Theme: Law and (Dis)Order

The Forty-Fourth Annual Sewanee Medieval Colloquium 
April 13-14, 2018
The University of the South, Sewanee, TN

Plenary Speakers:

Brinley Rhys Memorial Lecture: Sarah Kay, New York University

Edward King Plenary Lecture: Sabine Schmidtke, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton


Registration is now open for the 2018 Sewanee Medieval Colloquium. Early registration has been extended to February 15. You are welcome to register at 


Crimes Before the Law: Sexuality, Nature, Disorder

Organizers: Will Rogers, University of Louisiana, Monroe (; Christopher Roman, Kent State University (

Authorities within and without the medieval church highlighted practices that were deemed contra naturam, that is, against nature. At the same time, same-sex attraction was considered part of Nature, and thus, consistent with natural law; thus, rhetorical and logical gymnastics had to be employed to make condemnation stick. Sodomy and other so-called deviant sexual practices constituted a growing range of practices and beliefs that were marked as both sinful and unnatural, and natural and inevitable. Indeed, in his Book of Gomorrah, the 11th century condemnation of clerical sodomy, Peter Damian is loath to think of homosexuality or deviant behavior between clerics as anything but unnatural. It is, in his words, a sin so heinous that before the Law was codified, it was considered a sin and contra naturam. He is unflinching in his declaration that sodomy appears before the Law as one of the worst sins. Yet, in other clerical poems, same-sex attraction is explored as Natural, the law of the church and the law of nature places sexuality and sexual practice in a murky space. Sodomy, same-sex attraction, and sin weave a sticky web around ethical and moral concerns regarding behavior, bios, and law. We may be inclined to dismiss medieval attitudes towards sexuality as a relic, one whose thinking about sexuality is dangerously backwards, but we would be blind to the construction of often contradictory and harmful legal attitudes toward sexuality in contemporary America. 

From bills protecting the “religious” right to deny service to laws such as HB1 in North Caroline criminalizing bathroom usage, modern crime and punishment seems to focus on sexuality as much as Damian and his Book of Gomorrah. This transtemporal thread linking the medieval and postmedieval in terms of nature, sexuality, law, and disorder, is one that we would like to see further explored. How do medieval conceptions of nature and contra naturam incorporate sexuality? How do medieval attitudes toward law and disordered sexualities continue to affect modern regimes of sexuality? How are regimes of nonnormative sexuality still subject both to law and order, even disorder?



Organizers: Lesley Kordecki, DePaul University; Carolynn Van Dyke, Lafayette College (

Do systems of gender difference develop only through human agency? In this panel we hope to explore the ways story constructs or reinforces gender through the environment—biotic, terrestrial, or lithic. For instance, what role do stallions play in the masculinity of Chaucer’s Palamon, Arcite, and Troilus? How does the sexual dimorphism of raptors connect with the gender norms of fin’amor in narratives by (for example) Chaucer and Machaut? We might also examine the way femininity is constructed by flowering or healing plants (the Romance of the RoseTristan and Isolde) or water (Beowulf; the Morte d’Arthur). Does resistance from an inorganic landscape define masculinity in quest narratives? How do the landscapes of Piers Plowman align with gender? We welcome contributors who can help us broaden the scope of the inquiry beyond the texts mentioned here, and we are open to papers connecting narratives with visual art. 

Comment: Alison Langdon, Western Kentucky University


Historicizing Consent: Bodies, Wills, Desires

Organizers: Carissa Harris, Temple University (; Fiona Somerset, University of Connecticut, Storrs

In Hereford in 1292, Isabella Plomet filed a plaint against Ralph de Worgan, her surgeon, alleging that he had drugged her with a narcotic drink and “cum ea concubuit contra voluntatem suum” [had sex with her against her will]. The jury, agreeing that Isabella had not given consent to sexual activity, imprisoned Ralph and forced him to pay monetary damages. One of the many popular poetic dialogues between Solomon and Marcolf contains the line, “A woman that woll not consent, seyth that she hath a skabbyd arse,” suggesting that women feign sexually transmitted infection as a tactic for withholding consent. And in Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale, Walter exacts political consent to his tyranny from his subjects while certain that his presumptive wife-to-be and her father will agree to marriage, but is then unable to do otherwise than publicly test the total conformity with his will that Griselda imposes upon herself for the next fourteen years. These examples from medieval literature and history point to an active, ongoing discourse surrounding consent and bodily sovereignty.

But in spite of clear evidence that medieval legislators, theologians, and poets grappled with consent and its complexities, there has been little scholarly work on medieval discourses of consent. These spanned, and often metaphorically superimposed, the intrapersonal (consent of will to reason), the interpersonal (sex, marriage, contract), and the regnal (consent of subjects to ruler). This session seeks papers from a range of disciplinary perspectives that investigate consent in medieval legal and literary texts and tease out its social, cultural, political, and ethical implications. We are especially eager to put Christian writings on consent in comparative perspective, and hope to receive submissions from scholars working on Islamic or Jewish law, or local written and unwritten law and its practice, across Europe and beyond. Papers can explore issues of sexual consent, marital consent, consent to sin, or silence as consent; they can examine impediments to consent such as age, lack of knowledge, or intoxication; or they can engage with contemporary scholarship on consent and/or explore how definitions of consent have shifted (or not) between the Middle Ages and now.

Comment: Fiona Somerset


Intersecting Identities--Feminist Approaches to Order and Disorder

Organizers: The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (Suzanne Edwards, Lehigh University (, Nicole Nolan Sidhu, East Carolina University (

This sub-theme invites papers that consider how systems of order and disorder in medieval culture—legal, religious, political—frame categories like race, gender, sexuality, and class in relation to each other.

In contemporary feminist theory, the relationship between disciplinary categories and identity has been critical to intersectionality. For instance, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s foundational 1989 essay argues that the law as well as feminist and antiracist efforts to reform it foreground certain identity categories only to obscure others. More recently, Jasbir Puar has explored the value of queer assemblages, which resist reproducing “the disciplinary subject and its identitarian interpellation,” for thinking through possibilities that lie beyond dominant structures. Categories of order and disorder, in intersectional feminist thought and queer of color critique, both shape (dis)identification and open up new ways of thinking about subjectivity and relationality.

In medieval law, literature, art, religion, and politics, categories of identification inflect one another. For instance, medieval rape laws shape femininity in aristocratic terms, while pastourelles eschew the law to envision gender in relation to women's work; Margery Kempe’s sympathetic descriptions of Muslim men underscore her fellow Christian pilgrims’ cruel responses to her unconventional behavior; in the “Killing of the Children” pageants, representations of Herod as Muslim create a heroic space for the unruly mothers’ departure from gender norms.

This subtheme asks how systems of order and disorder in the Middle Ages shape multivalent accounts of identity and difference in literature, historical documents and artifacts, art, and religious practice. How do overlaps among disciplinary systems in medieval culture stabilize identities, and how does it suggest fluid possibilities for subjectivity and relationality? How can attending to disciplinary systems and their construction of (dis)order help advance an intersectional feminist account of the Middle Ages?

Comment: Glenn Burger, Queens College, City University of New York


Law and (Dis)Order in Piers Plowman

Organizer: The International Piers Plowman Society (Michael Johnston, Purdue University (; Noelle Phillips, Douglas College)

This panel invites papers exploring the theme of law—in all its complex manifestations—within William Langland’s Piers Plowman, as well as other poems of the Piers Plowman tradition. Questions which our panelists might address include, but are not limited to: Do civil and/or canon law play a positive role in the poem? What is the relationship between civil and canon law in the poem’s imaginary? What is the function of policing within the poem? What is the relationship between law and morality in the poem? Who is surveilled and who is not, and what does this reveal about the poem’s commitments? What do Langland’s revisions—in response to the events of 1381—tell us about the role of law and order in the poem’s ideology? How did poems of the Piers Plowman tradition re-shape Langland’s vision of the law? Panelists might address such questions from any number of perspectives, and we encourage submissions from those with expertise in canon or civil law, as well as those with expertise in Langland’s poem.

Comment: Andrew Galloway, Cornell University


Laws of Performance

Organizer: Jeffery Stoyanoff, Spring Hill College (

Christina Fitzgerald commented at the panel on medieval drama at last year’s colloquium that a potential problem with medieval drama is that we isolate the genre rather than open its borders. Fitzgerald’s comment suggests to me that scholars of medieval drama are often equally responsible for the genre’s marginalization. Rather than query texts not normally considered “drama” or “dramatic” using the same lines of inquiry from scholarship on medieval drama, it seems that such scholars are guilty of attempting to separate medieval dramatic texts from contemporary texts in other genres that may engage the same issues in similar dramatic fashion. This sub-theme aims, in keeping with the 44th colloquium’s theme, to question the laws of performance in medieval texts. In other words, this sub-theme will engage questions such as what qualifies as performance in medieval texts? And how and why might other genres use elements of performance even if they are not dramatic per se? Additionally, in examining what one might call the laws of performance in medieval literature, this sub-theme will address the texts that exist outside of the law, challenging our generic definitions and the entrenched categories of literary study. In so doing, we will come to a better understanding of medieval performances, their relationship to each other, and what laws they follow, challenge, and/or potentially remake.

Comment: Theresa Coletti, University of Maryland


Literary Form

Organizer: David Coley, Simon Fraser University (

Literary form, as Eleanor Johnson has recently reminded us, carries both an ethical and an affective charge: in many medieval works, she writes, “the mixed form of prose and meter is inextricable from the attempt either to provide ethical learning or to theorize how and whether it might be possible to do so at all in literary writing.” Johnson writes specifically here about the prosimetrum, the formal combination of prose and verse; however, her insight that form is inseparable from ethics and from theory more broadly offers an important insight into the work literature was understood to perform in the Middle Ages. What, for example, are the ethical implications of form in a poem like the fourteenth-century Pearl? Do its stringent patterns of concatenation, repetition, rhyme, and alliteration underscore the unforgiving celestial order celebrated by the Pearl-Maiden, or do the subtle imperfections in that form seek to undermine (or perhaps to humanize) that celestial order? Pushing back into earlier centuries, how do we understand the formal and historical deviations that define the narrative of Beowulf or the linguistic and formal pressures that Old English and Anglo-Latin riddles placed upon both their writers and their readers / auditors? How did poetic forms shift and re-form in the face of cross-cultural and linguistic contact, and how did such fertile contacts (and conflicts) give way to new forms and new literary structures?

Such questions ask us to consider form itself as a kind of literary order—a necessarily unstable set of laws (constraints, rules, shapes, paradigms) brought to bear upon a written text. This panel invites papers that consider literary form as broadly conceived and its relation to both order and disorder, papers that investigate the ethical, theoretical, cultural, and literary stakes of adhering to, and of deviating from, the “laws” of literary form. We are interested in a panel that reflects the linguistic and cultural diversity of the medieval period, and we so encourage papers dealing with form in the many languages and literary traditions of a global Middle Ages, as well as in English and European literature.

Comment: Arthur Bahr, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 


The Order of Devotion

Organizers: Jessica Barr; University of Massachusetts, Amherst (; Barbara Zimbalist, University of Texas, El Paso (

This panel seeks to interrogate the concept of order in the practice, pursuit, and ideology of devotion. Focusing particularly on devotional literature, we ask: how does devotional reading order itself, or respond to ordered ideologies of devotional practice? Do the material manifestations of texts reflect, instantiate, or respond to such ordering? How do different genres of devotional text formulate ordered practice through material, rhetorical, regular--or other--means and parameters?

Comment: Nancy Bradley Warren, Texas A&M University


The Outlaw: Outlaw Rhetorics/Outlaw Acts

Organizer (Outlaw Rhetorics): Lydia Yaitsky Kertz, Columbia University (

Organizers (Outlaw Acts): Jeremy DeAngelo, Carleton College (; Valerie Johnson, University of Montevallo (

The outlaw is banished from society for real or alleged crimes, and in literature becomes an expression of resistance, whether to law, order (or disorder) of any type, culture, or periodization. This sub-theme encourages papers that take up the concept and of the outlaw or outlawry more generally. We particularly encourage papers that address the political status of the greenwood – the space offering safe harbor to the displaced, the ostracized, and the dispossessed – or well known outlaws (fictional or historical) including Robin Hood, Hereward the Wake, Eustace the Monk, and Fouke Fitz Waryn. Additionally, we also seek papers that treat these figures or the concept of outlawry in new and innovative directions, and encourage creative interpretation of the outlaw as rogue or deviant, with a particular emphasis on thinking, action, cultural exchange, and material ecologies.

We seek to place papers in two tracks, Outlaw Rhetorics and Outlaw Acts. To this end, we propose a series of questions: Is there such a thing as a good outlaw? To what extent are the deeds of criminals to be commended? How does outlaw rhetoric comment upon the justice system and its representatives? How might tales of resistance be used to normalize tyrannical actions? Is there such a thing as outlaw space? Can the material or environmental even be outlaw, or is such roguery limited to the human or animal? 

Comment: Jennifer Jahner, California Institute of Technology (Outlaw Rhetorics); Alexander Kaufman, University of Auburn, Montgomery (Outlaw Acts)


Service Literature and Social (Dis)Order

Organizers: Heather Blatt, Florida International University (; Carissa Harris, Temple University (

Medieval literary and legal texts dramatize anxieties over household and communal (dis)order resulting from the boom in service professions in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A young singlewoman details her litany of household chores in the first several stanzas of the pregnancy lament Al this day ic han soght; didactic lyrics like John Lydgate’s A tretise for lavandres (Yee maistresses myne and clenly chamberys) provide instructions for how to “serve well”; clerk-and-serving-maid ballads like Be pes, ye make me spille my ale and John Skelton’s Manerly Margery Mylke and Ale vividly depict the threat of sexual violence to women working in service professions; Kit the Tapster from the Tale of Beryn’s Canterbury Interlude turns the tables on the hapless Pardoner; and Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale articulates popular anxieties about apprentices’ role in urban and household disorder. These texts often feature derogatory sexual stereotypes of female servants, alehouse workers, and laundresses, while apprentices are frequently portrayed as wanton, prostitute-frequenting party boys. This panel situates itself in conversation with previous scholarly work on alehouse workers (Judith Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World 1300-1600, 1996) and working women (Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, Working Women in English Society 1300-1620, 2005) as well as scholarship on apprentices and prostitutes by Ruth Mazo Karras, Caroline Barron, and others.

We seek papers that explore literary and legal portrayals of service occupations—apprentices, laundresses, prostitutes, tapsters, alewives, servants—in the Middle Ages. Papers can explore issues of gender, sexuality, and power; links between bodies and the service work that they perform; and anxieties over hierarchy and disorder. 

Comment: Lisa H. Cooper, University of Wisconsin, Madison


For more information, contact:

Dr. Matthew W. Irvin
Director, Sewanee Medieval Colloquium

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