I write in praise of conferences (as I surely have before). The idea of presenting at a conference is intimidating – standing in a room of your peers and sharing your research is clearly going to make anyone nervous. Especially as it includes speaking in public which ranks relatively high in most people’s greatest fears.It is worth remembering then that giving papers at conferences and receiving feedback is integral to your academic life. Conferences are an excellent way to alleviate the isolation of solo research and I find talking with people who are equally passionate about their research, regardless of what that may be, always re-affirms my own enthusiasm.
It was wonderful then to get the opportunity to attend Masculinities in the Landscape at Harlaxton College which is the British campus of the University of Evansville. If I could sum up the whole conference in one word it was ‘encouraging’. All the speakers and attendees were friendly, enthusiastic and helpful in their feedback. If you have not visited Harlaxton Manor, and in the wilds of Lincolnshire it is a little out of the way, it is without a doubt a treat for the eyes. Built by an English eccentric in the neo-Elizabethan style replete with lashings of Gothic delight, its only competition is perhaps Strawberry Hill. It’s no wonder that many of the American students who stay at Harlaxton refer to it as “Hogwarts”.
As the conference wasn’t directly related to my studies I was able to enjoy listening to the papers without madly scribbling down everything I heard. This also meant that I had more time to consider how the papers were structured. Given that my biggest weakness in writing is considering my reader (feedback from my progression viva!) it was useful to see how the speakers made their subjects accessible to the entire audience.
I was pleased to be giving my paper in the first panel as I could then relax and enjoy myself. It was also wonderful to note the ties between some of my arguments and the other speakers which I could refer to in my paper. Dr Margery Masterson spoke on spaces that were used for duelling during the 1800s and raised very interesting points about the overlap between the private and the public in regards to masculine spaces. She also considered the performative aspect of the concept of honour before showing how the imposition of the railways meant that ‘private’, wild spaces were slowly lost in England.
The idea of masculinity, hunting and the erosion of the wild spaces was also covered by Prof. John Martin who looked at how battue game shooting changed the rural landscape. (Battue game shooting involves beaters). Here he showed how the importance of the number of birds that were shot became increasingly prominent. The narrative of the ‘chase’ was undercut by the amount of game caught. Thus land was sectioned off by estate owners in order to produce the maximum number of birds changing the appearance of England irrevocably.
The second session started with a paper written by Dr Lucy Ryder but given in absentia by Dr Katherine Weikert, one the of the organisers of the conference. It looked at how masculinity was represented in Cornish folklore. Of particular interest to me was the ‘othering’ of aberrant masculinities in relation to physical deformity or being overtly feminine. Many of the folk tales that were discussed re-affirmed the divisions in gender which regarded men as honourable and women as untrustworthy.
Katherine and her fellow organiser, Dr Edward Bujak, then gave a wonderful introduction to Harlaxton Manor and its surrounding area. The talk followed the chronology of the landscape starting with early land reformations and ending with intriguing history of the manor itself. What was startling was the amount of history that one small amount of land could hold – history which had clearly inscribed itself onto the landscape. The political and the personal could be read through the artefacts that had been found during various digs and even the undulations of the fields themselves. These changes were wrought from necessity – the creation of airfields in WW1 – all the way to impositions of personality – Gregory Gregory, who built Harlaxton, did so with the intention of cocking a snoot at the owners of Belvoir Castle by building directly opposite it on a space carved from the hillside.
The third session began with a discussion of medieval charters. Which honestly doesn’t normally get me hot under the collar. However Dr Linsey Hunter was funny, self-deprecating, and incredibly interesting. She made the valid point that by searching for the absent women in these charters we risk ignoring the obvious implications in regards to the construction of masculinity in these texts. Her comments on the importance of collaborative research between different fields of study were particularly apt. It is worth remembering that when researching you should not consider yourself in competition with other researchers in your field but in partnership. Combining different approaches to the same texts would offer a more subtle and balanced analysis.
Spencer Gavin Smith moved us from written evidence of masculinity to visually recognising male power in the form of royal display in North Wales castles. Royal display was a tradition that meant that the personage in question would display themselves in a purpose-built doorway so that people in the surrounded area could acknowledge their identity. It was a way of confirming that people were who they said they were in a time before pictorial representations were widely circulated. This elision between the public and the private was particularly relevant in light of the recent royal birth and the requirement that they came outside of the hospital and present the child. Even today we require a performance by those in power to offer a visual proof of their actions.
Looking back to private spaces and the personal, Dr Rachel Moss considered the relationship between fathers and sons within the space of orchards. She countered the argument that orchards were feminine spaces in that they were ‘safe’ spaces representative of ordered nature where women could gossip or amuse themselves. The paper also challenged traditionally models of father-son relations by suggesting that there was more emotional succour offered by the father than may first appear. Like many of the papers at a conference concerning masculinity, Dr Moss showed how masculinity encroaches on ideas of femininity and vice-versa. They overlap, meld and chase one another through the privacy of the home to the wilds of hunting grounds.
Considering the home as both a feminine and masculine space was also engaged with by Alexandra Logue. The powerful symbolism of the home in regards to masculine honour and pride exploded into violence and the invocation of the law. Her example of an all-out brawl over a washing line in Early Modern London was particularly evocative. (It is tempting to make an allusion to the recent brawl in Waco over a parking space by biker gangs – as space becomes a greater premium are parking rights the new legal sticking spot du jour?). Given my small amount of knowledge about Elizabethan clothing, I really enjoyed Alexandra’s point about privacy and clothes lines during this period of time. Given the lack of tumble dryers, biological detergent and knickers, by drying your clothes in public you often gave away a great deal more about your bodily functions and personal life than you would today.
The keynote was given by Professor Howard Williams and was entitled ‘From Stonehenge to the National Memorial Arboretum: Megaliths and Martial Masculinity in the British Landscape’. The keynote tied together many of the ideas that had been expressed through the day: the overlap between private and public, performances of masculinity, defending honour and the figure of the male warrior. By comparing the recent changes to the visitor experience at Stonehenge and the framing narratives used in the creation of the National Memorial Arboretum, Professor Williams raised the question: Do we create the Stonehenge that we deserve? It is still not entirely clear what the purpose of Stonehenge was, however, there have been clear trends in these discussions; trends which often say more about the people analysing Stonehenge than the megalith itself. The National Memorial Arboretum seemingly builds upon more martial interpretations of Stonehenge and entwines with a conscious and public form of remembrance and grieving for the military. His paper was followed by very engaged and engaging debate and powerful discussion on the role of remembrance within society.
The day ended with drinks in the conservatory, dinner in a hall richly decorated with gilded putti, before we retired to the Senior Common Room – a book-lined room furnished with leather seats. It was quite frankly a fantasy of what my academic life would be and like with all fantasies I was sorry to leave it and return to reality. However, I do have the consolation that I can start to plan my paper for next year!