Thanks to a travel grant from the Berkeley Language Center, I was able to attend the 22nd Annual Interdisciplinary Conference in Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Phoenix, Arizona, hosted by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. There were presentations on a variety of topics spanning the 7th to the 17th centuries investigating cultures and literatures from China to the Americas. This year’s theme was Marginal Figures in the Global Middle Ages and Renaissance. The topic was approached in a variety of interesting ways. Some papers addressed “marginal figures” in society such as practitioners of non-dominant religions, people with disabilities, or female authors writing in an age of male authorship. A dominant theme throughout the conference was race and ethnicity, focusing, for example, on European views of Africans, Jews, or the Muslims they encountered during the Crusades.
Another interesting approach to addressing the “them” of the conference involved another meaning of marginal: the writings or drawings found in the margins of books or manuscripts, or “marginalia.” What people wrote or drew in their books as they read tells us a great deal about how people in the past understood, experienced, and used texts. Names and dates show how a book or manuscript changed hands over time, and can frequently give us information about people who formal history doesn’t normally include, such as women or people of the lower classes. Marginalia can give us a much more intimate snapshot of people in the past than formal history often does, and it was a fruitful topic of investigation for many of the presenters.
My own presentation was on a panel titled Insider or Outsider? The State of Medieval Iceland. Iceland is unusual in medieval Europe for being a country without a king. From its discovery and settlement in the late 9th century, until the mid-thirteenth century, Iceland was a self-governing commonwealth without a monarch or a formal aristocracy. The conservatism of its language, as well as its location on a volcanic isle in the middle of the North Atlantic, means that Iceland is significantly different from its European neighbors in several respects. At the same time, however, Iceland became thoroughly Christianized during the Middle Ages and participated in both popular and learned European culture through the reading and writing of religious, scientific, historical, grammatical, and fictional literature.
The state of medieval Iceland is important to the history of Scandinavia because the majority of medieval literature written in a Scandinavian language was produced or copied in Iceland, including information about Norse mythology and the early history of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Iceland is a small country with a long shadow, and it was exciting to be able to take part in a special conference session that put at the center of attention this traditionally peripheral country.