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Highlights from my first time at the ’Zoo

This month I attended my first International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS, aka the ’zoo) at Kalamazoo, Michigan. (For all you non-medievalists out there, yes, Kalamazoo is a real place.)

The Swan Pond. My photo.

Turtles in the Western Michigan Univ. Swan Pond. My photo.

I was one of at least five medievalists who were on the same 7:45 AM London-Chicago flight en route to Kalamazoo. We went up individually to the American Airlines check-in at Heathrow, and when it was my turn the employee asked, ‘Is there something going on in Kalamazoo? No one flies there!’ Oh, was there ever. Clearly she had never worked this particular shift before in mid-May.

One of my finds at the ICMS book fair.

One of my finds at the ICMS book fair.

ICMS at Kalamazoo is ridiculously huge. Wikipedia claims that it’s ‘the largest annual gathering in the field, regularly attracting over three thousand registered participants’. (N.b.: Of the three photos on the ICMS Wikipedia page, two are of the campus swans. ICMS is the season for cygnets.)

This year was the 50th Annual ICMS, which is pretty exciting—it’s far older than the International Medieval Congress in Leeds (the second biggest annual medieval gathering), which has only been around since 1994. It’s not often that Americans get to boast a longer history than the British, but this is one of those rare examples.

Another find.

Another great find.

Below are a few of my favourite Old English papers from the ‘Zoo—

Andrew P. Scheil (Univ. of Minnesota-Twin Cities) discussed the polysemous* word unhæl, focussing particularly on its use in Beowulf, l. 120b. The word’s pre-conversion meaning was something like ‘whole, entire, healthy, well, sound, safe’, but post-conversion its meaning was aligned more with the meanings of ‘evil, damned’. Scheil argues that polysemous words in Beowulf play on both native and post-conversion meanings. As Craig Williamson puts it in his translation of Beowulf, Grendel is both ‘unwhole’ and ‘unholy’.

*Polysemy is the existence of several meanings in a single word. One of my favourite Old English words—fah—is polysemous.

Alexandra Reider (Yale) looked at Old English ‘list’ words, i.e., words that could have the same meaning as our modern word ‘list’. Reider observes that all the words that can mean ‘list’ in Old English do so in their secondary and tertiary meanings—primary meanings are different but somehow related. Reider cites getæl as the most likely Old English word for ‘list’, and its primary meaning is ‘a number, series, reckoning, computation’, glossing Latin words like numerus and computatio. The secondary meaning of getæl is ‘a company, race, tribe’ (centuria, tribus), and it is the tertiary meaning that is ‘a book of reckoning, a register, catalogue’ (catalogus).

Jana K. Schulman (Western Michigan Univ.) discussed the relationships between fathers and daughters in OE literature. Although she cited a range of sources (saints’ lives, law codes, Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, etc.), I was especially interested in her discussion of the Old English Apollonius of Tyre, the earliest surviving romance in English. Apollonius gives three examples of father-daughter relationships illustrated through marriage arrangements: 1) the bad (i.e., incestuous) example of Antiochus and his unnamed, victimized daughter; 2) the example where the woman gets a say in her own marriage arrangement, Arcestrates and his daughter Arcestrate, who have a mutual respect for one another; and 3) the patriarchal example, where the father arranges his daughter Thasia’s marriage to Apollonius. Schulman notes that one Old English law code (II Canute 74) actually describes the participation of the woman in decisions concerning her marriage, which is unusual in law codes and pretty much non-existent—aside from Apollonius—in OE literature.

Stacy S. Klein (Rutgers) gave a paper titled ‘Raising Children and Rearing Hawks in The Fortunes of Men’. Fortunes, an OE gnomic poem, deals with both parenting and parent-child separation issues. It is one of the few OE texts that depicts dual parenting and describes emotion (as opposed to just lineage). Klein argues that Fortunes describes parenting as an art, comparing it with the significant care and skill required in falconry. A goldsmith is lauded for his skill in shaping metal, the scop in shaping music, and the parent in shaping a child—these are all secular crafts. Klein says that there is a misconception about the importance of parenting in OE texts (i.e., that it’s not all that important) because Fortunes, in fact, celebrates different forms of secular craft, among which most prominent is parenting.

And the importance of parenting and caring for our feathered friends brings us back to those cygnets…

"Swans and cygnets" by Elanjust - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Swans and cygnets” by Elanjust – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


One comment on “Highlights from my first time at the ’Zoo

  1. Pingback: Kalamazoo and other stories | Surrey Medieval

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