The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at Penn brings manuscript culture, modern technology and people together.

10th Annual Medievalists @ Penn Graduate Conference: Vulnerability

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Fragile masculinity: Narcissus at the fountain (London, British Library, MS Royal 20 A XVII, fol. 14v)

Event Wrap-up (March 17, 2018)
by Oliver Mitchell
Graduate Student Intern, SIMS

This year’s Medievalists @ Penn Graduate Conference marks the group’s tenth anniversary, and the day saw ten scholars come together to present the insights and discoveries of their research in relation to the theme of “Vulnerability.” The conference conveners, Shoshana Adler and Aylin Malcolm (both Penn), grouped the day’s graduate student papers into three sessions, dedicated respectively to the themes of textual vulnerability, nature and nationhood, and women’s voices. Though the topics of these individual papers ranged across Western Europe from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries and also managed to address problems inherent in modern scholarly practices and politics, the conference as a whole offered a stimulating and coherent dialogue on its chosen theme and was characterised by lively— at times irrepressible—debate.

In the morning’s session on textual vulnerability, Rachel Hanks (Notre Dame) spoke about how damage to a physical manuscript can inform and distort scholarly understanding of the text contained therein, taking as her subject the fragmentary Old English poem known appropriately as The Ruin. Seamus Dwyer (Yale) shifted the conversation from a physical manuscript to a text itself, examining the precarious balance of citation, quotation, and translation at work in a fascinating fifteenth-century tri-lingual Christmas carol. Judith Weston (Penn) brought text and object together in her discussion of Ovidian myths in the Roman de la Rose and its illustrative programme, exploring the denial of human agency to Narcissus, Echo, and the titular Rose either through gradual ossification or in a single moment of violent rupture. Respondent Nicholas Herman (Curator of Manuscripts, SIMS) ended the session with a reiteration of the fundamental importance of physical manuscripts themselves to medieval studies, and made some exciting predictions about the future of digital facsimiles and the democratisation of data. This meeting of the medieval and the modern would become a recurrent theme throughout the rest of the conference.

Nicholas Herman discusses the damaged Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral, MS 3501) in response to the panel on textual vulnerability. Photo: M. Aiello.

In the second session, on nature and nationhood, Lauren Therese Geiger (Michigan) invited us to take an eco-critical approach to John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, expounding the significance of the natural environment to late medieval English politics, while Scott Long (Penn) spoke about the fifteenth-century Chrónica Sarracina and its complicated relationship with historical truth in service of a Spanish nationalist ideology. As Kersti Francis (UCLA) interrogated the perfect knight’s extreme masculinity and its vulnerability to preternatural forces in Marie de France’s Guigemar, it struck me that the threats and vulnerabilities explored in this session – environmental, nationalist, sexual – were not far from the concerns and anxieties of our present. Courtney Rydel responded with questions about the vulnerability of political and social frameworks themselves to acts of war and violence.

In the final session of the day, Nathalie Lacarriere (Penn) took Christine de Pisan as her subject in a discussion about the vulnerability of women’s voices in the Middle Ages. Her paper on the “Querelle de la Rose” discussed Christine’s metaphorical transformation into a man in La Mutacion de Fortune and the dangers of asserting her voice in the traditionally masculine space of literary criticism. Courtney Watts (Virginia) presented a harrowing analysis of paternal rape in medieval romance, dissecting the genre’s predisposition to silence the voices of female victims when confronting the taboo of familial incest. In a remarkable paper on the Old English poem Wulf and Eadwacer, Matthew Aiello took a bold step away from others in his field to offer a new translation of the poem, re-casting the enigmatic verse not as romantic yearning for lost love but as a visceral exploration of the aftermath of a rape. Respondent Emily Steiner (Penn) evoked a lively discussion on how the very idea of vulnerability is gendered, and how that vulnerability to threats of violence itself functions as a social and cultural restraint.

The Iconic Poster for the Vulnerability Conference, designed by Benjamin Brown.

The highlight of the day came when keynote speaker Masha Raskolnikov, Associate Professor of English at Cornell University, took the floor with an honest and at times intensely personal consideration of sexual politics in Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale.” Prof. Raskolnikov exposed Griselda and Walter’s relationship as queer and kinky precisely because it is so hyper-normative and insistently heterosexual. Exactly where Griselda’s suffering falls between consensual masochism and outright sexual abuse was questioned by both speaker and audience, reminding us all to continually check the assumptions we bring to medieval studies. Ranging from Derrida to Donald Trump, Boethius to Joan Osborne, Prof. Raskolnikov’s paper was in turn genuinely affecting and truly funny, as she drew together threads from throughout the day’s papers into a stimulating and compelling investigation of the forms and contexts of vulnerability in the Middle Ages.

The 2018 M@P Graduate Conference provided ample food for thought not only on the various forms and contexts of vulnerability in the Middle Ages but also on the vulnerability of the material itself to both changing fashions of editorial practice and to our own ideological blind-spots. The medieval past has always been vulnerable to the political manipulation of the present, and in recent months scholars have spoken out against the “ideological misappropriation” of the discipline. The strength and self-reflexivity of the papers presented at this year’s M@P Graduate Conference left me optimistic about the dedication of emerging scholars to the robust defence of the efficacy of medieval studies in negotiating the fraught political climate of our own times. Attendees stayed well into the evening to continue the discussion, testament not only to the quality of the catering but to the successful vision of the conference organisers.

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