May 14th through May 17th, 3,000 medieval scholars from around the world will flood Western Michigan University’s campus for the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies.
The congress features more than 500 lectures, workshops, and demonstrations on the bygone era. James Murray is the director of WMU’s Medieval Institute and has helped organize the event for eight years.
JAMES MURRAY: We had a 50th anniversary celebration that was held down at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts three years ago at the actual 50th anniversary year. So this year we wanted to shift the emphasis to looking back at the first conference on medieval studies at that time. And ask some of the speakers as well as a number of sessions to think about some of the subjects of those original sessions in those early conferences. And think back and reflect on the 50 years and more than 50 years that have elapsed since then. So one of our plenary speakers, our Saturday speaker Richard Utz, I’m looking forward to his talk particularly since he was until a few years ago the chair of the English department—now he’s at Georgia Tech. He’s coming back to talk on Saturday morning about the notion of the Middle Ages, ‘Our Middle Ages Ourselves,’ about how the dialogue between the modern age and the medieval age has been shaped and in fact how it still captivates our imaginations and sometimes our nightmares. So I’m looking forward most of all to Richard, I think’s, plenary on Saturday morning.
REBECCA THIELE: That’s interesting that you say that, because over the years we have seen a lot of modern things that we’re talking about today sort of penetrate the medieval studies. For example, Tolkien has been discussed. Harry Potter has been discussed—and not just literary. What are some of those modern issues that we’re seeing in this congress?
MURRAY: Any engagement in the past—and the medieval past in our situation—is a dialogue. You put questions to the past and the questions you put to the past are often ones that preoccupy the modern. So that’s not exceptional in our case. So scholars gather—we spend our scholarly lives studying that past trying to appreciate it in its nuance and its authenticity we like to think. But we bring forward as modern people and contribute to popular culture knowledge and experience that others use for such things as Game of Thrones, video games, electronic games that use medieval themes. There will be plenty of sessions on Vikings and Richard Utz in particular is talking about what we call “Medievalism,” which is the embodiment of various things borrowed from the medieval past in such things as architecture, popular entertainment, popular literature—of which Tolkien is an example, who was an authentic Oxford scholar of Old English, but also wrote imaginative fiction based upon what he took away from the Middle Ages and what he wanted to convey to the modern age of some of those experiences and knowledge that he had. So those are some of the things that happen.
THIELE: We have passed the deadline for the public to register for free I believe, but the public still can pay the money and attend some of the sessions correct?
MURRAY: Yes, I think the Kalamazoo community is welcome to particularly we have a musical presentation, we have some theater. You are more than welcome to come by and pick up a conference program and check on these things. There will be demonstrations on medieval crafts I believe on Saturday afternoon outside of Valley III on campus. So check the website which has a full PDF of the conference program as well as you can pick up a paper version if you like. And the public is welcome to those kinds of generally of interest kinds of exercises, above and beyond the kind of academic exercise which most sessions are.