Invention and discovery

February 3, 2006

What's it about?

This conference will take an inventive look at invention in the Middle Ages, between 500 and 1500. This can include technological advances, but also the invention of literary forms and re-invention of earlier classical texts. It will also consider medieval voyages of discovery and how travellers brought back new ideas as well as artefacts.

Medieval technology?

Don't get sucked in to thinking about the Middle Ages as a thousand years of mud and bad haircuts. Things such as soap, silk clothing and brandy were introduced, so it wasn't all grim. On a more industrial front, there were developments in wells, windmills and looms. Mechanical clocks and compasses were being made, and cathedrals and castles were built without the benefit of power tools.

Poetic licence

Among the biggest innovations was the English language itself, and the conference will look at the different literary techniques that emerged in the poetry of this multi-cultural tongue.

Missing faces

The conference will look at "methods of representation in the visual arts".

If you're stuck for small talk at the conference tea bar, one of the biggest cultural differences to consider is the absence of individual images. It wasn't a big era for self-publicists. There were no official royal portraits commissioned until Richard II, and magnificent poetry such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight could be produced without its author's name ever being known.

Middle sages

Another big idea of the age was the university, with about 60 institutions founded in Europe by the end of this period. These could be turbulent places. A dispute in Paris over a tavern bill led to attacks on students and a two-year university strike.

Live fast, die young

Pensions would not have been a worry for medieval academics. High rates of infant mortality, periodic bouts of plague, poor diet and limited medical services meant that the average life expectancy was only about 31 years.

Those hardy enough to survive into their 30s could expect to reach 50.

Fakes and hoaxers

The conference will look at the less-than-accurate discoveries and inventions of the Middle Ages. Because few Europeans travelled beyond their borders, writers who claimed to have discovered lands with fantastical inhabitants often went unchallenged, and the era saw the growth of a literary genre blurring the boundaries between first-hand accounts, exaggeration and downright fantasy.

Discovery channels

But there were also real explorers, undertaking ocean voyages in perilously frail ships or overland journeys that took years. These trips and trading missions in Asia, Africa and America brought back ideas such as cannons and gunpowder from China. The Arabic influence on medieval Europe is seen in the Arabic numerals we use.

Sound advice

Malory's Morte d'Arthur and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are available on CD, but you'll look much cooler with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film A Canterbury Tale . You can have a heated discussion about classical chart climbers the Mediaeval Baebes and then switch over to anything by The Divine Comedy.

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