The 35th Harlaxton Medieval Symposium:
Performance, Ceremony and Display in Late Medieval Britain
Tuesday 17th – Friday 20th July 2018
Conference Report by Professor Julia Boffey with links to reports by Aurélie Blanc and Taylor Aucoin, our 2018 Dobson Scholars, followed by photos from the Symposium
In a July heatwave, where better to spend four days than in a Lincolnshire country house with inviting gardens and congenial company? The 2018 Harlaxton symposium offered us the chance to do this while considering this year’s topic of ‘performance, ceremony and display in late medieval Britain’. As organiser for 2018, I wanted a topic with interdisciplinary possibilities in keeping with the traditions of this symposium, notable since its founding in 1984 by Pamela Tudor-Craig for its spirit of wide-ranging curiosity. Some of the questions I had in mind were these: what exactly is involved in ‘performance’? what is its relationship to ceremony and display? What do we know about medieval performers, and their interactions with those who commissioned, organized, saw and heard what they did? What is the performative potential of particular spaces and places, and of material objects such as monuments and manuscripts?
We confronted these questions in a series of eight themed sessions. The first took on the notions of ‘drama’ and ‘the play’ that come to people’s minds most readily when they are invited to think about medieval performance. Pamela King, Diana Wyatt and Sarah Carpenter helped us to recalibrate our preconceptions by opening up ideas of what performance is, what it can effect, and how its meaning is constructed by particular contexts and social relationships. From this we moved to a group of papers that investigated the performative potential of delivering proclamations (Dean Rowland), teaching and being taught (Nicholas Orme), and taking part in the deliberations of the court of chivalry (Nigel Ramsay). The evening diversion offered a set of wonderfully informative posters submitted by MA and PhD students attending the conference: this was display in action, and it generated productive interchange between the ‘performers’ responsible for the posters and the audience of spectators admiring and learning from them.
Sessions the following morning turned to the performance of piety. Three papers on aspects of the liturgy, from John Harper, Lisa Colton, and Helen Gittos, took us from the liturgical rituals prescribed for the first cathedral at Salisbury to the forms of post-mortem rite specified in the will of a prosperous London woman and on to the incidence of portions of vernacular text in liturgical manuscripts. Some other contexts for the performance of faith occupied the next session, with contributions exploring liturgical performance at Barking Abbey (Elisabeth Dutton), markers of the rhetoric of prayer in copies of the Imitatio Christi (David Harrap), and the significance of visual display in the instructive and devotional programme of a manuscript copied and probably used at St Bartholomew’s Hospital (Nicole Rice). We followed up these two sessions with a practical workshop on the Easter liturgy at Barking Abbey, a revealing opportunity to translate the surviving text into practice, to become a choir of ‘nuns’, organized by Elisabeth Dutton and Aurélie Blanc, and to understand that there is no separable category of ‘liturgical drama’. Texts and performance stayed in view for the final session on Wednesday: Marlene Hennessy introduced the spectacular decorative devotional programme of BL Egerton MS 1821, and Kate Rudy outlined the forms of evidence left by individuals who variously rubbed, licked and kissed the manuscripts that passed through their hands. The day concluded with a memorable multi-media experience: a performance in St Wulfram’s Church, Grantham, of music and ceremony such as might have welcomed Margaret Tudor when she stayed in the town in July 1503 on her journey north for her marriage to James IV of Scotland. Members of the Binchois Consort, directed by Andrew Kirkman, joined choristers and choral scholars of St Wulfram’s, under the direction of Tim Williams, in a programme researched and presented by Magnus Williamson.
Sounds and spaces were the theme of the following day, which began with a talk about the combined effects of music and alabasters (Andrew Kirkman), and continued with discussion of what is displayed in the armorial glazing of Athelhampton Hall (Oliver Fearon) and in the dispositions for Margaret Beaufort’s tomb at Westminster Abbey (Matthew Payne). Clive Burgess primed us for the traditional Harlaxton afternoon coach trip with an introduction to Chichele family patronage, specifically the configuration of buildings at Higham Ferrers, which we duly and enthusiastically explored. Here we were also able to learn from Jerome Bertram about the church’s monumental brasses, before continuing to Raunds church where Ellie Pridgeon introduced its spectacular wall paintings. The opportunity to consume tea and cake in the pews beneath a depiction of the seven deadly sins was one of the symposium highlights. Undeterred by the spectre of gluttony we returned to Harlaxton for an evening banquet and the launch of the latest symposium volume, The Elite Household in England, 1100-1550, edited by Chris Woolgar.
The last day began with three papers on aspects of royal display, looking first at magnificent rolls proclaiming Edward IV’s right to the throne (Sonja Drimmer) and royal genealogies in combination with universal or national history (Jaclyn Rajsic), and next at royal display in relation to dress and ceremony in the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III (Anne Sutton). We ended with a return to the relationship between text and performance, learning from Joyce Coleman about Chaucer’s own possible youthful experience of the social dimensions of hearing works read aloud in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, and finally from Robert Edwards about John Lydgate’s adoption of a series of ‘literary counterfeits’ that enabled him to ‘perform’ courtly roles that would have been inappropriate to his monkish vocation.
As I reconstruct it here the programme sounds unfeasibly packed. Did we really manage eight sessions, a workshop, a concert, a half-day trip with more talks, a postgraduate poster evening, a book-launch, and a formal banquet? Somehow we did! And furthermore, we found energy to respond to what we heard and saw, to generate and develop questions, and to engage in the cross-disciplinary dialogue that is such an enlivening element of these occasions. The mysterious properties of Harlaxton Manor itself, and the smoothness with which its operations are managed, played a large part in making the ambiance relaxed and productive, and all thanks are due to Gerald Seaman and his staff. My personal thanks also go to the symposium Steering Committee, and especially its secretaries David Harry and Christian Steer, for their commitment and support. More than anything, I am grateful to speakers and audience alike for their willingness to engage together in the spirit of a true symposium, and for their intellectual vigour and conviviality.
Department of English
Queen Mary University of London
David Harry (@historianharry) welcoming everyone to the 2018 Harlaxton Symposium
Discussion amongst delegates during a morning coffee break in the Great Hall (Photo: Oliver Fearon)
Luke Giraudet at the Postgraduate Poster Display (Photo: Kay Lacey)
Rachael Harkes at the Postgraduate Poster Display (Photo: Kay Lacey)
Sue Powell addressing the Conference Dinner (Photo: Catherine Rendon)
Delegates at Conference Dinner (Photo: Catherine Rendon)
For more highlights from this year see our Twitter page: https://twitter.com/harlaxtonmedsym