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Twenty Minutes

After completing twenty years of service as secretary-treasurer of the Midwest Medieval Conference in 1985, Skip Kay produced a bound collection of the minutes of all of the meetings, from 1963 until 1984.  For most societies the minutes would be of only historical interest.  However in this case, they are also to be valued for their sharp wit and innovative style.

Each of the minutes included in this volume have been entered into the web archives for their appropriate years.  Here is reproduced the Foreword and Preface, both written in 1985.

For those interested in owning their own copy, Skip Kay informs me that he still has some to sell.  [TFM]


The following texts are records of a professional association; they also have a place in the literature of friendship.  The Midwest Medieval Conference was begun for practical reasons.  Even when they were not the solitary practitioners of medieval studies in their colleges and universities, the initiators found, given their fewness, a narrow range of intellectual kinship at home.  For various reasons, most of them were unable to plunge regularly into the give-and-take at meeting of national organizations. They sought to soften the loneliness of research by professional companionship, and to enhance the merits of their work by casting it into the finely grinding mills of collegial discourse.  In the meetings of the conference, they produced a critical fellowship.  It is at least possible that the children in the scholars were seeking an Aladdin's cave, where, together in the pursuit to which they had dedicated their lives, they could go on finding unimagined, sparkling treasures.  The following records of twenty years' effort witness to those early hopes and their fulfillment with such words as vision, rigor, perplexity, and delight.

The same author prepared these records over the space of a generation, but the salient fact is that the members of the association insisted on his keeping and shaping their collective memory.  After a time, the secretary hit upon the device of assuming different persona each year.  The events of the previous year reappeared, changed by this masquerade into a wholly unexpected form, to be re-experienced with surprise, trepidation, and glee.  The annual reading of the minutes became a means for bonding the fellowship.  The pursuit of wisdom, like that of holiness, is never far from play; in play, many parts become one harmony.  These were old, unspoken messages within the prankish texts.  And, as he read, the secretary smiled, "not a modern smile, but one that must have gone out of general use many, many centuries ago" (1) -- one of discernment and cryptic grace.

Over their long course, the minutes record the bittersweet paradox in the closeness and parting of friends.  Now the commedia of these minutes too is over; but, at the end, the giver of the masque poetically reversed life, gathering and reviving in this book the scattered leaves that were ourselves.  It may be for him, or for the association, at this valediction, that the oracular ghost in the machine tried to render the word at the top of this page, "forward."

Karl F. Morrison

(1) Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (San Francisco: Chandler, 1963), p. 18.


In October 1985 I shall have completed my twentieth term as secretary of the Midwest Medieval Conference.  Although various presidents have described the office of secretary as "continuing," "permanent," and even "hereditary," I have been inspired by the example of Diocletian, who, like the good solider he was, insisted on retiring after he had served his twenty-year hitch as emperor.  Having so resolved, it has seemed fitting that I render my decision irrevocable by publishing my collected minutes in this little book, in which for the sake of completeness I have also included those read by my predecessor in 1964 and by my replacement in 1975.

My natural modesty, professional humility, and domestic economy all argued against this venture, but they were overborne by that oldest and strongest of reasons for private publication: the encouragement of my friends, who have for some years been urging me to give these annual whimsies some more permanent form in which they could be savored at leisure.  The attraction of such appeals was all the stronger because I cannot say as much for any of my other publications, which have appeared uninvited, not to say unwanted, and for the most part seem to be unread.

To be sure, those who will enjoy the present collection are a small group, for minutes by their very nature are occasional pieces, and the present ones are chiefly enlivened by topical references and simple inside jokes.  Nonetheless, for those of us who have shared these facetiae over the years, they possess the power of a souvenir, which, however faded, can evoke pleasant memories, if not downright nostalgia.

As historians we are naturally aware of the potential uses of any surviving scrap of written evidence, and thus we can smile (or shudder) at the ways in which some future colleague may view our institution as seen in this trivial collection of ephemera.  Therefore, given the possibility that someone may take this book seriously as an historical document of sorts, let me make the editorial principles of this compilation plain.  Aside from minor stylistic changes, these minutes are reproduced as they were read and approved.  A few explanatory remarks have occasionally been interjected in editorial [square brackets]; moreover, to save space, I have generally omitted the closing formula, "respectfully yours," together with my secretarial signature, but have retained it several times for emphasis and twice when the reports were made over other signatures.

To any future historian who is puzzled by the levity of these proceedings, I should explain that they were inspired by the famous annual reports submitted to the Mediaeval Academy of America by its delegate to the ACLS, B. J. Whiting.  Though without hope of rivaling his wit, I thought that a few touches of humor not only would relieve the tedium of the business meeting but also would impart a distinctive and desirable character to our gatherings.  My feeble first efforts were encouraged by calls for "less matter, more wit," and I obliged with progressively more ambitious attempts.  Rhetorically speaking, the challenge was that of variation, since one business meeting is very much like another, so to avoid repeating the same jests from year to year I eventually hit upon the device of casting each set of minutes in a different literary form that would be familiar to medievalists.  Beyond this, my only principle has been that no one present should be offended, and if I have nonetheless given offense, I beg forgiveness because such never was my intention.  A corollary principle, however, has been that "les absents ont toujours tort," in accordance with which I have made CARA and similar worthy organizations the butt of innumerable gibes, but I trust I have done so in the same playful spirit that Whiting made fun of the venerable ACLS.

Quid plura?  Needless to add, I am wholly responsible for the opinions and other nonsense in these minutes.  I have no one to thank unless it be my annual audiences for their genial reception of these reports; I am also grateful to my department, which has unwittingly made these minutes possible by providing transportation to the meetings, and which has now greatly simplified the production of this book by supplying the services of a word processor, whose operator, Pam LeRow must be especially thanked for her attentive efficiency.

Richard Kay
Department of History
University of Kansas
Lawrence, KS  66045

September 14, 1985

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