Just at the beginning of this month, on October 6th&7th, the University of Edinburgh hosted the conference Saints and Sinners: Literary Footprints of Mary and Margaret, Queens of Scots, organized by Claire Harrill and Lucy Hinnie. This conference was supported by the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH, University of Edinburgh), the Society for the Study of Medieval Language and Literature (MEDIUM ÆVUM), and the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages (CeSMA, University of Birmingham). Heta Aali from the University of Turku (Finland) kindly send us her conference report to share the discussions with all of you.
Have you been to an interesting conference lately? Send us your impressions!
Heta Aali: With eight speakers and two keynote lectures, by Dr Sarah Dunnigan (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Catherine Keene (Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX), the conference allowed for a productive discussion and a profound exchange of thoughts on representations created by and of the medieval queens in question. As the title of the conference indicates, the focus of the conference was on literary footprints of the two famous Queens of Scots, Mary I (died 1587) and St Margaret (died 1093). Yet, the topic was to be interpreted comprehensively, as could be seen from the wide range of approaches in the papers, and it was understood more in general as images of medieval queenship, gender, and women’s reading and writing. Noteworthy is that many papers focused on the literary representations of famous queens created by men. And moreover, as all the speakers were women, this also meant that at the conference, women explored the way men had examined famous medieval queens. This point did not escape the attention of the participants and in the final roundtable discussion the problem of gender segmentation between disciplines was brought up and the way literate studies (especially about queens) are so strongly identified as “feminine” field.
The conference started with two presentations on saintly medieval queens, and also a little bit on non-saints. My own presentation started the conference with a discussion on the representations of Merovingian queens created by early nineteenth-century French historians. Minji Lee (Rice University) continued by presenting Hildegard of Bingen’s and Birgitta of Sweden’s idea on childbirth. Mary Hardy from Aberdeen University focused in her paper on the way Queen Margaret was used by later authors to emphasise Catholic devotion in various European educational institutions whereas Amelia Heath from King’s College, London examined successfully how Margaret’s gender was presented as crossing the gender norms, or rather, as stretching the boundaries. Amy Hayes, also from the University of Aberdeen, discussed the problem of using sixteenth-century sources in studying the Middle Ages and the fifteenth century. The problem is relevant to all those studying the Middle Ages or any remote period with only few sources left and therefore the question in how far we can trust those later sources. Unfortunately, there is no clear answer since the sources are often difficult to replace even if their context of writing is known to be problematic. Allison Steenson (University of Edinburgh) presented her very interesting research project concerning the Hawthornden Manuscripts. The first keynote lecture, by Dr Dunnigan, focused on Mary, Queen of Scots, as a poet, a side of her which was very interesting though fairly seldom discussed in research. In Dr Dunnigan’s presentation, Mary was not only the object of male writing but she herself participated actively in the creation of her own image. The second keynote lecture, by Dr Keene, discussed the images and imagenary of Margaret and Virgin Mary holding and reading books, and more generally the association between women and books in the Middle Ages. The last two presentations, by Kate Ash-Irrisari (University of Manchester) and Anne Rutten (University of St Andrews) examined the Scottish queens’ later reputation and images especially during the Stuarts’ rule over Scotland, and later also England..
The conference concluded with a round table discussion with all speakers and other participants in which the general arguments and major themes of the conference were drawn together. Queenship and textuality was first brought up as a major theme since most speakers examined the textual images of the queens. Secondly, women’s writing was emphasised; either as queens who wrote or as historians writing about queens. What were these women permitted to write and what not? Thirdly, and most interestingly, it was discussed how women were remembered, who controls their representations, and the polarized opinions on politically significant women. It seems that historians, authors, and political thinkers used similar literate devices and models to either promote or derogate the queens depending on the political situation and on author’s affiliations at the time of the writing.
Female sovereignty, authority, and national identity were relevant questions in many presentations. The medieval, early modern, or nineteenth-century authors’ and historians’ opinions about female sovereignty and national identity played an important role in the creation of the representations despite the differences in time and place. What united the women discussed in the conference was that they were all somehow described as escaping the gender frame imposed by contemporary and later historians and authors. The gender frame(s) differed from one time to another, from one place to another, but the queens were often pictured as not quite fitting in. In addition, several questions were raised concerning the current academic situation of studying medieval queens. For example, the question of how disciplinary boundaries, or strict separation of disciplines, affect the research was brought up. The strict boundaries were even seen as possibly hindering the research. Research of medieval queens calls for interdisciplinary approaches that would take into consideration textual and material cultures simultaneously. According to many participants, the relevant disciplines continue to be gendered which can also affect the outcome of the research. It was agreed that one should aim to overturn the preconceptions on and juxtaposition of “soft” and “scientific” history.
The conference participants also had the chance to enjoy a short presentation of the ongoing “Dangerous Women Project“. It aims to discover the different meanings of “dangerous women” by publishing every day for one year a blog of what it means to be a dangerous woman. Each day the blog has a different author and approach to the question, thus offering a wide range of answers.