When Eric Joseph blows his horn, the room goes silent.
Joseph, an artist from Richland, has been coming to Western Michigan University’s annual International Congress on Medieval Studies, or Medieval Congress, every May for nearly a decade, offering his handcrafted drinking horns, brooches and decorative items under the business name Griffinstone.
The Medieval Congress is the largest gathering of medieval scholars in the U.S. and one of the biggest in the world. Over a four-day span each May, more than 550 presentations are given on subjects from medieval manuscripts to women in medieval culture. The 2019 congress, set for May 9–12, will be the 54th annual. The 2018 congress attracted more than 2,600 people from every state in the U.S. except Montana and every continent except Antarctica. Just over half of those attending were scholars or researchers; a quarter were students. The rest were exhibitors, family members and others. Kalamazoo County residents and those with a valid WMU ID can attend conference sessions for free, but they do need to register first.
At last year’s event, more than 60 booths in a residence hall dining room that houses the congress’s Exhibits Hall offered not only hundreds of books on language and literature, but items related to the history and culture of the Middle Ages. In one corner was Joseph’s stand, featuring sculptures on the back wall and curved, engraved cows’ horns on a table in the front. Some of the horns could be drunk from, like a huge beer glass. Others were designed to be blown like a trumpet, giving a steady thunderous sound loud enough to silence the dozens of people milling about the Exhibits Hall.
“There’s never a year when I’m disappointed,” said Tamara Rand of Baldwin Wallace University, in Ohio, as she stopped at Joseph’s booth last year to buy a drinking horn for her adult son. “When (people) hear you presented in Kalamazoo, they’re impressed.”
Aside from Griffinstone and a handful of vendors selling harps and jewelry, there’s nothing about the congress that resembles a Renaissance fair, which outsiders sometimes assume it is. Organizers and participants are quick to emphasize that the Medieval Congress is an in-depth scholarly study of the Middle Ages, not an opportunity to live out fantasies of knights and dragons.
“There are no turkey legs to be found,” says Jana Schulman, director of the WMU Medieval Institute, which puts on the annual conference. “If people are dressed up, it’s to perform in a medieval play.”
A festival specializing in medieval plays is a recent addition to the congress. The Mostly Medieval Theatre Festival started in 2017 and returns to the Medieval Congress this year (see story here).
Medieval plays are “read as literature but rarely performed as theater,” explained WMU theater student Jessica Klimushyn as she staffed the theater festival’s booth in the Exhibits Hall last year. Klimushyn said her favorite play is Cooch E. Whippet (or The Farce of Martin of Cambray), a comedic battle between a husband and wife. “Medieval comedies are still funny (today),” she noted.
In the next booth was Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, a specialty publisher offering Latin language books. One of the publisher’s recent releases available at the booth was Ubi Fera Sunt, better known by its English title, Where the Wild Things Are. It’s one of a handful of well-known children’s books that have been translated into Latin. Quomodo Invidiosulus Nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem was also available, easy to recognize by the green Grinch on its cover.
Laurel Draper, a bookseller for the publisher, said children’s books are some of its bestsellers. “People like to pick them up for children and grandchildren,” she said. “Latin is a great way to encourage literacy.”
The history of history
The first Conference on Medieval Studies hosted by the Medieval Institute was held in 1962. It was regional, biennial and very small compared to today’s congress. The third congress, in 1966, had nearly 200 participants from across the United States and Canada.
Now more than 10 times that number attend the congress. The event’s longevity and reputation are what keep it going, Schulman says. Presenters often have ideas for the next year’s session while attending the current year’s congress.
There are 50 to 60 sessions of presentations spread across the campus each day of the congress, with the presentations offered in residential hall meeting rooms and classroom buildings. Each presentation features two or three scholars discussing the findings of research they’ve conducted. The congress’s official program, a 266-page book the size of a paperback novel, suggests wearing comfortable shoes to get from one presentation to the next.
There is no limit on the number of presentations a visitor can attend, Schulman says. Some presentations take a detailed look at an aspect of history (“Law as Culture: Inquisition, Landholding and Murder”), while others focus on literature (“Tolkien and the Celtic Tradition”). Still others have catchy titles that indicate their topics (“Fake News: A Medieval Phenomenon”).
Christianity during the medieval period also gets a close look during the congress: WMU is home to the Center for Cistercian and Monastic Studies, which hosts presentations particularly on the lives of Christian monks and religious writing.
“Medieval” is too restrictive a description for the presentations, Schulman says. One popular topic is Anglo-Saxon culture (Anglo-Saxons are ancestors of modern British people), while another is medieval-themed video games and how accurately they represent the time period. The History Channel’s series The Vikings prompted several presentations on the Norse people the year after the show was released.
The congress is also decidedly modern when it comes to its communications: It has a mobile app to keep attendees apprised of goings-on and uses Twitter to make announcements, post reminders and answer questions.
New things to learn
Although the Middle Ages ended nearly 500 years ago, there’s still plenty to learn about the people and cultures of the medieval era. Recent DNA research at Princeton University, for example, shows the geographical route the Great Plague followed as the disease spread. And “every other year in the U.K., somebody with a metal detector finds an unbelievable hoard” of ancient relics, Schulman says.
The Medieval Congress is becoming more comprehensive, discussing topics that aren’t exclusive to western Europe or to traditional medieval research. One session at last year’s congress was on Medieval Transgender Studies, for example.
A handful of attendees are dressed in robes, but for good reason: They’re clergy. Augustine Reisenauer, a theology student at the University of Notre Dame who is part of the Dominican Order, attended the congress for the first time in 2018. He says he was impressed by the variety of presentations and the items available for sale and pledged to return this year, especially after learning about Kalamazoo’s local craft beers.
Cameron McNabb of Tampa, Florida, was a speaker at the 2018 congress but broke the unspoken rule of not using costumes. She dressed her then-6-month-old daughter, Arden, in a knitted “Viking helmet,” complete with long braids that Arden stuffed in her mouth. McNabb, a member of the Society for the Study for Disability in the Medieval Era, has been coming to the Medieval Congress for 13 years because, she says, “it’s rare to find many people” elsewhere she can talk with about her research.
“You won’t get that many people together normally,” she says.
Les Enluminures, a company that collects and sells medieval books and jewelry, had several rare books on display at the 2018 congress, including religious texts from the 1400s and 1600s. Laura Brettholle, a Les Enluminures gallery manager, said the oldest book in the company’s collection — one that didn’t make it to the congress — is called the Liesborn Gospels and dates to the year 990.
“It smelled holy,” she said. “I love the history that’s imbued in the relics.”