Researching the Autobiographical Impulse: New Methods and Texts in Medieval Autobiography Studies

deadline for submissions: 
September 15, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
Afrodesia McCannon
contact email: 

This panel for the 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies (May 10-13, 2018) considers new ways of imagining autobiographical writing in the Middle Ages.  It seeks historically, archivally, and theoretically informed expansions, reinterpretations, and examples of the genre for the medieval period.

The rationale for organizing this topic was to bring together scholars who are exploring new writings on the self in the Middle Ages.  Autobiography is not a genre usually associated with the Middle Ages -- by many accounts the genre was not born until the eighteenth century -- though several well-known texts within the field of medieval studies are autobiographical in nature, e.g. the Historia Calamitatum of Peter Abelard, the Book of Margery Kempe, De vita sua by Guibert de Nogent.  Even outside these examples, many medieval texts containing autobiographical material exist and this has inspired a recent scholarly interest in the genre. Yet, as a generic category, medieval autobiographical texts have been understudied. Even a brief perusal of scholarship on medieval autobiography will show an interest in the topic but a paucity of studies. This may be because autobiographical writing as it was traditionally defined was not a prevalent genre in the Middle Ages. The scarcity of works that consider the self in recognizably modern ways has, historically, only supported the supposition that the Middle Ages was the historical period just prior to the development of subjectivity. Recent scholarship has countered this supposition with many studies that revealed the complicated way in which medieval subjectivity functioned. This panel seeks to bring together research which reveals the complex nature of representing the autobiographical impulse in the Middle Ages. What I hope to stimulate through this panel is a discussion of little studied texts and other methods of investigating medieval autobiography outside of canonical texts and familiar genres. I am particularly interested in works that engage contemporary theories of autobiography and/or vernacular texts from the often unheard voices of laymen, women, and those outside western Europe. Ideally, the panel would provide some ideas on where and how to look for autobiographical material in the Middle Ages as it is often couched in other genres, written by others, or scribbled in margins of serendipitously found archival material.  Ideally, the panel should demonstrate that, contrary to prevailing concepts of the Middle Ages, there are numerous medieval autobiographical texts to be studied and that these texts can be unearthed if -- as medieval scholars have done with other areas of research -- the genre and its study are translated and reinterpreted for the Middle Ages.