The fifth Congress of Medieval Latin Studies comes to York

In the medieval era, Latin was the language of power and prestige. History, law and learning, religion and culture were all recorded in Latin and investigation of these historic texts has much to offer today’s scholars.

Right: A table of measurements from a Medieval Latin text

From Aug. 1 to 6, York University and the University of Toronto will host the Fifth International Congress for Medieval Latin Studies under the aegis of the International Committee for Medieval Latin Studies. This is the first time the congress will be held outside a European venue. Over 150 scholars from 55 universities around the world will travel to York to present their research on a broad range of themes connected to the topic “Interpreting Latin Texts in the Middle Ages”.

A key force in the effort to bring the congress to Canada was York’s Michael Herren, distinguished research professor in the School of Arts and Letters, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies. Herren, a renowned scholar in Medieval Latin, teaches humanities at York and the University of Toronto. He is also the editor of The Journal of Medieval Latin, which is housed at York. Assisting Herren in organizing the congress is Sara Kun (BA ’05), a York master’s student. 

Left: Sara Kun (left) with Professor Michael Herren

“The Fifth International Congress for Medieval Latin Studies shows the importance of this research field,” said Herren. “There is a large body of Medieval Latin literature in very old editions that still remains unedited. Many of these manuscripts were created between the seventh and 15th centuries and these texts are still not accessible because they have not been translated.”

The knowledge contained within these texts offers insights into the medieval era. The majority of the texts chronicle some aspect of the history, legal system, social history or medical and scientific discoveries of the day. “Many of the texts have survived because they were laid down on parchment, which I call the ‘Teflon’ of the medieval era,” said Herren. Most of the existing manuscripts were made in the scriptoria of monasteries by members of the clergy. Many of the texts feature elaborate decoration of the text with drawings known as illumination. Many texts have survived the ravages of time because of the amazing capacity of parchment to resist deterioration.

Right: A detailed medieval illumination (illustration) from the Medieval Latin text Innocent III, Register 5, no. 102 Po. 1947 Sixth Pontifical Year

The papers presented at this year’s congress offer medieval interpretations of literary, philosophical, scientific and historical works written originally in Latin or translated into Latin. There will also be a number of presentations on the Latin Bible. “This is a true interdisciplinary conference,” said Kun. “The specialists presenting papers come from many different disciplines including religious studies, science, classical literature and the humanities. Their findings are interpreted within the context of the Middle Ages.”

Papers range from expansive themes such as exegetical methods to studies of commentaries or gloss collections, or announcements of new discoveries of manuscripts containing interpretative material. Titles include such esoteric topics as “Interpreting Moses: Anglo-Saxon Reluctance to Speak about the Patriarch” by Professor Gernot Wieland of the University of British Columbia; “Ovid’s Trojan Women” presented by Professor Ralph Hexter, Hampshire College, UK; “The Miracles of the Virgin and Medieval ‘Spin’: Gonzalo de Berceo and His Latin Sources” by Professors Patricia Timmons and Robert Boening of Texas A&M University; and “Interpreting Latin Astronomical Texts in the Middle Ages” by Professor Betsey Price of York’s Glendon College.

The main site for the congress will be York’s Keele campus. Three of the four full days of papers will be set at York, with one full day at the University of Toronto. Sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the conference is being offered free of charge to undergraduate and graduate students.

Visit the Fifth Congress for Medieval Latin Studies Web site for more information on the event and for a full program of presentations. A full list of conference sponsors is available here.

More about Michael Herren

Professor Michael Herren teaches humanities and classical studies and is a specialist in the Medieval Latin literature of the British Isles. He has written nine books, among them a two-volume critical edition of the Hisperica Famina and a translation of Aldhelm’s prose writings. He has recently published Christ in Celtic Christianity: Britain and Ireland from the Fifth to the Tenth Century (co-authored with Shirley Ann Brown). Since 1990 he has served as the editor of The Journal of Medieval Latin.

In the last several years he has been working in the field of ancient and medieval myth criticism, for which he received a Killam Fellowship in 1995 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998. In that year he was also named Distinguished Research Professor.

Herren has received numerous other distinctions including: Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow, University of Munich, 1988-1989 and 1981-1982; Senior Research Fellow (Classics), King’s College London, 1987-1988; and Atkinson College Research Fellow, York University, 1985-1986. In 2002 Herren was made an honorary member (corresponding fellow) of the Royal Irish Academy. In 2003, he received the Konrad Adenuaer Research Prize (Royal Society of Canada and Alexander-von-Humboldt-Stiftung) for outstanding research in the humanities over a lifetime. Herren also teaches in the graduate program in Medieval Studies in the University of Toronto.