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ODU to Host Virtual Scholarly Conference on Medievalism

By Kevin Moberly

The 35th Annual International Conference on Medievalism will be held virtually from November 12-14 via Old Dominion University. Themed "Impossible Pastimes," the conference explores the ways that our contemporary notion of the Middle Ages is produced as a historical, political, and cultural reality in the popular imagination and mass culture through play, games, and other forms of leisure. The conference features 16 panels and approximately 48 individual presentations by scholars from a diverse range of institutions and countries, including universities in Brazil, Canada, India, Ireland, Poland, and the United Kingdom. The conference features three keynote speakers, a storyboarding workshop, and a medieval-themed sock puppet costume party.

Out of an abundance of caution due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 ISSM conference will be held entirely online, through ZOOM and similar technologies. This is the 35th year of the conference but the first fully virtual conference. Access to the conference's keynote addresses is free and open to the public.

Medievalism is not the study of what the Middle Ages was, but the study of what the period could or, alternatively, should have been---the study of the ways that the idea of a historical Middle Ages has been successively constructed and deployed by subsequent periods as a means of expressing and working through the desires and anxieties of their own times. Accordingly, medievalism is less interested in understanding the complexities of Dante's Divine Comedy, the Crusades, Beowulf, Gregorian Chant, or any number of other ostensibly authentic Medieval texts, events, or traditions than in the complex ways that these texts, events, and traditions appear either wholesale or piecemeal in the art, theatre, music, fiction, film, and, in the case of the 35th Annual ISSM conference, the games and pastimes of other cultures and eras.

Medievalism, however, is also interested in versions of the Middle Ages that have little or no historical precedent or which do not otherwise pretend to be authentic---versions of the Middle Ages that include Tolkien's Middle Earth, Margaret Atwood's A Wizard of Earthsea, N. K. Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft, to name just a few. Medievalism is, in this sense, as much concerned with the present as it is the past; it is interested in the fraught question of how the past, as a rhetorical construct, is appropriated and exploited by the present for its own needs.

The 35th Annual ISSM Conference's three keynote speakers specifically address several important aspects of this question. Helen Young, for instance, examines the way that notions of white supremacy and racial purity are perpetuated as authentic through medieval-themed video games such as Kingdom Come: Deliverance, Mordhau, and the forthcoming Assassin's Creed: Valhalla. Likewise, Dan Kline explores the question of how contemporary notions of the modern and the postmodern are mediated through the expedient of an anti- or pre-modern Middle Ages. Elizabeth Emery examines how "imagined medieval women's voices play a crucial role in addressing issues of class, race, gender, and ability" in the works of two authors working almost a century apart, Germaine de Staël and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Much of the same can be said for the conference's panels and individual presentations, which examine the diverse ways that the medievalist impulse appears in and shape a number of contemporary and historical works, including Netflix's 2018 reboot of She-Ra, video games like Guildwars 2 and Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, Robertson Davies' Opera, The Lyre of Orpheus, and in the Gothic works of Elizabeth Cary and Flannery O'Connor. The conference's panels and presentations also explore the larger culture and political implications of medievalism in such diverse incarnations as Rodrigo Roa Duterte's presidency, Arthurian Fan Fiction, Medievalist Board Games, and Manuel Conde and Gregorio Fernandez' Film, Prinsipe Teñoso. The conference also features a storyboarding workshop and several pedagogical panels and that are designed to help participants leverage the imaginative potentials of the Middle Ages in their classrooms. The conference will conclude on Saturday, Nov. 14 with a sock puppet costume party which will provide participants with a hands-on (or hands-in) opportunity to experiment with the playful potentials of medievalism.

Access to the conference's keynote addresses is free and open to the public. Registration for the conference is $15 for students, independent scholars, and part-time faculty members and $30 for full-time faculty. More information about the conference, including the complete conference schedule, biographies of individual presenters, and descriptions of the keynote address and events can be found at the conference's website, https://impossiblepastimes.org/.