Third PhD Conference

Netherlands Research School for Medieval Studies

Utrecht, 8 November 2017


10.00-15.30, Catharijneconvent, Lange Nieuwstraat 38, 3512 PH Utrecht, het Lokaal, Tel. 030 2313835


During the conference, four advanced PhD students will present their research (30 min.). Each presentation  will be followed by a response from a referee.

Interested parties are welcome to attend, especially the School’s PhD and ReMa Students. Conference Language: English.

Please register with the School's secreteriat  no later than 1 November 2017. Space is limited and  will be granted on a first come first served basis.


Chair: Prof. Catrien Santing, RUG (Academic Director)


10.00-1030          Welcome,  Coffee / tea


10.30-11.00        Sander Govaerts, UvA

Mosasaurs. Interactions Between Armies and Ecosystems in the Meuse Region, 1250-1850.

11.00-11.30        Response: Prof. Jan Burgers, UvA



11.30-12.00        Lieke Smits, UL

The Engaging Imagery of the Song of Songs: Making Senses of Bodily Expressions in Medieval Spirituality (1100-1500)

12.00-.12.30       Response: Prof. Sabrina Corbellini, RUG



12.30-13.15        Lunch break


13.15-13.45        Johanneke Uphoff, RUG

The Performance of Writing: Lay Scribes of Religious Texts

13.45-14.15        Response: Dr. Anna Adamska, UU



14.15-14.45        Nanouschka Wamelink-van Dijk, UvA

Fasting in the public eye: medieval ideas about saintly self-starvation and spectatorship

14.45-15.15        Response: Dr. Claire Weeda, UL



15.15                     Conclusion






Sander Govaerts, UvA


'Mosasaurs. Interactions Between Armies and Ecosystems in the Meuse Region', 1250-1850.


The ecological impact of warfare has become the subject of passionate discussions in the last decades. These arose from a perceived need to regulate and limit the destructive effects of contemporary conflicts on the natural world (e.g. The War in Vietnam). Military organisations have reacted to this criticism by arguing that they act as protectors of nature, given that many military domains around the world have been turned into natural reserves (e.g. de Hoge Veluwe). Remarkably enough, both sides in the debate use historic examples as a convenient 'other'. Warfare has either always been destructive, or today's armies distinguish themselves because of their 'modern' or protective behaviour towards nature.

The PhD project 'Mosasaurs. Interactions Between Armies and Ecosystems in the Meuse Region, 1250-1850' considers ecological influences of armies in a long-term perspective. In order to properly understand ecological change one has to consider centuries rather than the few years or, more rarely, decades that specific wars represent. It aims to show that military influences cannot be reduced to wartime destruction, but include a divers range of reciprocal interactions with ecological systems. Medieval city walls for instance constituted a unique environment that could only be preserved through constant maintenance. This emphasis on the long and complex history of military-ecological interactions ought to be taken into account in current debates.  

The results of this research could also contribute to efforts to give the Middle Ages a more central place in larger historical debates. Rather than using a simplistic view of medieval warfare to frame the actual argument, as is unfortunately all too common in military history, this project contends that interactions between armies and ecosystems up to the nineteenth century cannot be understood if one does not take fundamental developments during the High Middle Ages into account. The traditional divide of the fifteenth century, based on gunpowder, the Columbian exchange, etc., is far less important than changes happening around the year 1000. The very word soldier is of medieval origin.

The actual study considers five themes: frontiers, fortifications, disturbances, policing and pathogens. The notion of 'ecosystem' is to a large extent theoretical ('everything is connected to everything else') and needs a more practical component. These five themes represent the three scales inherent in the ecosystem concept (landscapes, fauna-flora and diseases) and combine a wide range of military-ecological interactions in a meaningful framework. This presentation aims to show some preliminary conclusions, based on the structure of these five themes, but also devotes considerable attention to the aforementioned problems of chronology and explains its choice for a specific range of sources.



Lieke Smits, UL


The Engaging Imagery of the Song of Songs: Making Senses of Bodily Expressions in Medieval Spirituality (1100-1500)


Late medieval religious culture relied heavily on sensory experiences. The sacred was mediated through images and other religious objects, which were not only looked at but also touched and sometimes even kissed. The body was an important tool in experiencing the presence of God. Scholars have long sought explanations for the popularity of images and other sensory phenomena in late medieval culture, which are not completely in line with the more sober ideals of the otherwise influential twelfth-century monastic reform movements. Many useful publications have studied the role of the senses, emotions, and imagination in medieval spirituality, mostly based on sources belonging to the tradition of ‘affective piety’, in which the passion of Christ and the sorrows of the virgin Mary are central.

A point of view that is underrepresented in current scholarship is the importance of the rich and sensual vocabulary of the Song of Songs as a model for the function of imagery and sensory perception. The mystical interpretation of this Old testament book became popular in the twelfth century and led to a tradition of bridal mysticism, forming a continuity between twelfth-century reform and the spirituality of the later period. The reception of Canticle is important in order to understand medieval modes of reading, viewing and sensing in the Low Countries.

                In the domain of reading, the Song of Songs offered a variety of images to envision the mystical relation between the soul and Christ, which could appeal to different types of readers. Moreover, the imagery of love was combined with that of the passion, resulting in images that had a powerful impact on the reader’s memory. Medieval devotees who looked at images of the crucified Christ were influenced by texts, both visions and meditations, that describe the dead Christ coming to life and embracing and kissing the viewer. Thus, the vocabulary of the Song of Songs was used in these kinds of ‘scripts’ that shaped the way medieval devotees looked at Christ as a suffering bridegroom. As this phenomenon already suggests, speaking about images and object in terms of looking is not enough; the mediated experiences of the sacred was multisensorial. The notion of hagiosensorium can be helpful in understanding how the sensing were constantly trained to look for the sacred, thereby sanctifying the senses at the same time.



Johanneke Uphoff, RUG


The Performance of Writing: Lay Scribes of Religious Texts


The PhD-project with the working title: Reading, Writing, Collecting: Miscellanies and Private Libraries is part of the NWO funded project Cities of Readers: Religious Literacies in the Long Fifteenth Century. This sub-project investigates the participation of lay people in the religious textual culture of the late medieval Low Countries, through an analysis of a selected corpus of personal religious miscellanies, other religious manuscripts owned by late medieval laypeople and archival sources such as booklists and wills. 

The project is conducted along three methodological lines. The first one is Active readership, which is an umbrella term for a range of activities related to textual culture such as the collecting, reading, copying, and transmission of texts. Through these activities laypeople could participate in the production and dissemination of religious knowledge, both in the individual and in the communal sphere.

The second methodological line is Space and Place. The Cities of Readers project aims to develop a spatial approach to the cultural dynamics of the transmission of religious knowledge. It aims to identify the physical places in late medieval towns where religious knowledge was created, discussed and exchanged. For example the places where people kept and exchanged religious texts.      

The third methodological line is the reconstruction of Communities of Interpretation. Religious texts, and through these texts religious knowledge, could be disseminated through networks. The project will analyse the role of religious texts and active readership as stimuli for the engagement of lay people in social networks.

During the PhD conference I will focus on one specific chapter of my dissertation, dealing with scribal activities performed by lay people, copying religious books for private use. In modern scholarship, scribal activities have been categorized as being either a monastic or commercial activity. Non-professional lay scribes copying texts for personal use fall beyond these traditional categories. This blind spot has led to the underestimation of the role of lay people in late medieval textual culture. My project aims to revise our understanding of these roles, by zooming in on the practicalities and significance of the scribal activities of laypeople. Scribal colophons will serve as a starting point to gain insight in the socio-historical contexts of these scribes. The focus will be on the performance of writing, i.e. on the interpretation of scribal activities as devotional practices.



Nanouschka Wamelink-van Dijk, UvA


My research aims to understand medieval ideas about the radical fasting by late medieval female saints from a performance-theoretical point of view. In order to do so, I analyze the ways in which hagiographers describe that others witnessed, participated, or learned about saintly fasting. I make a distinction between various food-related performances, such as feeding others; undergoing tests taken by skeptics who try to find out if the aspirant saint’s fasting is fraudulent; rejecting food; and competing with others who consumes the grossest or the least amount of food. The chapters of my dissertation are ordered thematically and each chapter deals with one or more of these performances.

The chapter I will be presenting at the conference deals with the rejection of food. The first two sections of this chapter are finished in draft but the final section is still work in progress. Therefore, I will present only two sections.

The first section consists of an analysis of the imagery of the communal meal in the Vitae of late medieval female saints. In medieval religious communities, the refectory was a space where the community gathered. Thus, it is not accidental that hagiographers frequently use references to the refectory meal as a narrated stage on which the saintly women, who lived in convents and beguinages, performed their fasting. After all, readers would understand that there were enough spectators present. Moreover, there were clear rules for behaving correctly in the refectory, which provides hagiographers with the opportunity to describe the deviant behavior or their subjects. Some saints are, for instance, said to have yelled and fainted during meals. Others simply did not show up for the communal meal, or disrupted the meals of others by running into the refectory with disturbing news. It is argued that hagiographers use such references to demonstrate that their saintly subjects stood out from the crowd: they were not in need of the food that others needed and they were able to get away with their deviant behavior. Moreover, via the imagery of the communal meal hagiographers provide their readership with examples of how to react to saintly behavior.

The second section deals with hagiographical accounts in which saintly women are (force) fed. In this section, various references are analyzed in which bystanders try to make a saint eat. This includes a range of activities varying from putting food in the saint’s mouth when she is unconscious to causing pain or unease through feeding or using excessive violence. It is argued that in these accounts the narrated bystanders are not only needed as eyewitnesses of food abstinence, but also as participants in the saintly performance. It is through these accounts of violence and social pressure that hagiographers demonstrate that the saintly women really could – or should – not eat.