The Gender and Medieval Studies conference has been running for nearly two decades. I attended my first back in 2007, I think, and while I haven’t been in the last few years, I have lots of good memories of it. This year the conference was in Winchester, and I was determined to get there. This for me was helped by it being held very slightly later in January than it has been for the last couple of years – I’m often caught up in family Christmas business in early January – but I know it was a slightly trickier date for some colleagues for whom term had already started. It’s always difficult to find dates that suit everyone! But it can’t have been too much of a problem, because it was the largest GMS I have ever been to, with three parallel sessions running at a time! Unfortunately, due to prior commitments, I wasn’t able to attend the last day of the conference, but the two days I did attend were full of thought-provoking papers and some great post-paper conversations. I wrote about the roundtable here, but I thought I’d share a few assorted thoughts on the papers I heard, too.
Session: Impairment, Illness and the Medieval Medical Professions: Rose Drew made the interesting point that when archaeologists find it difficult to sex a skeleton, it is more likely to be neglected. She also drew our attention to the archaeological evidence for physical disability in the skeletal remains of the Mary Rose. These skeletons clearly belonged to working people who were employed on a prestigious ship. We have to constantly question our assumptions about how disabled people would have been perceived in the middle ages. I have thought about this quite a bit myself, post the discovery of Richard III’s remains: it’s clear Richard would have had a visible disability, and yet he had a very active life and medieval people don’t seem to have drawn connections between his failures as a king and his disability, despite what we think we know about medieval beliefs about the physical manifestation of sin. I also enjoyed Christina Welch and Rohan Brown’s joint paper on lepers, who were seen as suffering in their bodies because of their sins – but as Welch and Brown’s paper pointed out, this narrative, too, has been simplified. Lepers could also be sites of exceptional divine grace, permitted to suffer in this life and thus reduce their suffering in the next.
Session: Transgressions and Marginality: I thoroughly enjoyed Hannah Priest’s engaging paper on why Gawain can’t be a king, and it provoked plenty of discussion. It also introduced me to The Turk and Sir Gawain, which isn’t a romance I know at all but should clearly look at! There was some discussion of the word “Turk”, given that the Turkish character in it doesn’t seem to fit medieval stereotypes of Muslim characters. It got me thinking about slur words and ways in which cultural markers of ethnicity and identity are forming in this period. Katherine Anne Leach’s paper on transgressing the boundaries of sex and species in the Mabinogion was extremely interesting – rarely do I get to hear about incest, bestiality and homosexuality all in one narrative! Clearly I need to check out more Welsh literature.
Session: Ruling Men and Women I: I really enjoyed Rebecca Lyons’s reassessment of the gendering of Margaret of Anjou’s book. Often scholars have assumed that although the Shrewsbury Book was dedicated to Margaret, the contents are “masculine” and so must have been intended for her to pass on to her as-yet-hypothetical sons. This is a sobering reminder of how the historiography of our field has been constructed along patriarchal lines, and Rebecca did a good job of dismantling these assumptions.
Session: Keynote address by Barbara Yorke: Gender and Status in the Early Middle Ages: This was about a period with which I am only loosely familiar, and it was hugely entertaining. I found it very interesting to hear about how the seventh century was a period of prominence for women within the Church – the peaks and troughs of female experience throughout the middle ages are so enormously varied.
Session: Pushing the Boundaries of Masculinities: Gareth Evans gave a good paper on Grettis Saga and the limits of acceptable masculinity, which I found very interesting – again this is a period quite different from my own, and yet the text sounds like it could have interesting resonances with my own work. I was particularly struck by the lack of love for Grettir by his father being flagged up as an issue: given my preoccupation with fatherhood as a theme, I would love to know more about expectations of and by fathers in medieval Iceland. There was also a fabulous paper by Tom Devaney (given in absentia) on gender and conversion in late medieval Castile. He skilfully drew together the ways in which marginal religious identities and “deviant” sexual behaviour became conflated in Castile, with Jewish men described in the unpleasantly memorable phrase of “the old faggot Jew”. Jealousy of Jewish success resulted in criticism and mocking of Jewish genitalia in ways that seemed to underscore a deep unease with masculinities not constrained by Christian social norms. I look forward to hearing more on this topic when he turns this into an article, as he tells me he plans to do!
My own session was Re-examining men and masculinity, and my co-speakers were Beatrice Fannon and Jennifer N. Brown. I didn’t take many notes on their papers, unfortunately, as I was rather preoccupied with my own! But we had some excellent discussion of all three papers afterward. I’m glad that my paper on male emotional display was well-received, zany pop culture references and all.
That’s just a small handful of the papers at the conference and only about half of the papers I saw. It was a very rich and thought-provoking conference and I feel spurred back into research action by it! Now to keep that energy alive now term has started…!