What I learned at Kalamazoo 2015

middle_ages_4a95fe6209ac5The weeks after Kalamazoo have been an unrelenting (but very rewarding) blaze of travel, movement, and reorganization. However, with the relative peace and quiet of summer upon us, I’ve finally put some thoughts together on that four-day period that I have always regarded as more of an academic retreat than a hassle or a burden. At least after I’ve given my paper…

Speaking of giving papers, that reminds me of the recent debate over the value of conferences. But I’ll save those thoughts for the end of these ramblings.

I basically spent the entirety of Thursday, May 14, in Bernhard 158, which is where the De Re Militari sessions were located. Starting with Session 31 at 10:00 a.m., there were four great papers on a wide variety of medieval military history topics. Jason Linn presented an interesting argument that Atilla’s campaign of 452 did not end due to logistical failure; Eduardo Fabbro gave an analysis of the late Roman and Lombard armies. John Hosler’s paper on the “Siege” of Acre laid out the big themes, the significance, and the relevance of what will be his next book. Mike Livingston’s presentation on Crécy was a reflection on the inaccuracy of casualty lists and mortuary accounts produced from the battle, drawn from his and Kelly DeVries’ forthcoming study.  Essentially, Mike’s argument was that a lot of the mistakes that we find in the mortuary lists come from the fact that the battle was incredibly brutal and bloody, and it simply wasn’t possible to identify people with 100% accuracy.

After the society’s business meeting at noon, things picked up at 1:30 with my session, Session 79. I’ll spare you the boring details of my paper, save to remark that I delivered it semi-extemporaneously, as I’ve started doing more frequently, and apparently talked a bit too quickly, which is unusual. In a sentence, I asked why no one has re-written Powicke’s Military Obligation, which is a phenomenal study, but more than a bit Whiggish in its selection of evidence. But enough of that; I’ll see about polishing it and either publishing it somewhere or posting it on line. I found my companions’ papers fascinating: Hörður Barðdal’s analysis of the armor of 13th-century Norwegian kings’ household; K. James McMullen’s analysis of the strange Old Norse word/weapon “Altgeirr;” and Devin Fields’ discussion of Edward IV’s artillery system and administration.

And finally, at 3:30 in Session 158 was the annual lecture, David Green on English imperialism during the Hundred Years War. Specifically, David was interested in trying to define more precisely the relationship of the different components of Plantagenet domains during the Hundred Years War. The key take-away for my own interests, one that I think Cliff, David, and I agree on, is that the “English encounter[ed] very major problems when attempting to convert military success into political and economic impacts.” [quotations are pretty close to exact, if not precisely word-for-word.] David believes that attempts to maintain control across regions—Wales, Brittany, Gascony, France, Scotland, Ireland—were broadly similar to each other. But offensively, how do you succeed in areas where the enemy won’t fight? English policy depended on offensive military strategy that in turn required absolute, uncontested victory. I couldn’t agree more.

Unfortunately, I missed what I’m sure were great sessions, including Friday’s plenary by Cary Nederman, and things slowed down as I started coming down with a mild version of the dreaded “conference bug.” So, I attended the 10:00 a.m. Session 203, a presentation of “the lethality of English warbows and wararrows” by Cameron Christian-Weir. Specifically, the talk was the findings of the first segment of the first part of a multi-stage experiment of arrow penetration, dealing in this case with penetration of mail. I found the discussion interesting, the experiment refreshing in its deliberateness and care. One of Christian’s main concerns is to shift the discussion from the usual question—“how far does the arrow penetrate?”—to the more revealing question, “how does the arrow kill?” A large part of the experiment involves tracking, or finding ways to track, the way that an arrow strike causes blunt-force trauma, both around the penetration area and to the pulmonary system. Also, a couple arrows did not go through the mail, due to what seemed random confluences of links that, combined, were able to withstand the arrow’s penetrative power. A sampling of tweets from the session can be found here, and should guide you to my quite-extensive collection (Storify is only picking up a few, for some reason).

I wound up skipping the 1:30 sessions to get some rest, thereby missing papers I had marked down, particularly Robin McCallum’s study of “financial and military contributions from Bristol and Norwich to Edward III’s Campaign in France during the 1340s.” I’ll have to go back through the records myself this summer…

For the 3:30 session, I attended Anne Curry’s delightful lecture on the Battle of Agincourt (Session 294), which was very well-attended (I actually sat on the floor in the back, nursing a cup of tea). Among other insights, she posited that “the campaign was actually won by accountants;” the French wouldn’t have remembered Crécy, as there was no such long-term memory; there was no way to train for the impact of an English arrow storm; Agincourt’s legacy wasn’t as significant as it was to become later; and it’s likely that the battle wasn’t in the traditional site. It was a very good presentation, for sure, and had us all fully engaged. That basically wrapped things up for Friday, as the conference crud sapped a lot of my energy.

I likewise skipped the Saturday 10:00 a.m. sessions as I had a couple meetings scheduled (more on that in a bit). The 1:30 sessions were a tough call, as there were multiple great topics on deck. It was also tough because my friends were presenting on different panels. But I decided to go with Session 449, “Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Society,” organized and chaired by my friend Craig Nakashian, and featuring four great speakers and topics. Lance Martin talked “chivalric chaos” in The Franklin’s Tale, and Courtney Hubbart took a very interesting approach to “The necessity of violence in chivalric society,” in this case as illustrated through Chretien de Troyes. Some find it disturbing that such a significant body of mores and behaviors as “chivalry” might actually sanction or require violence, rather than treating it as at all times reprehensible; this says more about us than our medieval subjects, I think. I was most impressed with Sam Claussen’s paper, which was brilliant in its simplicity and insight; he has a great gift for getting right to the heart of the matter, with just the right amount of detail and historiography. Jason Martin’s paper on chivalry in the Veldeke’s Eneit was thought-provoking, especially to me as I have to grapple with how to write about war, chivalry, and violence in medieval Germany over the next few years. Certainly Jason’s paper gave me much food for thought on where one draws the line between feud and war (which his portrayal of the reforming message of German lit suggests exists), and between wars fought among “Germans” and those fought against non-Germanic peoples.

And finally, Session 503 at 3:30, “Chivalry, Honor, and Martial Skill,” comprised four truly excellent papers. It was really the perfect way to wrap up the day, as everyone made excellent use of images to convey compelling arguments about their topics. Jason Tzouriadis discussed why kings are depicted as using staff weapons, connecting such depictions to changes in warfare; Kevin S. Whetter discussed chivalry in Malory; Audrey Thorstad gave an illuminating paper on “Heraldic Display on the Castles of the ‘New Men.’” The paper I found most interesting was Natalie Anderson’s discussion of Maximilian I’s tournaments—a topic that I should know more about, but don’t. Her discussion of how and why he promoted these events was fascinating.

The only wrinkle in the day was when our group tried to get dinner, only to find that our regular haunts were already overrun. This resulted in some desperate wandering the streets of Kalamazoo looking for vittles, only to have to wait nearly an hour anyway. I captured the moment in this photo, which I’m calling “Reservoir Dogs: Medieval Edition.”


However, “The Dance” made up for this. Good times with good friends.

We wound up staying to the last time slot on Sunday since my friends Peter and Chris both had to present at 10:30, go figure. I wound up going with Session 537 at 8:30, again on Agincourt. I was most struck by Craig Taylor’s (as usual excellent) presentation, in which he discussed ways of expressing and discussing grief and loss. In particular, we were all struck by Craig’s account of how Charles d’Orléans gave perhaps our first recorded instance of a staff ride. In the 1440s, as he and his attendants were passing the battlefield, he detoured there and went over the battle with them. No mention of the horror or trauma of being trapped under a pile of his own side’s dead. At 10:30, the choices were very difficult. Peter Sposato and David Crouch were presenting on nobility in the 12th and 13th centuries; Don Kagay and Andy Villalon were presenting; Chris Guyol was presenting; aaaaaaand then there was a panel on “Bastard Feudalism at Seventy: The Legacy of K.B. McFarlane,” with Ormrod, Biggs, and Arvanigian presenting papers. This panel, Session 564, is the one I went to, mainly because it dealt with the big issues that I’ll have to contend with soon enough. Simply put, how do we get to the faction-driven politics of Richard II’s reign? My own monograph study is looking at the two Ufford earls of Suffolk, and I’ll have to present my own answer to this question in time. Mark Arvanigian’s analysis particularly addressed this issue, but Doug Biggs’ and Mark Ormrod’s presentations added other layers to political culture and politics of faction and identity. All-in-all, a very worth-while session.

And that wrapped things up, basically.

General Thoughts:

  • The panels I attended were generally superb. The papers were lively, insightful, and, with a couple exceptions, kept to time, which shows that it can be done.
  • However, there were a lot of four-paper panels, which is at least partly indicative of the recent politics behind the conference organization. It’s hard to present a new argument in a convincing fashion in fifteen minutes, and stiffing official organizations that tend to attract many good proposals is not the way to go. There’s more I could say on that, but I’ll move on.
  • On the other hand, I have to say that as long as the speakers keep to time, four shorter presentations keep a session livelier and more dynamic than three longer presentations do. Exhausting as the conference was, I only found myself starting to doze where the air was stiflingly hot. I attribute this in part to the variety that four papers afford a panel.
  • As far as conferences themselves go, I disagree fundamentally with the anti-conference screed published this spring (read David Perry’s excellent rebuttals to this self-important nonsense for catharsis, or Fiona Whelan’s post for useful, constructive thinking). Even if everyone present reads their papers in a monotone (which in my experience few people do), there is no real substitute for a conference in terms of professional development, networking, and intellectual stimulation. There simply isn’t. This means, of course, that a conference is more than the sum of its papers, and I think Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is right on the money to argue that if you’re going to go, you have to do more than read your paper and attend sessions [sorry for not having a link to Jeffrey’s piece, but it was in connection with the NCS conference in Iceland]. In that case, why not pre-circulate the papers and do a video conference to discuss them? But this Kalamazoo reminded me of just how essential conferences are for professional development.
  • These benefits extend to the synergy produced by the large publishing presence at large conferences. It looks like, assuming some solid time to write this summer, I’ve found a publisher for both my book projects, on the earls of Suffolk and Frederick Barbarossa. So, that’s a win-win. I’ll save my defense of the monograph and academic/university presses for another time, but I am of the opinion that many of those who criticize publishers don’t really understand the economics of publishing—and this goes for e-publishing as well, which has a lot of costs hidden under the hood, as it were. Anyway, that’s a post for another occasion, but I’ve found my interactions with publishers to be very illuminating.
  • So, conferences are great, and we should keep them. But what about those who for some reason or another cannot make it and participate in the conference? This issue has been raised several times around Kalamazoo 2015, and is periodically revisited because conferences are a strain on one’s finances, unless somehow one lands that increasingly scarce conference funding. Of course, as Claire Potter observed back in April, I suspect that since 2008 we’ve been seeing an uptick in numbers of those who apply to conferences, because that’s what you need to do, only to pull out in the months beforehand because the funds aren’t there. Of course, this particularly affects contingent faculty, but not only them. I’m honestly not sure what to make of the issue. My attitude has always been that if I can’t afford it, I miss out—this is particularly true this summer of the Leeds congress and the Agincourt conference in Southampton, which I would give my eyeteeth to attend. I suppose the situation can be partly alleviated through live streaming, though I’m not sure whether that would put too great a strain on a/v resources (there is a rumor that an overabundance of a/v requests partly contributed to the shrinking of Kalamazoo).
  • Another solution is “live tweeting,” which I did somewhat unevenly during this Kalamazoo. This is a godsend to those who can’t make it, and where there is no live streaming available (I’m deeply appreciative of those live-tweeting Leeds right now, actually). However, I’ve found that tweeting a session as it takes place is a heck of a lot of work, and paradoxically distracting from the content that I’m tweeting. That is, I can’t engage in the kind of reflective, zen-like critical thinking that I find works best for me at a conference. Also, if for some reason one is interrupted in one’s tweeting, one’s audience is left hanging—which happened to me during Mike Livingston’s Crécy presentation, no less. Live tweeting is a commitment, and not one that I can make every conference, or even the whole conference. So, while tweeting is excellent professional service, I don’t regard it as an obligation or even necessarily beneficial to my own conference experience.
  • At the end of the day, we need to put thought and action into forums for intellectual exchange that are more affordable and hopefully more diverse than what we usually get at medieval conferences (this post says it well). My friend Craig has become a big fan of round tables, as they tend to be more dynamic and beneficial for all concerned, and I tend to agree with him—in fact, some of the panels about which I heard the best things this ‘Zoo were round tables, such as Session 115 “The Public Medievalist.” But I see traditional conferences as part of a larger landscape of exchange, and they should not be replaced by other/additional forums.
  • Other things that struck me this year: reunions with old friends continue to be a true highlight of Kalamazoo, though this year I wound up passing many good friends like a ship in the night—some Morse code when within signaling distance, but then we charted our separate courses. A number of folks I know seem to have experienced this phenomenon this year, though I’m not entirely sure why. Still, it was good to catch up with people.
  • Another highlight of this year that merits its own mention: reconciling with an old friend with whom I’d had a serious falling out some years ago. Definitely a positive outcome for this Kalamazoo.
  • Finally, Let’s hear it for well-attended Sunday panels. Some top-notch panels were located in the graveyard sessions, and they were very well attended, mostly because of the fame of folks giving papers. We all grumble about the graveyard sessions, but short of abolishing such sessions, I don’t see a problem with embracing “the suck,” as it were, and enjoying some quality presentations. Two years in a row I’ve attended graveyard sessions at the AHA that were spectacularly good. Notably, this January, when the AHA finished on Monday, the room was literally packed for a session on global history. So, if you’re going to be around on the last day, don’t skip sessions. They just might be awesome.

Hopefully, I’ll see everyone next year.