WMU News

Medieval Congress includes martial arts demonstration

April 22, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- For the first time in 40 years, medieval scholars who want to participate in a session of the annual International Medieval Congress held at Western Michigan University May 2-5 will have to first sign a liability waiver.

That's because they'll be wielding some potentially dangerous objects--longswords and daggers--as participants in an academic presentation and demonstration of medieval martial arts.

The presentation will occur in just one of the nearly 600 sessions offered at the 37th International Congress on Medieval Studies, the world's largest gathering of medievalists, which is held annually at WMU. Examining all aspects of the Middle Ages from monasteries and "Mort D'Arthur" to marriage and miracles, nearly 3,000 medieval scholars are expected to descend upon Kalamazoo for an event that attracts researchers, historians, art curators, monks, nuns and vendors from around the globe.

The Congress, considered "a must" for anyone who concerns themselves with the Middle Ages, is a highly academic enterprise with more than 1,700 presentations of scholarly papers. While much of what is discussed happened a millennium ago, says Dr. Paul E. Szarmach, director of WMU's Medieval Institute, the topics still have resonance in today's turbulent world.

"In the Middle Ages, the Crusades were very similar to today's conflicts in the Middle East," Szarmach says. "They are archetypal representations of the struggles going on now in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic worlds."

With sessions on Islam and the Crusades, Jewish-Christian studies, martyrdom and establishing religious authority, Congress participants will no doubt draw parallels of historic ethnic struggles with today's unrest and violence.

The congress' other modern day connections also include a look at the author of one of last year's cinematic superstars, "The Lord of the Rings." Four sessions will explore J.R.R. Tolkien's writings and cover everything from what one presenter calls "the twilight of the elves" to the links between the epic poem "Beowulf" and "The Lord of the Rings."

Despite its serious scholarly nature, the congress does promise some mirth and merry-making with an agenda that includes a play, concert, film festival, two plenary lectures and presentations that feature entertainment as well as academic enlightenment.

For example, a mead tasting will be part of a session exploring medieval food and beverages. The mead, which is a fermented beverage made with honey, water, malt and yeast, will be prepared by Dr. Stephen C. Law, a professor of humanities and philosophy at the University of Central Oklahoma and winner of "The Mazer Cup," the Oscar of mead-making awarded by the American Mead Association.

And in what is believed to be the first Congress activity ever to require a liability waiver, two sessions on historical European martial arts will give participants the chance to learn--and then practice--such skills as handling a longsword or engaging in a dagger-to-dagger battle. The first session, at 1:30 p.m. Friday, May 3, will have presentations on martial arts techniques, followed at 3:30 p.m. by a session offering hands-on demonstrations.

The congress also has several performances and events that are open to the public.

The Society for Old Music's performance of the medieval musical drama, "The Play of Daniel," will take place at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 2, at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, 247 West Lovell Street. Tickets are $15 for the public and $10 for Congress participants.

Trefoil, a trio of America's leading performers of early music, will present "Masters, Monsters and Mazes," at 8:30 p.m., Friday, May 3, at the First Baptist Church, 315 W. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $15.

A medieval film festival will feature "Robin and Marian," Wednesday, May 1; "Excalibur," Thursday, May 2; and "Ordo Virtutum," Friday, May 3. All showings begin at 8 p.m. in Kirsch Auditorium of the Fetzer Center on the WMU campus.

Those wishing to attend the play or concert can purchase tickets using check or credit card between 10:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. through Wednesday, May 1, at 100 East Walwood Hall. After May 1, tickets may be purchased at the congress' registration desk in Harrison-Stinson Hall. The film festival is free and open to the public.

Two plenary lectures also are planned. Dr. Eugene Vance, Lockwood Professor in the Humanities at the University of Washington-Seattle, will describe "Relics, Swords, and the Stories They Tell in the 'Chanson de Roland,'" Friday, May 3. Dr. John Van Engen, the Andrew V. Tackes Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, will discuss "Competing Conversations in the Generation of 1400: Townspeople, Inquisitors, Societies of the Devout and Women Writers" Saturday, May 4. Both lectures will be held at 8:30 a.m. in the East Ballroom of the Bernhard Center.

Wares offered by some 70 publishers, book dealers and artisans who specialize in the Middle Ages will be exhibited in the dining hall of the Goldsworth Valley II complex from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to noon on Sunday. Several of the vendors, like many of the scholars, have come from overseas to participate.

Registration for the congress begins at noon, Wednesday, May 1, and continues through the event. There is no registration fee for WMU faculty, staff members and students or for Kalamazoo County residents. The fee for others attending the congress is $95 for non-residents and $65 for students and family members accompanying registrants.

For more information about the congress, persons should call the Medieval Institute at (269) 387-8745. General information, schedule changes and registration information also are available on the institute's Web site at <www.wmich.edu/medieval>.

The Medieval Congress first convened in 1962 with 150 participants and was held biennially until 1970, when it became an annual event. More than 50 professional societies devoted to the study of medieval life use the congress to convene annual membership meetings. This year, these organizations include the Franciscan Institute, the Society of Medieval Feminist Scholarship, and the Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 269 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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