"Roundheads and Ramblings"
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Kalamazoo

Medievalists Sometimes Lead the Way into the Future

Before I put away my medieval mindset and get back to  America's Civil War, I have to make one more observation about the purpose and accomplishments that have come out of the annual gathering at Kalamazoo (formally known as the International Congress for Medieval Studies). I spent some time today reading observations from this year's attendees. I couldn't help but notice that many of them were quoting from postings that had appeared on Twitter. And then I stumbled on a long blog post from a first-year attendee, who mused about all the wonderful connections that the internet makes possible today.  "Ten years ago," she said, "all this would have been impossible, and even five  years ago, it would have been unusual."  In some ways, she was right. Twitter wasn't around ten years ago.

But in other ways, I had to sigh over the shortness of people's memories -- because the internet made possible all sorts of wonderful connections way back in the "dark ages" of the 20th century. Because I was there, I feel entitled to remind the youngsters of their electronic history. Two accomplishments stand out in my mind.

1. Around 1991, a few people were playing around with the possibility of using computers to allow scholars to talk to each other in a relaxed and casual setting. The leader of this tiny group was Lynn Nelson, medieval historian at the University of Kansas. He started the discussion list "Mediev-l" with just two other people: an instructor from Boise, Idaho (whose name escapes me at the moment), and me, a brand new assistant  of history at Rhodes College. We roped in our friends, and before long Mediev-l was an active and useful resource for scholars all over the country. Researchers with questions could join the list and get answers to the most elusive bits of trivia. It's still going strong, by the way, although ownership of the list has  passed through several hands.

2. And then (here's the connection to Kalamazoo) in 1995, Lynn Nelson, who was by then too ill to travel to conferences, suggested that some of us should get together at the "Zoo" and figure out what else we could profitably do with the internet as our medium.  And so on a Saturday afternoon in May 1995, five people met in the lobby of Valley II. I remember Paul Crawford, who was still a grad student, Laura Blanchard, who worked at University of Pennsylvania library, Norman Hinton, an English professor, and one other (maybe it was Paul Hassell but I can't be sure), and me.

With Lynn Nelson egging us on from afar, we decided to create an Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies (ORB). And when Lynn could not house it at Kansas, I managed to convince Rhodes College to give us bandwidth to create an online encyclopedia.  In the next eight years, we expanded from the original five people to over 200 authors, each serving as editors of the pages in their own specialties. More important, we were getting 250,000 hits a month on our pages. When I retired, the site passed into other hands in New York and slowly lost ground as the rest of the world learned to use the internet. But I still like to think that medievalists were first.

If you'd like to see what we built, it's still available (and useful!) at http://www.the-orb.net/

That's the sort of thing that goes on at Kalamazoo. I've never heard anyone call it a "Think-Tank", but that's what it is. That's why almost 3000 people made their way to Michigan last week to attend their choice of some 600 seminars. But make no mistake, young medievalists. We've been coming up with new ideas at the 'Zoo for a very long time -- as is entirely fitting for medievalists.


What Would You Buy at the Medieval Conference

Every year in May, medievalists from all over the world come together in Kalamazoo, Michigan , to indulge in several days of living in semi-monastic conditions and pretending that the Middle Ages still have their charms. You'll find historians, of course, but also writers, artists, literature buffs, art historians, archaeologists, real monks, nuns, and priests, philosophers, publishers, editors, and book salesmen.

Young scholars attend to try out their theses and dissertation topics. Older scholars use the opportunity to catch up with old friends and check up on their young students. Some 600 paper sessions give everyone a chance to feel scholarly, and book displays  give everyone who has published a book the chance to walk by a table and think "There's my book!"  In the evenings, innumerable learned societies offer open bars, there's a free wine pour if your tastes run to plonk, and lengthy dinners where the attendees are more important than the food. There's even a dance where the most dignified academics turn into kids at a sock hop.

I attended this amazing gathering faithfully while I was teaching at Rhodes, but I haven't been back since I retired. There are too many people, too much bad wine, too long waits to get through the cafeteria lines, and too many hills to climb.



So what do I miss most? Probably the chance to buy old books and to indulge in some really silly medieval bling. In previous years, I hauled home too many books, but also earrings featuring medieval bugs encased in balls of amber,  a ceramic head of a court jester on a stick, gargoyles, wax replicas of kingly seals, feather quills with ink made of carbon black, and a couple of loose pages from a 14th-century prayer book.

If I had been in at the 'Zoo last week, I would not have been able to resist this wonderful bookbag bearing a medieval curse for all book thieves and borrowers. Thanks to Lois Huneycutt for the picture.