Dobson Scholarship Reports 2023

Each year, we award two Dobson Scholarships to PGRs and ECRs whose research interests align closely with the theme of the Symposium. Here, the Dobson Scholars for 2023, Dr Aline Douma (University of Groningen) and Lucy Turton (University of St Andrews) provide accounts of their experiences at the 2023 Harlaxton Medieval Symposium: England and France before 1500, in honour of Dr Jenny Stratford.

Attendees at the 2023 Harlaxton Medieval Symposium

Aline Douma

The Harlaxton Medieval Symposium had been on my radar since the start of my PhD – ever since my supervisor told me about this medieval conference taking place in a vast neogothic mansion – but due to the pandemic I had not yet had a chance to attend. I was therefore very grateful and honoured to be awarded the Dobson scholarship to attend this year’s symposium in honour of Dr. Jenny Stratford on the theme “England and France before 1500”: a topic that fit well with my own research on George Ashby, who served the Lancastrian royal family as Signet clerk both in England and France at the time of the short-lived dual monarchy.

The short drive from the train station to the conference venue was a special experience in itself – much more so than at other conferences. Harlaxton manor, looming in the distance, grows ever larger and more impressive; I’m sure all attendees of the symposium will remember the first time they saw the manor in its full glory. On arrival, I was warmly welcomed by Rachael Harkes (Honorary Secretary of the Symposium), who assured me that the Harlaxton delegates were all very kind and approachable, and eager to meet early career researchers – and right she was! Scheduling the poster presentations on the opening night of the conference – a new part of the programme that I would encourage the organisers to retain – also ensured that my fellow “poster people” and I quickly had an opportunity to share our research interests with all delegates.

It was a luxury not to have to choose between parallel sessions, because all papers on the programme, as diverse and wide-ranging as the topics and disciplines were, were equally interesting. It is precisely the interdisciplinary nature of the Harlaxton symposium, together with the high level of papers, which makes for such fruitful discussions during the sessions. Sometimes the papers had a very clear connection – such as Catherine Reynolds’ and Lucy Freeman Sandler’s contributions on the Bedford hours – but that was not a prerequisite for a lively debate. Indeed, the discussion following David Green’s paper on Plantagenet communities and Michael Jones’ analysis of an heraldic tabard proved the value of bringing together two seemingly unrelated topics: respondents were quick to find the connections between heraldry and ideas of power and its expression.

Because of my own research interests, particular highlights for me included Ann D. Hedeman’s analysis of French textual and visual representations of the deposition of Richard II, Nicholas Rogers’ observations on the visual depictions of Henry VI in French royal robes, and David Rundle’s investigation into Duke Humphrey’s library and the way it was used – his evocative rendition of a communal reading at the ducal dinner table was particularly striking. But I was equally fascinated by papers that were somewhat farther removed from my own specialization in Wars of the Roses literature: Jeremy Ashbee’s archaeological and architectural analysis of Richard II’s rebuilding of Portchester Castle opened my eyes to the wealth of information that the architecture of a medieval castle holds for the study of kingship; Nigel Morgan’s art-historical approach to the iconography of the Queen Mary Psalter reminded me that images might serve as tools for princely education as much as words; and Nicholas Vincent’s eloquent presentation of generational patterns of French and English royal families showed me that mathematics need not be intimating at all and can, in fact, be eye-opening for the medievalist too.

But the Harlaxton Symposium is more than the papers that are presented. It is also the conversations and discussions over coffee in the magnificent, if somewhat over-the-top Great Hall, the strolls through the garden looking out over the sun-soaked manor, and the late-night drink in the bar’s alcove with views on the setting sun over the estate. A special occasion this year was the excursion to the historical home of one of Harlaxton’s regular delegates, Dr. Anthony Gross. Anthony and his partner generously treated the delegates not only to a tour of their garden, house and art collections, but also to a sophisticated barbecue on the lawn, with musical accompaniment in the form of pop songs on English medieval history – a unique event that we will not soon forget! The cherry on top of my Harlaxton experience was winning the prize for the poster competition – though, as many noted, any of the poster presenters would have deserved it. The contributions were as wide-ranging as the papers on the programme, and engagingly presented. I look forward to seeing where their research projects take them, and I hope many of them, like myself, will find their way back to Harlaxton for future symposia.

Lucy Turton

It was such a privilege to be granted a Barrie Dobson Scholarship to attend the 2023 Harlaxton Symposium earlier this year. As well as reporting on my experience at Harlaxton in August, I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the entire Harlaxton Steering Committee and the convenors this year, Caroline Barron and Michael Michael, as well as the unfailing diligence and good humour of the Harlaxton Secretaries, Richard Asquith and Rachael Harkes. Without this scholarship I would not have been able to take part in the welcoming intellectual community that is Harlaxton and to meet and celebrate Jenny Stratford and her work. For reasons of space and simplicity, my report concentrates on just a few highlights of the conference. First, the poster presentations and ensuing discussions; second, the excursion day, which was nothing short of amazing; and third, the papers that most resonated with me and my own work. The theme at this year’s symposium, pre-1500 France and England, aligned perfectly with my own interests in the later-medieval transmission and reappropriation of French for English speakers. My PhD project involves producing a partial critical edition of Robert Mannyng’s early 14th-century Middle English pentiential poem Handlyng Synne, itself a translation and expansion of the mid-thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman poem Le Manuel dé Pechez. It was especially exciting for me to visit Lincolnshire for the first time, as the area very near to Harlaxton is precisely where Mannyng lived as a Gilbertine canon in Sempringham and and worked on Handlyng Synne and his Chronicle of England.  

The sizable cohort at Harlaxton of other PhD students and early career scholars working on such interesting and varied topics was something for which I am particularly grateful. We were made to feel welcome and valued, which, unfortunately, isn’t always the case at other long-running conferences. The Symposium created a truly supportive environment where this diversity of experience and research areas felt not just valued but also celebrated and encouraged. The structure of the poster competition worked well, especially given that many attendees were unable to attend the entire symposium, with presentations on the first evening and the prize and final look at the posters on the final night. I had a long, encouraging discussion with Anthony Gross about my work editing Handlyng Synne on this last evening of the conference, as he had missed my short presentation, and was actually well-acquainted with Mannyng’s writing. Such encounters are always a pleasant surprise! I was also grateful to Nicholas Orme for, on the second day of the conference, drawing my attention to David Crook’s work on Sempringham Priory and nearby churches in the volume from the 1999 Harlaxton proceedings. This information will no doubt prove relevant to my ongoing research contextualising Mannyng and his writing. Holding the PhD poster-makers’ presentations on the first evening and keeping our posters displayed throughout the conference allowed for these kinds of ongoing discussions and sustained the collegial and supportive atmosphere with which I was immediately met.

One of the most special parts of this year’s symposium was the trip to Winwick Manor, the birthplace of Thomas Malory. We were generously hosted by Anthony and his partner, whose extensive and eclectic collections within the manor house perhaps surpassed even the beauty of the surroundings. With the sun shining all day, we were able to take plenty of time to explore the wonderful established gardens and greenhouses, the nearby church, and the house’s own history, as well as the hundreds —if not thousands!— of varied and intriguing histories of the items collected within. A talk on some of the antique stained glass windows in their collection was a particular highlight as was, of course, the incredible Greek banquet and intriguing on-theme medieval entertainment over dinner!  

The paper given by David Rundle on the final day of the symposium, about reading practices in Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester’s library, was one of the most relevant for my own interest in material evidence of reading and audience in English manuscripts. David’s combination of quantitative study of the survival rate of Oxford codices and his analysis of the different “paralectional” annotations made by Humphrey and his household yielded a fascinating picture of owner intent and audience reception. Another example of the “performative” nature of reading David described was on display in Lucy Freedman Sandler’s thought-provoking paper on speech scrolls in the Bedford Hours as “amalgams of text and image” that dramatise Biblical direct speech. All the papers on the Bedford Hours and on the Queen Mary Psalter were highlights of the conference for me. These two manuscript case studies provided some perspectives on how to develop our understandings of famous codices in new ways, such as Catherine Reynolds’ paper on the “limits of the archaeology of the book”, which emphasised the difficulty of conducting archaeological-style analysis in manuscripts that cannot possibly be considered “undisturbed territory”. All these talks have made me think more deeply about how manuscripts merge literary and visual boundaries and multimodal reader response.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention my good fortune to spend time with Jenny and her husband during the banquet dinner in particular. As this year’s honouree, Jenny was of course in especially high demand, so I was very grateful for this opportunity to discuss her prolific career and some of our shared research interests, particularly the trials and tribulations of Anglo-Norman orthography and the connections between some English and French manuscripts across the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Her kindness, encouragement, and genuine interest in my own work really touched me, and her evocative stories about the earlier days of the British Library will stick with me for a long time!

In closing, I would like to reiterate my appreciation and gratitude for the chance to attend Harlaxton as a Dobson Scholar and for the hard work of everyone who has made the Symposium such a friendly, well-rounded, and ambitious scholarly community. I hope to attend again next year or in 2025 once I finish my doctoral thesis and have more research insights to share with the Harlaxton cohort.