Medieval Scholars Return to UC Davis Where Group Started

Middle ages posterHalf a century ago, a handful of medieval scholars at UC Davis organized a conference. The outgrowth of that meeting was the Medieval Association of the Pacific, now back at UC Davis for its annual conference and 50th anniversary.

The March 31 – April 2 conference titled “A Global Middle Ages” will bring together scholars from around the world. They’ll address topics ranging from the bubonic plague, to finding Beowulf in Chinese poetry, to sleep patterns of 1,000 years ago and how the movie “Django Unchained” is related to the Siegfried myth. This is the first time the conference has been held at its birthplace in 25 years.

The Medieval Association of the Pacific was founded with the goal of organizing West Coast medievalists and others on the Pacific Rim in a field dominated, in the U.S., by East Coast colleges and universities. In remarks during the 25th anniversary conference in 1991, Jerry Murphy, a founder of the group and UC Davis professor emeritus, noted “There had never been a meeting of more than five medievalists anywhere west of Kansas City.”

“The response was really quite astounding,” said Murphy, now 92 and still active in the field. “We expected about 40 people at the first gathering and we had 120.”

At the conference about 100 papers on topics relevant to the period of 500 to 1500 will be presented. Around 130 scholars are expected to attend including 20 UC Davis faculty and students.

Medieval studies is an inherently interdisciplinary area of study, ranging from history and literatures in many languages to art history, music and philosophy. The UC Davis Medieval and Early Modern Studies Program draws faculty from 16 departments and programs. 

The field of medieval studies has expanded greatly since the 1960s as is reflected in the conference title “A Global Middle Ages.” Once nearly solely centered on Europe, medieval studies now encompasses a much larger geographical area (although the term used for the time period can vary).

“There was an aim for the conference to emphasize the globalized nature of medieval studies,” said Claire Waters, English professor and director of the Medieval and Modern Studies Program at UC Davis. “UC Davis has a distinguished and longstanding tradition of medieval scholarship. Several of our emeritus medieval professors are internationally famous; they were here for a long time and that contributes to the tradition of the conference and its association with Davis. Those scholars also established a strong cross cultural emphasis within the program here.”

A key graduate student organizer of the conference, Cloe LeGall-Scoville, noted that the expanding and changing nature of medieval studies along with the 50th anniversary makes this year’s conference of great interest.

LeGall-Scoville herself is making it more interesting with research tied to today’s popular culture. She’ll be presenting a paper on women’s role in the Viking world, how that is portrayed in the modern media and its accuracy, inspired by the popular television program “Vikings.” Another UC Davis graduate student, Tori White, uses the “Game of Thrones” series as a jumping off point to explore violence and gender.

As for Murphy, he’s looking forward to seeing colleagues, including some from the early days of the association.

“I’m very happy to see it has survived and seems to be thriving,” he said.

Conference registration is $75 for faculty, $25 for students; day passes, $10 or $5 for students, are available in advance or at the door.

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science