From Sound to Image, From Language to Culture; A Review of Medieval Academy of America Conference 2014

By Julie Somers

Last week the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America was held at UCLA in California. Every year this conference brings together scholars from all over the world to discuss and share experiences related to their work on the Middle Ages. At the opening session of the conference we were treated to live musical excerpts* as part of the presentation by Susan Boynton (Columbia University) on ‘Music as Text and Music as Image.’ Boynton’s paper explored the way image is connected to sounds in the text. We are reminded that the pages can be loud. Images of choirs of angels, birds that fill the margins, or groups of monks performing daily chant present a lively reflection of the musical nature of the book. The addition of a live performance really brought Boynton’s examples to life and was a wonderful way to begin the three day conference, hosted by UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Susan Boynton (Columbia University)

Susan Boynton (Columbia University)

A busy conference with multiple sessions available, there was something for everyone. Topics on Thursday covered Scandanavia to Sicily, with an underlying theme of language and cultural encounters. In the session, ‘Queens and Empresses: Beyond the Agency Question,’ the speakers, Kriszta Kotsis (University of Puget Sound), Theresa Earenfight (Seattle University) and Gillian Gower (UCLA) addressed the concerns of women in royal settings, including beauty, fertility and proper behavior. Gower, similar to the opening presentation by Boynton, demonstrated how music can act as an image, ‘it sounds as it should look.’ The motet composed for the wedding of Catherine de Valois to King Henry V, En Katerine solennia/Virginalis contio/Sponsus amat sponsum depicts the story of the virgin martyr St. Catherine, who was tortured on a spiked wheel for her refusal to marry. Gower argues that the music presented on the page mimics elements of the legend of St. Catherine – the notes look as if they are bleeding, the accidentals (in the form of a sharp) represent the spikes and the music itself follows a circular style that reminds us of the wheel in the legend. The music acts as an historiated initial thus reinforcing the connection between the legend of St. Catherine and her namesake, Queen Catherine de Valois.

Friday continued with the theme of languages and cultural encounters. During the morning session, Christopher Cannon (New York University), Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (University of Notre Dame) and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University) each gave powerful papers under the heading; ‘Competing Archives, Competing Histories: French and its Cultural Location in Late Medieval England.’ Each presentation addressed aspects of medieval vernacular research. Cannon began by questioning how we define the vernacular, arguing that Latin, being a primary language of medieval England should also be treated as a vernacular language. In a similar line, Wogan-Browne pointed to the fluid boundaries of language, stating that instead of ‘mother tongue versus language of culture,’ we should think ‘mother tongue and the language of culture.’ An informative paper, she kindly summed up her main points in this slide.

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University)

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Fordham University)

As with all types of large conferences, deciding on which sessions to attend is always difficult. I was happy I chose to listen to the papers given in the afternoon on ‘Museums and the Presentation of the Middle Ages.’ Two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Peter Barnet and Helen C. Evans) and a curator from The Walters Art Museum (Martina Bagnoli) showed us images on the changing dynamics of presenting medieval art in a museum setting. Taking us through the different ‘fashion’ of the times, we saw the development of the galleries and the struggles each museum faced in regards to conservation, construction and presentation of the buildings and the objects they hold.

This was a perfect segue into the evening exhibition and reception at the UCLA Library Special Collections, Young Research Library. Illuminated manuscripts and early printed books from the library’s collection were on display for us to admire with a special welcome from Professor Emeritus Dr. Richard Rouse (UCLA). Needless to say, from sound to image, language to culture, I found the conference very inspiring and look forward to attending in the future.

*Music Ensemble: G. Edward Bruner, Chriten Herman, Chris Green, George Sterne, Christopher Walker, directed by Martha Cowan.

 

 

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