Author Archives: jpsexton

CFP: The Lone Medievalist Roundtable for the 2017 ICMS (Kalamazoo): “Greater Than The Sum Of Our Arts: The Multitasking Life Of The Lone Medievalist”

For the third year running, the Lone Medievalist will be organizing a roundtable for the International Congress in Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, and the organizers, on behalf of the Lone Medievalist membership, solicit proposals offering perspectives on the theme “Greater than the Sum of our Arts: The Multitasking Life of the Lone Medievalist.”

The 2017 session is envisioned as a continuation of the conversations held at the 2015 and 2016 Congresses. A theme of the discussion during those sessions has been the sometimes overwhelming variety of teaching, administrative, scholarly, and other responsibilities shouldered by working medievalists. The scope of expertise expected of Lone Medievalists on top of these responsibilities only amplifies the problem. These pressures can make the focus necessary to advance our research agendas (or even simply to maintain intellectual currency in our field) difficult to achieve. We invite speakers who can address strategies for maintaining a meaningful focus on medieval studies alongside, or in combination with, the myriad expectations placed on us in our campus, department, and classroom lives.

For the first time, our session topic has come about as a result of suggestions made during our “business” meeting at the Conference. We’re hoping that many of those who attended will have proposals for the session. If you’d like to offer your voice on this important topic, please be in touch! You can e-mail notice of your interest and a brief explanation of your perspective to John Sexton at by September 15. Thank you, and we look forward to hearing from our fellow LMs.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Disability Studies goes to the Medieval Academy…

Disability Studies in the Middle Ages: Where Are We Now? (Part I)

[Earlier today, I took part in a roundtable-style session (which was tweeted with the hashtags #maa2016 #s13) at the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference, being held this year in Boston. My own contribution was a brief consideration of the state of medieval disability studies at the present and the likely “look” of the field going forward. Kisha and I are hoping that several of those involved are willing to put their words up on this blog as a way of continuing the conversation that started this morning.]

In the interest of making this an introduction to the comments that were offered during the panel, I’ll keep my own comments brief. I want to talk a bit about what I see as the nature of medieval disability studies as a field both in its current phase and in its broader—or, one might say, existential—identity.

Since its inception, medieval disability studies has grappled with something of an identity crisis. It is, on the one hand, searching for the rules and habits of mind by which disability was conceived, imagined, understood, and enacted in the medieval world. On the other, it seeks conversation with the larger field of disability studies, with its established politics, methodologies, and language (or, perhaps, debates about language). As we move forward with our lines of inquiry, we find ourselves caught between scientia and opinio—between the appeal to principles and the appeal to authority. I generally find myself on the scientia side of the debate. The language, perspectives, and assumptions of modern disability studies are bent toward unpacking disability as it exists in a modern context. Only by thinking through “medieval things” can we come to a greater understanding of the meaning of our subject. As Sally Crawford has recently written, “health and disease are not static and unchanging […] Medieval ideas of healthy and unhealthy […] were not necessarily, or even usually, comparable to modern approaches.”[1] While looking to modern disability studies for parallels can yield significant insights, it is a welcome development that medieval studies is developing a greater cultural specificity in our critical apparatus.

But beyond that, a remarkable sea change has begun, and I think it’s now fair to say that modern disability studies is shifting toward a welcome skepticism about the binary of “able” and “impaired” bodies that might well prove more congenial to the work already being done in medieval disability studies. Recent work by Lennard Davis, Susan Burch, Michael Rembis, and others has begun to take steps toward articulating a sense of the instability of the “able” body as a normative center for identity; those in this room might well recognize the instability, permeability, and corruptibility of the physical self as inherent in medieval thought, if not always accommodated in social practice. To repurpose Catherine Kudlick’s metaphor on the subject, medieval studies has a starring role to play in disability studies, and in the last decade or so scholars seem to have become aware that the work we do is needed onstage.[2]

One part of the move toward asserting the importance of medieval disability studies to medieval studies as a whole is the production of resource materials and other scholarly aids. Since I’m in humblingly august company [on the panel] in that regard, I’ll move along to a brief discussion of a collection that Kisha and I are editing and then make way for the others on this panel to talk about their work.

Our collection is designed for the Ashgate Research Companion series and is meant as a standalone volume that situates the questions and critical perspectives of disability studies as they pertain to medieval studies specifically. Our goal is to provide a state-of-the-field volume that will attest to the remarkable variety of work being done in the name of medieval disability studies. As others have observed, medieval objects and literature attest to the ubiquity of markers of difference in the medieval world. Whether present in the distressed, distrained, corrupted, altered, senescent, or injured body or mind, or simply omnipresent in the destabilized and fallen mortal coil, impairment was never far from the medieval experience. The contributors to the collection are producing work that will individually take up the challenge of interpreting the inscribed markers of difference in an array of texts, cultures, and periods. The aggregate work will, we hope, also serve as a sort of non-manifesto for medieval disability studies, privileging a kaleidoscope of perspectives over a deliberate uniformity of position or language.

Any articulation of the different or “othered” body or mind as a medieval subject must necessarily be informed by contemporary constructions of otherness and, for that matter, constructions of the able or the unremarkable. Those constructions are informed by a complex cultural matrix. The responses to injury and resulting impairment in contemporary law, literature, and art; the impaired body as a site for miraculous figuration or transformation; the presence of physical and mental difference in different cultural modes than exist in the modern world; the role of theosophical thought in characterizing difference; all of these and more demand a cultural specificity not offered by the current discourse in the wider field. The necessity of thinking through “medieval things” requires that elements of disparate fields of inquiry be brought into conversation—so that material culture, diachronic historical study, literary study, the depiction of difference in art or law, gender studies, race and age and religious studies all be considered in the light of disability studies and examined intersectionally. The implications of DS scholarship are far-reaching, and the goal of this work must not be simply to revisit well-trodden fields and to demonstrate to surprised colleagues that they have been “speaking disability their whole lives”; it is also to open up new and understudied perspectives and unheard voices from the past. And as I’ve already suggested, an indirect goal of the project is the value to disability studies as a whole that might come from the fruits of this work on medieval constructions of difference.



[1] Crawford, “Introduction.” Social Dimensions of Medieval Disease and Disability. Studies in Early Medicine 3. Ed. Sally Crawford and Christina Lee. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2014. 5.

[2] Kudlick, “Smallpox, Disability, and Survival in Nineteenth-Century France.” Disability Histories. Ed. Susan Burch and Michael Rembis. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014: 185.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

CFP: The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist

CFP: “The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist”

Contributions of any style and various lengths welcome!

For many medievalists who have had the good fortune to find jobs in academe, the professional reality is that we are unlikely to be surrounded by colleagues who share our areas of expertise and interest. In most cases, a department will hire only a single medieval specialist – and may be hard-pressed to convince administrations or hiring committees to approve even that one. Those lucky few who find a tenure-track position will then spend years explaining their work to colleagues, chairs, grant committees, and eventually tenure reviewers who know little about the work we do; others, in non-tenure or adjunct positions, must decide whether maintaining an interest in medieval studies is wise or even possible as the entry-level-course teaching load piles up. While the advent of digital technologies has brought us the possibility of closer contact and greater collaboration with our fellow medievalists, our resource access, scholarly profile, teaching opportunities, tenure cases, and other facets of our professional lives can be affected by our lack of numbers and by questions about the nature and value of what we do.

This collection, as the title suggests, will address the realities of professional engagement, curriculum planning, and reappointment and tenure cases as the “lone medievalist” in a department or institution. We are interested in almost any style of submission that is concerned in a meaningful and productive way with the topic of “the lone medievalist.” This will not be a collection bewailing the state of medieval studies in small institutions. Rather, we envision a collection offering camaraderie, suggestions, resolution, and advice, while simultaneously creating a snapshot of the current state of Medieval Studies as it manifests itself through the careers and daily work of medievalist academics. We intend it to be forward-thinking and revitalizing as well as helpful to those of us in these positions.

Send proposals (do not have to be too long or formal – around 100-200 words to give us a good sense of your idea) either through Facebook messaging or to the email addresses: and We are looking for a combination of anecdotes, stories, longer essays, manifestos, and advice – various lengths, any style. We do recommend 1000-5000 words (longer will be considered as well) or the equivalent (e.g. a photographic essay or a collection of documents). We anticipate a quick turnaround on this, so let’s get moving! The initial deadline for proposals will be July 31, 2015. The initial deadline for contributions is scheduled for October 31, 2015.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

And on the Sabbath…

Last week, I began the first sabbatical of my career. I’m still trying to figure out what to make of it.

I don’t mean “what to do with it”–I’ve figured that out. I decided what I was working on last year. And again last semester. And then this past month. Repeatedly. With lists, calendars, spreadsheets, and every other timetable-based organizational tool that imagination can contrive. Twice in the last twenty-four hours, in fact.

Maybe I do mean “what to do with it.”

The problem isn’t in finding a project–I’ve always been blessed (or cursed) with an overactive mind when it comes to thinking up things to explore, learn, etc.I’ve always been the sort of person who spends a month or more at a time reading everything I can find about vice-presidents, or the history of football, or nineteenth-century sailing memoirs, or gerrymandering, or armorsmithing, usually at the expense of more immediately important things like doing the laundry. I would be, in other words, an utter failure as a zen master, but am reasonably well-equipped for the life of an intellectual dilettante.

The problem is sorting out which are the projects to pursue now. What can I manage in a few months’ time; which ideas are ripe for exploration and which need more time on the vine; how much energy should I pour into my ongoing commitments and half-finished articles, and how much should I devote to finding the next steps on the path? Given my teaching-heavy professional obligations at Bridgewater, how much time should I devote to recalibrating my course structures, reading up on the pedagogical insights of my peers, and seeking out the latest scholarship on my most-taught texts?

And, of course, with two  boys aged 1 and 2 at home with me much of the time, I also expect and hope to spend time on snowman-making, pillow-castle building, toy-share officiating, feeding, entertaining, (etc., etc.) and generally enjoying my never-to-be-this-young-again sons. And how about a little time with my wife, whose own job as a secondary-school Classics teacher is at least as all-consuming as my own?

I want to explicitly state that I don’t mean any of this as a complaint. I’m grateful, almost unreasoningly so, for the existence of the sabbatical as concept and practice. As concept, because of its value in punctuating the years of “if-only” in between, when so many texts go unread and so many ideas unexamined due to a simple lack of time. A sabbatical is a gift, and I very much feel it as such. All the more so because I’m painfully aware of how many equally- or better-qualified minds, both in academia and outside of it, are never afforded this space and time in which to follow a labyrinth to its center. As practice, because I entered into this profession for a multitude of reasons–teaching, writing, a love of medieval literature and history, a strong conviction in the importance of the humanities to the health of the human animal–but also because I believe in the hunt for ideas worth having. Not necessarily big ideas, though the profundity of the smallest idea probably comes from its place among and between the big ones. A sabbatical is a chance to follow ideas in uninterrupted fashion through to their completion.

Well, less-interrupted, anyway.

Some of this work of envisioning how best to spend my time went on (repeatedly, as mentioned above, and with Escherian feedback loops) over the last year, but some adjustments are still being made. I have a plan–a modest one, which I’ll stick in a separate post at some point–and a much bigger and broader dream of learning how to manage all of the facets of my daily routine–teaching and publishing and family and magpie intellectualism–with real attention. I involuntarily recoil from the self-help-speak version of these ideas, but I can recognize the need for both greater integration and, not paradoxically, greater compartmentalization of the component parts of my life and work. This semester, with its store of time, is a chance to renew my commitment to my commitments, and I revel in it.

1 Comment

Filed under Personal stuff, Professional stuff, Sabbatical stuff

CFP: ICMS (Kalamazoo) Roundtable: “The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist”

Once again, MassMedieval is organizing a roundtable for the International Congress. For the 2015 Congress, our topic is “The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist: Succeeding in Academic Life at Smaller Colleges and Universities.”

For many medievalists who are fortunate to find jobs in academe, the professional reality is that we’re unlikely to be surrounded by colleagues who share our areas of expertise and interest. In most cases, a department will hire only a single medieval specialist–and may be hard-pressed to convince administrations or hiring committees to approve even that one. While the advent of digital technologies has brought us the possibility of closer contact and greater collaboration with our fellow medievalists, our resource access, teaching opportunities, tenure cases, and other facets of our professional lives can be affected by our lack of numbers and by questions about the nature and value of what we do. This roundtable, as the title suggests, will address success strategies for professional engagement, curriculum planning, and reappointment & tenure cases as the “lone medievalist” in a department or institution.

We have a couple of seats on the roundtable still available–if you’d like to take part in this important conversation, please e-mail John at by September 15. Thanks!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

ICMS 2014: Day 3 (Friday)

Yes, I know…I’m a little behind on these.

Friday was a day of indulgence. For a different sort of conference (or, I suppose, a person more in touch with their hedonistic id), that would mean a day spent exploring the various sins offered by the host city,* or perhaps a day holed up in one’s room with a book or a television. But at Kalamazoo, I indulge myself by heading into panels chosen more or less at random, expecting at the least some intellectual stimulation and at the most something unanticipated, exciting, and new.

I was reasonably sure I was attending a different panel on the Economics of Sanctity (which I later heard was excellent), but changed my mind at the last minute to attend session 219, “Social Contracts and Contacts in Old English and Old Norse Literature.” I was, frankly, trolling for material for a couple of upcoming BSU courses…the papers were on the economy of debt in the O.E. Juliana (Fabienne Michelet), the changing perception of feud in Anglo-Saxon literature (David DiTucci), and the deployment of non-sexual flyting insults in Bjorn Hitardal-people’s Champion’s saga (Rebecca Straple). I’ll be teaching courses on Medieval British and Icelandic saga literature in the fall, and new perspectives and conversations are always valuable. The panel turned out to be a very solid conversation about forms of exchange–whether insults, faith, or violence, it’s important to remember that these texts reflect a valuing or devaluing of ways of living–or, indeed, of lives. Fabienne Michelet’s discussion of the rhetorical maneuver in Juliana that replaced an economy of wealth with “an unpayable, but forgivable, debt” bonding the saint and faithful together has clear implications for the rest of hagiographic literature (as well, I think, for understanding the impulse toward collective action in Anglo-Saxon law). DiTucci and Straple took up feuds fought with unusual weapons (a “bulwark of faith” against the “feud of Satan” in one case, witty insults and insinuations in the other) and in different circumstances, but both brought home the complex ways that feud functions as a motif in the literature–one that we lose the richness of when we simplify it as merely physical violence begetting violence.

Lunch, as usual, was a hasty sandwich in the company of my fellow UConn alumni.

The afternoon sessions began with a panel (240) on Interdisciplinary approaches to Celtic Studies. Though both papers on the panel were well worth hearing, it was the second, in which Jaimin Weets explained the implications of his study of 6,659 human teeth found in various sites in Ireland, that really caught my attention. His research seems to suggest pretty strongly that the accepted historical narrative of the Celtic Migration is, at the least, problematic. Jaimin and I later spoke during dinner about his work’s relevance to the linguistic puzzle of the lack of Celtic language influence on early insular Anglo-Saxon. The issues of cultural identity and allegiance that we discussed are extremely interesting, and I’m going to have to follow up with some other reading. I may have to rethink a few things before the next time I teach my History of the English Language course…

I was a participant in a 3:30 roundtable discussion on Disability Studies and the Digital Humanities. I’d been looking forward to this conversation with Richard Godden, Cameron Hunt McNabb, Jonathan Hsy, Tory V. Pearman, and the attending scholars. Though the conversation occasionally veered into various permutations of what Godden tagged as “cranky” talk, the overall focus was on the remarkable potential that DH offers us as working scholars and teachers. As a profession, we have to feel our way past some rough edges where things like social media and scholarly thought run up against one another (such as the tension between the instant-response value of Twitter and our general impulse toward rumination and reflection), but the many ways DH allows us to participate in public scholarship, and the potential of new kinds of collaboration and engagement, means that we’re working at an exciting time in the academy.

More to say, but I’ve got some traveling  and thinking to do…



*I do not mean this to imply that Kalamazoo and its conference lack appealing sins, or that my evenings here don’t involve a certain degree of indulgence therein. But there, gentle reader, we draw a blushing curtain over our story.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Kalamazoo Once More: ICMS 2014, Days 1-2

This year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University (a.k.a. “the Kalamazoo conference,” or just “Kalamazoo”) is underway, and as usual the array of panels, conversations, and reunions is dazzling.  Wednesday night in particular is given over to friendships (particularly Kisha’s and my grad school cohort) and to an informal UConn gathering in a local bar. This is also my annual opportunity to take the pulse of my alma mater, and this year I reflected on how strong the current crop of grad students seems to be–although it wouldn’t kill them to respect the old grey hairs of their elders and maybe let said elder win a game of pool once in a while…

My tradition is to wait until I’m actually in transit to the conference to begin leafing through the schedule of sessions, a pattern developed back when I made the annual trip from Connecticut to Michigan in a van full of UConn grad students and professors and needed something to fill the hours on the road. These days, it’s a combination of things that keeps me from getting to the schedule in advance (grading, teaching, writing, children, etc.), but I don’t know that I’d change my pattern even if I had the chance. Once I’ve looked through the schedule, I’m in Kalamazoo mode, and it’d be a pain to have to put that on ice for a few weeks.

This year, I also knew that my first panel was already selected for me, since the New England Saga Society panel for which I was scheduled to be moderator was set for 10AM Thursday. The session, which was on the Anglo-Scandinavian World, was organized as a leap of faith–we chose three papers that all seemed engaged with the topic, but we weren’t sure how well they’d speak to one another. We needn’t have worried–Alison Isberg’s paper on the evidence in Yorkshire sculpture (and possibly in Egils saga) for a distinctively Anglo-Scandinavian assertion of elite culture and Matthew Bardowell’s discussion of Egil Skallagrimsson’s emotional performances of grief through his poetry both spoke to the distinctive arts of time and place, while Maria Volkonskaya’s consideration of the Old Norse First Grammatical Treatise alongside the Ormulum placed the panel in a context of, as she put it, “right life.”

I generally try to make it to a few panels that relate to my teaching, and so after lunch I attended a panel on the difficult subject of rape in high and late medieval literature. The papers were sensitively argued and focused on the problem of how students can and should struggle with the “double vision” necessary to understand Lanval, the Roman de Silence, or The Wife of Bath’s Tale in its context, but also in their own: do we need to teach, as Alison Gulley put it, “willing suspension of disapproval” in order to reach these texts meaningfully, or, in this instance, as Natalie Grinnell suggested, do we need to acknowledge that “thinking medieval” is, in this case, wrong?

Plenty to think about, but the packed room and high 80s temperature meant that I was worn out, and so (in order to take a shower and a few minutes’ lie-down) I missed what turned out to be (not unexpectedly) a brilliant paper by Kisha on the historical foundations of modern “teaching and learning” initiatives. Fortunately, I know the speaker, and was able to get her to recap the argument over dinner…


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized