Thursday, July 09, 2009

International Medieval Congress - Interview with Axel E. W. Müller

The largest annual conference in the United Kingdom is set to begin next week. The International Medieval Congress will again take place at the University of Leeds, and features over a thousand papers on a wide variety of topics on the Middle Ages.

The congress begins on July 13th and runs for four days. Already 1551 people have registered to attend the congress, coming from over 40 countries to take part.

We interviewed Axel E. W. Müller, Director of the International Medieval Congress, who heads up a team of six people who directly organize the congress (as well as hundreds of others who are actively involved in developing its programme. We asked Professor Müller a few questions about the congress:

How does the International Medieval Congress differ from other medieval conferences held in the United Kingdom?

The most obvious difference of the IMC to other conferences (on aspects of the Study of the European Middle Ages) in the United Kingdom or in Europe is its size. With an average between 1400 and 1500 participants from around the world, it is only trumped by the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the United States. This size gives it a few advantages over other conferences on medieval studies in the UK; this allows the congress to have a broad academic scope which attracts a wide corpus of scholars in a variety of disciplines who would not necessarily meet at smaller conferences, and offers a chance for multi and interdisciplinary interaction that one would rarely get at other conferences on medieval studies.

Each year the congress has a theme - this year it is 'Heresy and Orthodoxy', and in 2010 it will be 'Travel and Exploration'. Why do you choose to have special themes and how do you go about making the choice for one?

The special thematic strands, like 'Heresy and Orthodoxy' and 'Travel and Exploration' exist in order to give a certain focus to the congress. A lot of planning time and man hours go into the programming of each Congress. We have subdivided Medieval Studies in 35 thematic areas in order to a) have a good range of presence of scholarship and research from all fields and disciplines, b) to enable a comprehensive programming...

In addition to those 'core strands', we select each year one special thematic strand (not as an exclusive theme) which aims to identify upcoming areas of research or encouraging burgeoning fields, and sections within Medieval Studies which we feel are worth exploring beyond conventional boundaries. Participants are by no means required to submit papers that fit with the special theme (and usually around 1/3 of papers submitted fit with the special thematic area).

However, we find that it is a good way for participants to focus their thinking, it presents a cohesive strand of scholarship, and attracts new participants to come. The special themes are broad enough to encompass a wide variety of scholarship from a variety of different disciplinary approaches, and we attempt to make it inclusive enough to be something that everyone attending the congress could engage with and find useful.

The lead-in time for these strands is quite substantial and currently we are fine-tuning Special Thematic Strands (through the Congress Standing Committee and Programming Committee) for 2012 and 2013. How do we decide? A long consultation process - we are always open for suggestions and proposals. Once a year the Standing Committee makes a short list which is then passed on to the Programming Committee for further suggestions which get fed back to the Standing Committee which finally decides.

One of the unique features of the International Medieval Congress is that attendees have the opportunity to participate in a number of events and excursions. Could you tell us more about them and highlight some of this year's excursions and events?

Every year at the IMC participants are welcome to partake in a number of excursions, fairs and special events that give the conferenceg oers the chance to go to places, or see and do things that are both relevant to their work as medieval academics, but also are fun and interesting. This year we are hosting the regular book fair (with over 80 stands), but also an antiquarian and second-hand book fair, a medieval craft fair and an historical societies fair. Special events this year include performances of medieval stories, music and dance, as well as workshops on liturgical music, medieval textile production, medieval cosmetics and a medieval summer feast complete with the requisite boar’s head.

Yorkshire is an exceptionally rich medieval landscape, full to the brim with Medieval culture, artifacts and architecture. Our excursions are aimed to show people many of those sites, often with behind the scene views, to get a real insight in sites, places and surroundings, which is why we ensure that all trips are led by experts on the particular landmark they are visiting. Each year, we are spoilt for choice by so many options to chose from - but we try to find something for a range of interests. This year, we'll Byland, Kirkstall and Fountain’s Abbeys, as well as Skipton and Conisborough castles. There will also be a behind-the-scenes tour of the Royal Armouries in Leeds with curators from the museum, the British national collection of arms and armour and the finest collection of medieval martial material culture in England.

In addition, to go a little bit further afield, after the congress there is a special three-day tour which participants can sign up for; this year will be touring "Hadrian’s Wall country in the early middle ages", including stops in Bede’s home town Jarrow, the roman forts of Bewcastle, and Vindolanda, as well as the Anglo-Saxon churches at Corbridge and Bywell. The tour culminates in full day’s exploration of the holy isle of Lindisfarne.

For those coming to Leeds and the Congress for the first time, what advise might you give about what people might want to see and do while on their stay here?

Well, as I mentioned above, Yorkshire and the North of England more generally is an area particularly ripe for medievalists. Within Leeds itself, I would recommend that the must-see attraction for medievalists is the Royal Armouries museum, which houses a spectacular medieval collection. Leeds is also home to Kirkstall Abbey, and a 12th century church in nearby Adel both of which are easily accessible by bus. The newly reopened Leeds city museum also has a medieval collection. The medieval city of York is only about 25 minutes away by train, which has the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, intact medieval city walls, spectacular Viking archeological finds and the majority of surviving extant medieval stained glass in England. If the conferencegoer has access to a car, the countryside is dotted with abbeys like Fountain’s, Ripon, Bolton or Rievaulx, medieval parish churches (many of which are filled with Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandanavian sculpture), and medieval castles in Knaresborough and Pickering. And, there is, of course, the Congress - which should deserve a visit in its own right.

We thank Professor Müller for answering our questions. For more information about the International Medieval Congress, please visit their website. Check back with the News for Medievalists section to get further updates about the congress.