Saints and Sinners: Literary Footprints of St Margaret of Scotland and Mary Queen of Scots – A Conference Report

The 7th and 8th of October, with generous funding support from Birmingham CeSMA and MEDIUM ÆVUM, Claire Harrill of the University of Birmingham and Lucy Hinnie of the University of Edinburgh ran a conference on these two most noted (and notorious) of Scottish queens, in order to explore the understanding of Scottish royal women across the middle ages.

We were honoured to have so many distinguished  speakers from all around the globe and excellent panels. Papers were varied and intepreted the conference theme imaginatively, which made for very productive discussion sessions.

Thursday began with Heta Aali of the University of Turku, who spoke about C19th French historiography, and provided a great insight into how what we think of as a very “medieval” dichotomy was put to ethical use in the changing political landscape of ninteenth-century France. This was followed by a (wonderfully illustrated) talk on the monstrous and saintly body in childbirth in the writings of Birgitta of Sweden and Hildegard of Bingen, given by Minji Lee of Rice University.

Our second panel began with Mary Hardy of the University of Aberdeen, who spoke about the afterlife of St Margaret of Scotland’s Vita in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. This was complemeted by the question, “Is there something about Mary?” as Amy Hayes, also of Aberdeen, explored how the legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots could be seen in the representation of medieval queens in the sixteenth century.

Our third panel began with Amelia Heath on gendered construction in the Miracula of St Margaret of Scotland, and the difficulty of interpreting a saint who appears as both feminine and frightening, Next up was Allison Steenson of the University of Padua on Latin puns and the traces of a cult of Mary Queen of Scots in the Hawthornden Manuscripts. And who doesn’t love a bit of Latin wordplay?

We were honoured and delighted to finish the day with not one but two exceptional keynote speakers. We had Sarah Dunnigan, of the University of Edinburgh, on ‘Marian Eloquence’and the diverse and surprising writings of Mary Queen of Scots. This was followed by Catherine Keene of Southern Methodist University teaching us to ‘read her like a book’ and interpret the image of a woman holding a book as a Marian figure. Through these two excellent keynotes, we explored the textual nature of queenship, the orthodoxy of reading and the transgressional nature of writing, and how the place of women was negotiated through their relationship to texts in a lively and fascinating question and answer session.

Last but not least, on the Friday morning, those who had survived the conference dinner were treated to two more wonderful papers. First was Kate Ash-Irisarri of the University of Manchester on melancholy and the complaint of Scotland, and Anne Rutten of St Andrews on the political role of queens, and the relationship of this to the written word.

We followed these wonderful panels with a “round-table” session, where we discussed the textual nature of queenship, the ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ of queens, but we also explored wider issues. We noted that we only had a single male delegate, and discussed the problem of the “woman ghetto” – why is it that the study of women is seen as “women’s work”, and why is it that there are fewer men interested in this burgeoning area of study?

Overall, the conference was a wonderful opportunity to explore wide ideas of queenship, women in the middle ages, and the negotiation of power through texts. We are very grateful to Birmingham CeSMA for their generous financial support in making this happen. We are also grateful to Medium Aevum for partially funding this, and to the University of Edinburgh IASH for providing us with the space in which to hold this. Check out their Year of Dangerous Women project, which supported our conference also!




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