The 30th Harlaxton Medieval Symposium
‘Language Networks in Medieval Britain’
16-19 July 2013
Convened by Mary Carruthers
It was with mounting excitement that I stepped aboard the train from London to Grantham to attend my very first Harlaxton Medieval Symposium! On arrival you are greeted with a vision of the sumptuous pile of bricks that is Harlaxton. Set in beautiful grounds, you instantly fall in love with the quirky charms of the manor, which also acts as the perfect backdrop for the conference to which its name is lent.
Christian Steer, and all those involved in organising the conference, made everyone feel extremely welcome, and combined with Mary Carruthers insightful programme on the theme of ‘Language Networks in Medieval Britain’, a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable few days were promised.
The programme was organised thematically and explored the different languages spoken and written in an enormously diverse array of settings in medieval Britain: in the professions, in multilingual texts and manuscripts, in images and inscriptions, as well as in music, schools, and even in the language of paradise in Middle English poetry. One of Harlaxton’s many strengths is its interdisciplinary nature, and with the theme of language, the perspectives of those working in a number of different fields greatly added to ideas of the vernacular and linguistic specialisation. Moreover, the grouping of papers together helped draw out commonalities, and extenuate differences; for example, in one session, Chris Woolgar presented a paper on the language of food and cooking, while Alex Buchanan talked about architectural vocabulary in England during the later Middle Ages, and Paul Brand spoke on the subject of courtroom language in c.1300s England. All focused on the specialist vocabulary employed by each profession, revealing the sheer variety of languages employed in different areas of the realm. Individually they were excellent papers, but by grouping them into blocks a lively discussion ensued, further developing ideas of power and expertise being associated with, and vested in specific languages.
Another paper, by Ann Payne, on ‘Canting’ or allusive heraldry further stressed the array of languages which were in use, with families playing on puns from two or three tongues, to form their heraldic arms. Certainly this idea was reinforced by Nicholas Orme’s paper on schools and language in medieval England, which admirably made the point that the language of Grammar schools was French, and that the boys would, in later medieval England, often have to learn French before they could master Latin. We were also treated to a concert by ‘Ensemble Leones’, with songs that combined German, Latin, and French – it was delightful, and not only added some much needed sound to what can so easily be the silence of medieval history, but also perfectly demonstrated the range of languages that could be employed in one medium, let alone more broadly.
This year’s Harlaxton thoroughly explored the kaleidoscopic array of languages in medieval England, providing new perspectives drawn from a range of disciplines which undermined any monolithic idea of the ‘vernacular’. Of course there was also the traditional croquet on the lawn, and a splendid dinner in the Great Hall; there were two excursions as well – one to St Wulfram’s Grantham, and the other to Marholm and Caster, where three superb talks were given by Robert Kinsey, Caroline Barron and Christian Steer. In short, it was a tremendous conference which deftly managed to be both informative and fun, efficiently run but still relaxed, and opened a window onto the linguistic diversity of medieval England – ‘the vernacular’ will never mean quite the same thing again.