And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 30. juni 2014

Performing Medieval Text, an Oxford Conference

In April last year I attended my first academic conference as a participant. The conference in question was titled Performing Medieval Text and was held at Merton College, Oxford, arranged by Merton's own Pauline Souleau and Henry Hope. I was very excited to go, not only because it was an important academic experience, but because I have a long-standing fascination with Oxford, fuelled by the TV-series Inspector Morse, Lewis and now recently Endeavour. These series are not the best advertisement for academic life in Oxford, however, as academics in these series are either murdered, murderous or generally unpleasant beings. A good friend of mine noted that I should take care to deliver a mediocre paper, for according to the series, only good or bad academics were at risk. I'm still alive, so it would appear I managed to follow his advice.
Edward the Confessor carrying a cripple into Westminster Abbey
From MS Egerton 745, a French collection of saints from early 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

During the two days of the conference I lodged at Balliol College, a college that vies with Merton (and presumably others) for the title of Oxford's oldest. Originating in the 13th century - according to a flyer in my room - they do at least have a very good basis for this claim. As a resident guest, I was allowed not only access to the college quad - which was like entering the court of a medieval castle - but also inside the college buildings, taking my breakfast in a rather magnificent dining room with stained glass roundels in the windows, and watching the evening settle over Oxford from a terrace right outside my room.

The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once pointed out that the universities originated in the Middle Ages, and much of the Middle Ages remained in them still. Architecturally speaking, this is very true of Oxford. It was all very different from what I had grown accustomed to at NTNU in Trondheim, where the humanities are gathered in one single campus which was built in a modern - but not unappealing - design in 1996. As I navigated the streets and lanes finding my way from Balliol to Merton, I must admit I felt more academically significant, more academically capable. Like in the case of that old cliche that some people make you feel smarter by their mere presence, the atmosphere of Oxford made me feel grander. 

The conference itself was also a great and pleasant experience. It was a small conference with attendees from far and wide, which ensured that there was a wide array of perspectives and experiences, but also that there was only one session going on at any given time, so when you stepped up to speak, the audience was as complete as an audience can be, allowing of course for the odd absentee. I met a great number of interesting people, I was exposed to that generous kindness which I have realised is more typical of academia than most people are aware, and I learned a great number of things from the other papers, all of which were to some degree fascinating, providing me with valuable insight in the field of medieval studies. The papers were interspersed with two excellent keynote lectures, a brief presentation of medieval books from Merton College's collection, a beautiful concert in the college chapel and the various food breaks required to keep at it for eight hours.

The gateway to Merton College

It was an interdisciplinary conference, bringing together people from history, musicology, art history and literature to reflect on medieval texts from a performative perspective. I talked about texts for medieval saints, using as my case study Edward the Confessor, whom I had worked extensively on during my MA. In my paper I compared hagiographical texts with a liturgical item from the office material of Edward the Confessor, arguing that the distillation and compression of hagiographical material in liturgical texts owes to the performative aspects of liturgy, that liturgical items are shorter and more compact because they are performed in a set architectural setting, and for a set liturgical purpose. 

Merton College Chapel

The reason I bring up this conference now, more than a year later, is that a recording of my talk from the conference is now available on youtube, and so are the talks of many of my fellow attendees. They are all highly recommended.


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