During an all too brief excursus from writing up my thesis, I attended the second Medieval Midlands Postgraduate Conference at the end of last week. The event spanned two days and was devoted to the theme of ‘Identity in the Middle Ages.’ The first thing that struck me upon reading the conference programme was the diversity of papers, which covered the fifth to the sixteenth centuries, ranging from Coventry to the Kitan Liao. By contrast to last year’s event, which was located at the University of Nottingham’s newly built Humanities Building, this year’s conference was held at De Montfort University’s Trinity House Chapel, whose origins trace back to the fourteenth century. This is certainly the most evocative setting in which I’ve attended a conference and provided an intimate and friendly setting, while still recalling the character of the medieval period.
With a theme as broad as identity, it was unsurprising to hear diverse perspectives. While Hannah Ingram and Alex Marchbank traced identities through commercial and familial networks, in the process addressing how documents provide only a snapshot of an individual’s life, Steve Walker and Graham Aldred critiqued conventional views of early Medieval Britain, with specific emphasis on the difficulties of reading identities from place names and the archaeological record. In a similar vein, although Alice Byrne, Jack Beaman and Mark McCabe all focused loosely on the theme of chivalry, Alice found this in the popularity of the cult of St George in the Midlands, Jack discussed the pitfalls of French and Latin terminology, while Mark focused on Richard I as an exemplar of hegemonic masculinity. To round off the first day, Anna Cruse and James Wright both found something individual in very different topics: firstly, Isabella D’Este’s commissions from Andrea Mantegna and secondly, Ralph, Lord Cromwell’s ostentatious display of wealth at Tattershall Castle.
The second day was rather more eclectic. While Paul Srodecki traced the development of frontier identities in the representations of the monarchs and aristocracies of late medieval Poland and Hungary, Chen Xue mapped the cosmological identity of the Kitan Liao, contrasting this with Tang conceptions of identity. In doing so, both portrayed identities in dialogue and conflict, as we also heard on the first day. This theme continued with Sian Webb’s paper on portrayals of Muslims and Christians in French and English hagiographies, in which she described a child born of a union between Christian and Muslim parents that was merely an amorphous lump of flesh. This topos of deriving something complex and indefinable from seemingly simple origins was emblematic of the portrayal of identity which arose from the conference as a whole. Meanwhile, Tom Sayers portrayed the idiosyncratic career of Andronikos Komnenos and what his flight from the wrath of Manuel I can tell us about Latin and Byzantine identities. In the final session, Mariele Valci discussed the implications of the denaro provisino for a Rome caught between commune and Papacy, though she also ranged across the pilgrimage route through Champagne to Canterbury. Finally, Mark Webb traced the evolving urban landscapes of Leicester and Coventry and what these can tell us about their respective governance and social composition.
But a conference is much more than the sum of its papers. The two day format meant that there was ample to time to discuss ideas and interests with other delegates within Trinity House and its accompanying gardens. It was especially pleasing to engage with the thriving culture of medieval research in the Midlands. This is in a large part is due to the success of the AHRC Midlands 3 Cities Consortium, but it was pleasing to attract delegates from much further afield, such as Naples, Kiel and Strasbourg. Aside from admiring our surroundings, the lunch breaks also offered an opportunity to observe the poster presentations arranged in the windows of the chapel. Lastly, each day concluded with a discussion which contrasted and compared the various papers in ways that I have only been able to sketch briefly here. In the process, we ranged across the topics mentioned above – and were even exposed to the occasional non-academic perspective.
From a personal perspective, the blend of archaeological and textual approaches was a particular highlight. Although I am a textual historian, I’ve recently begun to incorporate archaeological material into my thesis and found the opportunity to explore the nuances of this field outside the confines of my own work particularly stimulating. This was encapsulated in Helena Hamerow’s keynote address, which addressed the origins of the Gewisse in post-Roman Britain and how they differ from ancient Britons in the archaeological record. I never expected to find parallels between this context and my research, the Paulicians of ninth-century Asia Minor, but it quickly became apparent that the mechanisms of identity formation she proposed had parallels at the other side of the continent. It is realisations like this which make wide-ranging conferences like this extremely valuable and why I chose to attend in the first place. In concluding, I can only thank this year’s organising committee for their efforts in making the event such a success and hope for an equally fascinating conference next year.
Carl Dixon is a 3rd year PhD student at the University of Nottingham, funded by the Midlands3Cities consortium. His research focuses on the Greek sources of the Paulician heresy.