Participant reflections on the Gender and Status Competition Workshop @ HUMlab-X – Part I

On November 26 and 27 2015, the Umeå Group for Premodern Studies (UGPS) held an international workshop at HUMlab-X on Gender and Status Competition in Premodern Societies (GSC 2015), with the financial support of the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, the Umeå University Faculty of Arts, and the Umeå Centre for Gender Studies (UCGS). The workshop organisers were Professor Jonas Liliequist (History), Dr. Anna Foka (HUMlab), Stina Karlgren (History), and Lewis Webb (History).

The goal of the GSC 2015 workshop was to focus on how gendered behaviours and appearances have been used as a means for status competition, and how such status competition shaped both intra and inter-gender hierarchies. We were particularly interested in the physicality and materiality of status competition, namely the ways in which gender and status were negotiated and performed through speech, emotions, gestures, facial expressions, body language, comportment and clothing as well as material objects and visualized symbols. One of the central aims of the workshop was to integrate theoretical perspectives on emotions and senses with gender analysis on a micro-sociological and inter-personal level.

Image1ConferenceThe workshop was an immensely fruitful dialogue across disciplinary boundaries, with contributions spanning from Classical Antiquity through Medieval Europe, through the Early Modern Ottoman Empire, to Premodern China. The participants came from a diverse range of backgrounds, which led to many provocative interdisciplinary and intersectional discussions. More information about the workshop and the contributions is available at #gscumu2015 and

Image2InterdisciplinarydiscussionsInterdisciplinary discussions

The workshop organisers want to acknowledge the wonderful staff at HUMlab, particularly Karin Jangert, Johan von Boer, Jim Robertsson, Anna Misharina, and Elin Andersson. The workshop ran so smoothly due to their wonderful work and support.

Several of our participants provided us with their reflections on the workshop and HUMlab-X. We include some of their voices below.

Martha Bayless, Professor of English, University of Oregon:
I went to the HUMlab to talk about medieval board games, but I came away with thoughts on half a dozen other subjects — family snapshots from the Roman Empire, the gender of medieval hats, fan fiction, place, cognition, and beavers.  I understand that this is because this is what the HUMlab does: it brings together people and ideas from adjacent disciplines and facilitates an interchange that enlarges everyone’s views.

Image3MarthaBaylessMartha Bayless

This process reminds me of the scholarly research on networks and the “strength of weak ties”; if you want new connections or new ideas, you don’t look among your closest friends (or scholarly colleagues), because you already know their friends or colleagues and their ideas.  You look among your more distant associates or friends of friends, your “weak ties,” because they have knowledge and connections you don’t yet have.  So bringing together scholars in adjacent disciplines, as HUMlab did for November’s Workshop on Gender and Status Competition in Premodern Societies, is to use those “weak ties” to cross-fertilize and enrich the knowledge of scholars from the Classical era to the Early Modern period.

Image4UmbertoGrassiUmberto Grassi

The wonders of technology were on display in the HUMlab, with scholars Skyping in to do one session from places as disparate as Sweden, Lebanon and the U.S. As futuristic as this was, I personally was also impressed by the down-to-earth reminders of place at the HUMlab — the here-ness that distinguishes it from other places.  Coming as I do from a university (the University of Oregon, in the U.S.) built mostly in the interchangeable-box era of construction, I was struck by what a distinctive place the HUMlab is.  Completely glass on one side, the view out the side of the lab goes straight to the Ume river, which travels alongside the building.  Over the course of our workshop the sun rose, hovered just above the horizon, made its way down the river, and then set again a few hours later, never having ascended into the upper sky.  Thus even the placement of the HUMlab’s glass wall lets its residents know: We are here, in northern Sweden.  To confirm this, when we went out to the river during a break, we spotted a beaver swimming close to shore.

Image5SkypediscussionsSkype discussions with Martin Huang, Lovisa Brännstedt, and Nadia Cheikh

In my role as a historian of medieval culture, I have become increasingly aware of the sense of place in traditional culture.  Storytelling traditionally bore a strong relation to place and landscape: stories would be created to explain natural landscape features, and the landscape would then serve as an engine for further storytelling as people naturally asked “What is the story behind this rock/hill/standing stone?”  But when stories are collected by outsiders for larger audiences — from early anthropologists to the Grimm Brothers — the stories are typically denatured and stripped of their place-names and sense of the particular.  Thus stories, like places, become anonymous and arbitrary, no longer moored to their environment.

Image6EvaAnderssonEva Andersson

But we are now starting to recover the role of place in cultural memory, and to see that place is not inconsequential, but can have a cognitive function.  Edwin Hutchins’ book Cognition in the Wild (1995) demonstrated the ways in which cognition can be outsourced or “distributed” — in his example, how ship navigation is outsourced into the design of the ship — the ship, in effect, does part of the thinking.  In traditional societies this is also true of landscape and cultural memory.  In How Forests Think, for instance, Eduardo Kohn has discusses societies in which whole ecosystems become part of the human cognitive system.  Modern developed culture, by contrast, is much more mobile and transient, and places have far fewer associations for us.  Places become emptied of particularity and nearly interchangeable: in the famous saying of Gertrude Stein, “When you get there, there isn’t any there there.”

Image7StinaKarlgrenStina Karlgren

It is distinctive about the HUMlab, then, that when you get there, there is a there there. With its complexities, innovations, and thoughtful design, the HUMlab is almost a cognitive system in itself.  The approach along the riverbank reveals a series of glass-sided university rooms: a gym, a library, a commissary, and finally the Bildmuseet (art museum) and HUMlab.  It’s as if the buildings are saying This is where we do the exercising, this is where we do the research, this is where we do the eating, and once the basics are taken care of, This is where we do the thinking.  The thinking happens all over HUMlab: even the floor contains a vast electronic screen like a huge magic carpet.  The chairs are, almost uniquely among conference chairs, extremely comfortable.  Much of the furniture is on wheels — tables, chairs, sofas — for flexible arrangement.  Those afflicted by jet lag can take refuge in the large canopied blue sofas that almost serve as comfortable cupboards.

Image8JonasLiliequistJonas Liliequist

The versatility of HUMlab was demonstrated by Anna Foka’s talk on the modern popularization of gladiators.  She projected images on the wall — or rather on the sort of monumental objet d’art that serves as a screen — while a map of Classical gladiatorial arenas glowed on the floor.  The group then moved into the inner room where she screened clips from gladiator films.  In an adjacent room images of gladiators were projected onto wall screens, and a fourth small glass room held state-of-the-art equipment for playing gladiatorial video games.  The multiple locations, media, and representation of gladiatorial games made the presentation not just a talk but an experience — the audience had the HUMlab to think with.

Image9AnnaFokaAnna Foka

Anna Foka’s exploration of gladiatorial games jibed well with my own presentation on a more miniature display of martial prowess: the board games of early medieval northern Europe. Three of these were popular for more than a thousand years: tables (a race-game much like modern backgammon), hnefatafl (a chase- or battle-game with a central king-piece), and “wood-sense” (a battle game), played in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Norse settlements.  These were far from the trivial, even marginal pursuits they are in modern culture; expertise at the board game was a mark of kings, a way of demonstrating power in war even while peace reigned.  They were assigned mythological status — in the Old Norse Voluspà, the gods play their board game at the creation of the world, and at the end of time, after the world is destroyed, the golden playing pieces will be found in the grass, ready for a new world and a new game.  A king was supposed to wield his playing pieces like a god.  In medieval Wales, high officials were even granted a symbolic board game when they assumed office; in Anglo-Saxon England, kings were buried with their sets.  Innumerable stories show the martial and supernatural power of the game.  But what does this mean when women try to play a game associated with supreme masculine prowess?  My paper looked at several instances when women intruded into the masculine preserve of board games — an early presentiment of the gender scandal that became the recent “gamer-gate.”  To sum it up: women who played board games were thought to be alarmingly dangerous.

Image10MehmetKalpakliMehmet Kalpakli

The other papers at the Workshop were multi-media, lively, and stimulating.  I was particularly fascinated by Eva Andersson’s talk on the similarity of medieval men’s and women’s clothing (it turns out hats were the key to sexual dimorphism); by Ursula Rothe’s account of the “family snapshots” on the sculptural tombs of the far-flung reaches of the Roman Empire, complete with lapdogs; and by Godelinde Perk’s fan-fiction theory of the life of notorious medieval complainer Margery Kempe.  I am of necessity leaving out a great number of equally engaging talks.  The workshop was very ably organized by Jonas Liliequist (who gave a wonderful talk on romping and raillery), Anna Foka, Stina Karlgren and the redoubtable Lewis Webb.  It was the cross-fertilization of scholarship at its most dynamic, a result of both the people and the place.

Image11LewisWebbLewis Webb

Ursula Rothe, Baron Thyssen Lecturer of Classical Studies, The Open University:
We arrived in the Arctic landscape of Umeå in winter to the warmest possible reception for the Gender and Status Competition in Premodern Societies conference. It was exciting to meet all the delegates from around the world at the get-together the night before proceedings began, and the conference itself showed what a huge variety of research fields could usefully be brought together to discuss the topic of gender and status in an interdisciplinary way: ancient Rome, imperial China, early Islam, medieval Scandinavia and Italy, French and English Renaissance writing and the poetry of the Ottoman Empire.

Image12UrsulaRotheUrsula Rothe

It was fascinating to find links between these diverse areas and to put one’s own individual research into a wider historical context. The themes for the sessions were well-chosen, and aided the cross-disciplinary dialogue: ‘Games, brawls, and jokes’; ‘Conspicuous consumption’; ‘Elite ceremonies’; ‘Inscribing identities’; ‘Patronage networks’; ‘Embodied performances’. We were put up in the University of Umeå’s very smart HUMlab-X with its high-tech audio-visual system and extremely capable staff, who were on hand throughout the conference to make sure everything went smoothly. It was a thoroughly successful event, and our thanks go to the organisers of the conference for all their hard work getting us all to Umeå and making it such an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

Image13FabianPerssonFabian Persson

Yiqun Zhou, Associate Professor of Chinese Literature, Stanford University:
It was a memorable conference. Discussions with knowledgeable and intelligent colleagues from a wide range of fields, in a setting that was cordial, relaxing, yet stimulating—what more could one ask for? The diversity of the participants’ backgrounds not only made it easy to acknowledge your own ignorance and to learn from others, but also constantly gave you new insights into your own research. As befitted academic activities of the best kind, this conference disseminated ideas, inspired curiosity, and promoted collaboration among scholars who normally would not have been engaged in a dialog.

Image14YiqunZhouYiqun Zhou

Thanks to the amazing organizers and fellow participants, my first encounter with Scandinavia was a most rewarding and pleasurable one. For some time to come, I will be thinking about the sun setting before 3 o’clock outside the conference hall, as the splendid screen of HUMlab lit up with Anna Foka’s gladiatorial fights; and about Jonas Liliequist’s romping Swedish soldiers and Federico Barbierato’s well-connected Venetian nuns.

Image15FedericoBarbieratoFederico Barbierato

To be continued in Part II.

God jul och gott nytt år!

Jonas Liliequist, Anna Foka, Stina Karlgren, and Lewis Webb

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.