2024 Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference in Review

The 2024 Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference, hosted by the Maison Française d’Oxford, took place this past Monday and Tuesday, the 8th and 9th of April.

Since 2005, the OMGC has been an annual forum for graduate scholars from Oxford and beyond to share their research. The two-day conference brought together rising medievalists from Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Canada, France, Switzerland, and the UK and featured panels on divine affectivity, scribes and songs, visual signs, objects and collections, palaeography, and codicology.

Professor Henrike Lähnemann (Oxford) heralded the start of the conference on Monday morning with fanfare from the Oxford Medieval Studies trumpet – an appropriate opening to the conference, which was themed around ‘signs and scripts.’ United by the semiotic theme, participants found unexpected connections between a diverse set of presentations.

Professor Henrike Lähnemann playing her OMS trumpet in the Maison Française d’Oxford auditorium.

Professor Sophie Page (UCL) delivered her keynote presentation “Magic Signs and Censored Scripts in Medieval Europe,” closing the first day of papers. Her keynote delved into the syncretic texts of medieval magic, the efficacy of which required proper ritual performance – careful attention to the details of diagrams, auspicious star and cosmological signs, and specific material components.

Magic circle from the De secretis spirituum planetis in which the practitioner stands to summon planetary angels. Collection of alchemical, technical, medical, magic, and divinatory tracts (Miscellanae Alchemica XII), late 15th century. Wellcome Collection, MS 517, f. 234v.

Professor Page’s keynote dovetailed with Ellen Hausner’s (Oxford) paper on the alchemical images and text of the Ripley Scroll, which communicate a sense of time and space as core alchemical concepts trickle down from divine creation to the corporeal world. Signs and symbols are concentrations of meaning. Even small signifiers (although the scroll is over 2.6 meters long!) can signify immense, cosmological ideas.

As exemplified by Marlene Schilling’s (Oxford) paper on devotion to personified liturgical days in the prayer books of northern German convents, signs and scripts also have the power to lend physicality, visuality, and agency to concepts. Signs and scripts are means of power and community creation and consolidation. Or as Wilhelm Lungar (Stockholm) put it in his paper ‘Communicating Identity on Scandinavian Monastic Seals in the Middle Ages,’ objects like seals, as both historically situated artefacts and texts, mediate representation, identity, and authority.

From left to right: presentations by Elena Lichmanova (Oxford), Wilhelm Lungar (Stockholm), and Corinne Clark (Geneva).

The challenge of interpretation and an embrace of plural perspectives was a through-line for the conference, sparking rich, generative conversation. In her paper, ‘Mirror Writing and the Art of Self Reflection,’ Elena Lichmanova (Oxford) asked why and how offensive phrases like tu es asin[us] (‘you are an ass’) could be included in the thirteenth-century Rutland Psalter and surveyed the ways artists created nuances of meaning by manipulating the direction of script. Corinne Clark’s (Geneva) presentation on the life of St. Margaret considered the symbolism and mixed hagiographic reception of the saint’s battle with a dragon in which she is consumed by the demonic beast, erupting from its abdomen. Both topics inspired collaborative thinking among participants and emphasized the importance of analytical parallax to deepen our understanding of images and texts controversial and cryptic even to contemporaries.

As Megan Gorsalitz (Queen’s University, Kingston) made clear in her presentation on Old English riddles, mindless consumption steals meaning and risks careless, uncritical perpetuation. Signs and scripts require careful reflection of the manifold voices and identities they represent as well as those they conceal.

Detail of illuminated moth in decorated border. Book of Hours of King Charles VIII, 15th century. Utopia, armarium codicum bibliophilorum, Cod. 111, f. 96r.

A moth ate words. It seemed to me / a strange occasion, when I inquired about that wonder, / that the worm swallowed the riddle of certain men, / a thief in the darkness, the glorious pronouncement / and its strong foundation. The stealing guest was not / one whit the wiser, for all those words he swallowed.

Exeter Book Riddle 47

Charlotte Wood (Oxford), Marc Lawson (Trinity College Dublin), and Ilari Aalto (Turku) all grappled with the difficulties of studying oft-overlooked material culture. For Wood, whose paper focused on comb placement in Anglo-Saxon cremations, the significance of deliberately broken comb-ends in Anglo-Saxon burial urns remains elusive but exciting for their potential to tell us more about funerary practices. In his paper on brickmakers’ marks in late medieval Finland, Aalto suggested explanations for marks found in churches, which may simultaneously represent saints as an allusion to brickmakers’ names and act as a remembrance of the artisan embedded in the church. Drawing upon visual culture, written references, and extant examples of early Irish book satchels, Lawson demonstrated the prevalence of book satchels and suggested a more complex understanding of manuscript binding and use in early medieval Ireland.

The conference also featured a comprehensive selection of case studies exploring signs of manuscript creation, composition, authorship, revision, genre, and punctuation. Peter Fraundorfer’s (Trinity College Dublin) paper on a sammelband produced for Reichenau Abbey considered what the text’s language and contents can tell us about its author and intended readership, while Sebastian Dows-Miller (Oxford) took a statistical approach to the relationship between composition and authorship, identifying changes in scribal hand through changes in abbreviation frequency. In her presentation on Carthusian marginalia in The Book of Margery Kempe, Lucy Dallas (East Anglia) discussed the reception and reworking of the text for the monks and Elliot Vale’s paper on CCCC MS 201 problematized modern translations of vernacular works in which poetry and prose blend in structural and punctuation.

Margaret of Antioch emerging from the defeated dragon with the sign of the cross. Book of Hours, 15th century. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Rawl. liturg. e. 12, fol. 149v.

Papers by Jemima Bennett (Kent and Bodleian Libraries), Rhiannon Warren (Cambridge), Max Hello (Paris 1 – HiCSA), and Thomas Phillips (Bristol) all focused on the collection, manipulation, recycle, reconstruction, and aesthetics of manuscripts. Bennett’s work on fifteenth-century Oxford bookbinding continued the theme of plural interpretations as she discussed patterns and possible reasoning behind the recycle of manuscript fragments by collectors. Similarly, Phillips focused on recovering lost script from fragments of the Anglo-Saxon Office of St. Alban. Warren and Hello also touched on signs of manuscript manipulation, reuse, and changing aesthetic preferences in their respective presentations on Árni Magnússon’s Icelandic manuscript collection and ornamentation in Merovingian book writing. Complementing the presentations on material culture, the palaeography and codicology sessions reinforced the materiality of manuscripts and fluidity of text.

From left to right: presentations by Max Hello (Paris 1 – HiCSA), Jemima Bennett (Kent and Bodleian Libraries), and Sebastian Dows-Miller (Oxford).

Presentations aside, the congenial atmosphere and enthusiasm of the participants made for constructive knowledge exchange and an enjoyable two days of conversation. From the 2024 OMGC committee, thank you to all who attended. The committee is also excited to announce that the theme for the 2025 Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference will be Magic, Rituals, and Ceremonies! Until then, keep an eye on the OMGC blog for posts by this year’s presenters.

The 2024 OMGC committee (Katherine Beard, Ashley Castelino, Emma-Catherine Wilson, Kate McKee, Ryan Mealiffe, Mary O’Connor, and Eugenia Vorobeva) thank our sponsors for making this year’s conference possible.

The 2024 Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference was presented in association with the Maison Française d’ Oxford, the Oxford Festival of the Arts, the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature (Medium Ævum), the Oxford Faculty of Music, the Oxford Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, Oxford Medieval Studies (OMS), and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH).

Header Image: The White Hart, pub sign (colorized), ca. 1750. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, W.69:2-1938. Photoshopped onto background of Merton Street, Oxford.

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