When M broke it to me that we were moving to Chicago, one of the major silver linings in it for me was the proximity of Kalamazoo. Of course, this probably sounds back to front – Kalamazoo is an unremarkable town of 75,000 inhabitants in the middle of a Michigan plain. But every May it is host to the largest gathering of medievalists on the planet. For four days, 3,000 medievalists from graduate student to emeritus professor, from Anglo-Saxon historian to feminist theorist to enthusiast for medieval-themed video games, gather to give papers, listen to each other’s papers, have meetings, buy books and, above all, drink a lot of free, warm wine from plastic cups. I love it. Maybe because it’s in the middle of nowhere and there’s nothing to do but hang out on campus, everyone treats it like a 4-day party, meeting up with old friends they haven’t seen since they moved to the far side of the world, relieved to have some other medievalists to talk to apart from the single weirdo at their own university, and slagging off everyone else’s conference papers, books, and sartorial choices with vigorous abandon. (There are always a lot of bad floaty dress and practical shoe combinations, and M and I are obsessed with finding a man who combines the magic trio of beard, ponytail and bowtie.)
A lot of jokes have been made at the Congress’s expense. Some people were rather affronted by a 2008 article taking the piss (sorry) out of an earnest session on fecopoetics. Geoffrey Chaucer’s blog has a nice episode where Sir John Mandeville goes to the ‘Zoo – though it’s not quite as funny as the one where Margery Kempe goes to MLA. But much of the amusement is reserved for the infamous Saturday night dance, which M’s (non-medieval) colleagues begged him to photograph.
I can’t make out whether it’s so legendary because a) non-medieval conferences don’t have dances – there is also one at the Leeds International Medieval Congress, which inexplicably employs the worst DJ in the western world, but is nevertheless great fun – or b) because it’s the most exciting thing that happens in Michigan all year. The fact that we were sternly warned that there would be no admission to the dance without our Congress badges suggested to me that there would be hordes of gatecrashers trying to impersonate medievalists thronging around the doors of the Bernhard East Ballroom, but on reflection it was probably just so that people like me could say ‘My my – that’s Jeffrey Jerome Cohen pulling all those dance moves.’
At Leeds the dance is a scruffy and drunken affair. At Kalamazoo, there were a lot of beautiful young women in hot dresses… and of course their unavoidable accompaniment, lechy middle-aged men who think if they hover within a 3-foot radius of them the beautiful young woman may simply turn round after the last dance and say ‘Shall we go back to your dorm room for a night of hot passion?’
See what I mean?
The dorm rooms would certainly inspire a degree of sexual creativity. This remarkably po-faced guide to what to expect at Kalamazoo describes the rooms as ‘spartan’, the heating system as ‘rudimentary’ and the blankets as ‘not the best quality’. Any movement on the beds – and here I am talking about, say, turning over to sleep on a different side – causes the tiny sheets to become unhooked from the slippery plastic mattresses. The photograph on the site linked above shows a threadbare blanket exactly like the one I had, of a type I have previously encountered only in a disgusting youth hostel in Albi, France, which was closed down at the end of that summer as too insanitary even for backpackers.
But of course the highlight is the bathroom. After building this up to M at some length I was cheated of the experience this time round by being in a room next to a fire exit, but 99% of the dorm rooms at Kalamazoo have shared bathrooms. Two bedrooms share a bathroom between them, and there is no way of locking the people nextdoor out of your bathroom. At all. The only thing standing between you and an unknown but eminent medievalist walking in on you sitting on the loo is the possibility that they will have their ear to the door listening for bathroom noises. And given how deaf some of these people are…
Anyway, the possibility now occurs to me that this set-up is all about facilitating discreet orgies. And everyone I have complained to about the geography of the dorms for the last five years has probably been laughing behind their hands about how I never get invited to any of them. Another year, another academic insecurity.