May 12th-15th 2016: the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies, University of Western Michigan, Kalamazoo, Michigan. The Durham and Ordered Universe contingent (Giles Gasper, Helen Foxhall Forbes, Sigbjørn Sønnesyn, Sarah Gilbert, Jon Turnock and Stephanie Britton) travelled down to Kalamazoo from Toronto on the 11th. A journey of about 9 hours (as opposed to the 16 from Boston two years ago). At the Congress we met up with Ordered Universe stalwart Kathy Bader, and many other colleagues and friends amongst the c.3500 speakers and delegates in attendance. Amongst them Dr Jay Diehl from Long Island University, who participated in the very first Ordered Universe workshop in July 2010. The Congress was lively as ever, although with the stranger than usual weather patterns, snow, sleet and rain, as well as sunshine.
The Ordered Universe session, on Thursday 12th May, featured Sigbjørn, Giles and Kathy on The Scientific Works of Robert Grosseteste. Chaired by Nicholas Everett, University of Toronto, the session examined the background to Grosseteste’s first treatise On the Liberal Arts, looked at the context of astronomical learning in twelfth-century England, and at Grosseteste and experience/experiment. All of the papers drew inspiration from the recent Ordered Universe symposia focused on the treatises On the Sphere and On the Liberal Arts – On the Generation of Sounds – Seven Liberal Arts. To present these reflections to an audience of historians of science and medicine, art-history and medieval studies was a wonderful opportunity. Questions were lively – on the relations between alchemy, astrology and astronomy; on quite what a medieval experiment was and the definition of imagination and on the significance of Grosseteste’s early interests for his later intellectual development and pastoral interests. Why Grosseteste never wrote extensively on medicine, and the context of his reference letter from Gerald of Wales were also discussed. Gerald states that Grosseteste was expert in the arts, law and medicine – how far this is a form set of accomplishments for the period, and how far a reflection of Grosseteste’s interests is worth considering.
We also showed a section of the World Machine by way of introduction to the creative dimensions of the Ordered Universe project, and the recent developments in this field.
The rest of the congress took its course, with the round of fantastically diverse subjects, the global Middle Ages represented strongly, as well as medieval literature, monastic studies amongst much else. The glory of the book fair and the equally glorious end of congress dance, an annual, and yet always unique, occasion, were not to be missed.
Congress over, the team returned to Canada and, eventually home to Norway and the UK, with another long drive for reflection of the previous week’s activities. Our resident cameraman created a small video to relay the experience of driving through Michigan. As a reward for the labours of the team, having dropped Sigbjørn off in Detroit, we made a very slight detour to Niagara Falls. Although on the chilly side, the wonder of the spectacle never dims, however many times visited. Grosseteste’s musings in Letter 1 on the house made from water, as an analogy for the power of the Creator, it being held up only as a result of the mental capacity of the architect, came to mind strongly. And on that score, given the collaborative nature of the Ordered Universe project it only seemed right to spend a moment contemplating Nikola Tesla and his first harnessing of hydro-electric power at the Falls. A fitting way to close an excellent series of events, dissemination of the project to wider academic audiences and to learn, collaboratively, from their insights.