What’s the purpose of a conference? Reflections on RSA 2015
In the summer of 1435, the Artois town of Arras was over-run. This was a peaceful invasion, unlike others in its history, for Arras was to be the site of a congress intended to end the major international conflict of northern Europe between the kingdoms of France and England by bringing them – and the allies of the English, the dukes of Burgundy – to the negotiating table. The congress was overseen by the Bolognese cardinal, Niccolò Albergati, in whose entourage were two future popes, Nicholas V and Pius II. Whatever the future greatness of some of his household, his companions formed a relatively modest following, particularly when compared with that of England’s premier cleric, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, who rode into town with a retinue of five hundred. Attendance at the congress, moreover, was not drawn simply from the main protoganists and the representatives of the papacy – its participants came also, as one orator presented noted, ‘from Cyprus, from Denmark, from Poland…’. For a town whose population was probably in the mid-twenty-thousands, these visitors must have swelled its numbers in a way that both provided economic possibilities and stretched its resources to near-breaking point. Where would all of Beaufort’s retainers stayed – in tents outside the town walls? How would the taverns have coped with the increased demand for food which there surely must have been, even if some of the attending dignitaries came with their own cooks and supplies? And the Congress of Arras, let us remember, was one of the smaller international conferences of the early fifteenth century. It could not compare with the General Councils of the Church – with Constance or Basel (especially in its early days) or with Ferrara-Florence (the pope’s riposte to Basel at which the Christian churches beyond the Catholic West were represented). Spare a thought for the locals of each of those towns who had to suffer as well as profit from the influx of strangers, with their colourful clothes, curious manners and incomprehensible languages.
The dress code among modern academics offers more subtle variation between national types than was the case in the age of the Councils. At an event like the Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America that ended a week ago in Berlin, there were some differences on display: the wearing of what looked suspiciously like pre-made bowties was considered appropriate fashion by some of one nation, while a few brave souls (and I use ‘brave’ in the sense of foolhardy) of another country unblushlingly sported braces (Amer.: suspenders – but let us not pursue that difference in usage). And this is only to comment on the practices of male couture. These examples remind us that the RSA, like the congress at Arras, was highly cosmopolitan, but without the advantage of having a universally owned lingua franca between scholars (ubi colloquia in lingua latina erant?); the event had instead to be polyglot, with at least lip-service paid to speaking in tongues. This contrast with Arras is one among the many significant differences, but, standing in the reception of the Humboldt University, I could not shake from my mind the sense that this ‘conference’ – and I will explain the scare-quotes in the second part of this discussion – with its 3,200 delegates, plus its support industry like the well-stocked book-stands (one of the few temptations to which the latterday academic fails to be immune), shared something of the character of one of those quattrocento Councils or Congresses. Moreover, I would humbly suggest, a future RSA could usefully include a panel or two on those Councils seen through the anthropology of the RSA.
I mooted this suggestion with a few of those attending – when I say a few, I mean roughly 0.15% of the delegates. They proposed some interesting topics. Of perennial fascination is the contrast – and sometimes conflict – between different styles of presentation, usually assumed to be a matter of national educational traditions, though the panels often also provide evidence of the movement or assimilitation of others’ habits; this could provide insight for those of us considering the process of the international adoption of humanist techniques of oratory in the fifteenth century. Equally valid would be to consider the range of audience engagements in a panel, from styles of questioning to the tradition of the intervento. Related to these subjects might be the sub-cultures created among attendees by what they do away from the conference venue – so compare the adventures of a Poggio Bracciolini at St. Gallen (or, indeed, Baden-Baden) with the opera outings of colleagues or the late-night drinking sessions (the membership of these events may be found to overlap). Such escapades could also allow a study of the impact of the sudden arrival of so many people on the local economy; there were certainly mutterings that the Berlin restaurants were caught unawares by the dietary expectations of the members of the RSA. Then, as was pointed out, there is the nature of gift-giving at such events which in itself reflects patterns of patronage some of which pre-exist while others are created at the event, either for its duration or with longer-term results. That, too, is linked to the matter of the after-tremors of the earthquake which is such a congregating of people: to the flurries of e-mails and follow-up meetings we may now be having could be parallelled the possibilities of renewed contact that were nurtured by an acquaintance made at a General Council. And, beneath and beyond all these smaller issues, the anthropological approach could allow us to consider the range of purposes and results of such an outsize gathering, in a such a way that we would be invited to consider how those other elements enhanced or undermined its ostensible raison d’être. It is, indeed, on its declared rationale that I want to concentrate in the second part of these reflections.