The Fordham-York exchange program was a wonderful experience full of challenges and inspiration! We’re two students at Fordham – Liz Light, a second-year PhD student in the English department who studies embodiment and gender in late-medieval devotional writing, and David Smigen-Rothkopf, currently finishing his MA Thesis on the idea of genealogy in Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur before starting in the English department this fall– who were chosen for the student-exchange program between the Center (and Centre) for Medieval Studies at Fordham University and the University of York. We helped out at York’s conference, Medieval Women Revisited, cosponsored by Palacky University in the Czech Republic. It was an experience filled with inspiring scholarship, excellent new studies from academics all over the world, camaraderie, and fruitful, thought-provoking conversations.
Upon our arrival from King’s Cross, Gillian Galloway kindly greeted us at the station and drove us to our apartment at which the York CMS had arranged for us to stay during our visit. We loved the apartment’s full kitchen, window view of the Minster, backyard rose garden, proximity to the CMS, and the really comfortable beds. Who could ask for more? Our hosts also gave us maps of amenities in the area, including a handwritten list of vegan restaurants for David!
On our first day we checked in with the Medieval Studies office, met everyone, and did a few quick preparations for the conference. One of the conference presenters, who lived close by, took Liz on a walk around town to point out some landmarks and get acquainted. When David arrived the next day, we went for a walk around the walls of York, through the park and the Shambles, eventually putting our heels up at the House of Trembling Madness (what a name!), a self-proclaimed medieval pub featuring a wall of over-the-top taxidermy, wooden beams flanking the ceiling, and many Yorkshire staples on the menu.
Our second day in York brought new adventures: a day trip with one of York’s PhD students, Zara Burford, who earlier this year had been on exchange to Fordham to help out at our “Manuscript as Medium” conference through the same bursary program that brought us to York! It was great to see her again and to have our hospitality returned with a trip through Yorkshire together.
Zara drove us to Rievaulx Abbey, a Cistercian monastery dating back to the twelfth century, now in ruins, nestled in the North York Moors. After a morning of exploring the abbey’s skeletal remains, we embarked on the seven-mile pilgrims’ walk to Helmsley Castle. The scenery was stunning, and we’re lucky it didn’t rain! Sheep, horses, cows, and the occasional hare greeted us on the walk. Arriving in Helmsley, we had tea in the castle’s walled garden before making the return trip to Rievaulx and then York.
The next day saw the beginning of the conference, but we still had time to explore York Minster in the morning! We spent a good amount of time admiring the many memorial stones and impressive architecture of the Minster, but we both agreed: the older, the better. It was amazing to go below the cathedral to see the remains of Roman and Norman York! After a quick bite to eat nearby, we made our way over to King’s Manor for the start of the conference.
The conference itself was wonderful. All of a sudden, no longer just guests, we were now hosts! The conference came to a rousing start with provocative presentations by Daniela Rywiková and Rachel Moss. Daniela’s opening
presentation about “Sin and Death Gendered” in late-medieval visual culture was especially interesting because her work is the first in Czech to investigate visual representations of “unspeakable” sins and their gendered associations. We also loved Rachel’s presentation on “(B)Romance and Rape Culture in Late Medieval England,” which asked provocative and challenging questions about homosociality and rape culture from Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale” to the modern-day case of Brock Turner’s recent prosecution. These two papers were an amazing way to kick off the conference, as they presented fascinating and refreshing new research. We reconvened for a homemade dinner in our apartment.
Brushing aside the jetlag with abundant coffee and Yorkshire tea, we were able to sit back and enjoy a full day of dynamic presentations and hearty discussion. The presentations were at the cutting edge of scholarship on medieval women’s social and economic roles. Through the collaborative effort of scholars from the United Kingdom and Central-Eastern Europe, the day proffered a vision beyond queens, saints, and nuns, to present a portrait of medieval Europe – indeed a multitude of portraits – where women played vital and active roles in the machinery of social, economic, and cultural life. Hollie Morgan’s opening paper discussed the magical and protective forces that ladies’ chambers played in medieval romance, tracing her findings to larger anxieties about women’s containment in contemporary culture. Gerhard Jaritz’s paper on gendered space in visual culture added important research to the field. Nicola McDonald’s presentation on women’s “unruly laughter” gave evidence for women’s reclamation of agency through irreverence, play, and “ludic misconduct.” Liz, who studies women’s embodiment and adores medieval medicinal manuals, especially enjoyed Kim Phillips’s paper on the cultural meanings of breast size for medieval women, titled “The Breasts of Virgins: Sexual Reputation and Female Bodies in Medieval Culture and Society,” which suggested that women’s breasts in the Middle Ages were active, not passive, body parts, with powerful meanings that inspired anxieties about female agency and sexuality.
After breaking for lunch, we prepared for the conference’s second half, which held a multitude of papers often exploring women’s economic roles in the Middle Ages. Maria Mogorovic presented invaluable research on marriage patterns and concubinage in medieval and early modern Istria, while Beata Mozejko explored women’s roles in Gdansk, Poland based on her groundbreaking findings from Gdansk’s written records. Vicki Blud offered a refreshing look at queer medieval women in Confessio Amantis and the Roman de Silence, revealing the instabilities of naturalized gender roles in these disruptive texts. Returning to the economic and social sphere, Cordelia Beattie asked of us, “Did Married Women Stop Making Wills in 15th Century England?” while Teresa Phipps “located” women in the town court rolls of Nottingham and Chester, showing us how medieval women traveled, trespassed, and traversed the streets, marketplaces, and homes of these towns.
The day concluded with a dinner, arranged by the York CMS, with the many speakers. Food, drinks, and laughter were in abundance, bringing the evening to a happy conclusion. David was so happy to see a vegan meal and dessert!
The next day brought us even more inspiring and thoughtful papers, focusing largely on women’s economic and social statuses. Michaela Antonin Malanikova explored spousal property relations in late medieval Czech towns while Deborah Young showed how women negotiated the boundaries of justice through their appearances as plaintiffs in Star Chamber court cases. Jeremy Goldberg, one of our kind hosts at York and the key organizer for this conference, revisited the social and economic implications for medieval women that he had considered in his 1992 book, Women, Work, and Life Cycle in a Medieval Economy, asking provocative questions about whether the so-called “position of women” can be categorized according to a single model, or through quantifiable statistical findings. Goldberg’s critique built an even more nuanced picture of medieval women’s economic position, this time revealing the problematic relationship between women and history by juxtaposing historical and literary sources.
We finished up the final day of the conference with a luncheon roundtable asking the question, “Medieval Women: Where Next?” It was wonderful to hear so many voices contributing to this discussion. What kinds of papers about medieval women are appearing in the academic world today? We talked about the need for more excellent scholarship on medieval women, especially work that crosses disciplinary boundaries and unearths concurrent and contemporary issues, such as women and power, embodiment and gender presentation, and internationalism. Provocative in its uncompromising appraisal of the current state of scholarship and its ambitious goals for the diversification of both the scope and participation in the field, this roundtable was a high point of inspiration and encouragement to both of us, and really reflected the camaraderie and solidarity that characterized the rest of the conference!
Our last day in York brought us to the Museum Gardens just behind the Centre for Medieval Studies, where we met some friendly owls through Yorkshire’s falconry group. A proper sendoff for a wonderful visit! We will dearly remember this fantastic experience. We want to thank the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies and, of course, Fordham University’s Center for Medieval Studies for such a great opportunity to meet new friends, rub shoulders with admired scholars, and encounter exciting ideas about medieval women and medieval scholarship in general!
Thank you, Fordham, and Thank You, York!
-Elizabeth Light and David Smigen-Rothkopf