EIHS Lecture: "The 'Desire of Deeds': Sensuality, Nostalgia, and the Affective Effects of Medieval Documentation"
Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies <br> Thursday Series <br> Carol Symes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Abstract: The story of the medieval archive has been powerfully described as a movement “from memory to written record” (Clanchy 1979; 2013). And yet the inscription and preservation of texts remained closely linked to oral, embodied, affective media throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, the process of creating a document, and the document as a material object, could be far more important than what the document said. Written records therefore mattered in ways that did not necessarily depend on the technical capacity to read or write, while the medieval archive was as likely to include weapons, clothing, relics, and clods of earth as it was to contain charters. Rather than supplanting memory and sensory stimuli, then, the written artifact could be a vehicle for activating emotion and conveying information that could not be captured in the words alone. This presentation will reconsider the meanings of medieval documentation, arguing that we need to re-assess the ways that manuscript texts functioned and the kinds of evidence they can yield.
Carol Symes is the Lynn M. Martin Professorial Scholar at the University of Illinois, where she is an associate professor of history with appointments in theatre and medieval studies. Educated at Yale and Oxford, she trained for an acting career at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (in England) and continued to work professionally while earning the Ph.D at Harvard. Her research deals with the relationships among premodern performance practices and written records, asking fundamental questions about the transmission of knowledge and the development of communication technologies. Her first book, A Common Stage: Theatre and Public Life in Medieval Arras (2007), won four national awards in three different fields of study, including the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize of the American Historical Association and the John Nicholas Brown Prize from the Medieval Academy of America. Her current book project is “Bodies of Text: Acts of Writing and the Work of Documentation in Northwestern Europe, 1000-1215,” a study of the embodied, affective, and material conditions in which written records were negotiated and created. She is also the founding executive editor of The Medieval Globe, a new biannual academic journal launched in 2014 with a special double issue on the Black Death as a global pandemic; its larger mission is to explore the myriad interconnections among regions, communities, and individuals during an era central to human history.
Free and open to the public.
This lecture is part of the Thursday Series of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies. It is made possible by a generous contribution from Kenneth and Frances Aftel Eisenberg.