Intellectual history

Reform and Renewal: Notes on the International Medieval Congress, Leeds

by guest contributor Jake Purcell

The ruins of the twelfth-century Kirkstall Abbey, en route from Leeds airport to the city center. (Wikimedia Commons)
The ruins of the twelfth-century Kirkstall Abbey, en route from Leeds airport to the city center. (Wikimedia Commons)

Every medievalist has two Major Events marked in their calendar each summer. The first is the International Congress on Medieval Studies, held in May in Kalamazoo, MI. I’ve just returned from the second: the International Medieval Congress, for which some 2,400 medievalists of all stripes descend upon Leeds University for four days of keynotes, talks, panels, roundtables, exhibitions, demonstrations, receptions, and Daleside’s Congress Ale (brewed specifically for the IMC).

The theme for this year’s IMC was “Reform and Renewal.” This might sound like the typical, overly capacious conference theme, but in his introduction to the IMC’s keynotes, Steven Vanderputten explicated it as a challenge to attendees. Vanderputten referred to a “silent revolution” in medieval studies, with medievalists now finding reform and renewal at all times and in all areas of activity and deliberately investigating “how medieval people pursued and effected changes.” Heady, exciting stuff, but the “silent” part of the revolution meant that the terms had some problems of “semantic and conceptual hygiene” that he urged conference-goers to work out. Vanderputten cast “reform and renewal” as powerful frameworks for analysis by discussing these terms alongside terms like “gender” and “emotion.” Medievalists are always looking for medievally-generated concepts that can contribute to chronologically broader conversations, and it was exciting to see Vanderputten put forth a plausible candidate.

IMC this year used a double keynote in an effort to generate conversation and embrace diversity of perspectives, methodologies, time periods, and subjects. Maureen C. Miller gave the first keynote, on the Gregorian reform. For medievalists, the Gregorian reform was once upon a time the medieval reform, but is now probably best rendered with as many scare quotes around as many parts of the phrase as possible. It persists mostly as a convenient shorthand for a set of social, economic, and intellectual shifts associated with the papacy in the eleventh century. Miller asked why our narratives for the eleventh century are so uninteresting to students, when the sources and the transformations that they reflect are so shocking. Her diagnosis pointed to lingering nationalism and a fixation on how modern states function as culprits. She offered two pieces of a new narrative for Gregorian reform. The first was to focus on the cultural impact of the reform, which, according to Miller, included the first instance of an international clerical culture that crossed political and geographic boundaries – something could be said to be done “clerically,” and it would have a meaning that was not only local. The second was to return to the political aspects of the reform, in part by pointing out just how odd a state the Papal States were: in international-relations theory terms, this unit comprised a “radically disarticulated composite state,” including fiefs in other kingdoms, terrae sanctae in the Holy Land, and tributaries. Miller’s talk left me, for the first time ever, excited to teach eleventh-century reform, and she conveniently pointed out that “reform and renewal” was as much about us as it was about medieval people.

The second speaker, geographer Keith Lilly of Queen’s University Belfast, took us to fifteenth-century Bristol, which served as a case study for how urban reform in the Middle Ages reorganized and combined towns, shifting peoples’ material and spatial experiences of their cities. Lilly reminded the audience that reform and renewal were processes that had particular, local manifestations that left their mark on landscapes and differently shaped the lives of people who lived in different areas. Both talks explored possible meanings of “reform and renewal” as categories in fascinating ways, but I found myself wondering what relationship “reform and renewal” might have as categories to twentieth-century efforts to find medieval “renaissances.”

At a series of panels on dispute resolution that I attended (and at one of which I presented), “reform and renewal” frequently manifested as a willingness to tackle old questions and to provide new answers. One of the papers in this vein that got my heart beating a little faster was Matthew McHaffie‘s take on the long-standing issue of what to make of all of the violence in medieval legal documents from France in the central Middle Ages. Looking at Anjou in the eleventh century, McHaffie noted that violence served an important legal function for lords. Acts of violence transfigured a dispute over who owned what into a dispute about whether or not an act of violence happened – a question with much lower stakes. This paper, like many in the session, urged scholars to think seriously about the particular judicial needs and judicial culture of the high Middle Ages. In the same panel, Robert Portass explored some of the differences between seeking justice (iusticia) and seeking truth (veritas) in tenth-century Galicia, while Albert Fenton explored the flexibility of function and construction of royal authority in the early Anglo-Saxon writs. That panel was the second of two remarkably cohesive sessions organized by Alice Hicklin on the resolution of disputes. She presented at the first, discussing the many political functions that releasing hostages (rather than taking them) could have in early medieval Europe. My own paper focused on how legal doctrine could be worked out in the process of disputing in Merovingian Gaul. The third paper, by Jenny Benham, explored how treaties between kingdoms were often determined by internal policies towards convicted criminals and outlaws.

One of the joys of Leeds is how it allows for extremely extended discussions on various subjects. There were, for example, seven panels each on canon law, on Grundmann’s legacy, and in honor of Ian Wood, among many other series. I attended one of the Grundmann sessions, which re-evaluated the concept of the vita apostolica as a model or justification for religious reform in the Middle Ages. Papers by Amanda Power and Neslihan Şenocak left the audience’s “brains buzzing,” in the words of moderator Ian Forrest. Power suggested that the concept of vita apostolica had obscured similarities, for example, between “secular” and ecclesiastical morality. She suggested that the idea of apostolica performed in the Middle Ages much the same work that the concept of “heresy” did in policing behavior and defining social boundaries. Şenocak followed with an equally invigorating critique of the idea that there was a singular vita apostolica. She discussed medieval confraternities—by far the most popular flavor of the medieval lay religious society—and noted that they pursued a variety of vita apostolica that was less about renunciation and more about equality (in the medieval sense, which has to do with a lack of social markers rather than the modern equality of rights).

I’ve managed to capture here only a tiny fraction of the excitement and energy generated by Leeds. I—and I suspect many others—left recharged and ready to get back not only to the library, but also to the classroom, to share with students so much that makes medieval history electric.

Jake Purcell is a Ph.D. student in Columbia University’s history department studying the institutional and legal history of early medieval Europe. He is interested in documents, legal or otherwise, and the institutions that produced them in Merovingian and Carolingian Francia.

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