Graduate Student Intern, SIMS
Early modern thinkers used the term “Gothic” to criticize the dominant aesthetic of medieval art and architecture. The real-life Goths were a barbarian tribe who had sacked Rome in the fifth century CE, contributing to the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire and ushering in the so-called “Dark Ages.” In contrast to the enlightened rebirth of Classical civilization underway in their own times, these Renaissance men thought, there was little to distinguish the superstition and ignorance of late medieval Europeans from such genuine barbarians.
The negative connotations of “Gothic” lasted well into the nineteenth century. Only relatively recently have scholars working on the Middle Ages started to question, complicate, or dismantle entirely the stylistic and period boundaries set up in previous centuries. Now, the loaded term “Gothic” is often either discarded altogether or qualified by apologetic inverted commas. After all, what use is a pejorative post-medieval descriptor to historians seeking an authentic understanding of the period on its own terms? But then again, is there a danger that we’ve thrown an authentically Gothic baby out with the historiographic bathwater?
These and a host of related questions fueled two days of discussion and debate at Gothic Arts: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, held at the University of Pennsylvania on March 23-24, 2018. Organizers Mary Channen Caldwell, Sarah M. Guérin, and Ada Kuskowski (all faculty members at Penn) invited scholars working on medieval art history, literature, law, and music to explore the intertwined notions of “Gothic” and “arts” in their fields. Caldwell, Guérin, and Kuskowski delighted in breaking down disciplinary boundaries, doing their best to avoid placing, for example, multiple musicologists or art historians in panels together. As a result, the conference felt genuinely interdisciplinary and offered a sustained and coherent discussion on its theme over the two days.
Sharon Farmer (UC Santa Barbara) and Catherine A. Bradley (University of Oslo) took us deep into the material and conceptual processes involved in the creation a single Gothic work of art. Farmer’s exploration of the global networks of trade and labor involved in the production of a silk purse was particularly eye-opening. Papers by Anne Lester (University of Colorado Boulder), Sarah Kay (New York University), and Kevin Brownlee (Penn) were similarly concerned with the Medieval West’s complex relationship with worlds beyond its own, through both physical relics of the Holy Land and the intellectual traditions of Classical antiquity.
In a paper with real contemporary relevance, Sara McDougall (John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center) spoke about the disparity between theory and practice in thirteenth-century laws in relation to extra-marital pregnancy. In a masterly demonstration of the mathematical theory underpinning Gothic buildings, Meredith Cohen (UCLA) presented a digital reconstruction of Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés based on only fragmentary physical remains.
Similarly enlightening was Brigitte Bedos-Rezak (NYU) speaking about the agency of medieval seals, which she showed could continue to exert authority even after their owner’s death. Richard Leson (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) also discussed markers of identity in his paper on a private prayer book embellished with an almost unrivalled profusion of heraldry, both real and fictional.
Thomas B. Payne (William and Mary) unpicked the typological iconography of sacred music in a paper neatly complimented by Mark Everist’s (University of Southampton) iconoclastic approach to generic distinctions in the thirteenth century. On the subject of performance, Carol Symes’s (University of Illinois) Saturday plenary on “How to Do Things with Written Words: The Ars scribendi of Vernacular Documentation” muddied the waters of medieval literacy, vernacularism, and notions of performativity. In a paper that was itself performed as much as spoken, Prof. Symes moved effortlessly through the medieval centuries in order to set her thoughts on the Gothic text in a deep and rich historical and cultural setting, picking up on many of the themes raised by Francis Gingras (Université de Montréal) on Friday.
The roundtable session chaired by William Noel (Director, Kislak Center and SIMS) asked five speakers to rethink Panofsky’s seemingly Hegelian notion of habitus. Carissa Harris (Temple University) drew striking comparisons between the obscene fourteenth-century English tale Gilote e Johane and a scene involving an unexpected sexual proposal from TV sitcom Broad City. Emily Steiner (Penn) showed the fundamental interdisciplinarity of medieval thought through a selection of encyclopaedias. Ivan Drpić (Penn), Meg Leja (Binghamton University), and Nicholas Herman (SIMS) expanded the discussion to encompass Eastern European, early medieval and post-medieval perspectives, blurring the clear geographic and chronological boundaries associated with the idea of Gothic.
The immersive atmosphere of the conference was completed by two Friday night treats: a small display of medieval manuscripts assembled by SIMS curator Nicholas Herman, and a performance of medieval music by the New York-based trio Concordian Dawn.
The organisers of Gothic Arts were hoping for critical and interdisciplinary discussion, and they got it in spades. On such an issue, consensus was always going to be slippery. Some delegates rallied to the defence of the term “Gothic,” recognising in it a certain utility and seeking to reclaim it from Vasarian oblivion. Others maintained that, if we are looking for an authentically medieval mind-frame supporting the aesthetic and intellectual unity of the “Gothic” arts, the advantages of this particular word are outweighed by its historiographic baggage.
With such a fabulous array of scholars sharing such exciting material, my feeling is that all who came left saturated with new knowledge and insight regardless of their feelings about “Gothic.” Perhaps the true value of the term lies in its capacity to stimulate precisely the kind of rigorous interdisciplinary debate both practiced and preached at Gothic Arts: An Interdisciplinary Symposium.