MRDS Newsletter: Conference Reviews Spring 1995
Conference Reviews Spring 1995
Leeds and York, Summer, 1994
International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, 4-7 July 1994, and the York Plays '94, 10 July 1994
For 30 years now the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, has run an International Congress on Medieval Studies in early May. It has been a forum for medievalists of all ages and at all stages of their careers to meet together, where a paper by an experienced expert might be followed by one given by a research student. This arrangement demands a certain friendliness on all sides, eagerness to learn (perhaps from someone twenty years younger), and generosity on the part of established scholars. Amazingly, that has all remained at Kalamazoo, where the Congress has retained its intimate and friendly atmosphere. In the years since Lyne Muir and I first arrived at Kalamazoo in 1975among the first Brits to attend, if not the firstonly some incidentals have altered: the great increase in numbersa headache, no doubt, to the organisershas changed little for most of us, though we are aware of the new venues having to come into operation; and the replacing of scotch and bourbon in the hour before dinner, first by sherry and then by wine, has no doubt made a difference to the stretched finances of the Congress but has not changed the nature of that wonderful hour one iota.
As an international congress it has attracted delegates from all over the world: not just from western Europe, but from Asia and Australasia, too. Overseas numbers have not been large, though, despite an extraordinarily generous attitude towards such visitors, who have so far been offered free board, lodging and entry to concerts if they are giving a paper or chairing a session: North American scholars have therefore always been the great majority. Japan and Australasia are a long way from Kalamazoo, and for many European scholars early May is during term-time, when it is difficult for administrative reasons to get away.
Organising a European equivalent to the Kalamazoo Congress was the brain-child of Simon Forde, Editor of the International Medieval Bibliography and Deputy Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies at Leeds. The First Congress was on a timetable for early July, to make attendance possible for those on a later academic year than the American one. This seemed to work: there was a very good attendance, which included a gratifying number of North American scholars, and the transfer of the whole Kalamazoo idea to a different part of the world was a great success. Forde, of course, had liaised closely with the organisers at Kalamazoo, and the whole affair was carefully worked out and meticulously carried through. By my calculations there were 242 sessions, usually with three papers per session, and a variety of field trips. Readers can work out how many delegates that suggests: a thousand or so, perhaps.
Accommodation was on two adjacent sites, about the same distance apart as Valley III and the Fetzer Centre at Kalamazoo. Bodington Hall is a no-longer-new multiple residence on a large green University site beyond the Leeds Ring Road on the A660. It is big enough to house most delegates, with a large dining room and many smaller rooms of the size needed for this exercisenot just for sessions, but also for book exhibitions, and so on. Bodington's accommodation is now in need of updating, and rightly drew the kind of criticism that has been levelled at Kalamazoo's Valley buildings, which are generally no more salubrious. Still, it's cheap, and most found it not unacceptable. For those who wanted to spend more, Westwood Hall, on the city side of the Ring Road a short walk from Bodington, is a former residence now taken over as a hotel and conference centre by a commercial venture. Its centrepiece is a beautiful early-17th-century mansion, which I knew in its University days when my wife was subwarden. The transformation to hotel has retained the magnificent ceiling in the dining-room, but it all seems impersonal now; gone are the undulating first-floor boards, and I'll bet no one mentions the ghost nowadays. Worst of all, the mansion is dwarfed by the new buildings, tastefully blended with it as they are. But it is a luxurious venue, much enjoyed by those attending sessions there, and a welcome antidote to the rather spartan tattiness of Bodington (which, however, certainly concentrates the mind on the matter at hand!).
There were eight sessions on vernacular spoken drama, one entirely on Latin sung drama (a memorial to the much-lamented Clifford Flanigan), and several on related issues such as oral performance, liturgy, and dance; also papers on drama that found themselves in other sessions, and several sessions on music. Many of the obvious sponsors were at work here, such as Early Drama, Art, and Music, the University of Hull, and the Leeds Academic Committee: but there were others from Europe, such as the University of Amsterdam and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and it is to be hoped that more sponsors will come forward. Altogether, those interested in drama were not, I think, disappointed. And although I was able to attend very little, being heavily involved in the York Plays (see below), my impression was that people had greatly enjoyed the whole Congress and had thought it worthwhile.
There were 12 excursions in all, to such places as York and the many abbeys and priories that are within easy striking distance of Leeds. As members of northern University Medieval Groups know, going round these with a knowledgeable guide is a real eye-opener that should not be missed. Immediately following the Congress was a week-long International Medieval Graduate School designed to help graduate students get their work published. But it covered far more than that suggests, and must have been a highly useful week to any research student, whether bothered by that particular problem or not. This School was held at another University residence, Devonshire Hall, also just off the A660 and within easy walking distance of the Brotherton Library and the main University campus. At £135 this School must been excellent value.
Also following on from the Congress was a package put together by Rachel Semlyen in collaboration with the Congress, the Friends of York Festival and the Director of the York Plays '94: it included visits to several important sites in York, drama-related events and attendance at the Plays, which were performed on Sunday 10 July. This part of my report must be strictly factual, since I was in charge of music for this production, which was planned and directed by Jane Oakshott and presented by the Friends of York Festival as part of the York Early Music Festival. Nine plays were mounted by local groups at five stations in the city streets: most were performed on wagons, although two which were processional anyway (the entry into Jerusalem and the Way to Calvary) decided not to use one. The stations were not original ones, but the sites chosen were generally suitable in terms of size of playing-space, acoustics, and so on.
York plays had been performed in the streets of York before, most notably in productions directed by Meg Twycross in 1988 and 1992: but these were mounted by visiting academic groups, not by local people, and only four or five plays were involved on each occasion. In 1994 the plays performed were:
8 The Building of the Ark (Centre for Medieval Studies,
University of York)
9 The Flood (The Lords of Misrule)
12 The Annunciation and Visitation (Early Music Singers)
14 The Nativity (Foxwood Community Centre Players)
15 The Shepherds (Howdenshire Live Arts)
25 The Entry into Jerusalem (St Luke's Church Players)
34 The Way into Calvary (Poppleton Players)
38 The Resurrection (Arts York)
45 The Assumption of the Virgin (York Settlement Players)
Plays 14 and 15 were played in tandem, as the texts suggest. As might be expected, this was dramatically satisfying when the playing space was the right shape and size, but the space varied considerably over the five stations, and some appeared more suitable than others.
The performance as part of the York Early Music Festival gave us an excuse to do what would have been preferable anywayto choose the plays in which music played a large part. The choice of plays was ultimately the individual producers', in fact, but it will be seen that many of those chosen do indeed include several musical cues. They gave an opportunity both for casts to sing (plays 9, 15, and 25) and for local professional singers to be drafted in to perform the "set-piece" items that must have been such an important feature of medieval cycles (plays 12, 15, and 38). Play 45 presented a particular problem, with its 12 angels and the singing of composed part-music that survives in the manuscript. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries this music must have demanded the best choristers that (probably) the Minster could provide, especially if the second and more difficult settings (those copied at the end of the play) were to be performed. On this occasion, the Sunday performance ensured that no choristers were available: I had decided to perform the second set of pieces, which as far as I know had not been performed this century, and these demanded excellent singers. In the end I engaged four of the Tallis Scholars (who had given a concert the previous evening), which worked very well from a musical point of view. Incidentally, the performance proved, in my opinion, that those settings are decidedly good pieces and deserve to be heard.
On the day before the plays the Proclamation was read by the Mayor's herald, first on the steps of the Mansion House in St. Helen's Square and then at each of the stations. The first reading was made in the presence of the Lord Mayor of York (who happens to be a professional puppeteer, and was very supportive of the whole venture), and the York Waits accompanied the herald (physically and musically) throughout.
Both the Congress and the Plays were deemed more than successful enough to warrant repeat performances. Negotiations are in hand to mount plays again in the 1996 Early Music Festival. The International Congress is now an annual event, and the next will take place in Leeds, 10-13 July 1995, when it is hoped once more to offer a York-based package of medieval visits and events immediately after the Congress. Watch this space.