Leeds International Medieval Congress 2012: A Survivor’s Guide

By Irene O’Daly

Last September, just like clockwork, the deadline for a proposal submission to the Leeds International Medieval Congress (IMC) rolled around.  It was my fifth time submitting a proposal and, at the time, fresh in my new position as a postdoc here at Leiden, the proposal was a work of hopeful imagination and an indication of the direction I wanted my new project to take (if also a reminder of the amount of work it would involve!).  There is a comforting familiarity to the annual timetable of the Leeds IMC: proposals in September; confirmation of participation in December; registration in May; conference in the second week of July.  Indeed, while I’m a relative newcomer to the IMC, compared with other longer-serving delegates, like many I find the predictability of the conference to be a bit like a pair of old shoes – you know they are going to fit, be comfortable, take you where you need to go.  This year I was particularly keen to participate in the conference as it was the final year that the IMC was going to be held in Bodington Hall at the University of Leeds, a site it has used since 1994, and one that, despite the sometimes spartan nature of the accommodation, is not entirely devoid of nostalgic associations.

Bodington Hall, opened in 1961 – Home of the IMC © MeetinLeeds.co.uk

The theme of the conference this year was ‘Rules to Follow (Or Not)’, but, in fact, the papers presented had a broad range of subjects and approaches.  The first session I attended focussed on marginal scholarship in the early Middle Ages, the subject of a research project based in The Hague, coordinated by Mariken Teeuwen.  Mariken queried the function of annotations, additions, corrections and other forms of marginalia, and demonstrated how she and her project members are recording and analyzing such marginal notations.  It was fascinating to get an insight into the research in progress of our near-neighbours and the discussion subsequent to the papers raised interesting questions, notably on the descriptive value of the term ‘reading aid’.

Several sessions provocatively discussed the ‘afterlives’ of medieval texts. Alixe Bovey‘s paper entitled ‘Inconspicuous Consumption’ discussed, in part, how the Hours of Jean de Carpentin remained in the Carpentin family until the early twentieth century, before being sold into private hands, followed by a brief period of possession by the Nazis, and now being available in a new incarnation as an ebook.  Another session, conducted by Christoph Egger of the University of Vienna, presented on-going research on the Cistercian library of Heiligenkreuz, taking what they termed a ‘biographic approach’, looking at the provenance of manuscripts held in the library in Heiligenkreuz, their use over time, and current status within the library holdings.

The session I participated in was entitled ‘Outside the Ruling: Signs of Use in Medieval Manuscripts’.  I presented on the role of diagrams in medieval manuscripts; Kristin Hoefener, a scholar and performer specialising in medieval music, discussed the possible function of modus signs in the margins of manuscripts containing staff notation; while Kathryn Rudy described decorative traditions in fifteenth-century Dutch psalters.  Despite the diversity of the papers, a common theme was a recognition that what goes on in the margin matters, it is not necessarily subservient to the principal text-block, and can often provide us with valuable information concerning the use of a manuscript.

A precursor to the IMC Dance? © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Douce 308, f. 210c r, early 14th century

On the Wednesday evening the annual IMC Dance was held in the Bodington Dining Hall.  Often described as the great leveller, there is nothing quite like seeing medievalists of all stages of professional life mixing together on the dance floor.  This year, the final year that the IMC is held in Bodington before moving to the central campus of Leeds University, the dance was a reminder of the phenomenal diversity of the IMC, its welcoming atmosphere, its unique ambiance.

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