Nothing quite brings people together like a lively discussion of dragons and damsels, especially if accompanied by a goblet of glögg.
Or so Fordham’s medieval scholars have found.
The Center for Medieval Studies, home of Fordham’s oldest interdisciplinary program and the host of one of the most successful medieval conferences nationwide, has spent the last four decades bringing together students and scholars from a multitude of disciplines to explore the Middle Ages, a period that spans roughly 200 to 1500 A.D.
Today the center runs one of the biggest and the best known medieval programs in the country, said Maryanne Kowaleski, Ph.D., Joseph Fitzpatrick, S.J., Distinguished Professor of History and director of the center.
“Our annual conferences show that Fordham is an active place, that it’s welcoming to scholars from different disciplinary subjects,” she said.
Since the program’s start in 1971, this welcome has crystallized as the center’s annual conference. Each year, it draws hundreds of participants and dozens of speakers from colleges and universities worldwide.
“We provide a forum in New York City to disseminate new research,” Kowaleski said. “And because our conferences have a reputation for being cutting-edge and innovative, people want to be there.”
The conference series took off in 1981 under the direction of Joseph O’Callaghan, Ph.D., professor emeritus of history and director of the center at the time. That groundbreaking conference, “The Medieval Woman: Image and Reality,” set the tone for the subsequent conferences, many of which have resulted in publications at the vanguard of medieval research.
“We choose themes that lend themselves to an interdisciplinary perspective,” Kowaleski said, “so that people in history, or literature, art history, music, philosophy, and theology can profitably exchange views.”
This year’s March 31-April 1 conference, Think Romance! Re-Conceptualizing a Medieval Genre, will mark the 32nd installment of the series, featuring scholars from as far as Norway.
Developed by Katie Little, Ph.D., associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Nicola McDonald, D.Phil., senior lecturer in the department of English and the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York, U.K., with assistance from Fordham’s Susanne Hafner, Ph.D., the conference aims to breathe new life to the topic of romance.
According to Hafner, an assistant professor of German, a romance was originally a work composed in a romance language (in most cases, French). The premier genre of the Middle Ages, romance impacted every corner of the medieval world.
Although the genre would ultimately pick up a connotation of romantic love, the medieval version started out as a story of wrangling rowdy youth.
“Because of the political situation in France and Germany [at the time], you had all of these young knights with nothing to do. They were hooligans going through the country and wreaking havoc,” Hafner said. “One explanation of where the love story part of it comes from is that love disciplines young men—because there were very strict rules about how to woo a lady.
“So these ‘love stories’ are not about love, but about making the knight a member of society with responsibilities… It’s much better to go out and slay a dragon, because it means you’re not bothering the villagers.”
As the organizers intend to demonstrate, however, romances represent more than entertaining tales of gallantry.
“Romance is the single most important genre of secular literature to emerge from the Middle Ages,” McDonald said. “It was the principal form of entertainment for medieval lay people and, as such, offers us an extraordinary insight into the workings of medieval culture and the medieval imagination.
“It is also the ancestor of the modern novel and most forms of modern popular fiction in print and on film.”
In recent decades, scholars from across academia have drawn on these stories to better understand the medieval world.
One new way of thinking about romance is as something that has moved outside of literary studies.
“We want to ask whether it was more than a genre,” Little said. “Was it a tool to think with? Did it encourage a cultural assumption, such that when people painted pictures or imagined historical events, it informed the way they thought?”
Conference highlights include plenary lectures such as “Sumptuous Songs: Musical Materialities and the Old French Romance Tradition,” presented by Emma Dillon, D.Phil., University of Pennsylvania, and “Unthinking Thought: Romance’s Wisdom,” by James Simpson, Ph.D., Harvard University.
“We’ll be covering the whole gamut,” McDonald said. “[Including] romance as a genre in which new technologies can be imagined (like wonderful flying machines), other worlds [where]kings can be killed and children resurrected. We’ll be looking at the romance readership, how the genre was performed, romance and religion, romance as armchair travel, and romance as a place to explore not just the ‘other,’ but one’s own self.
“One of [our]key aims is to create a chance to re-think not only the kind of cultural work romance does, but its place within medieval scholarship more generally,” she said.
Think Romance! is funded by the dean of the Graduate School of Arts
and Sciences, the dean of faculty, the dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill, and the dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center.