Best Leeds ever just about sums up IMC just gone. If last year was all about ‘good papers, good beer and good company‘, then this year’s IMC continued that theme with better weather and an energy about the place I haven’t felt in a while (and as evidenced by the number of people who joined in the dancing). As this year marks the eleven-hundredth anniversary of the traditional date of the foundation of Normandy, there was a decided Norman theme to parts of the conference and most certainly my session attendance. Well, let’s start with Monday and see how far I get.
I spent Monday in the ‘Rhetoric and Reality in Norman Italy’ strand organised by Alex Metcalfe and Graham Loud. Unfortunately, this strand had met with the Leeds curse of late withdrawals, but it is testament to medieval studies at Leeds that two willing students were found to plug the gaps. In recent years, I have found following a strand a better way of negotiating the warren that is many parallel sessions and this was no exception.
The first session was essentially given by what the French would term a laboratoire, i.e. three people working on the same project. In this case, the people concerned were Alex Metcalfe and two of his graduate students, George Lincoln and Emily Mead, who took us through the twists and turns of the Focero rebellion (early 12thc.) in the context of settlement patterns in the Val Demone region of Sicily. The session was nicely interdisciplinary with documentary, narrative and archaeological evidence all discussed. The archaeology was particularly interesting with a consideration of the difficulties in locating the settlement and difficulties investigating it. Apparently, the site is owned by a local Mafia family, has been raided by the Carabinieri, and when the land owner realised the site was of interest, destroyed some of the surviving buildings. It goes without saying that we await detailed survey and excavation of this area.
Session two in this strand was the curse of the absent speaker. In theory, it was supposed to focus on rhetoric and historical writing, but in the event, only one of the papers was a detailed consideration of narrative histories, Markus Krumm on Alexander of Telese’s Ystoria’. Markus focused on the question ‘Why did Alexander write?’ in order to question historiographical orthodoxies that see this text as the work of a panegyrist and royalist propaganda for the court of Roger II. I’ve always been uneasy with the use of ‘propaganda’ as term applied to medieval history writing so it was good to hear someone question whether this framework of analysis is embedded more in the context of modern mass media than medieval book culture. Markus cast the Ystoria much more in a framework of negotiating relations between Alexander’s abbey of San Salvatore and King Roger, particularly a shift in support from Rainulf , count of Alife, which put reciprocity at the heart of the narrative. Unfortunately, the moderators of the Italian sessions decided to allow questions after each paper, rather than at the end of the session, which meant the audience did not have time to ruminate on this very interesting paper and discussion never really got going.
The final session in this strand did contain more discussion of narrative histories (sandwiching a charter paper), but from different angles. Paul Brown talked about chronicles as sources for the composition of Norman armies, with the ‘Norman’ aspect firmly in scare quotes. Paul comes from a classics background and I always find it fascinating to hear former classicists talk about medieval chronicle writing as they are far more attuned to some of the influences than those of us who haven’t spent many years immersing ourselves in Caesar, Lucan, Cicero etc. As with many things that fall under the umbrella of Norman southern Italy, there was a great deal of untangling of Greek vs Latin terms. The third paper, given by Joanna Drell, provided another slant on southern Italian Norman history, this time from the point of view of its reception in the north of Italy in the later middle ages. She posed the question ‘Why is Robert Guiscard in Dante’s Paradiso?’ Dante’s opinions seem to be greatly at odds with the much more ambivalent and, at times, downright unflattering, characterisation we find of Robert in the eleventh-century sources. At the heart of Dante’s portrait, written in exile, is his vision of Italy as a place of unity over particularism and competing interests: Robert thus becomes an example.
The sign of a good strand or session is that people continue to talk about it. As I left in search of food and drink, the speakers were still being asked many questions by both the audience and session organisers as they tried to pack up their things. From my point of view, still being pretty much a novice as far as southern Italian history is concerned, this strand got my Leeds off to a good start. Momentum was gathered by good beer and chat with Normannists and associated others before the rigours of a Tuesday filled with wonderful sounding Norman sessions and pre-paper jitters sent me to a relatively early bed.
To be continued…