Vernacular Devotional Cultures Sessions - 10-13 May 2018 - 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo

deadline for submissions: 
September 15, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
Vernacular Devotional Cultures Group
contact email: 

The Vernacular Devotional Cultures Group is organizing the following four special sessions at the 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in May 2018. Please see below for full call details.

Please send abstracts of no more than 300 words and a completed Participant Information Form to the organizers of your selected session by 15 September 2017. Electronic submissions are preferred.

1. Mysticism and Literacy in the Devotio Moderna

Organizer: Barbara Zimbalist, University of Texas at El Paso

The late-medieval religious movement known as the Devotio Moderna receives consistent critical attention within Dutch-Language scholarship. Scholars such as Wybren Scheepsma and Thomas Mertens have long championed the prolific vernacular authors of the “modern devout,” while more recently critics such as Patricia Stoop and Anna Dlabaçova have called for renewed attention to Devotio Moderna’s widely varied manuscript cultures and their interactions with other late-medieval religious movements and religious orders in the Low Countries and Northern Europe. While less Anglophone scholarship generally attends to the Devotio Moderna, English speaking scholars such as John Van Engen, Amy Hollywood, and most recently Patricia Dailey have called for new attention to the mystical authors and devotional texts affiliated with the movement. This session aims to further this scholarly focus by providing a forum for new work on mysticism and mystical writing within the devotional cultures of the Devotio Moderna. We invite papers to consider authors and texts focused on mystical experience and authorship as well as the wider sphere of devotional reading and practice—the sphere Wybren Scheepsma has described as a “textual universe”? How might these distinct yet related aspects of the Devotio Moderna’s spiritual world be considered in new ways, or in relationship to each other? What texts and authors offer new avenues of inquiry into the unique religious literacy of the Devotio Moderna? Finally, how do these questions shed new light on the Devotio Moderna’s relationship to the contemporary spiritual and textual environments of the later Middle Ages? 

Contact Information:

Dr. Barbara Zimbalist
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Texas at El Paso


 2. Space and Place at Syon Abbey and Sheen Charterhouse

Co-Sponsored by the VDCG and the Syon Abbey Society
Organizer: C. Annette Grisé, McMaster University

Syon Abbey and its neighbour Sheen Charterhouse are an excellent case study of representations of physical place and symbolic space. Not only do we have a wealth of historical documentation for these houses, but Syon Abbey has been in the media spotlight in the last decade. It was the site of recent archeological digs both for the BBC TV series Time Team and also for Birbeck University. In addition, Syon celebrated its 600th anniversary in 2015, which resulted in media coverage, academic conferences, popular and scholarly publications, and religious services to mark the occasion. This session will allow scholars to reflect both on our current representations of this pair of monastic houses and also past representations and the historical evidence we have from the medieval period on Syon and Sheen. Monastic history has been reinvigorated by modern theoretical trends in both cultural materialism and space and place, following the publication of Roberta Gilchrist’s 1994 book, Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women. Interdisciplinary work on religious houses is also significant: Paul Lee’s study of Dartford, E.A. Jones and Alexandra Walsham’s work on Syon Abbey, Vincent Gillespie and A.I. Doyle’s monumental catalogues of Syon and the Carthusian houses, in addition to Anne Yardley’s and Katherine Zieman’s studies of music at religious houses and Ann Bradley Warren’s and Mary Erler’s work on religious women’s books, are just a few of the important interdisciplinary studies to come out in the last two decades. Combining work on representations of physical place and symbolic space with other disciplinary findings will bring a greater understanding of devotional practices and religious cultures at not only these specific houses but to monastic culture of the period more generally.

Contact Information:

Dr. Catherine Annette Grisé
Associate Professor
Dept. of English and Cultural Studies
McMaster University
Hamilton, ON L8S 4L9


3. Reform and Piety

Organizer: Brandon Alakas, University of Alberta Augustana

By the end of the Middle Ages, piety—the outward expression of one’s belief and observance of devotional practice—increasingly became a site for reform and controversy. Time spent in private devotion was scrutinised by institutional authorities as vernacular contemplative literature’s focus on personal reform spread outward. Nicholas Watson has pithily remarked on this phenomenon by stating that private devotion is “profoundly imbricated, despite its declared status as otherworldly and private, in the political, the social, and the ethical.”  Mary Erler, Vincent Gillespie, Alexandra Walsham, and Nicole Rice, among others, have examined the ways in which vernacular texts functioned as engines of spiritual and ecclesial reform as well as instruments for building communities and cementing networks of readers. Especially fruitful, for example, has been the recent attention scholars have paid to Syon Abbey’s early printed texts, which has cast new light on the mobility and multiplicity of vernacular devotional texts on the eve of the Reformation.

This session aims to further explore the dynamic role of vernacular devotional writing in the period spanning the medieval and the Early Modern periods. We anticipate papers that probe the complex relationship between piety and reform—whether it be of an individual, a religious community, or specific categories, such as lay and cleric. We are also interested in the ways in which vernacular devotional works interrogate authority, use reform ideas for either orthodox or heterodox ends, translate or bring traditions from other areas or communities, adapt or transform concepts from Latin to vernacular contexts.


Contact Information:

Dr Brandon Alakas
Department of Fine Arts and Humanities
University of Alberta, Augustana
4901 - 46 Avenue
Camrose, AB T4V 2R3


4. Intersectionality between Medieval Conduct Literature and Vernacular Devotional Literature

Organizer: Stephanie Amsel, Southern Methodist University

Medieval conduct, or courtesy, literature provided didactic practical guides for women to lead an ideal secular life. These guidebooks, written by men primarily, stress the importance of secular women’s relationship to husbands, children, and instruct women on how to organize and manage a household. These treatises focus on habits of order, neatness, and cleanliness, and also offered a religious view of life for medieval wives, who were expected to act from a religious principle.

Yet, devotional texts, including treatises by Jerome and Ambrose, as well as Ancrene Wisse and Holy Maidenhood, emphasize virginity over marriage. Nevertheless, they pay close attention to the behavior of their audience and seek to proscribe ideal female and lay conduct for religious practices. This session seeks to explore the intersectionality between medieval courtesy, or conduct, literature and female vernacular devotional literature. Scholars, including Judith Butler, have examined discursive and material practices in relation to the creation of a female subject. This session welcomes other theoretical approaches to increase the understanding of the socioeconomic and historical role of European vernacular conduct books, and to explore connections between these books and the writings of devotional women. We are interested in a wide variety of topics for this session, such as: female reading practices and reception, issues of class and gender, physical and spiritual ideas of chastity and virginity, antimatrimonial propaganda read by anchoresses or other female devotional communities, explorations of the quality of virginity and practice of chastity as a form of female strength, and discussions of mystical women who became holy women after leading a secular life (ex: Angela of Foligno, Birgitta of Sweden).

Contact Information:

Dr. Stephanie Amsel
Southern Methodist University
3225 University Blvd., Suite 5
Dallas, TX 75205