Medieval Colloquium challenges misconceptions about Middle Ages

By Tess Steele

Executive staff

On March 10 and 11, Sewanee welcomed students and scholars alike for the forty-third annual Sewanee Medieval Colloquium, where “Borders and Margins” were discussed and debated in a series of more than 30 panels.

The 2017 theme of “Borders and Margins” is a literal reference to the various figures decorating the borders and margins of medieval manuscripts, as well as a metaphorical reference to marginalized voices and peoples. Relations between manuscript artwork and the corresponding text are a dynamic and ambiguous component of the Colloquium, but the symbolic approach to borders and margins transcends manuscripts.

Marginalized cultures, races, religions, and sexes were examined through a medieval perspective. The theme of how the Christian West uses the marginal to define itself is central to this discussion.

“The norm depends on the other, and more importantly how the other is perceived,” said Stephanie Batkie, Visiting Assistant Professor of English, Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program, and Late Medieval specialist. Topics of the Colloquium included Early Islam, Gender and Ecocriticism, European-Islamic Cultural Exchange, Mystical Demarcations, Queer Romance, and Filth, among others.

The Colloquium has experienced remarkable growth in the past three years because of a 100,000 dollar endowment, massively lowering the cost of attendance for scholars traveling to Sewanee for the event.

Matthew Irvin, Associate Professor of English, Chair of Medieval Studies, and Director of the Medieval Colloquium, spoke to how this endowment has benefitted the program, saying, “There was no one who applied [to attend the Medieval Colloquium] who could not come because of financial need. This is the first time ever this has happened. [The endowment] has made the Colloquium more accessible than ever.”

Founded in the mid-1970s by then Professor of History Edward B.King, the Medieval Colloquium intended to merge Sewanee’s isolated campus with mainstream academia by bringing scholars directly to campus.

“The colloquium has grown under Dr. Irvin’s leadership as he has brought in a new generation of scholars, helped by the development of social media; it has also, naturally, expanded its focus to newer areas of scholarship. It’s in a very good place right now,” said Susan Ridyard, Professor of History and former Director of the Colloquium for more than 20 years, who has witnessed the evolution of the program.

Irvin was sure to give credit where credit was due, praising Ford Peay (C’19) for his help in the Colloquium. “A great deal of the work that was done this semester was possible because I have a really tremendous assistant in Ford,” shared Irvin. Dedicating more than 20 hours a week to the Colloquium, Peay served a vital role in planning the weekend.

With more than 150 scholars coming to the Domain from all over the world, this year’s Colloquium had an impressively high registration. Notable speakers included Elaine Treharne from Stanford University, Marina Rustow from Princeton University, and Marilyn McCord Adams from Rutgers University‌. Rustow is a MacArthur Genius Grant Award Winner, travelling from Cairo to attend the conference.

While there are other events around the country comparable to the Medieval Colloquium, Sewanee’s is uniquely intimate. Scholars present their work to respondents who are experts in the field. Respondents comment on scholars’ presentations, providing feedback that other scholarly weekends can lack. “That is the best thing about [the Medieval Colloquium], and also the hardest,” said Irvin.

Additionally, panel scheduling is intentionally done to ensure that all panels have a successful turnout, ensuring that all scholars presenting their work receive meaningful feedback.

Batkie teaches the Medieval Studies seminar, whose theme aligns with that of the Colloquium.  Her students get behind-the-scenes access to the Colloquium that they likely would not get otherwise. For instance, this year students dined with Dr. Emily Steiner, one of the top scholars in the field. Having such a structured yet casual environment for these academic discussions enriches both the weekend and the seminar for students and professors alike. Scholarly arguments and information are born out of events like this, yet the process is far less organized than the traditional academic settings that students operate in.

“In the classroom, information is very formal. [The Colloquium] shows students that scholars are like students. They also see how ruch and varied the medieval field is and how it depends on interdisciplinary work,” said Batkie.

Will Salzer (C’17), Medieval Studies and Religion double major, spoke of the personal relevancy of Medieval Studies. “Many people attach significance to the Enlightenment. There is something to say about the unenlightened and about knowing where you came from, not just what you came into. People tend to dismiss [the Middle Ages] and I like that. It presses the validity of what I do, and it is why I continue.” Salzer’s fascination with the Middle Ages began his senior year of high school, and Sewanee’s interdisciplinary Medieval Studies program allowed him to advance his studies, eventually finding a niche in the field.

“The historical alterity [of the Medieval period] tends to do a couple of things. It tends to comment that it isn’t applicable anymore, yet there are many more similarities than there are differences between the Medieval and Modern,” said Batkie on the assumptions of the Middle Ages. “We have been in a narrative of progress, that as we move forward, things get better.” She wishes to challenge this notion through studies of the Middle Ages.

Modernity is the telos from which historical narratives work towards, creating misconceptions about the Middle Ages. “Realizing things that trouble this narrative of progress are good, and it causes us to reevaluate our position,” Batkie explained.

Society’s advancements are not linear, and the Medieval period had its own triumphs which later periods lacked. “Things that trouble our assumptions are good things, and the Middle Ages are spectacular for that,” concluded Batkie.