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Medieval Congress Discusses Everything From Gender To Video Games

Andrew Klein makes a coat of arms at the International Congress on Medieval Studies
Christine Lena, WMUK

Hundreds of medieval scholars flood Kalamazoo every spring for the International Congress on Medieval Studies. Scholars, researchers, professors, from all around the world come to Western Michigan University for the event to listen, present, and connect with fellow medievalists. 

Correction: This story originally said events took place at the 52nd Congress. It was, in fact, the 51st Congress.

At the 51st Congress in 2016, Elizabeth Kempton from St. Louis University read her dissertation about female tricksters in the medieval ages and spoke about her time at the Medieval Congress:

“One of the reasons I come here is because it’s really good to see talks in other disciplines. So, it’s really cool to see what the experimental archeology people were doing and see if there’s ways that can be applied to understanding the literature, understanding the lived realities of people in a daily culture could impact how or why they wrote what they wrote.”

For Kempton, her scholarly interests are in gender and how women were perceived in medieval literature and records. She has found that there is still a lot that we can learn about gender in the Middle Ages.

“It’s a really fraught field that I feel we are finally unpacking in some really productive ways and I think that, it’s really good. And it’s really important that we start unpacking all the various ways that gender was articulated, because in some ways, medieval conceptions of gender might be vastly different from our own, even from a medical understanding of how bodies work.”

Kempton’s focus on gender is just one of many examples of the wide variety of topics within the field. There are lectures, panels, performances, and workshops on things like medieval language, music, literature, race, and even video games. Kevin Moberly, a professor from Old Dominion University in Virginia, helped lead a workshop on what video games teach us about medieval times: 

“There’s a big movement to to use these in the classroom cause, you know, a lot of students are playing games and are really invested in games and that kind of thing. But and looking at ok, like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings movies, the Vikings TV show, all of this kind of, you know, medieval pop-culture that comes out, and how it kind of is communicating messages about the medieval ages to people.”

People at the workshop were able to make their coat of arms, as well as play the newest Kings Quest game - a computer adventure game series set in the Middle Ages. This workshop shows how medieval times can be studied through more than an old book. Moberly says learning about the Middle Ages can tell us more about how we portray our own time:

“We’re interested in how the Middle Ages are being reproduced, and sold and commodified, and turned into games and things like that, and then what the connection is. People have been...Umberto Eco says people have been repackaging the middle ages ever since the Middle Ages said they were over. People have always been, you know, always revisiting and using the Middle Ages for specific rhetorical purposes to make messages about, not about what the Middle Ages were about but about their own time.”

Bridging the gap from the Middle Ages to the early modern period of the Renaissance is none other than Shakespeare himself. Peter Byrne from Kent State University spoke about how he finds the Shakespeare and medieval studies connection important:

“I think Shakespeare is one of the first artists who demonstrates that we’re no longer in the medieval era, that what it means to be a creative writer and that suddenly your writing is based around characters who are individuals rather than characters who are, sort of, cut and paste from various genres. Using him as the sort of X on the timeline for the way that, for the end, makes it really easy to look directly back and say well okay, why did that X happen?”

The International Congress on Medieval Studies connects worldwide scholars with a passion for the middle ages to get new perspectives and ideas about the field of medieval studies, and it all happens at Western Michigan University.

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