Where does a drunk priest enchant a foxglove? At the Leeds International Medieval Congress

It’s early July.  Up here in North Yorkshire, there is daylight for over seventeen hours in every twenty-four, the sun is shining (intermittently), and two thousand medievalists are heading in our direction from all over the world.  This can only mean one thing: the Leeds International Medieval Congress.

Leeds is the second-largest medieval conference in the world (the largest is in Kalamazoo in Michigan, USA, every May), and the largest academic conference in the UK.  Each day is divided into four ninety-minute sessions (three on the first and fourth days), each session being composed of (normally) three speakers talking for twenty minutes on related subjects, followed by thirty minutes of questions.  This is pretty normal for an academic conference.  What differentiates Leeds from other conferences is the fact that, instead of having perhaps two sessions running at once, with delegates deciding which one to go to, Leeds has nearly forty sessions at the same time.  That’s three speakers at each panel, thirty-nine or so panels at once, for fourteen sessions over four days.  That’s a lot of speakers – and, of course, plenty of people attend the conference just to listen and not to give a paper.  Now throw in the longer lectures by well-known academics, the evening concerts and workshops, the daytrips, and the Wednesday night dance; the description I once heard of the Kalamazoo conference as “summer camp for medievalists” applies just as well to Leeds.

I have gone most years since I started my PhD, though I’ve decided not to attend this year.  I will be back, though: it’s a wonderful thing to go to if you are able.

All my IMC programmes

I’ve heard some interesting papers at Leeds over the years (plus some that went over my head somewhat): these include …

2008, ‘Problems with Plant Names’ session, including Maria A. D’Aronco, ‘Some Problematic Plant-Names: Elehtre, A Reconsideration’, and Carole Biggam, ‘Entering the Jungle: the Nature of Plant Names’

A fascinating and detailed, yet very accessible, session on Anglo-Saxon plant names.  For example, we might see the words foxes glofa in an Old English medical book and assume it means a foxglove, but it was demonstrated, through data on traditional English plant-names in more modern times, that other bell-shaped flowers have been called ‘foxgloves’ as well.  Attending this session changed the way I approach my work on medieval medicine: I’m a lot more careful about how I use translations of plant names now.

Barmen's prayer
The Barmen’s Prayer

2008, John Romano, ‘The Mass of the Drunkards: Liturgy and Natural Order’

In this truly mind-opening paper, John Romano talked about parody Masses, performed by the priests themselves, sending up the words of the Mass to make them about drunkenness and debauchery.  Clearly the Barmen’s Prayer isn’t anything new!  I love to see these parallels between medieval and modern culture.  Did I mention that these things were performed by actual priests?

2014, Ciaran Arthur, ‘Reconsidering the Meaning of Gealdor in Old English’

This paper was concerned with the complexity of the term g(e)aldor in Old English literature.  Generally translated as a ‘charm’ or ‘enchantment’, and taken by earlier editors to indicate paganism, this word mostly appears in homilies and saints’ lives which condemn forbidden  supernatural practices.  Yet in poetic texts it has positive, Christian connotations, denoting a holy song or vision.  It is also, as I myself have discussed, used to bless plants in medical remedies which also make use of prayers and Masses; gealdor can, therefore, be considered as part of the history of liturgy.

So, how do you make the most of the IMC?

  1. It should be an obvious point, but remember to register on time.  Last year I forgot what the deadline was (it’s usually sometime in mid-May) and had to pay a surcharge on top of what is sadly an already very high registration fee.  I miss getting a student discount.
  2. Do give a paper!  Although each year’s conference has a broad theme, not all the sessions are required to fit into it: any medieval subject has its place.  And, despite the size of the conference, the individual sessions are generally attended by a small, manageable number of people.  You get a broad mix of delegates from postgraduates to very senior people, in my experience generally being very supportive of one another.  I do recommend Leeds as a good environment in which to give your first external paper (even though, as I have written about before, mine didn’t go entirely according to plan).  Once, as part of a PhD training programme at my university, I went to a seminar on ‘How to make the most of academic conferences’, from which one thing has remained in my mind: just because you are a postgraduate, it doesn’t mean that your paper can’t be the best at the conference.  That struck me as laughable, but I later realised that the instructor had a point.  Postgraduates and early career scholars can do something really great in the confines of the a 20-minute paper format.  We can make a few interesting points about a small subject that we know very well – and are less likely to run over.  Leeds generally has good timekeeping, but I once went to a conference where almost every speaker ran horribly over time.
  3. Attend papers both in and out of your subject: it’s a chance to learn something new.  I generally go to at least one of the ‘New Voices in Anglo-Saxon Studies’ sessions, which are always interesting and fruitful, but I also read through the programme and pick out papers on different periods and cultures.  The history of medicine in the Mediterranean world, for example, is something I would love to gain more knowledge of.  At a specialist conference, you don’t have the opportunity to do this.
  4. But don’t worry if you don’t understand everything: it’s all a learning curve.  I can’t be the only person who sits through academic papers feeling unable to follow them at all; I used to think I was failing to pay attention, but then I realised I had no such problems with the Anglo-Saxon papers, because I already had a fair amount of prior knowledge
  5. Keep an eye open for papers given in other languages.  Last year I decided to go to a session in which two papers were in German, even though they weren’t on my subject, to see where my skills are these days.  I found I could more or less follow each sentence as it was spoken, but if you’d asked me what the papers were about afterwards, I couldn’t have told you!  Still: it’s a milestone on the way to improved fluency.  In a change to the programme, the final paper was delivered in Italian, which I only have a little basic knowledge of: I was pleased to at least catch a few words of it.  The official languages of the conference are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian – mind you, a few years ago someone delivered a paper in Latin.
  6. There is no need to attend every session: it might not be good for your concentration levels.  I tend to go to three out of four sessions on the full days.  And in that off-session, you could …
  7. Take a good look at the bookstall, if you can avoid spending too much!  That said, there are a lot of good discounts.  In particular, go early to the Boydell and Brewer stall: in past years they have had a bargain table which tends to empty quickly (two hardback books for £10!)
  8. Meet people in your field, and meet people more generally – at papers, or just standing around the coffee machines (which are scattered conveniently around the conference).  Academia is all about connecting people and ideas – and this conference attracts a worldwide audience.  Meet people from all over the world!
  9. Tweet!  It’s always exciting to see what people think of the conference.  Use the #IMC2016 hashtag; and the @IMC_Leeds generally retweets whatever they are copied in on.  Best of all, there are a couple of big screens placed outside the booksale and dining room with a live feed of everything tweeted using the conference hashtag.  People who tweet about specific sessions add the hashtags #IMC2016 #s____, with the blank filled in by the session number.
  10. The food is very good.  I have got into a habit of buying my main meal at lunchtime: the dinner is as large then as at the evening meal, but a couple of pounds cheaper.  Plus, it then becomes easier to go to some of the evening events.  I’ve not stayed overnight at Leeds since 2011, when it was still being held off-campus (and thus harder for a Yorkie to commute to), but I found that the breakfast is accompanied by an extra table of bread, cheeses, meats and fruit, all very useful for making the sandwich which you will later on cram hastily into your mouth whilst scurrying between a roundtable on late antique women priests and a medieval tapestry-weaving workshop.
  11. Go to the Wednesday-night dance!  Usually played by a DJ who plays all the disco classics, the dance last year was played by a live band.  As I was commuting from York, I decided to miss it, but everyone I know who went said it was very good.  According to the former supervisor of a friend of mine, the Kalamazoo dance is “your bibliography, drunk, doing the Macarena”.  Leeds is no different.  Enjoy!

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