Talking Conference Tips and Medieval Spain with Hélène Sirantoine

A few days ago I spoke at the annual conference for the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean. The University of Ghent was this year’s host, and the medieval trading city was a perfect setting for a group of medievalists.
A view of St Nicholas’ Church in Ghent, taken just around the corner from our conference HQ.
It was a wonderfully diverse set of attendees (Austria, Beligum, Canada, Cyprus, Czechia, Egypt, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States … and Australia). The diversity was matched in the presentations, with sessions ranging from the Cairo Geniza to religious minorities in medieval Iberia, Islamic and Christian accounts of the crusades to the circulation of intellectual culture across Mediterranean communities. It was inspiring to see this idea of a ‘the medieval’ decentered.
Professor Marina Rustow (University of Princeton) and Professor Nikolas Jaspert (University of Heidelberg) both gave keynotes. Of course, I delivered my paper but I was not the only person from the University of Sydney to do so. Dr Jan Shaw (from the Department of English) spoke as did the Department of History’s own Dr Hélène Sirantoine.
During one of the lunch breaks, I chatted with Hélène about where conferences sit in a historian’s work, what advice she had for those new to the experience, and why medieval Spain (her field of research and teaching … with a unit this coming semester) is important to medievalists and historians more broadly.

First up, what’s your conference paper on?

My paper was entitled ‘The Emperor and his Muslims: Andalusí identity through Christian eyes under the reign of Alfonso VII (1126-1157)’.

Where do conference papers sit within a historian’s work? How do you find them most useful?

Well, a conference paper can sit at various points of the historian’s work timeline. It can be the occasion to pitch a new research project and feel how the audience reacts to it. It is also the moment when one will make contacts with other scholars in the field, and maybe create fruitful collaborations. However, in most cases, a conference paper will be the opportunity to divulge the results of an ongoing or almost finished project. In a way, it is a sort of declaration to the academic world: ‘Look, this is what I’ve been doing in the past months/years. Be prepared to read my next article/monograph!’. And the deadline set by an upcoming conference also works, for many of us, as an incentive to finally write down what we would have otherwise left lingering in the limbo of procrastination.

Just before you were here you were at Leeds International Medieval Congress, which is one of the larger medievalist conferences. I was watching the #IMC2017 feed on Twitter and it is almost like a festival for medievalists as well. How does a big conference like that compare to something more focused? What are the benefits but also challenges?

The Leeds IMC is indeed one of the annual grand-messes of medievalists worldwide, with a paper programme so heavy that it can easily jeopardize one’s luggage allowance on the way back home! This year, I heard that there were about 2400 of us, and the number of parallel sessions was so large that the organising committee had to request one more building than usual to accommodate us all. I recall very well how intimidated I was the first time I attended the IMC a few years ago. But you have to keep in mind that such events are primarily designed for scholars to network, so the more of us there are, the more connected we get!
In that sense, the Leeds IMC is hardly comparable to a more human-size conference, whose purpose will generally be to discuss a particular topic in deptH. At those conferences, both participants and attendees are expecting scientific results above all. There are no book fairs or medieval reenactments, but many new ideas at the end of the day.

What things should a postgraduate consider when choosing a conference?

Sometimes, the conference chooses you! It is not rare to receive a CFP (call for papers) that matches one’s doctoral project. It is then a good opportunity to make a name for yourself among the community of scholars in your field. In any event, before sending a paper proposal, I believe that a PG student should always consider how the conference will fit into his/her agenda. If it is leading you too far from the immediate demands of the dissertation, then make sure that it won’t put you in a delicate situation in terms of timing. Ideally, the closer you get to your submission deadline, the more you should prioritise papers that will directly feed your dissertation.

I find sticking to a twenty-minute limit a real challenge. We hold our topics close to our heart and spend a lot of time researching the field, so it can be tough. How do you deal with this challenge?

Ah… Quite badly in fact! I generally write an over-large first draft of my papers, and then spend the days and hours before it is my time to speak shortening my whole argument (with a huge dose of frustration generated in the process). But then I remember that: (1) it was not a waste of time, as I will use my over-detailed draft for a later publication; (2) my audience was probably very thankful that I did not enter into too much detail that would have made my paper hard to follow. A conference paper is a subtle exercise of communication, so a short but well organised argument will convey your point in the most efficient manner.

What is the most defining characteristic that sets a conference paper apart from other scholarly ‘outputs’, such as an essay or article?

Again, a conference paper is an oral performance, during which footnotes and lengthy sentences will not help you make your point. At the utmost, projected slides, if they are well done, will assist. Besides, we do not read in the same way that we listen. Have you ever heard someone reading out loud something that was clearly meant as a written piece of rhetoric? It is a very painful experience!

Medieval Spain is your specialisation and you’re about to teach an undergraduate unit, ‘Reconquest: A History of Medieval Spain’. What does this particular history of medieval Spain offer the the discipline more broadly? Why is it important/intriguing, not just to Iberianists, but historians generally? Has scholarship on intercultural relations in medieval Spain offered methodologies and frameworks for other histories of intercultural/interfaith relations?

The main theme of the Leeds IMC this year was ‘Otherness’, and the conference you and I attended in Ghent dealt with ‘Emotions, imaginations, and communities in the medieval Mediterranean’. In both cases, the medieval Iberian Peninsula represents a particularly rich domain of investigation, with its multi-faith and multi-linguistic communities. It is actually quite interesting to observe that, decades ago, the Iberian Peninsula was for most medievalists a periphery of Christendom and a guarantee of exoticism. Nowadays, it is rather considered a centre of interculturality and a case study to measure changes in historiographical practices. This is partly what I aim to convey to students in my course on medieval Spain. It is actually called ‘Reconquest? A History of Medieval Spain’. The question mark is very important, as the notion of Reconquest is highly problematic, though commonly used. After all, it expresses none other than a Christian point of view that makes the Islamic history of Spain a deplorable parenthesis. In the unit, we study the origins of that notion of ‘Reconquest’, and how it was a construct of Spanish nineteenth-century national-catholicism. We also examine the tensions that the debates surrounding the notion generated all through the twentieth century, and the social and academic anxieties that its use still reveals today.

What project are you working on at the moment?

When I first started to investigate the history of the past in my Honours year, I wanted to work on the relationship between Christendom and Islam through the specific prism of multicultural Spain. My PhD dissertation then led me quite far from this project, and I wish now to make it the centre of my attention, with research focused on perceptions of the Islamic world by Christians Spaniards.
By examining how the Islamic world was depicted, named, and utilised in Christian Spanish documents of the early to high Middle Ages (9th-13th c.), the idea is to decentre traditional approaches to the field, which have privileged religious perspectives at the expense of polities, geopolitics, and history. The paper I presented in Ghent was directly linked to this project.