The Identity Abroad in central and late medieval Europe and the Mediterranean conference took place from 8 – 9 January 2022 and was convened by Teresa Barucci (University of Cambridge) and Susannah Bain (University of Oxford).
My co-organiser Susannah Bain and I had originally planned to hold the event in person in Cambridge. However, at the beginning of December, it became clear that this would have been virtually impossible due to the course of the pandemic and the uncertainties surrounding international travel, and we moved the event online. This proved to be the right call: it made it so much easier for people around the world to join us, guaranteeing that all the conference speakers could participate and greatly enriching the conversation – and, indeed, it seemed appropriate for a conference revolving around the experience of being ‘abroad’.
The conference theme of ‘identity abroad’ emerges from a recognition that life in the central and late Middle Ages was characterised by high levels of mobility and migration. This has increasingly been shown to be the case, cutting against old stereotypes about the period. In Europe and the Mediterranean region, shifts in political, socio-economic, cultural and religious life encouraged and sometimes forced individuals and groups to move ‘abroad’ temporarily or permanently. However, how the people who moved ‘abroad’ understood and (re)presented themselves and their ‘identity’ remain not much discussed and rarely dealt with in its own right. Identity Abroad aimed to contribute to this rich and exciting field of research. The idea of a ‘medieval identity abroad’ was used as a tool for comparative analysis rather than as something that we approached already equipped with definitions and methodologies.
During the two days of the conference, we heard sixteen papers from researchers at different stages of their academic careers, from first-year doctoral students to established professors. Our speakers explored the conference theme from a variety of different angles, in tune with CRASSH’s commitment to interdisciplinary research. The papers looked at topics such as the presence of foreign mercenaries in contexts as diverse as the ninth-century Abbasid caliphate and the fifteenth-century Kingdom of Naples, the role of vernacular languages in the recording practices of Muslim and Christian captives in the western medieval Mediterranean, the different influences converging in the artistic production of an English artist in eleventh-century Flanders, how the self-presentation of Hanseatic merchants was received by local institutions in fifteenth-century London, and the importance of material culture and clothing in the integration of Christian missionaries in the Mongol Empire. The wonderful papers of our three keynote speakers, Roser Salicrú i Lluch, Teresa Shawcross, and Miri Rubin, brought together many of the ideas and questions raised in the other presentations and made us reflect further on what we actually mean when we talk about ‘identity’.
As an Italian citizen who is currently studying in the United Kingdom, the interplay between mobility and social identity has always been an interest of mine (and, apparently, of my friends, who keep asking me if I ‘feel British enough yet’). Considering the topicality and ubiquity of the theme in the contemporary world, Susannah and I were committed to fostering a conversation around it in the context of the medieval world, with its peculiarities and challenges – and Identity Abroad allowed us to do precisely that. Indeed, we were very pleased by the interest and enthusiasm that the conference theme generated during and after the event itself. Bringing together a group of interested, engaged researchers and making time for a lengthy Q&A is what I repeatedly found to be the key to the more fruitful academic events.
There are bound to be obstacles and last-minute problems in the organisation of an event like this. However, the invaluable financial and organisational support of CRASSH and the experience of CRASSH’s Nicki Dawidowski have ensured that everything could go smoothly, from the early stages of the planning of the conference and the search for a venue to the practical running of an online event over two days. In particular, Nicki has always been incredibly supportive, patient and helpful through all the pandemic-related developments that we incurred. Without the support of CRASSH, the Identity Abroad conference would not have been possible – or, at least, it would have been much more difficult and less fun to bring to life.
Lastly, I am extremely grateful to CRASSH for its continuous support of the Identity Abroad project. The January conference was always intended to be the starting point of our inquiry. Thanks to CRASSH and our other sponsors, Susannah and I are now working towards organising a follow-up to the conference, which will take the form of a workshop happening in Cambridge in May 2022. The workshop will give us the opportunity to regroup with familiar and new faces, to prepare a selection of the papers presented at the conference for a potential publication, and to finally enjoy the perks of being in the same room as the other participants after months of screen fatigue.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.