Conference Review – ANZAMEMS, Wellington NZ

Nearly a week has passed since the conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (ANZAMEMS) at Victoria University, Wellington, NZ. This means I have now had time to process what was a stimulating, challenging, fun and mildly exhausting week, and have prepared a few thoughts. The nature of conferences of this size (there were 230 odd delegates) is that you attend a varied range of papers and the majority have little to do with your normal period or topic of study. This is very satisfying. It is nice to escape your own niche in the world of history and appreciate the breadth of work that is being done by other medieval or early modern scholars. This also provides new ideas and new approaches for your own work.  Just because something is outside of your usual frame of reference, it does not preclude it from providing new angles and frameworks within which to analyse your own topics.

Once again the brilliance of my peers has left me amazed and inspired.  Yet I am not going to provide a blow-by-blow account of papers I attended. For that check out the #anza17 tag on twitter. Rather, I will provide some highlights; furnish an assessment of my own paper (in the hope that others like me who are newer to the conference scene can learn from my mistakes); and summarise the postgraduate advanced training seminar (PATS) on manuscript (MS) marginalia I attended on Saturday. I promise to keep it interesting and, as proof, I provide this sketch of an angry catfish from an early modern MS in the collection of the New Zealand National Library.


The conference was four days in length, and I hit some real gems in there. On the first day I heard Lindsay Diggelman speak on the representations of grief in Anglo-Norman texts. Lindsay’s focus upon the transmission of grief motifs from the Anglo-Saxon into the Anglo-Norman worlds aligns conceptually with my own interest in the transmission of saints’ lives narratives across the Conquest. On day two I attended a panel – organised by Charles Zika – on Early Modern conceptions of witchcraft, atheism and vampirism on the vague suspicion that it would at least prove enjoyable! It was an extremely well planned panel with each speaker complementing the previous presentation, augmenting an overarching theme on post-Reformation concepts of active evil in the world. I enjoyed a similarly well-structured panel on the final day, organised under the auspices of the Royal Studies Network. Focused upon the application and evolution of Salic Law, the three speakers managed somehow to cover off 1,500 years of French inheritance law in 60 minutes. An impressive feat. The papers were wide-ranging in scope and looked at Salic law through the lenses of hagiography, genealogy, and legislation. There were additionally four excellent plenaries and to my count over 180 papers presented at the conference – so for a fuller summation I refer you back to the twitter feed!

My own paper was on the second day of the conference and it was nice to have it done reasonably early so I could relax for the remaining papers. It was not an overwhelmingly attended panel as it was in competition with one organised by the Early Modern Women’s Research Network and one organised by the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions. Additionally, the three papers in my panel were extremely varied and niche. I was dissatisfied with my paper – something almost every postgrad comes out of their sessions saying. So I will highlight why and explain what I learned for my next outing.

Firstly, this paper was based on an article I am writing up that currently sits at around 7,500 words. Yet for my mode of delivery a conference paper should be between 2,600 and 2,800 words. So I had to edit and edit heavily. Every time I went back to the paper I would notice streams of argument that had become out of place as I had removed earlier threads of discussion in my attempts to simplify and reduce length. I was editing right up to the night before the conference and I accidentally edited out my thesis statement. Yeah, I know. In addition, the paper remained too dense. This meant that I provided an information-heavy presentation without explaining why I was doing so. Which all sounds terrible, but discussing it with attendees, it was not an awful paper. Yet neither was it the exciting piece of narrative theory I had hoped to present. In future I will write new papers for each conference I attend, keep them to one or two major points, and limit my papers to around 2,600 words so I can slow them down and allow a more conversational style to creep in. Practice makes perfect, and it has been a year since my last conference paper.

I will close this blog with a summary of the Saturday PATS. It is the seconds PATS I have attended, and a nice compliment to the previous one on the ‘Manuscript Book.’ The day was dedicated to marginalia and understanding how past readers understood the texts that they read, or furthered the scholarship. It is mildly funny to me that many MEMS students are reluctant to write in the margins of their own books when there is an entire field of MEMS study dedicated to the practice. In the morning, our speakers looked to their own research, providing fascinating insights into the practice of annotation. Much as today, marginalia performed a range of functions from asserting document ownership, to devotional commentary in religious books, reference material in legal documents, study notes etc. The nature of MSS as artefacts – as opposed to the print book – also means they were open to manipulation through the removal of lines, the scrubbing of coats of arms, textual additions, and various other shady acts of manipulation. In the afternoon we saw some of these practices in place as the NZ National Library brought out a selection of their treasures for us to examine and analyse. Of particular interest (to me) were three medieval religious MSS – two annotated bibles and a miscellany containing biblical extracts and commentary. It was a day well spent, and a good way to end a very stimulating week.

-Matt Firth

Further Information:

ARC Centre for the History of Emotions:


Early Modern Women’s Research Network:

New Zealand National Library:

Royal Studies Network:


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