by Jeffrey J. Cohen
So I called the accommodations at Swansea a gulag. I regret that now, just as I regret the Devil's Island joke I made at my paper, because in all honesty our local hosts worked diligently to ensure that the conference went well. And it did. Revitalizing Stalinist architecture and placing mints upon our evening pillows were not in their purview.
Yet, like a malcontent exiled to a remote work camp for his reprogramming, I did return from Wales newly oriented, my desires changed -- which is to say, I am sorry that I had to leave the conference on Monday and that I missed the last day of sessions. I regret also that I did not take the Tuesday trip to see the Hengwrt manuscript and to enjoy what friends in taunting text messages have described as a spectacular day out. And yes, I would have spent two more slumberless nights on a wafer-thin pillow and a mattress with the imprint of a much smaller person's body upon its springs in order to do so.
The New Chaucer Society conference held in Swansea was -- despite the histrionics of your high maintenance reporter -- an excellent gathering. I made the acquaintance of many new people, reconnected with friends, attended some superlative sessions and plenaries, enjoyed an expedition to some castles, ate and drank well. Below I offer, in no particular order, some scattershot commentary on the experience, concentrating on the professional aspects of the conference and the contribution it made to current Chaucer and medieval studies. In the future I hope to add some more personal thoughts.
I invite readers who also attended to add their observations in the comments. I'm especially eager to hear about Monday's events, such as John Ganim's remarks, and how the conference closed.
Though called the 'New Chaucer Society,' very few of the presentations I attended had much to do with that author. My hunch is that the polyglot, multiethnic Britain that we as a community seem moving towards in our scholarship means that a single-author focus is increasingly difficult to maintain. This movement from England towards a capacious Britain is especially complicated in Chaucer's case, mainly because he was far less interested in the non-English portions of the island he inhabited than he was in Spain, Italy and France. NCS was founded when the idea of a "Great English Author" was tenable for Chaucer. Not all that long ago we viewed Chaucer through an inherited, fifteenth-century lens: the founding father of English poetry. Now, though, he is generally seen not as a writer who broke with francophilia and internationalism to establish a distinctly English tradition, but as an author in a thoroughly globalized milieu. Ardis Butterfield's Biennial Lecture emphasized this point, as did Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's plenary. Neither exactly offered new information on this reorientation, but they together affirmed that a transnational and somewhat diminished Chaucer is the one with whom we now live. When a multilingual medieval literary studies is no longer imagined to culminate in Chaucer or even in English -- instead stressing the diversity that existed long before, during, and for a a great deal of time after Chaucer's life -- then some dimming of that author's radiance is inevitable.
The decline in Chaucer's star has been accompanied by a rise in Gower's. Thus many NCS attendees arrived on a bus from a Gower conference in London. An author with a trilingual surviving oeuvre, Gower offers the "island writing" that can be difficult to discern in Chaucer. Gower also has more to say about England and Englishness than his revered contemporary. After Clare Lees delivered a plenary on the Man of Law's Tale and Chaucer's "Anglo-Saxon" England, David Wallace had a great line about how to Chaucer the northern coast of Spain would have been more familiar than Northumbria.
The danger of this reconfigured conference landscape, though, is that NCS might become just another medieval confab, a smaller and more anglocentric Leeds or Kalamazoo, focused upon the texts composed in England during the 14th and 15th centuries. I say danger because -- without really being able to say why, at least in more than the most tentative of ways -- there does seem to me something different about Chaucer as compared to most medieval (and modern) writers. With many of the texts I teach regularly I arrive at a certain comfortable point and feel that I know them. Chaucer is an author who consistently seems new to me every time I teach my "Canterbury Tales" course, and I've been doing that for 13 years now. Some day I'll post more on this, and it would be great to have such a topic at NCS in 2010 as well.
NCS Swansea will someday be looked back upon as the great moment of arrival among medievalists for disability studies. Chris Baswell delivered a plenary on eccentric and odd bodies so eloquent that it cannot help but to be marked as the announcement of a possible future for the field. Though he refused to use the word "disabled," preserving the Middle Ages as the time before such a label, such temporal separation was immediately -- and quite movingly -- undercut by his passionate self-identification with these eccentric bodies.
Chris's talk reminded me in many ways of Carolyn Dinshaw's announcement of the arrival of a postcolonial Middle Ages in her Biennial Lecture in London, NCS 2000. She was not the first to be mixing the medieval with the postcolonial. The Postcolonial Middle Ages had been published earlier in the year, scholars like Patty Ingham, Geraldine Heng and Michelle Warren were already visible practitioners. It was more that after this big public event the landscape changed, and much of the uncertainty that medievalists had about this kind of work began at last to dissipate. Likewise, ITM readers know very well that disability studies is already thriving within medieval studies, but now it seems that this field's time for prominence has arrived.
Along these same lines, it was strange not to have Carolyn Dinshaw's lecture cited within Ardis Butterfield's, especially because the two had so much in common. Butterfield spoke of a familial experience of Anglo-India, and cited Dipesh Chakrabarty (who I am convinced has displaced Homi Bhabha as the medievalist's favorite postcolonialist) to frame her argument -- two things done, eight years ago, by Dinshaw. Of course we at ITM have been worried for some time about the nonappearance of Dinshaw's work within some of the scholarship that she enabled, and that is why we'll be reading Getting Medieval in our blog book club in August.
Another field that made a compelling appearance is what early modernists often call, somewhat tongue in cheek, "Thing Studies." Presaged by an excellent talk Kellie Robertson gave at NCS in 2006, objects as more than their materiality figured brilliantly in Valerie Allen's plenary "
The necessity of studying medievalism was made amply evident in a brilliant paper by Stephanie Trigg, whose notion of the medieval as performative is as true for the conference itself as it is for the Order of the Garter (and is made even truer as bloggers report the conference as a kind of fan-based dissemination of the activity: I personally think that blogs have served to make conferences far more important than they were a few years ago, because now accounts of the research disseminated there are broadcast quickly and widely. ITM, for example, has a readership that approximately equals the total number of people attending the NCS conference, and that far surpasses the number present at most of the sessions on which I'm reporting). Many more papers on medievalism followed, including a great panel on the topic that included David Matthews, Erin Labbie, Larry Scanlon, and Ruth Evans. Carolyn Dinshaw's thoroughly entertaining piece on the cult British film A Canterbury Tale furthered such discussion in the "Queer Temporalities" session (the very title of which nicely encapsulates exactly what the challenge of medievalism is: to think time differently).
Surprisingly, no one disagreed with the assertion (made several times) that medieval studies is a form of medievalism, though as Stephanie predicted at her paper critics who are happy to state such things still tend to cling to high culture artifacts and comfortable methodologies (Matthews offered a series of taxonomies of medievalism [we medievalists do love our taxonomies]; beautiful readings of poems by Larkin and Lowell also featured in the same panel) and not be comfortable at all with, say, A Knight's Tale, which poses the exact same provocations.
So much for the arrival of important new critical tools. A critical methodology barely present at this conference was psychoanalysis, even in the panel on "Medieval Pathologies." I have a hard time accounting for that vanishing. Since Aranye Fradenburg is the rumored choice for the next Biennial Lecture, that may well change at NCS Sienna in 2010.
Jet lag is catching up with me and this has been a lot of typing at once. I hope to share more about the conference in the days ahead, but for the time being invite anyone else who went to add their reflections. And if you haven't read them already, check out the accounts of NCS at Quod She, Miglior Acque and Humanities Researcher.