Things That Seem Incredible: Medieval Life & the CMRS

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In the spirit of school starting in little over a week, here are some free talks for the medieval/early-modern history fans out there, especially those interested in the body, food, illness, punishment, and so on. (I’ve also thrown in one lecture on early medieval Latin song with my dear M. in mind.)

These links are from the CMRS at Ohio University site. There is a much longer list here, and I originally came across these lectures through the Feast and Famine in the Middle Ages and Renaissance page.

Things That Seemed Incredible: The Starving Time at Jamestown

Kathleen Donegan, Associate Professor of English, University of California, Berkeley

From Abstract:

In the desperate winter of 1610, mass starvation reduced the settler population of colonial Jamestown from 500 to 60. This paper uses the specter of starvation at Jamestown to explore a larger and ongoing relationship between suffering and violence, hazard and horror at the site of colonial settlement. Connecting the misery of “Starving Time” to the viciousness of the first Anglo-Powhatan war, the paper will trace how, as structures of meaning crumbled in Jamestown, the colonial arena became a theater of atrocity wherein settlers did (in the words of one) “things which seame incredible.” And because the place called “Jamestown” was always also the place called “Paspahegh,” the extremities committed there left behind a harrowing history for natives and settlers alike.

Diets of the Poor in Medieval England

Christopher Dyer, Leverhulme Emeritus Professor of Regional and Local History, the University of Leicester

or stream on the site.

From Abstract:

If we can know about the food and drink consumed by the medieval poor, we can understand their role in society. In the middle ages beggars and vagrants were regarded as a race apart, a desperate underclass, leading a separate existence. If we examine the diets consumed by poor people, from the doles that they were given, the diets that prevailed in hospitals and almshouses, and the types of bread that they could obtain, we find that they suffered disadvantages, but they can be compared with mainstream society. Many of the poor were regular people who through misfortunes, circumstances or just old age were down on their luck.

Serfdom Without Strings: Amartya Sen in the Middle Ages

Paul Hyams, Professor of History, Cornell University

or stream on the site.

From Abstract:

What is poverty? What does it mean to label people as “poor”? Social scientists tend to reach for the measurable in their definitions. Equating poverty more or less with starvation, the inability to sustain life, they have often calculated the income required for this, and called it the “poverty line”. The poor are those who live below this. Critics have long pointed out the many defects of such a view, but the language is nevertheless still in frequent use. And historians have tended to follow the crowd.
One influential recent attempt to do better is the Capabilities Theory of Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen. This located the essence of poverty in the inability of some men and women to perform certain mundane acts that ought to be within the power of all. Not starvation alone but exclusion from freedom marked off the poor, a formulation that has attracted conservative applause for the liberal economist.

Freedom has, of course, a quite concrete and down-to-earth connotation to historians. Specialists in slave and serfdom societies quickly recognize that Sen’s “capabilities”—that full participation in community life from which the poor are excluded—map closely onto the disabilities of servitude. Sen’s understanding of “poverty” is virtually serfdom without the strings. Perhaps then the historian can add some perspective to the common criticism that Sen gives too little weight to power relations and the role of law in maintaining and validating poverty.

Policia and the Plaza: Utopia and Dystopia in the Colonial City

Richard L. Kagan, Johns Hopkins University

or stream on the site.

From the Introduction:

The history of the colonial Spanish American city is far from a new subject. For decades, scholars have written about its genesis and morphology of its ordered, regular grid, otherwise known as the traza al damero or traza americana. Almost equally abundant are studies highlighting the symbolism of the colonial city, with some imagining it as a replica of Augustine‘s “City of God,” others a metaphor for the orderliness of the cosmos as a whole, still others a symbol of the Spanish empire itself. Equally abundant are studies centered on the plaza, one of the defining structural elements of the colonial city. Following Michel de Certeau’s notion of a “field of operation,” along with Clifford Geertz’s notion of Bali’s “theaterstate,” scholars have likened the plaza to a place where numerous spectacles, both religious and secular, were performed. Particular attention, for example, has been paid to the auto da fe and the annual religious processions associated with Holy Week, Corpus Christi, and other important religious holidays, along with ceremonies designed to demonstrate to the grandeur and power of the Spanish monarchy, among them the elaborate “fiestas reales” orchestrated in honor of royal births, marriages, and deaths; those organized to welcome the arrival of new viceroys; and in Lima such events as the annual “jura real”( on January 5-6) in which locals gathered in the plaza to pledge loyalty to the monarchy, or the “paseo” of the viceroy and other officials around the plaza ( June 24). The importance of these spectacles is not in doubt, but the attention they have received has managed to obscure other, more mundane aspects of life in the plaza, especially the manner in which residents of a particular town routinely experienced that space. These experiences – call it the plaza as a”lived space”– constitute the subject of this presentation.

Toward a History of Distraction

Shigehisa Kuriyama, Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History, Department Chair, Harvard University
stream on the site.

From Abstract:

Why was being distracted once synonymous with being mad? And why did distraction later come to figure as a much less radical disability? Starting with close analysis of some iconic Renaissance images, my talk will spotlight the entwined histories of curiosity, death, and the power to attend.

Able Bodies: Considerations of (Dis)ability in Anglo-Saxon England

Christina Lee, Lecturer in Viking Studies, Faculty of Arts, Nottingham University


From Abstract:

The body is a useful instrument for medieval writers to charter desirable an undesirable traits. Physical features may be used as ‘signs’ so: how much can we rely on medieval writers when it comes to studying disability? Can they really tell us anything about attitudes? Also: how much do concepts connected with impairment create disabilities? Are differences made between congenital impairments and acquired illness? Some fine studies of medieval disability have been published of late, but there are still a number of questions that need consideration. In this paper I will examine how impairment compares with other ‘inabilities’, such as gender, age and status. I will look at literary texts but also at normative sources, such as laws and observations from material culture.

Mental Illness, Self-Violence, and Civil War

Julie Singer, Assistant Professor of French, Washington University in Saint Louis

From Abstract:

Around the turn of the fifteenth century it might well have seemed to many French people that the world was going quite mad. King Charles VI’s scarcely mentionable mental illness was soon mirrored at every level of social experience, from the irrational civil war through which the body politic tore itself apart, to reports of elevated suicide rates among the common people. Allusions to suicidal impulses and acts recur in an astonishing number of works composed in the first three decades of the fifteenth century: in sermons (Jean Gerson’s Vivat rex), political pamphlets (the anonymous Songe véritable), mirrors for princes (Jacques Legrand’s Livre des bonnes meurs), diaries and chronicles (by Michel Pintoin, Juvénal des Ursins, and theBourgeois de Paris), poetry and prosimetra (Alain Chartier’s Livre de l’Espérance).

In these texts, self-violence is an act marked by political implications that far exceed individual mental health concerns. Indeed, rather than constituting a symptom or manifestation of a mental disability, suicidal acts are presented in early fifteenth-century French literature and chronicle as the cause of a disability of a different sort: a direct attack on a surprisingly corporeal body politic. Exploring the intersection of the physiological and the metaphorical realms, we will see how the rhetoric of suicide brings together discourses of bodily disability and political disunity.

Featured Image: From Il Cuoco Segreto Di Papa Pio V (The Private Chef of Pope Pius V), by Bartolomeo Scappi, Venice, 1570. Medieval and Renaissance Food: Sources, Recipes, and Articles. Greg Lindahl. Web. 13 Aug. 2017.
“CMRS Lecture Series.” Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 08 Sept. 2016. Web. 13 Aug. 2017.
Citing this page:
Solomon, Alana. “Things That Seem Incredible.” Ortolana Studio. Ortolana Studio, 13 August 2017.

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