Origins of the Conference

From Meeting Minutes of 1971.

Know that that the conference had its origin in a questionnaire circulated in 1962 by James Powell, then at the University of Illinois.  This encyclical was addressed to medieval historians in Illinois and surrounding states, and such of the respondents as appeared in December of that year at the American Historical Association's convention--they were perhaps twelve in number--held a stand-up consultation or caucus in a convenient corridor after the Mediaeval Academy banquet, and agreed that a sit-down conference in the Spring would be more congenial.  Accordingly, the first session took place at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale on Saturday, May 4, 1963, and was adorned with a constellation of papers by Richard Sullivan, Karl Morrison, James Brundage, Lowrie Daly, Arthur Hogue, and Paul Alexander.  The hospitality provided by Lon Shelby included a complaisant motel sign that proclaimed, in letters two feet high, the greeting "Welcome Medieval History."  So great was the success of this meeting that it was determined to hold another session in the fall of the same year, to make up for lost time, as it might be.  And accordingly a second conference was held at Saint Louis in October of the same year, 1963. 

From a letter by James M. Powell, Professor Emeritus, Syracuse University, to David Wagner, Professor Emeritus, Northern Illinois University, November 13, 2008.

Dear David:

Please excuse the delay. My memories of the early days of the Midwest Medieval History Conference are not that sharp but I will do what I can.

I got the idea for a meeting that would be chiefly for medieval historians shortly after I arrived in Champaign-Urbana in 1961. I had been attending the Midwest meeting of British historians for a couple of years and found it quite congenial. I was teaching at Kent State and Martin Havran introduced me to that meeting. The first year I was at Illinois, it met there at Allerton House. I decided to see what could be done for medievalists in the Midwest, since the Medieval Academy was very much an Eastern establishment at that time. Of course, I was not yet aware of the soon to be held conference at Western Michigan being organized by John Sommerfeldt. We came to be on very good terms. I wrote to various people, including Gray Boyce and the secretary of the Medieval Academy. Gray was helpful, Dr. Miller was cautious but encouraging. I spoke to Deno Geanakopolos, but my plan did not jell, however, until Lon Shelby stopped by on a visit from Southern Illinois. I put my plan to Lon and with his help, we held the first meeting at Southern Illinois. I put together the program. Among the first participants were Paul Alexander (Michigan), Dick Sullivan (Michigan State), Jim Brundage (Wisconsin, Milwaukee), Karl Morrison (Minnesota). There was a good attendance. We called the group the Midwest Medieval Conference, but the name very quickly became the Midwest Medieval History Conference. Father Lowrie Daly and several others suggested that we should meet in the fall of the same year and he offered to host the meeting at Saint Louis University. That proved to be a very good suggestion. Unfortunately, I did not preserve that program and cannot remember all the participants, but I think one was Stuart Hoyt (Minnesota), who quickly became a major promoter of the group. I believe our third meeting was held at Michigan State and it was there that we were joined by the Toronto participants, Leonard Boyle, Ambrose Raftis, and Michael Sheehan. We met in 1966 at Indiana, with Arthur Hogue as our host. We were joined at one of these early meetings by Peter Sawyer (Leeds) who was visiting at Minnesota. He and Stuart pitched the idea for the International Medieval Bibliography and Stuart was its chief promoter. It was a great idea. You might also say that Leeds was born out of the activities of the Midwest groups, ours and Kalamazoo.

You were interested in the way in which our group was received. On the whole, it was embraced by those then at the various Midwestern schools, Frank Pegues of Ohio State was quite active. Sylvia Thrupp participated in a couple of meetings. Donald Sutherland was also quite active. Unfortunately, both the Midwest Medieval History Conference and Kalamazoo were not embraced by some who felt (wrongly, I think) that they were in competition with the Medieval Academy. Some apparently felt that they should not take part lest their association would be disapproved of. Some undoubtedly felt that the open door policy pursued by John Sommerfeldt watered down the quality of Kalamazoo. I know that John was not appreciated. As for myself, I worked with Stuart Hoyt and a few others, including Giles Constable, to bring the Medieval Academy around so that it would reach out to a broader body of participants. Joe Strayer played a major role in moving it in this direction. I am sure that I have paid a price for my noise-making, but I am happy that the Midwest Medieval History Conference has remained a very positive contributor to medieval studies.

Best regards,

Jim Powell


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