The Medievalist Abroad: Widening the Conference Circuit
Conferences can be bane or blessing or both, depending on factors ranging from one’s teaching schedule to where one’s degree of extroversion. The atmosphere of collegial exchange at a good conference is one I find invigorating, even if it’s usually savored through a haze of over-caffeinated exhaustion. I confess, though, that process of applying for conferences is one I’ve often faced with dread. I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time poring over the annual calls of prestigious conferences, wondering how to fit my current research under the umbrella of a given topic. Time spent doing research in Europe forced me out of these bad habits, through forcing me out of the North American comfort zone of the Kalamazoo-plus circuit. I started searching CFP listings by location and date, or by keywords like “medicine” instead of “medieval.” Exploring these new conferences, I discovered a counterintuitive truth: presenting at conferences where medievalists were in the minority both stimulated my writing process, and resulted in stimulating feedback.
During the past summer conference season, I had my first experiences of attending conferences where I was one of very few medievalists. I found these conferences—on historicizing security, on the history of medicine, and on urban history—helped me hone valuable skills. This process began even before I attended the conferences themselves. Writing abstracts—and papers—helped me think about my topic in new ways. For instance: how might my work on medieval leprosy contribute to a conference on “(In)visibility, (In)security, and Gender in Historical Perspective?” Is “Healthscaping Pre-Modern Cities” the conceptual frame I never realized my fourteenth-century property disputes needed Preparing to speak on how one’s own work relates to such broad topical themes or theoretical frameworks provides a great excuse for delving into secondary literature.
Such research is something that I, at least, find perpetually slipping down my to-do list. Conferences not only imposed a deadline for doing it, but a purpose, in giving me a shared vocabulary with non-medievalist scholars. In my case, presenting research on a late medieval leper hospital to an audience of historians, sociologists, and scientists provided an opportunity for reading up on legal anthropology. It also opened my work to the bracing questions of an audience with no assumptions. Writing for an audience with no background knowledge forced me to sharpen my central ideas, making them clear enough to be concisely expressed. Presenting for an audience primarily made up of non-medievalist scholars means there is no chance for the room to get caught up in fine points of source analysis or historiographical controversies. There are, of course, times when a room full of people ready to talk through a coffee break about the semantics of Old Norse or the fine points of a liturgical procession is just what is wanted and needed. But participating in other conversations proved a salutary exercise.
I found it refreshing and stimulating to discover how scholars with very different sources are engaging with similar—or different—problems and questions. Topical conferences on medical and urban history proved very educational for me. I spent a lot of time listening… and taking copious notes that I’ve since used in preparing and teaching classes on modern Europe. I also found myself engaging in unexpectedly familiar conversations. It turns out that historians of hospitals in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth centuries are also dealing with debates over the moral quality of patients, and tensions between private charity and public funding. The ways in which these questions have been debated in the medieval historiography are often tied to broad narratives about the Middle Ages, and finding them outside it felt very liberating. Conferences sponsored by umbrella organizations can also be especially good opportunities for workshops and networking. The conference of the Society for the Social History of Medicine even included a workshop designed for graduate students and early career researchers (more of this, please, conference organizers everywhere.) At the same conference, panels with papers on pre-modern topics brought the medievalists together in bunches, throwing together thirty or so people from multiple disciplines and career stages with the shared interest of medieval medicine. This proved a shockingly efficient method of facilitating the exchange of contacts and citations with other graduate students, and of getting into conversations with established scholars who might have been mobbed—or at least nervously avoided by me—at an all-medievalist conference.
My summer of interdisciplinary love helped sharpen my own sense of what makes my research distinctive, and what connects it to the questions others are asking. It also built my confidence in presenting that research to non-specialist audiences, an experience I’m glad to have had before going on the job market. All of the steps of the conference process—from brainstorming to reception—proved helpful, in slightly different ways than they are when the expected conference is made up primarily of medievalists. Being forced to approach my own topic from a variety of perspectives was an exercise that made a pleasant change from obsessive tinkering with paragraphs and anxious contemplation of chapters. I’ve since presented for an audience of scientists, humanities scholars, and the interested public, and have more presentations to lay audiences scheduled. I’ve also become something of an evangelist for presenting at conferences not designed by and for medievalists. It provides an opportunity to participate in new conversations, to make new friends… and to communicate to others what’s so great about the Middle Ages, asserting that we belong in these larger conversations too.
Lucy Barnhouse is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department of Fordham University, New York. Her dissertation, “The Hospitals of Mainz: Legal Privileges and Social Functions,” examines the effects of canon law on the development of late medieval hospitals. She spent the academic year 2013-14 in Mainz as a Fulbright Scholar, doing archival research, and has presented the results of this research internationally. Her work focuses on how the legal status of medieval hospitals as religious institutions influenced the place of hospitals, including leper hospitals, in the religious and social networks of late medieval cities.