Symposium Report by Elizabeth New
Catching sight of the architectural extravaganza that is Harlaxton Manor is a thrill for those attending the Medieval Symposium, whether it is their first or thirtieth visit, for it heralds four days of scholarly excellence, academic exchange, and collegial conviviality. The location was particularly apposite for the 2016 Symposium (the thirty-third in the series), with the theme of ‘The Great Household’, and neither environs nor content disappointed.
The papers explored topics as broad as what constitutes a ‘great household’ to highly focused case-studies, but although ranging widely and drawing on a variety of approaches from across different disciplines – a key feature of all Harlaxton Symposia – they were held together by the over-arching theme, the intellectual coherence a testament to the convenor, Chris Woolgar, who was nonetheless content to let others take centre-stage throughout the Symposium. Indeed, one of the great attractions of this particular conference is that while there are often keynote speakers – this year Chris Dyer, inaugurating proceedings with a thought-provoking paper highlighting the importance of interdisciplinarity – scholars at different stages of their careers and from different types of institutions and organisations are given equal-billing. The questions and debates following papers were lively, and the long tea and coffee breaks provided a welcome opportunity to engage in more nuanced discussions, and for conversations with friends old and new.
Collegiality is what makes Harlaxton such a special occasion for so many people, and this year the generally benign weather (after the tropical heat of the first day had passed!) encouraged delegates to stroll among the newly-restored grounds, to sit on shady benches – one dedicated to the memory of Janet Backhouse, who loved Harlaxton – and play croquet on the lawn. It was also a rare opportunity to celebrate the launch of the most recent volume in the Harlaxton series, The Plantagenet Empire, outside in the warmth of the final evening.
Before the book-launch, the Symposium trip to Gainsborough Hall, a marvellous survival of a small ‘great’ house set amid exquisite gardens with excellent tea and cake to revive the weary medievalist. Following an informative talk by David Stocker, our hosts at English Heritage ensured this was an invigorating and enjoyable trip – and an opportunity for many photographs. Back at Harlaxton Manor, guests had time to don their glad-rags (a rare and welcome opportunity to dress for an occasion in these informal times) before being treated to a medieval-themed feast expertly overseen by Caroline Yeldham and Tony Sheridan, and served by the always-attentive Harlaxton staff.
The end-of-holiday feeling that for me always accompanies the final morning of the Harlaxton Symposium was soon dispelled by the continuation of the high academic standards of papers and the warmth of the atmosphere. It remained only to acknowledge the unstinting work of Christ Woolgar as convenor, David Harry, assisted by Christian Steer, as Secretaries, and the support of the Steering Committee, as well as the generous hospitality of Gerry Seaman and all those who work at the College, and to reflect upon friendships strengthened and acquaintances newly made. Until, of course, the booking opens for Harlaxton 2017!
Details on the 2017 Harlaxton Medieval Symposium will be available early 2017