A Gal in Kalamazoo

In May I went to Kalamazoo, Michigan (pop. 74,000). The town’s attractions include the Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital Water Tower and the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, which in 2000 was voted the top small museum in Michigan by the readers of Michigan Living magazine. 

Lying mid-way between Detroit and Chicago, the town gets its name from a Native American Potawatomi word. It was originally named Bronson, after its 19th-century founder, but Titus Bronson was an eccentric and the town was renamed for reasons of propriety after he was ostracised for stealing a cherry tree. I’m tempted to say that since this arboreal theft not much has happened in Kalamazoo.

I was there because once a year the University of Western Michigan holds an International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. Now in its 49th year, it’s a pilgrimage site for medievalists like myself – some 3000 of us, in fact. Over four days there are more than 500 90-minute sessions on almost every aspect of medieval study, during which papers are presented and discussed in front of audiences of varying size. The sessions are put on by a mixture of graduate students, faculty, and societies with long names trimmed to acronyms, such as WIFIT (‘Women in the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition’). These sessions are held in parallel, which leads to some agonising choices. Participants must chose between, say, ‘New Approaches to Carolingian Charters’ and ‘Alphabets in Medieval Manuscripts and Beyond II’. It’s a democratic affair. Anyone can propose a session on anything. There are even some on Renaissance culture.

The conference was inaugurated in 1962 by the newly-created Institute for Medieval Studies at WMU. At the time it differed from many academic conferences of its kind in that the Call for Papers was open to anyone. From the outset, inclusivity was part of its identity, and it soon grew so popular that it became a yearly event. Despite its intellectual open-door policy (in theory, local people with an interest in the medieval are welcome to attend) the conference remains strangely insulated from the town where it is held, kept separate within the vast campus of WMU. That said, there are signs that Kalamazoo town has some medieval fans. There are two branches of ‘Bilbo’s Pizza’, an independent, family-run restaurant started by a pair of Tolkien enthusiasts. It serves pizzas and sandwiches with gnomic sounding names like ‘The Dragon Warns You This Is Filling’ (a roast beef, ham, cheese, tomato, lettuce, mayo and mustard sandwich). 

Aside from the main conference events, there are also official extra-sessional activities. There is a daily ‘wine hour’ at the cirrhosis-inducing time of 5pm, and there are film screenings, performances, workshops, and stalls set up in the exhibits hall throughout the conference. Here, the conference booklet advises, it is possible to purchase ‘goliard T-shirts and sundry items’. (The goliards were satirical poets in the Middle Ages, though it isn’t clear why their T-shirts deserve their own category.) And perhaps my favourite moment of the conference is Saturday night’s ‘dance’ in the East Ballroom of the Bernhard Center. Here you can watch your bibliography get down under the disco lights. Or rather, you can start to lose faith in the validity of your bibliography, as you watch its most prominent figures throw some awkward shapes while wearing waistcoats. To wander around Kalamazoo is to think that the waistcoat might be experiencing a revival, that high-end fashion magazines might be running features on waistcoats as ‘statement pieces’. They are statement pieces, but the statement is ‘I can read Anglo-Norman’.

The thing about Kalamazoo – which is how we medievalists refer to the conference, and it’s sometimes shortened to ’Zoo, by the uncharitable – is that it is an environment where the traditional markers of people’s social caste are redefined. You’re awkward and you don’t know how to chat to girls? That doesn’t matter, what makes you cool by Kalamazoo standards is that your monograph is shortly to be published by a prestigious university press. When it comes to the dance-floor on Saturday night, an arbitrary sense of rhythm is no impediment.

Medievalists are the oppressed minority of university humanities departments, underfunded and dismissed as irrelevant, so Kalamazoo is a bit like a giant support group for the intellectually niche. This is why I love it, in all its sprawling, unglamorous glory. Everyone is friendly in the way that only social outcasts can be. We’re all like awkward teenagers who have finally discovered a sub-culture we can identify with. This kind of inclusivity has its pitfalls though. There’s a certain intellectual inconsistency bred by our sense of social exclusion. Despite its niche appeal, ‘medievalism’ is, intellectually, a broad church. We club together because we feel like a minority. There is strength in waist-coated numbers.

In English literary study, for example, the ‘medieval’ is roughly anything from 597 AD (the coming of the written word in Britain) to around 1500. As a ‘medievalist’ you are, apparently, qualified to talk about approximately a millennium of literary culture in England. The ‘post-modern’ period, for instance, is a piddlingly tiny span of time by comparison. Medievalism isn’t just broad in historical terms, either: inter-disciplinarity is everywhere. Historians, art-historians, musicologists, literary scholars, archaeologists and philosophers are all included. Kalamazoo intends to cater to the study of every field of human knowledge, early and late in the period, in every vernacular tradition. Admittedly, this intellectual omnivorousness might have something to do with the scarcity of sources, especially for the ‘early medieval’ period. The entire poetic corpus of Anglo Saxon verse, for example, is contained in four manuscripts. Four books. That is all that’s left of the poetic culture of roughly 600 years. So scholars of Old English literature are more inclined to seek new avenues into their research in other fields. Yet this does not fully explain how ‘medieval’ hoovers up everything in its path. The promise of a conference like Kalamazoo is that a student of 15th-century devotional literature might have something meaningful to contribute to the research of a person studying 9th-century Iberian history. And of course, this isn’t always the case. I am the former, and what I know about the latter could be written on the back of a postage stamp.

Despite the possible small-scale intellectual pitfalls of Kalamazoo’s intensive inclusivity, it also provides an opportunity to encounter people with whom you might otherwise never cross paths. This year, my flight from Kalamazoo Battlecreek International Airport was cancelled and I was forced to stay an extra night. (That is, incidentally, a flagrant misuse of the word ‘international’ — unless you think Illinois is a different nation.) It was a happy evening. Only the most die-hard participants were left and I got to hang out with a friendly bunch of Norse specialists, including an engaging Icelander with small-nation confidence and more diacritical marks on his name badge than I have letters in my name. I liked both that he had taken the paper part of his badge out of its plastic holder and modified it in biro before replacing it, and also that he was still wearing it after the conference was over and its formal function was redundant. In this already niche environment, it was a further expression of distinctness. Each kind of unusual expression of identity packed inside another, like a Russian doll of social markers.

These encounters with unlikely people can also, at times, be awkward. Kalamazoo is home to an Institute for Cistercian Studies, and a surreal aspect of the conference is the sight of Cistercian monks in their black and white robes walking back and forth between the seminar rooms like slow moving house martins. My friend Jo, on realising that she had missed one of the conference shuttle buses into town, accidentally said ‘fuck’ to a monk. He didn’t flinch, just looked at her with wide and uncomprehending eyes.

To be a medievalist is to embrace irrelevance, to delight in the arcane and the pointless. Understanding the culture of the medieval world requires a process of intellectual refurbishment. The most basic concepts – concepts of time and space, for example – are different in a medieval context. The great mappae mundi of medieval Europe chart both time and space. Jerusalem is located at the centre of the universe, and on this fulcrum the crucifixion is happening now and always. A map, in a medieval context, does not document geographic location, but the history and future of time, theological and spiritual truth. And this intellectual refurbishment process is necessary everywhere. For a literary historian like me, an ‘author’, a ‘book’ or a ‘text’ mean something very different in a medieval context. An ‘author’ is often an invisible entity, a ‘book’ is something unique and handwritten and a ‘text’ is rarely discrete, stable or authoritative. But, of course, this distance from the contemporary is also the particular joy of being a medievalist. It offers a kind of strange escape from reality. And that escape feels complete as you wander around the edges of the dancefloor in Kalamazoo, catching snatches of conversation on subjects like ‘the significance of the Fourth Lateran Council’ while people in waistcoats bump and grind to familiar ’80s disco hits.