in the Middle Ages. It focused on the cultural artefacts of the past–its literature, art, music, and architecture–in order to investigate the emotions of the past. Our two key aims were: (1) to consider how medieval theories of emotion and cognition inform the creation and reception of different medieval media; and (2) to consider how attention to different media forms can inform the study of medieval emotion.

As far as the key aims go: mission accomplished! The two days were lively, full of cross-group discussion and productive questions. It was also very interesting for me to see a whole swathe of people approach emotions from very firmly rooted in their own disciplinary context (we had lit people, a musicologist, some drama scholars, a couple of art/object scholars, and no mainstream historians).

Interdisciplinary discussion on the UNIL campus.

What really stood out was the format/facilitation of the two days, though. Mary sought out the presenters by invitation,* which allowed her to develop a range of different formats for the sessions rather than just putting out a standard CFP. Each day began with a panel of regular conference papers, of which I was one, so I had no idea that the rest of the sessions would be vastly different. There were performances! Each afternoon after lunch there were performances! The choir director from the American church in Geneva, along with colleagues, gave us a delightful performance of medieval music, and were open to questions later about how they felt the music conveyed or demanded certain emotions.

And, my favourite session of the whole workshop, Elisabeth Dutton (University of Fribourg) and colleagues who specialise in theatre delivered a live production of the Historie van Jan van Beverley (Dutch, possibly based on an English antecedent).

The Earl and his manservant hunt the beast-like John of Beverley in the forest

Their production mixed voice-over narration from the chapbook (translated), live dialogue, natural action, and gestures/poses modelled on the woodcuts from the chapbook. The backdrops were all drawn to match scenery in the woodcuts. I love this story, it has many of the things I like best: total nonsense! incest! plot sequences that sound like jokes! scheming demons! man living as a beast! It’s great. I laughed a lot.

It was interesting, in the discussion afterwards, to see how different the audience reactions were. Some of the attendees thought the narrative lacked suspense – whereas I, as soon as I saw the set-up for John’s downfall coming (he’s challenged by the devil, in guise of an angel, to commit one of three sins: drunkenness, rape, and murder; he chooses the lesser and ends up committing them all) and exactly who was going to be the victim (his sister), was like oh no, dun dun dun… (and feeling more than a bit apprehensive – they did quite well, I thought at staging the rape scene without glossing over it OR making it unnecessarily graphic, but there’s an instance where a content advisory would perhaps be a good move). I suppose I didn’t feel apprehensive for John, but I did for the sister: later on I was more sympathetic to John, especially beast-John. Possibly that tells you more about my habitual reading praxis than it does about the text.

As well as the performances, each day had a session composed of two ‘guided readings’ of about 45 minutes. What those consisted of varied, but they were all wider-ranging and less directly argumentative than the 20min papers. The two on literary texts had people reading aloud (a play and a devotional text, respectively). The two on art history had time to absorb images – and Michaela Zostig had brought miniature paper Syon Copes for us to wrap around hands/bottles/etc and so observe in 3D. These ‘guided readings’ were more interactive; typically the presenter had ideas but invited audience feedback, input, etc.

It might sound trite, but it was really nice to attend a conference that wasn’t wall-to-wall standard papers. I like standard papers as well as the next person, but a whole day of them taxes my attention span! Especially this semester, when I’ve had a slew of conferences following each other fairly closely. I missed most of the SAUTE conference in April because I was changing brain meds and having interesting side effects (vertigo, attention span shot to pieces) – in which case I’m perfectly entitled to not go to things, but had Things not consisted mostly of back-to-back 20 min papers I might have had more stamina than I did.

The final session on Friday of EMMe was a ’round table’ of four short presentations: it was nice to get a rapid overview of a selection of texts/methodologies, but I actually thought that one was so disparate as to not be an outstanding example of a round table – the presenters did not necessarily have much to say to each other’s topics.

Serious scholars doing serious scholaring (Denis Renevey and Rita Copeland)

The final session on Saturday was an outstanding keynote-length response paper by Rita Copeland, which Mary has painstakingly edited and uploaded here. This was a glorious, frame-it-and-keep-it-forever example of the genre of ‘response paper’. Rita gave personalised comments on every single paper, and drew connections between papers that I, at least, hadn’t drawn myself. She gave a few suggestions and nudges without harsh criticism, and managed to seem equally enthusiastic about everyone. No conference has all its papers/sessions of exactly equal quality, but it’s nice if a respondent draws more attention to what they add up to than to which ones were outstanding.

I’m not going to recap Rita’s responses here, but I really liked the connections she was drawing across media types. I was rather perplexed by one point, where she said she was glad to get away from the ‘reality fetish’ of historians. I asked her about it afterwards and obviously we have rather different opinions of, eg, Stephen Jaeger. But we’d all had a set of readings in advance (Rosenwein’s ‘Worrying about Emotions’ essay I liked particularly), and I did not see anything I’d call a ‘reality fetish’ (at least, not in a bad way) there! But then, as I discovered doing the prep for the SAUTE graduate workshop I didn’t end up attending, if asked to justify my own research I find myself naturally talking in terms of history, cultural studies, queer stuff, rather than straight down the line literature. It’s possible I myself have a reality fetish.

At any rate, that part baffled me a little, and I’m hoping that if Mary succeeds in getting the book project off the ground, Rita will expand on that in her essay – so I can either see why I’ve misinterpreted, or see her argument laid out clearly so I can disagree with it better. Either of these would be an acceptable outcome!


  • This was effective, especially given that the workshop was to involve new/experimental session types. It was a really nice group, too, with a well-balanced range of skills and specialities – except no historians. And not many (any?) lit specialists who weren’t from English departments. I’m not entirely sure I think invite-only conferences/workshops are a great thing, though. That is how the Old Boys Clubs of the world work, yanno? And although this workshop was overflowing with women, it was pretty white. Mind you, if you run a small conference in the humanities in Switzerland with an open CFP your chances of getting mostly white people is also pretty high – SAUTE, for instance.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Exploring #emomedia | The History of Emotions Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s