Theme: Privilege and Position

The Forty-Sixth Annual Sewanee Medieval Colloquium 
April 17-18, 2020
The University of the South, Sewanee, TN

Call for Papers:

We are extending our deadline! You have until November 15, 2019 to submit abstracts!


The Sewanee Medieval Colloquium invites abstracts for papers engaging with privilege and position in global medieval cultures. Possibilities might include the histories of ecclesiastical or royal hierarchy, the production of artistic forms, analysis of international trade, the literature of class, status, or caste identity, the structures of visual or musical composition, ordering of public space, and popular medievalism, but we are open to many variations on the general theme. We also have a number of subthemes to which you can apply as well: Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature, Interested Gifts: Generosity, Power, and Privilege, Manuscript Privileges, Mysticism and Hierarchy, Peasants and Privilege, Peripheral Medieval Studies, Private Law in Theory and Practice, Privilege and Position in Pedagogies Medieval and Modern, Privilege and Position in Piers Plowman, The Privileged Afterlives of Medieval Saints, Privileging Gower, Querying Privilege in Medieval Drama Scholarship: Performance vs. Texts


Papers: Papers can touch upon any aspect of the general theme, and we encourage papers from medievalists of any discipline and any geographic area. Scholars can apply to the general call, or to specific sub-themes (posted below). We accept abstracts from anyone either with a Ph.D. or in the process of gaining a doctorate. A group of people may also submit an entire panel; please include a rationale for the panel, and CVs for all involved. All abstracts, including those for specific sub-themes, should be submitted through our website or via e-mail ( by November 15, 2019. If you are applying to a specific sub-theme, please indicate in the "theme" section of the form, or in the subject of your e-mail. Any abstract designated for a sub-theme that is not chosen by the sub-theme's organizers will still be considered in the general call. If your paper is selected, a final version of your paper, including all notes, will be due to the respondent to your panel March 18 (one month before the Colloquium). 



Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature 

Organizer: Daisy Delogu, University of Chicago (

This subtheme seeks to examine the intersection of two powerful normative structures, those governing genre and gender. Both posit the interaction of a person or work with the norms that pre-exist them, and that shape and delimit the conditions of possibility of an individual work’s creation, performance, and reception. Norms define or establish value, as well as police boundaries, thereby asserting and maintaining hierarchies of privilege.

One might (doubtless to their surprise) place in conversation Hans Robert Jauss’s assertion that no literary work is an absolute novelty that exists in an empty context (“une nouveauté absolue dans un désert d’information”, Pour une esthétique, 55) with Judith Butler’s suggestion that while gender may be understood as an “act that one performs”, it is nevertheless an act that “has been going on before one arrived on the scene” (“Performative Acts”, 528). If for Jauss the literary work possesses a kind of volition (since it “predisposes its public by means of clues, evident or hidden signals, familiar characteristics, towards a certain kind of reception”), for Butler the individual appears to be forcibly (perhaps unwittingly) enlisted into the performance of the cultural script that is gender. In both cases, gaps or ruptures can open up between a person or work and the norms that govern their/its existence. It is in these spaces, precisely, that we might perceive resistance, subversion, transgression, and creative transformation.

We invite papers that address the productive incoherencies of either gender or genre, and particularly in proposals that operate at the intersection of the sociological and the literary by exploring how non-normative gender expression might impact the “familiar characteristics” of a genre, potentially rendering it illegible or alien, and/or how destabilizing generic norms can allow for alternative gender performances.

Comment: Geri Smith, Central Florida University


Interested Gifts: Generosity, Power, and Privilege

 Organizer: Walter Wadiak, Lafayette College (

 Representations of gift-giving are often tied to identity and status in medieval texts. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a series of fraught exchanges culminates in the gentle “tappe” on his neck that gives him back his aristocratic name, dubbing him anew while reminding the poem’s audience, subtly, of the violence that undergirds aristocratic claims to power and privilege. How do such scenes reflect on the gift’s role in maintaining these claims? When medieval texts represent gift-giving, do they imagine themselves as gifts in a system of patronage or as commodities in an emerging literary marketplace (or both at once)? And what can we say about the hierarchies that emerge from medieval practices of generosity, as these get represented in texts or acted out in the world?

 Studies of medieval generosity have traditionally focused on the idea of the gift as a form of “necessary generosity” (Georges Duby) that had both an important economic function and a social one, helping to affirm bonds among and between social groups: dependent and protector, bride and family, rich and poor, even living and dead. Without denying that such “gift-work” could be constructive and positive, this panel aims to consider the darker, often coercive side of medieval gift exchange by drawing on work in medieval gift studies over the past couple of decades by Andrew Cowell, D. Vance Smith, Britton Harwood, and Peter Baker, to name a few. “Interested gifts” invites participants to explore this aggressive side of medieval generosity, both in its medieval context and in relation to modern forms of economic coercion, “reputation laundering,” and other cultural practices that contribute to and help maintain a social order characterized by stark inequalities.

Comment: Elizabeth Allen, UC-Irvine


Manuscript Privileges

Organizer: Medieval Colloquium Committee (

This sub-theme seeks papers dealing with the vast differences in those “privileges” of manuscripts that are due to their decoration, provenance, repository, contents, producers, or country of origin. There are certain familiar structures in place when dealing with “deluxe” or blockbuster manuscripts, involving scholarly reception and popular imagination; these are the manuscripts that dominate Art History surveys – and even social media accounts. However, most surviving medieval manuscripts are not the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Blue Qur’an or the Great Mongol Shahnama. How does a scholar reckon with a manuscript with a long history of privilege, and what does one seek in manuscripts lacking that privilege? We seek paper proposals that will address questions of value and the assumptions that we make about their status. Papers might consider questions of access, preservation, use and circulation, patronage, and broader explorations of what it means to work on manuscripts with a privileged or unprivileged status.

 Comment: Sonja Drimmer, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Mysticism and Hierarchy 

Organizer: Rebecca Makas, Villanova University (

The relationship between mysticism, privilege, and power defies easy characterization. While mystics were often marginal figures, forced to defend their position against the orthodox authority, many others enjoyed positions of theological, political, and pastoral authority. Myriad factors contribute to the “acceptability” of mystical practices, including religion, gender, region, and status prior to espousing mysticism. However, marginalization and authority are often fluid, as seen in the cases of Teresa de Jesús and John of the Cross, who saw persecution in their lifetimes but later became canonical figures as Doctors of the Catholic Church. Conversely, in the case of Islam, following Wahhabi and modernist critiques of Sufism, some formerly-authoritative mystics could now be considered marginalized figures. 

This subtheme invites papers exploring the relationship between mysticism and hierarchy, both in relation to the medieval world and the scholarly discourse on mysticism. Papers for this panel are encouraged to explore the multifaceted dimensions of privilege and power. Questions to consider include: How does a mystic’s status as a powerful or marginal figure affect their writings? How do mystics view the authority of their knowledge in relation to religious authorities or laypeople? What types of hierarchies emerge within specific mystical traditions? Panelists may also wish to consider how contemporary scholarship on mysticism contributes to claims of legitimacy and/or authority, and how questions of race and gender are framed in contemporary scholarship.

Comment: María Carri¤în, Emory University


Peasants and Privilege

Organizer: Sasha Pfau, Hendrix College (

When we think about medieval privilege from a modern perspective, peasants don’t usually spring to mind. However, privileges in the broad sense of an exemption from certain responsibilities or duties played an important role in the lives of medieval peasants. There were many such privileges available to specific peasant communities, often carefully negotiated with their lord and jealously guarded and maintained by the communities. On the other hand, the lack of privilege was the impetus for peasant revolts in the fourteenth century, which sought to make everyone equal under the King. 

This panel seeks papers that explore the relationship between peasants and privilege, both those privileges that were available to peasant communities and the peasant revolts triggered by a lack of access to privilege.


Peripheral Medieval Studies 

Organizers: Emily Houlik-Ritchey, Rice University (; Clara Pascual-Argente, Rhodes College (

Over 30 years ago, María Rosa Menocal’s The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History bemoaned the fact that the literatures of medieval Iberia, as well as much of the scholarship written about it, were consistently ignored or discounted by much of “mainstream” Medieval Studies. Her book at once surveyed this persistent neglect of the field and demonstrated the value of giving it a more privileged place in the conversation, arguing that Iberian medieval literatures played a formative role in the development of what were then seen as more “canonical” medieval literary fields and scholarly discourses. 

In the spirit of Menocal’s seminal book, this sub-theme seeks to interrogate the privileged position of certain spheres within Medieval Studies by way of drawing further attention to its understudied and peripheral areas (whether geographic, disciplinary, or methodological). We solicit papers that showcase the interpretive payoffs of drawing such peripheral or understudied areas of Medieval Studies into critical conversation with the field’s dominant literatures and scholarly discourses. How can currently understudied areas help to reorient our understanding of Medieval Studies as a whole? What are the challenges of doing such work (and of encouraging others to do it), and how might we surmount them? How ought we to decide, as medievalists, what areas and approaches to privilege in our own research and teaching? We welcome paper submissions on this theme that focus on any period or discipline of Medieval Studies, especially work that thinks across disciplines and/or languages.

Comment: Simone Pinet, Cornell University


Private Law in Theory and Practice

Organizer: Sasha Pfau, Hendrix College (

The term privilege (“private law”) is rooted in the idea that the law does not apply equally to all. Privileges could be granted to individuals or groups and allowed exemption from a wide range of duties, responsibilities, and laws. Despite the claim in King Alfred’s ninth-century law code that one should “Doom very evenly! Do not doom one doom to the rich; another to the poor! Nor doom one doom to your friend; another to your foe!” such equality under the law was rare in medieval legal theory and practice. In fact, some scholars have argued that medieval legal systems were intentionally haphazard in the application of capital punishment to increase the power of the spectacle when it was enacted. 

This panel seeks papers that explore the theme of private law across the Middle Ages, both as it was expressed in normative texts like law codes and as it played out in legal cases.


Privilege and Position in Pedagogies Medieval and Modern 

Organizers: Jacob Coen and Emily McLemore, University of Notre Dame (

As issues of racism, sexism, and classism have grown increasingly visible in our field, new questions have emerged about the promises and pitfalls of medievalist pedagogies at American universities. What are the consequences of a dependence upon a canon of texts and arguments largely characterized as white, male, and heteronormative? How can educators bring forth new or underutilized materials in order to decenter this authorial identity in ways that are engaging and intelligible to students? What lessons might medievalists learn from the medieval classroom and its own identity-coded baggage? 

This thread encourages work that interrogates the intersections of pedagogy and power – specifically, how both medieval pedagogy and modern methods in Medieval Studies privilege certain groups and, in effect, marginalize and ostracize others. Not entirely foreign to the Academy today, the medieval student was predominantly male, associated with a higher class, and, by way of canonization, is most often represented as white, heterosexual, Christian, and Western European. Despite their privilege, however, male students were not precluded from abuse in conjunction with their learning in medieval classrooms. And one need only to consider Abelard and Heloise to recognize how male scholars might abuse their positions of power when it came to relationships with female students.  

Papers might engage with topics such as the composition of medieval classrooms, especially concerning gender, class, and race; medieval or medievalist pedagogical techniques; and forms of teacher-student abuse in the Middle Ages and today. In an effort to contribute meaningfully to the ongoing conversation regarding the privilege of whiteness and maleness in our field, this thread seeks papers that explore practical approaches to texts and other pedagogical strategies that help move those in peripheral positions – based on gender, orientation, creed, language, ethnicity, or cultural background – to the center to nurture a more diverse, inclusive, and well-rounded classroom.

Comment: Mary Dockray-Miller, Lesley University


Privilege and Position in Piers Plowman 

Sponsored by the International Piers Plowman Society; Organizers: Michael Johnston, Purdue University (; Noelle Phillips, University of British Columbia (

“Privilege and Position,” the topic of the upcoming Medieval Colloquium at Sewanee, provides two keywords essential for understanding Piers Plowman. From the poem’s criticism of the clerical hierarchy, to its exploration of the role of the laity in the economy of salvation, to its meditations on the function of State power in relation to the Church, Langland’s poem expresses numerous anxieties about both privilege and position. To this end, we invite papers that explore the role of these keywords in the poem’s various imaginings of secular and/or ecclesiastical forms of power. Such papers might consider Piers Plowman’s relations to orthodoxy/heterodoxy, social changes, race/ethnicity, or gender. We also invite papers that take up the poem’s reception in the medieval and early modern periods and its appropriation by various political movements and actors. Examples of such ideological appropriation include the poems of the Piers Plowman tradition, the words of the 1381 rebels, sixteenth-century religious dissenters, and the medieval poets who were Langland's contemporaries.

Comment: Matthew Giancarlo, University of Kentucky


The Privileged Afterlives of Early Medieval Saints

Organizer: Arvind Thomas, University of California, Los Angeles (

This panel invites proposals for papers that explore the extent to which early medieval hagiographical narratives continued to play a privileged role in shaping and framing the hagiographies produced in any language in the high and late medieval periods. To what extent did, for instance, early medieval narratives of virgin-martyrs and virgin-spouses occupy the position of exemplary models for the hagiographical accounts of later medieval lives of holy women and men? How did later medieval hagiographers adopt and adapt long-dead or martyred saints to perform new work (cultural, economic, spiritual) at a time when martyrdom was rare? Papers can explore late medieval vernacular afterlives of holy virgins such as Cecilia, Euphrosyne, and Æthelthryth, who continued to be privileged as exemplars of saintliness long after they were physically dead. Alternatively, papers can examine the privileged positions that hagiographers such as Athanasius of Alexandria, Sulpicius Severus, and Gregory of Tours continued to hold as authorizing models for medieval hagiographical literature produced in Latin and/or in the vernacular languages. Papers can thus explore the canonical position that such early medieval lives held in their own time (as in the auto-hagiographical Confessions of Augustine) and throughout the tradition of medieval hagiography. Or, papers can take a theoretical or rhetorical approach and trace how hagiographical lives change as one moves diachronically across the early-medieval and late-medieval periods.

Comment: Catherine Sanok, University of Michigan


Privileging Gower 

Sponsored by the John Gower Society; Organizer: Brian Gastle, Western Carolina University (

Lack of archival biographical evidence establishing John Gower’s social and economic status has led to often-contradictory readings of his portrayals of personal, political, and estates power in his poetry. To give but one example: Gower’s critique of the uprising in the Vox is striking, yet his works include non-aristocratic or “common” figures who serve as moral touchstones (usually for noble characters) such as the Loathly Lady in the “Tale of Florent,” the old pilgrims in the “Trump of Death,” and his speak-truth-to-power attacks on Caesarian clergy and a wealthy, corrupt Church.

Papers are invited that address any aspect privilege and power in Gower’s works, including: whether the shaping of privilege and power is affected by linguistic difference across Gower’s trilingual oeuvre; the extent to which we can understand Gower’s own social or political privilege through his literary works and/or the documentary evidence surrounding his life; the extent to which Gower can be said to undermine or reinforce his characters’ privileges and positions; the role given in his works to gender and sexuality in the construction of privilege and power, especially in his tales of rape, incest, murder;  and the current position of Gower in the academy, especially given his historically subordinate position to Chaucer and others.


Querying Privilege in Medieval Drama Scholarship: Performance vs. Texts 

Organizers: Theresa M. Coletti, University of Maryland (; Jeffery G. Stoyanoff, Spring Hill College (

This panel seeks papers that engage the gap between performance and text in medieval drama scholarship: What are the impulses to privilege text or performance? What is at stake in privileging one over the other? The invisible and yet omnipresent line between performance and text has been an issue in medieval drama studies from its beginnings. Extant historical records of performance, in some well-known cases, have enabled scholars to mediate the vexed gap between the verbal artefact and its historically-situated, embodied realizations. But historical approaches offer only one perspective on the issue, and recent scholarship has begun to tackle the relationship of text and performance by identifying it as a site of discovery rather than an archive. John McGavin and Greg Walker’s Imagining Spectatorship is a case in point, and it is this spirit that this panel hopes to channel. In 2019 and moving into the future, what do/should we privilege as scholars of medieval drama? Are play texts and records our only ways of knowing and, therefore, writing about these fascinating dramatic works? What, if any, is the value of speculating on historical performances themselves? Do the categories of performance and text even hold up in current scholarship? We seek papers that address these (and related) questions, proffering arguments and ideas that productively navigate relationships between performance and text seen through the conceptual lens of privilege and position. Papers addressing medieval drama beyond the traditional western framework are especially welcome.

Comment: Theresa M. Coletti, University of Maryland


For more information, contact:

Dr. Matthew W. Irvin
Director, Sewanee Medieval Colloquium

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