Brain food for writers

by Jennifer Stevenson

One of the goofy things I have done to fill the creative well is attend the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress.  This is a week-long event that takes place at Western  Michigan University during the first week in May, when the daffodils are in bloom and the swans are nesting.  Scholars from all over the world attend and speak.  There are forty sessions, an average of three papers per session, every ninety minutes, for five days.  Some three thousand medievalists attend.  That’s a whole lotta cool stuff.

It’s also amazingly inexpensive.  For under $500 you get food and lodging for five nights and admission to the Congress, including special events, banquets, wine parties, concerts, the whole megilleh.

Anecdote.  I was serving as secretary-treasurer for the Societas Magica, an academic group founded for the study of the scholarly history of magic, and had driven over from the Chicago area on zero sleep.  I had forty minutes to kill before our business meeting.  I needed a nap.  I chose to sneak late into a session where the lights were out; they were showing slides; hey, I could put my head down on a table in back and nobody would notice.

Hah.  The session was about giant medieval wooden machines.  The presenter of the moment was showing slides of a 500-year-old mill, pointing out how they used elm for the shafts, alder for the cogs, etc. etc.  In French.  Now, I do not read or speak French, but I couldn’t sleep through this.  It was too interesting.  By the end of forty minutes my brain hurt, trying to hack the language, but it was a good hurt.

There are drawbacks.  The food is dorm food, almost comically terrible.  The dorms are like white collar prisons—better bring an extra light bulb or two, and your own blankets, pillows, and towels.  WMU is a classic Midwestern college campus, set among hills with creeks at the bottom and heavily wooded, but that means it’s also excruciatingly hilly for the non-athletic, and your 8:30am session may be on one side of the great divide and your 10am session on the other.  Jogging shoes.

But the biggest drawback is that there is just so darned much to do.  In between the boggling chunks of paper presentations, you can attend meetings of societies who study Richard the Third, or Cistercian Monks, or gay and lesbian matters of the medieval era, or music, art, metalworking, shipbuilding.  There are wine parties, hoo boy, look out for those bibulous medievalists!  There are concerts and performances.  Once I saw a Fresian stallion, supposedly descended from the great black medieval war horses, all dressed up in bright-colored finery, demonstrating war-horse moves.  I saw a small hand-made replica of an oceangoing Norse boat launched on the swan pond.  I ate medieval-style food at a banquet.  I went to concerts played on authentic instruments. And at every single meal for five days, I sat with fascinating strangers and learned stuff.

And I bought books.  Danger, Will Robinson.  Leave your credit card at home.  The book room is a menace.  It’s most dangerous on the last day of the Congress, because that’s the day the university presses are trying to unload their stock for cheap so they won’t have to ship it home.  Awesome antique book dealers, too.

A final goody is that once you’ve attended the Congress, you get on their mailing list and, forever afterward, every year before the Congress, they send you this thick schedule book of all the papers that will be presented.  Seriously droolworthy.  Click here to be terribly, terribly tempted.

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Brain food for writers — 5 Comments

  1. Oh yay! I’m giving a paper there this year – mainly because I heard it’s fun and wanted an excuse to attend – and I knew it was cool, but now it sounds SO COOL! Must Peruse Program!

    • Mine as well. Figure the odds…

      True story: during my junior year at WMU, my English prof got pwned by one of the Medieval Institute’s profs thusly: prof #2 left a live Maine lobster in the sink of the men’s room (in either the staff office building or the closest one to prof 1’s classroom, not sure which), with a pink bow tied around its carapace and a tag that read “Happy Birthday!” My English prof noted, after telling the tale, that there was lively competition among some of the English dept. as to who could provide the most absurd/weird/hilarious gift for a birthday.

      Man, those were some fun years! Thanks for the memory nudge.