Medieval Academy

Device of the 93rd annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America (2018), at Emory University.

The springtime meeting of the Georgia Medievalists’ Group was folded into something much grander: the 2018 annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, held this past weekend at Emory University (specifically, the Emory Conference Center Hotel – what you can do with Coke money!). This one was my third, after Minneapolis (2003) and Phoenix (2011). Phoenix, as I remember, was controversial – Arizona had recently passed an anti-illegal-immigrant law, and there was tremendous pressure on the Academy not to hold the meeting there. They went ahead with it anyway, largely for financial reasons, although they changed the theme, especially welcoming presentations dealing with medieval immigration and xenophobia. (My paper, on the Flemish weaving community of fourteenth-century London, which was decimated during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, fit with this theme very nicely.)

This conference was not quite as controversial, although it threatened to be. Unbeknownst to most people, there has been some conflict in the medievalist world of late, with some people claiming that the entire field is inherently racist, and others objecting to this identification. This conflict has taken place largely over the Internet, with all the hyperbolic self-righteousness that such interaction usually entails. To address the issue, the conference organizers arranged for a plenary session of Medievalists of Color, whose presentations were actually pretty good and did not descend to the level of an Internet comment thread, despite occasional references to “white fragility”* or the notion that “research is violence.” They also avoided calling out their opponents by name, which was a nice gesture. (As much as I would love to see a revival of medieval-style academic debate, the topic here is so sensitive that the bad consequences would surely outweigh the good, if people who don’t believe that the field of Medieval Studies needs “decolonizing” were to be given equal time.)

As ever, it was good to see old friends and to make new ones, and most of the papers were pretty good. My favorite presentation was the final plenary, by Michael McCormick, of the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard. Apparently researchers at SoHP can now deduce the atmospheric content of the past from the ice cores of Greenland or Antarctica without even melting them, and with a much finer granularity than previously (gleaning two million data points for a period twenty thousand years, for example). Thus have they determined that human metallurgy has been putting pollutants into the air for a very long time; it’s not just a function of the Industrial Revolution. Even more interesting is a partnership between the SoHP and the Max Planck Institute in Germany called Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean, which aims to reconstruct the human settlement patterns around the Mediterranean going back to the late Bronze Age. I was amazed to learn that teeth contain evidence of one’s diet up to age twelve or so. Pulp in the molars of corpses contains evidence of disease-causing bacteria; what researchers are now able to determine is how the DNA of a disease mutated over time (specifically, the Yersinia pestis bacteria of the plagues of Justinian in AD 541-42), which allows them to plot exactly where it appeared and when, and thus to reconstruct ancient trade routes. Fascinating stuff!

Other highlights of the conference included the facsimile of the Bayeux Tapestry, on loan from the University of North Georgia (with many copies of the pamphlet explaining it, by yours truly). The conference program was the most edifying I’ve ever seen: in addition to maps, the schedule, and the list of participants, it also featured short articles on the founding of Emory, Emory’s campus architecture, noted medievalists Kemp Malone, Stephen White, Thomas Lyman, and George Cuttino, the Candler School of Theology, the Pitts Theology Library, the Carlos and High Museums, and other things of local or medieval interest. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out the excellent heraldry of this conference! The Medieval Academy’s coat of arms is a wonderful thing, featuring a splendid rose-en-soleil. 

The Academy’s journal is Speculum, and its device features a hand holding a mirror – a punning coat of arms, since speculum is mirror in Latin (it has a different meaning now, of course).

Both of these coats of arms, I understand, were designed by Pierre de Chaignon la Rose, who also came up with Harvard’s heraldic system in the 1930s.

Emory University itself uses a fine, simple coat of arms, featuring a crossed trumpet and torch. It is based on the university seal, which dates from 1915.

* Thesis: anyone who interprets opinions he disagrees with as “violence against bodies of color” does not get to talk about white fragility.