CeSMA at Kalamazoo: Cross-Cultural Studies of the Book

Birmingham CeSMA, in conjunction with the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, sponsored a panel at Kalamazoo this year on ‘Cross Cultural Studies of the Book’ which meant little old me, your friendly neighbourhood web editor, took my research stateside for the first time (and braved my first transatlantic flight) to make some friends in the ‘Zoo across the pond.

Having heard some rumours about the on-campus accommodation, which many of my colleagues were resolutely enjoying with a sense of festive cameraderie, I settled myself in the Holiday Inn and hoped that jetlag wouldn’t be too bad.

The campus of WMU (Western Michigan University) was beautiful, and we were blessed with amazing weather (should have brought suncream), and the conference has an impressive infrastructure that includes regular shuttle-buses that run between the different hotels and the different buildings of campus. I didn’t get lost once, either, which is more than I can say about my various times at the Leeds IMC where, on entering the union building, I always seem to open doors to find something different behind them from what I expected.

The intrepid presenter, trying not to look too jetlagged, or too nervous pre-paper. 

CeSMA’s panel was on the Friday, the third day of the conference, and by then I was feeling like a true American. I’d got a little more used to the timezone, and waking extra early was making me feel very virtuous and productive.


Our panel began with Carol Symes from the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign giving a paper on ‘Before and beyond the King’s Book: Reading the Material Remains of the Domesday Survey’. Carol’s paper was a fascinating look not just into the Domesday book and how it was compiled, but also into our own (mis, sometimes)conceptions of how it came about.

I was up next, with my paper on everyone’s favourite (and by far the best) saint, Saint Margaret of Scotland, ‘English Books at a Scottish Court: The Books of Saint Margaret of Scotland (d. 1093)’. In my paper, I argued that these books were essential artefacts for understanding the roles that foreign queens were expected – and indeed needed – to play at the courts they married into. Carol very kindly invited me to publish this in her journal, The Medieval Globe, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

Our final panellist was Sean Winslow of the University of Toronto. There had been a bit of shuffling around, and some panellists unable to attend, so Carol and I invited Sean to join our panel, which was not without controversy! Sean was speaking on ‘The Ethiopian Book between Christendom and Islam’, and this raised some interesting issues about framing a cross-cultural panel and considering the book as a global object. For Carol and me, making northern European Latin-based medieval studies globally-focussed and outlooking is an essential issue, and the panel was a great opportunity to develop an outward-looking conceptual framework for future work.

Much better than plastic cups

The conference was just as rich in extra-curriculars as it was in academic papers. Aside from the famous disco, there was ‘wine hour’ every day which provided an excellent opportunity for catching up with friends and colleagues from around the world, some excellent stalls to tempt us, and activities of every kind.


I had a wonderful time at Kalamazoo, and it was brilliant to connect Birmingham’s CeSMA with the medieval studies work going on at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign. It’s worth the jetlag, and the fact that you have to ride the airport train past Trump Tower to get to Chicago central train station and on to Kalamazoo. I’m sure this is the beginning of a long and beautiful transatlantic partnership of scholars.



Claire Harrill

University of Birmingham

CeSMA Web Editor

International traveller??



EMREM Summer Trip to Ludlow Castle

Every year, the EMREM Forum, a student-run interdisciplinary research group covering the early medieval to the early modern, runs a historical summer trip. This year, it was to Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, and it featured history, scones and the Bindery Shop where they make replica early modern prints and bindings.

The construction of the castle began in the eleventh century, as the border stronghold of Roger De Lacy, a Marcher Lord. In the fourteenth century Roger Mortimer enlarged the castle into a palace, and the site was later involved in the War of the Roses, under the ownership of Richard, Duke of York. Edward IV sent the ‘Princes in the Tower’ to live in the castle, which was also the seat of government for Wales and the Border Counties. In 1501 Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon honeymooned there, and Mary Tudor spent three winters at Ludlow between 1525 and 1528. The Welsh Fusiliers were founded at the castle in 1689.
(Historical blurb by Georgie Fitzgibbon of the EMREM Committe)

Kitan language crash course at Yale University 11th – 19th May 2016

yale 2.jpgThe Kitan Language Crash Course began on the sunny morning of May 11th 2016. There were around twenty of us, gathered around a conference table in a room deep in the corridors of Yale University’s splendid Sterling Memorial Library. We were anticipating a potentially tough nine days of instruction in a language long dead and little understood. We knew, however, that we were in good hands. Professor Daniel Kane, our instructor, has an academic career spanning five decades and has made contributions to the study of the history of the Chinese language, the Jurchen language and most significantly for this workshop, the first full length volume in English to be devoted to the Kitan language, The Kitan Language and Script, published by Brill in 2009.

The crash course was convened by Professor Valerie Hansen, who in her opening remarks savoured the observation that this was the first ever of its kind in history. The language under study had effectively died, or at least disappeared from historical reference, some eight hundred years ago. It has only come to light again since the 19th century, with new discoveries of inscriptions at the rate of about one a year.

The nine day course aimed to do several things. It aimed to ensure the participants became familiarised with the major reference works to date on the language, in order to set them themselves up for further independent research. It was also designed to help participants understand the range of methodologies and expertise that can be brought to the table in the study of Kitan, and understand how they can contribute to the research in their own way. As for knowledge of the language itself, the course aimed to give us a grasp of what we know so far of how the Kitan script works, and to be able to recognise many graphs in context. Practically, we were to come out of it able to attempt punctuation of texts (as like classical Chinese, Kitan primary sources have no punctuation); to do this requires a basic understanding of the morphology and syntax of Kitan. And we were to read selected short Kitan texts that are reasonably well understood.


The workshop brought together scholars from many different countries; Australia, France, Israel, Korea, the PRC, the US and the UK. It also represented a convergence of diverse academic backgrounds within the humanities, including art history, intellectual history, social history and political history, and a broad regional focus, ranging from as far west as Persia to as far east as Japan. The twenty participants were also composed of researchers at different stages of their academic career, making the seminar of some twenty participants a forum that was international, interdisciplinary and intergenerational.

But why the interest in Kitan language? And why now?

The idea of the workshop was first conceived at the ‘Perspectives on the Liao’ conference held at Yale University and Bard Graduate Centre, 30th September to 2nd October 2010. As the name suggests, the focus of the conference was the Liao dynasty (907-1125), a period in Northeast Asian history characterised as under the rule of a ‘conquest dynasty’, a dynasty where areas and populations that are conventionally argued to be Chinese were ruled over by non-Chinese, nomadic northern rulers. The ‘Perspectives on the Liao’ conference and Issue 43 of the Journal of Song Yuan Studies that came out of it, devoted to the Liao, contributed research that countered this conventional characterisation. The conference and journal symbolise the adoption of a fresh paradigm to recognise the Liao not in a binary relationship with its ‘Chinese’ neighbours to South, but integrated into a wider multipolar world; connected culturally and politically to Inner Asia, the Korean peninsula and Japan. The once marginalised Liao dynasty has begun to be viewed as a regional centre.

Integrating perspectives on the Liao from other regions helps in challenging the Kitan-Chinese binary, however, most of our historical sources regarding the Liao and the Kitan are in classical Chinese. The Liao was not the only so-called ‘conquest dynasty’ in Chinese history. The Qing (1644-1911) is more famous, where traditional scholarship focused on the Chinese language sources to reconstruct the political and social events of the dynasty. These methods were challenged, however, with a turn often referred as the New Qing Studies, in which Manchu language sources were consulted and given priority, painting a different, insider, account of the dynasty.  Likewise, it is hoped that increased access to the contents of Kitan language sources may yield similar insights into the dynasty from the perspectives of the Kitan.

The decipherment of Kitan language and script, however, represents a formidable challenge that requires the enlisting of specialists from many disciplines. As we have come to recognise the interactions of the Kitan Liao with the wider multipolar world of Asia, we have been inspired to incorporate current understandings of a wider range of languages and cultures in our attempts to unravel its mysteries. The language is currently characterised as para-Mongolic; it is believed to share a common, unknown ancestor with Mongolian. What is known about the syntax and morphology of Kitan shows that the language belongs to the family known generally as Altaic, sharing commonalities with Mongolian (Modern and Middle), Old Turkic, Jurchen, Manchu, Daur and Tuvan, among others.

The script, however, seems to have been largely informed by knowledge of the Chinese script, in particular with regards to the ductus (that is, the manner in which the graphs of the script are composed and written out by hand) and the favouring of using square blocks for lexical units (as opposed to the linear arrangement of letters into words seen in English and many other languages). The Kitan Small Script (or Assembled script) presents a combination of logographs (graphs that represent a word/unit of meaning) and phonographs (graphs that represent a phoneme or sound, be it a syllable, consonant or vowel); such a practice can be found in modern Japanese. Many of these graphs are arranged into a single block, often representing a word, a practice also employed in the Korean script, Hangul, invented in 1443.

The decipherment of the Kitan language is by no means a solely philological exercise; beyond knowledge of Inner and East Asian languages of the past and present, historical information is also indispensable. After all, the source materials we have in the Kitan language are often tomb inscriptions of elite persons, and as a result are replete with names, titles, toponyms and vocabulary specific to the Liao milieu. The funerary or commemorative context in which the Kitan source material was produced and found must also be understood, which demands the input of archaeologists, art historians and social historians.


How do you learn/teach an undeciphered language?

There is a degree of circularity in trying to make progress with the Kitan script. It is hoped that through the script we can learn more about the Kitan language. However, at the same time, it is hoped through what we know of the Kitan language we can decipher the script. In the background of all of this, though, is a limited knowledge of the precise relationship between the language and the script. So ideally to understand the inscriptions we would need a Kitan-English dictionary, which we don’t have. In order to produce one we would need to understand the inscriptions. With this issue in mind it is obvious that a crash course in Kitan would not be a typical ancient language workshop. The aims were not so much to teach us the language but to get us up to scratch on what has been done so far on Kitan, how it has been done, and how we can help.

The first half introduced many of the issues involved in understanding Kitan and the basics of what we know already. In the second half we then proceeded to use this knowledge in guided group reading and translation of selected texts. The first text was the Langjun inscription, the only inscription for which we have an almost bilingual account, the stele presenting both the Kitan and a rough Chinese translation (think an imprecise Rosetta stone). The second text we read together was the epitaph for Yelü Dilie, a figure of the late Liao, for which we have scattered historical accounts in Chinese sources. Much of this latter Kitan inscription remains a mystery, and what has been worked out are mostly Chinese loanwords. Working with these two Kitan language inscriptions thus gave us an understanding of how Kitan has been deciphered so far, and the difficulties in working with Kitan even when there is a parallel Chinese text to hand. The murkier second text was instructive of the degree of conjecture and uncertainty involved at this stage in research and how much more work needs to be done.

Alongside the Kitan language content of the course, each participant was allocated 10-20 minutes to briefly present their work to the group, regardless of what stage they were in their academic career or how complete their current projects were. This gave the crash course as a whole the additional function of a mini-conference, greatly enhancing the collegiate and collaborative atmosphere of the sessions over the nine days.

The group contact hours took up the mornings. Office hours with Professor Kane and a room furnished with all the necessary reference works for independent study were made available for the afternoons when no classes were scheduled.

The fifth day, the Sunday, was the designated free day, where many participants, myself included, took advantage of the proximity of New York to make a trip to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The “Met”, as it is commonly referred to, boasts a rich collection of East Asian artefacts, and our visit coincided with an exhibition on the Seljuqs (1037-1194), a dynasty which ruled partially contemporary to the Liao (907-1125) on the far west side of Asia. Despite this distance of geography, there were cultural parallels to be drawn between the Seljuqs and the Kitan, both having been characterised as nomads ruling over sedentary populations.

What did we get from it?

In the space of nine days this crash course not only achieved its goal of helping us to familiarise ourselves with the methodology and outcomes of research into the Kitan language, it also provided a platform to exchange ideas with a diverse set of scholars with a common interest in the Liao or the history of Northeast Asia.

This exchange undoubtedly will extend beyond the limited time frame of the crash course, and contacts established here show the promise of strengthening an international community of scholars, which will almost certainly go on to produce collaborative projects on a period of history and part of the world that is still unduly marginalised in scholarship. There are already plans in motion to reconvene and broaden this gathering of scholars a year from now.

The lessons to be taken away from the Kitan language at this stage are less direct. The exercise was humbling, as not only does so much remain unknown about the Kitan language, but the extent to which it is knowable is also uncertain. This severely restricts what Kitan language materials have to offer historians besides the fact of their existence. Furthermore, the current collection of Kitan materials are disproportionally tomb inscriptions. As a specific genre of performative writing concerned with eulogy, even should they be translated and apprehended in their entirety they may inevitably only provide a selective understanding of Kitan linguistic features (e.g. everything is in the past tense) and historical data.

Nevertheless, this invaluable initiation into the state of field for Kitan language opens up the study to a variety of interested scholars beyond its original dedicated coterie of Linguistics specialists, Sinologists and Altaicists. There were also discussions towards the end of the sessions about how the decipherment of the Kitan language may be made more accessible through digital humanities projects. Spreading the word about the Kitan language may encourage a broader base of interest and potentially more attention and investment not only in research on discovered sources, but also the investment in archaeology to discover more.  Regardless of the challenges and the uncertainty of reward in Kitan language research, the possibility of being able to recover a lost voice of the past should make the task an imperative of any historian working with this period and part of the world.

It is thanks to Professor Valerie Hansen and everyone at Yale University who helped make this happen through organisational, administrative and financial efforts, to Professor Daniel Kane, not only for his instruction at this event, but also for his years of work on Kitan, and to everyone in attendance for creating such a friendly, engaged and collegiate atmosphere, that this crash course was so successful and exciting to attend. It is thanks to Yale University and the University of Birmingham that my supervisor Professor Standen, my colleague Xue Chen, and I were able to take part in this unique and inspiring event.

Lance Pursey 

Chen Xue on the Yale Kitan Workshop

Date: 11th – 19th May, 2016


Venue: Sterling Memorial Library, Room 207, Yale University


Lectures and Participants:


Lecture sessions were led by Professor Daniel Kane, and the workshop was organised by Professor Valerie Hansen, Richard Sosa, and Suzette Courtmanche


Participants were BIRAN Michal, CHEN Yuan, CHO Yong, EISENLOHR Leopold, FU Rebecca Shuang, HANSEN Valerie, HYUN Jean, KANE Daniel, KIM Youn-mi, LI Yiwen, LOUIS Francois, MARSONE Pierre, MERRILL William, PURSEY Lance, SHIMUNEK Andrew, STANDEN Naomi, WEN Xin, XUE Chen, YANG Shao-yun,




By attending the workshop and by guided reading of the Langjun and Yelü Zongjiao inscriptions, participants in general have familiarised themselves with and gained a basic knowledge of:


The main concepts in Kitan language studies;


The main principles in the writing of Kitan scripts and epitaphs;


Approaches scholars have employed to decipher Kitan scripts;


The main reference books;


Some Kitan grammatical rules;


The status of the decipherment of Kitan scripts;


Input methods for fonts for the Kitan script;


The participants came from very diverse disciplinary fields. By providing a Kitan perspective, Kitan language knowledge would benefit a wide range of research area. For instance, in terms of my personal research, the decipherment of the two types of Kitan scripts, though mainly about times, personal names, place names, official positions and reign titles, has already provided considerable information about the discrepancies or concordance of records in Kitan and in Chinese materials (inscriptions and histories). These Kitan scripts provide opportunities for gaining new perspectives on the divergence and convergence between the self-constructed Kitan identity and external interpretations of the Kitan identity, and will help to stimulate reconsideration of the existing research, which is mainly based on one type of source or on one-dimensional interpretations. Furthermore, besides the 13th and 14th-century Qidan guozhi (Records of the Kitan State) and Liao shi (Liao History) which usually serve as dedicated histories for the Liao, the Kitan texts can help to draw more attention to the reliability of some 10th to 11th-century Chinese written histories from the Liao’s neighbours in different directions.


Complemented by different types of Chinese sources, knowledge from the Kitan texts provides a partial basis for investigating the long-term cultural exchange between Kitan Liao and its surrounding regimes in a wider historical and geographical context, such as, one of my concerns, the practices of qaghanship and emperorship in Northeast and Inner Asia since the collapse of Uighur qaghanate in 840. The Kitan Liao played an important and evolutionary role in these practices, exerting deep influence on contemporary interstate relationships and leaving legacies to later ones. The Kitan texts not only serve as a mirror of the sources of Kitan Liao internal institutions and relevant practices, but would also reflect, for instance, the waxing and waning of different cultural elements and their fluctuating influence inside the Liao realm in an age of dramatic social changes in both steppe and the post-Tang China world. These are vital for historians to understand the self-selected Kitan identity and how it differed from new interpretations of it by the Liao’s neighbours and successors, and to rethink wider issues such as the modern Eurocentric and Sinocentric discourses on the Kitan Liao studies.


The Kitan scripts are only partially deciphered which means full and continuous deciphered texts are not available or convenient to be presented as independent works. To locate the already deciphered Kitan characters, such as those relevant to the Kitan origin myths, in new paper-based sources and to further examine the possible context within which these characters have appeared or been used, however, would be important for historical research. Particularly inspired by talks with Andrew Shimunek, some Kitan reference books would be very helpful for this purpose. Though there is not yet an authoritative Kitan dictionary, the Qidan xiaozi cihui suoyin (Index to Kitan Words in the Small Script, title trans. by Daniel Kane) compiled by Liu Pujiang and Kang Peng, published in 2014, serves as a basic index for searching for the sources and deciphered meanings of Kitan Small Script vocabulary. Qidan wenzi yanjiu leibian (Compendium of Texts in the Qidan Scripts, title trans. by Daniel Kane) by Liu Fengzhu, published in 2015, as the most comprehensive work on Kitan language studies to date, provides initial transcriptions and photocopies of recovered Kitan epitaphs, and offers a compilation of important research on the Kitan language. The combination of the above works and other published research will help to locate Kitan characters, and to further the examination of their place, in textual contexts more easily and comprehensively.


Chen XUE

PhD Student, Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages,

University of Birmingham

First-year Discovering Medieval Literature module trip

Philippa took students from the first-year Discovering Medieval Literature module to St Nicolas’ Place, Kings Norton, where they spent several hours exploring the schoolhouse . It seems to have incorporated reused material from abolished chantry buildings and therefore has some interesting medieval fabric; it also offers an object lesson in how to read medieval and early modern structures. The medieval church and Tudor merchant’s house are also of considerable interest.

Game without Thrones: the field trip

At the Althing #theworldsoldestparliament IMG_2620

What could a university course called Game without Thrones be about? It turns out that it’s about the social history of medieval Iceland, a society famously without a king, hence without the need for thrones. It turned out, too, that this year the students on this module were offered a trip to Iceland. Thanks to financial support from the School of History and Cultures, the students got to see the landscape which helped create the society they’d studied. The trip took place in the Easter vacation, the ideal time for an entertaining revision session and some entertaining Icelandic weather.

Leif the Lucky and Hallgrimskirkja IMG_2796
Iceland has become famous for many things in recent years but has been famous for longest for its sagas. The Sagas of Icelanders are the best-known ones, set in tenth-century Iceland, and these were the ones the students were trying to understand better through their visit. The group followed in the footsteps (literal and literary) of the likes of William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien who were inspired by the laconic stories of bloodfeuds and the supernatural which sagas record. More importantly, the students followed in the footsteps of the likes of Njal and Gunnar from Njal’s saga, saw the picturesque site of Iceland’s medieval assembly, the Althing, and the site of the cathedral at Skálholt.

Njal's saga - the view from Gunnar's farm IMG_2692

No trip to Iceland would be complete without seeing other famous natural phenomena such as the original geyser, Geysir, and the waterfalls of Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. Venturing further along the south coast of Iceland also meant the group to see a variety of Iceland’s many landscapes (and many weathers) and the site of the 2010 volcanic eruption, Eyjafjallajökull. Time in Reykjavík meant we could visit Iceland’s National Museum and The Settlement Exhibition, both excellent places to learn about the archaeological remains of key sites in Iceland’s early history, and useful reminders of what we’d discussed in class and seen at the Althing and in “Njal’s saga country”.

Icelandic farm implements - as heavy as they are hilarious IMG_2731

Visits to other museums and sites helped to round out the students’ understanding of Iceland’s history in more recent centuries (with special thanks to the outdoor museum at Árbæjarsafn in particular for a guided tour). Other local customs were also partaken of. The group survived outdoor swimming in geothermal pools (air temperature, -3°C, windchill factor, considerable) and local delicacies such Icelandic hotdogs, dried fish and the local beverage, brennivín. They ‘missed out‘ on tasting the semi-legendary rotten shark so will have to wait until next time…