University of Illinois
President: Donald W. Sutherland,
University of Iowa
Midwest Medieval Conference
Saturday, November 15, 1969
9:15 Registration , Main Lobby, University of Illinois Law School
Welcome. Robert W. Rogers, Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Presiding: Sidney L. Cohen, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge
Luncheon and Business Meeting.
Presiding: Lowrie J. Daly, S. J., Saint Louis University
7:00 Dinner. Viking Banquet Room, 4th Floor, Ramada Inn
Presiding: Donald W. Sutherland, University of Iowa
The Future of Medieval History
Mid-Year Update Letter
June 11, 1969
The eighth annual meeting of the Midwest Medieval History Conference [sic!] will be held at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana on Saturday, November 15, 1969. Early in the autumn the local arrangements committee, directed by Professor Bennett Hill, will write to tell you in detail about transportation facilities, places to stay, registration, and meals. In the meantime the program committee, under the chairmanship of the Rev. Professor Michael Sheehan, has arranged for the following series of talks and addresses: [see program listed above].
At last year's meeting in Cincinnati a committee was appointed, as you may remember, to study the possibility of establishing a journal for the conference. The committee, which has worked under the chairmanship of Professor James Powell of Syracuse University, will bring in its report at the business meeting. The Conference will also be called upon, as it was last year, to elect its representative to the Executive Committee of the Medieval Academy of America.
I look forward to seeing you at the conference.
Donald W. Sutherland
President, Midwest Medieval History Conference
The secretary to an organization of historians finds himself caught in a predicament. By training he and his colleagues are consumers of sources rather than producers. In our professional capacity we historians attempt to wring the last tittle of truth out of the shreds and figments of the past. But as your secretary, what sort of a document should I produce with the immense resources at my disposal as an eyewitness and participant?
My own research is bedeviled by conventional minutes that are agenda masquerading as acta. No, the future historian of our conference deserves some better memorial of our proceedings. Yet nothing is more scandalous than a secretary whose minutes tell the whole truth, as the victims of such practical jokers can testify. Certainly the office of secretary demands a measure of discretion, as indeed the title distinctly implies.
This sacred trust weighs all the more heavily upon your secretary because he suspects that historians derive their discretion from their sources, or at least medieval historians do. We may tamper with the past but who would believe that we wish to Bowdlerize it? To the contrary, we are merry gossips who would cheerfully, even dutifully, repeat whatever our sources choose to tell us of, say, the private lives of Justinian and Theodora. Like the judicious Gibbon we may, to be sure, relegate the grosser facts to the decent obscurity of a footnote left untranslated, but still we do pass it on. And what medievalist does not wish that Eleanor of Aquitaine or Ingeborg had had her Procopius?
The producer of potential sources can only conclude from these reflections that historians are poor confidants. Let us then tell the future historian of the Midwest Medieval Conference only what he need to know to answer the legitimate questions that historians are expected to answer. The rest is none of his business.
Now here I as an historian am at last on firm ground. I know how to write proper history and have a degree to prove it. Therefore the future historian cannot complain if I do his job for him in my best professional manner and so present him with the sort of account that he in turn means to pass on to his readers, in any. Let us view our recent proceedings accordingly, not at the myopic remove of a single year but rather telescopically, as they should appear after the passage of a millennium put them into a medievalist's perspective.
* * *
It is a fact well known though little understood that the herd instinct long outlived its usefulness among the human species. Even as late as the twentieth century, men seized upon any pretext to gather together in assemblies. The practice was indeed the occasion for the principal institutions that characterized the Middle Ages--ecclesia and synogoga, concilium and parliamentum, the courts of love and of law, and of course those two great emporia, the university and the fair.
The age of assemblies found its nemesis, of course, at the end of the second millennium of the common era in the emergent technology of the three tellies--telephony, telepathy, and telescopy, or "television" as it was known to the debased taste of that ignorant era. Only when the medieval institutions of assembly had ceased to operate did scholars discover the solution to the burning historiographic question of the twentieth century--When did the Middle Ages end? Subsequent generations of students have been grateful that the Era of Assemblies, otherwise known as the Middle Ages, at last elected to cease in the year 2000, which is at least memorable.
We moderns, who never leave our flashing consoles for fear of missing a conference call, must make a special effort to imagine how our ancestors hurried and scurried across town to church or to class, not to mention their almost inconceivable pilgrimages that crisscrossed the countryside in an annual pattern of conferences and congresses at which they would consume whole days or even weeks.
Perhaps we can best catch the spirit of such an occasion by recounting the course of one small conference that took place just a generation before the close of that confused era.
Conceive if you can of a large, stationary assembly known as the University of Illinois, consisting of a considerable number of more or less permanent structures where students and teachers were herded together for nine months our of the year to induce education by proximity. There were dozens of similar institutions scattered over the continent, and you will not be surprised to learn that the inmates were all too willing to escape whenever possible. They could not however escape from the Zeitgeist, for no man can transcend his time, and so the assemblyman left his university only to seek some more congenial assembly of associates.
One of these was the Midwest Medieval Conference, that annually met at one such university or another, and on November 15, 1969 its members converged on the city of Urbana, as Champaign was then known. Strange to say, the refugees were welcomed as guests by their local counterparts, Scholars Queller and Hill, upon whom fell the indescribable burden of providing them with temporary lodging and suitable entertainment. Our sources do not state how this was accomplished but evidently the results were satisfactory, since a unanimous vote of thanks is the first recorded act of the conference.
Actually, our only sources are a program of that conference and its minutes, hastily scrawled on the back of the program in a contemporary ballpoint hand. As is so often the case, one can hardly believe they describe the same occasion, so different is the peculiar perspective of each. The program, for instance, simply lists the names of five distinguished scholars together with the titles of their public lectures, while the minutes say nothing of these fascinating subjects but instead record every particular of the trivial events of a so-called "business meeting" that followed the noonday luncheon.
Had the civilized custom of videotape then been common in academic circles, I could replay for you the highlights of Paul Knoll's talk on Poland as the bulwark of Christianity, of Dean Ware's appreciation of Robert Reynolds as an Anglo-Saxonist. Even the published works of Lon Shelby and Ernst Kitzinger surely cannot convey the quality of their lectures on, respectively, medieval master masons and the mosaics of Monte Cassino. And what would not historiographers today give to know what Joseph Strayer thought was then the future of medieval history? In the absence of adequate records, these experiences are as lost to us as the accent of Socrates or the stage business of Shakespeare. All we can say with certainty of the program is that the minutes congratulate the committee responsible for the program, namely Michael Sheehan, Thomas Blomquist, and Boyd Hill.
By contrast, from the minutes we can describe the business meeting in gratifying detail. It began, as we have noted, with thanks to the organizers of the day's events. These were conveyed by the presiding officer, Donald Sutherland, after which followed the secretarial ceremony whereby the minutes were read and approved.
The protocol that governed such occasions dictated that the next order of business should be the reports of the organization's representative and committee. There appears to have been but one of each, an unusual economy for the age. The first report is perhaps already known to you, as it has become the classic paradox in the theory of representative government. The Midwest Medieval Conference was at that time a sovereign body, and had accordingly entered into diplomatic relations with similar bodies, though for what purpose it is hard to tell. At any rate their representative, one Karl Morrison, had some two weeks earlier assembled in Toronto with the agents of other medieval and renaissance societies for what can only be described as a halloween party. Now the representative was expected to report back to his constituency, but in his place there appeared at Urbana a certain John Leyerle, the chairman of the Toronto meeting.
As a problem in institutional metaphysics, the situation was, to say the least, curious. The head of a federation of representatives in turn represents the representative to his own constituency. The implications are fascinating. Could the head represent all the representatives? If so, could he hold a conference by himself? That idea, now the foundation of our modern metaphysical system of representative government by a committee of one, still lay implicit in the untidy medieval representative system, based as it was on the physical assembly of many persons in the conference room. Perhaps the original recipients of the Leyerle Report were too enchanted with its substance to perceive the more subtle implications of the situation, for it opened new vistas of concerted interconference activities. Aside from future assemblies of representatives, the association was planning a series of summer conferences, to be known as Institutes of Medieval Studies, in which every medievalist could represent himself. The first was to be held at Harvard and the next at Boulder, Colorado, the following summer.
That was about all there was to the report of the representative's representative. Its companion piece, the report of the publication committee, affords an instructive contrast by its considerable content and formal simplicity. James Powell began on a note of nostalgia, observing that the conference had come a long way in the past ten years, inasmuch as it had its inception in his basement office some two blocks away and now had risen to the splendor of a paneled banquet hall.
The report of his committee was no less sanguine. All things, it seems, had come to him who waited. The periodical gap that the conference had contemplated for some years past had now been filled by the resuscitation of Mediaevalia et Humanistica and by the renovation of the Mediaeval Academy Newsletter. The conference was exhorted to support both, whereupon samples and subscription forms were circulated but not read into the minutes.
Since neither communication elicited comment from the assembled medievalists, the chair perceived that the moment was propitious for the annual unanimous election by acclamation--a peculiar folkway of this tribe--and straightaway called forth the stalwart nominating committee, a body having the likeness of that most stable of figures, the triangle, based on John Henneman and Lon Shelby, with Richard Sullivan at the apex. Their counsel was to elevate Vsevolod Slesarev to the presidency and to retain David Herlihy and Richard Kay as, respectively, vice-president and secretary. For the councillors their choice fell on Jan Rogozinski and Bennett Hill, while the delicate mission of representative was now entrusted to Michael Sheehan, a resident of Toronto. The proposal was approved as mooted.
Now the climactic moment had arrived, when by tradition next year's host revealed himself. The epiphany manifested John Barker, who assured the anticipants of the excellencies of a university called Wisconsin, which at that particular moment had engaged Illinois, the host of the day, in yet another species of conference event, a popular form of mass assembly called football. On the promise of good weather and a riotous time, the invitation was duly acclaimed. By way of anticlimax, a pair of lost gloves was exhibited and the session dissolved in laughter.
Attendance was hurt by a heavy snowstorm on November 14. At the height of campus unrest across the country, Joseph Strayer warned the attendees that they would have difficulties in the future justifying medieval studies to undergraduates because it appeared to lack modern relevance. As a solution, he proposed using the evolution of medieval Europe as a model for assisting modern Third World countries.