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First Annual Virtual Symposium on Pre-Modern Studies

First Annual Virtual Symposium on Pre-Modern Studies

Owner: Shandip Saha

Group members: 6



Welcome to the first annual Virtual Symposium on Pre-Modern Studies organized by Athabasca University and the Medieval and Modern Institute (MEMI) at the University of Alberta. We will be holding the online symposium on March 16th, 2013 between 9:30 and 11:30 am MST.

You will find below all the information you need about the theme for this year's symposium, how to submit and download paper submissions, and how to log in to the virtual conference based on the paper submissions.

Symposium Topic:  

This year's topic is entitled "Catastrophe, Calamity and Chaos in the Pre-Modern World." The abstracts and schedule for the symposium can be found towards the end of this webpage.

Symposium Format: 

We have asked contributors to send their contributions in advance of the Symposium. These contributions will be in video or traditional paper format and will be  posted on this website for individuals to access.

You will find the link to each individual presentation  in the symposium schedule which is towards the end of this webpage. You will find each link directly under the names of each contributor. Please do not circulate or reproduce any portions of these presentations without the expressed permission of the authors.

The March 16th symposium will be consist of a discussion of the various presentations posted on this website. There will be no full length presentation on the day of the symposium. It is assumed that those who are attending will have prepared in advance by coming to the symposium webpage to access the main contributions to the symposium.

How To Join: 

You will have the option to join us in person at Room 2-58 in the Tory Building at the University of Alberta or you can join us virtually via your computer. If you join us online, we will be using Blackboard Elluminate as the conferencing software for the symposum.


Login Instructions:

We will be using Blackborad Elluminate as the conferencing software for the symposium.  You will click on a link and it will take you directly into the virtual conference room.  The link  will be live the morning of March 16th and can be found below:


Using Blackboard Elluminate:

Software Requirements:


You may need to update your browser to use an Adobe plug-in. If it asks you to install it, please do. It is more or less like Elluminate. 

Blackboard  is powered by Java for both Windows and the Mac OS. Do make sure you have the latest version of Java otherwise there is a possibility Elluminate won't install properly on your computer.  Java is a free download and you can access the options for different operating systems by going to the Java website:


Hardware Requirements:

The minimum hardware requirements for using Elluminate is a set of speakers so you can hear the discussion. If you are attending virtually and want to ask a question, you should have a microphone connected to your computer. If you do not have a microphone, but still want to ask a question, you can type it directly to the online moderator  in the virtual conference room who will then relay it to the appropriate participant.  To minimize the possibility of eching and audio feedback, we strongly recommend that participants use either a headset or a simple pair of headphones when attending the symposium.

Elluminate has a small test program that you can use to ensure that your computer is compatible with the software. Once you have done the audio and microphone tests, you might also want to take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the various options that you can use when logged into Elluminate. The test program can be accessed by clicking on the link below:


 If you have any technical questions or concerns you can contact Dave Sun at: or Shandip Saha at:




There are no registration fees for the symposium. You can simply log in on the day of the conference or if you want to notify us that you will be joing the symposium, you can email Shandip Saha at

For more information please contact:

Dr. Felice Lifshitz:

Dr. Shandip Saha:




Location: Tory Building, University of Alberta, Room 2-58.

MEMI (PreMI) Symposium:

Catastrophe, Calamity and Chaos in the Pre-Modern World

Saturday February 9, 2013, 9:30 – 11:30 AM Mountain Standard Time

Moderated Discussion of Seven Presentations, Available on Athabasca Website




Session I:  Early Medieval History (9:30 – 10:15 AM)

Dr. Ruth Dwyer (McMaster University)

Eclipses, Comets and Craters, Raining Fire, Justinian’s Plague and the Ravenna Mosaics


David James Patterson (University of British Columbia)

Adversus Paganos:

Interpreting Natural Disaster in the Sixth Century



Dr Conor Kostick ( University of Nottingham), Dr Francis Ludlow (Harvard University)

'European weather extremes in the lifetime of Charlemagne (c.742 – 814 AD)'

  Conor Kostick (University of Nottingham) and Francis Ludlow (Harvard University):  European Weather Extremes in the Lifetime of Charlemagne (c.742–814 CE)



Session II: Late Medieval Literature (10:15 – 10:45 AM)


Dr. Carrie Griffith (University College Cork)

“...half so greet was nevere Noes flood”: Memory, Prediction and Chaos in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale.


The Rhetoric of Stasis and Chaos in the York Judgement Play

Dr. Douglas W. Hayes (Lakehead University)

  Douglas Hayes (Lakehead University):  Rhetoric of Stasis and Chaos in the York Judgement Play


Session III: Colonial Latin America (10:45- 11:15 AM)


Dr. Iris Gareis (Institut für Ethnologie, Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt)

Historical Anthropology of a Catastrophe:

The Huaynaputina eruption in 1600 and its cultural dimensions

Iris Gareis (Institut für Ethnologie, Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt): Historical Anthropology of a Catastrophe: The Huaynaputina eruption in 1600 and its cultural dimensions


Dr. Ann De Leon (University of Alberta) and Tanya Ball (University of Alberta)

Explaining Natural Catastrophes through European and Amerindian Archives in Chimalpahin’s

 Seventeenth-Century New Spain Historical Annals

    Ann De Leon and Tanya Ball (University of Alberta): Explaining Natural Catastrophes through European and Amerindian Archives in Chimalpahin's Seventeenth Century New Spain Historical Annals


 Session IV: General Discussion (11:15-11:30)




You Tube Contribution:

Eclipses, Comets and Craters, Raining Fire, Justinian’s Plague and the Ravenna Mosaics

Ruth Dwyer

(McMaster University)


As the emperor Justinian was building the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (532-537), a series of spectacularly dramatic climate and celestial events occurred. These were not just ordinary eclipses or earthquakes, these were Biblical in their enormity. In the early stages of building the largest church in the world there was a most remarkable solar eclipse, which occurred on the horizon, as the sun was rising. In the midst of construction the earth was rocked with terrible “explosions and earthquakes.” Fire and stones “rained” from heaven, and a dry fog, so dense and so thick that a “weak sun” was visible for only 2 hours per day, hung in the air for more than 3 years. The air temperature dropped precipitously. Snow was reported in August. Famines and plague took the lives of almost 40% of the world’s population. For a society in which eclipses and earthquakes were perceived to be the hand of God either approving or disapproving of man’s actions, man was being given very mixed messages from the Almighty. Are there contemporary images of such celestial and earthly visitations? Yes, at both the Hagia Sophia and in the mosaics at Ravenna.


 Paper Contribution:

Adversus Paganos: Interpreting Natural Disaster in the Sixth Century

David James Patterson (University of British Columbia)

In 589, a great flood of the Tiber sent a torrent of water rushing through Rome. According Gregory of Tours, the floodwaters carried with them some remarkable detritus: several dying serpents and, perhaps most strikingly, the corpse of a dragon. The flooding was followed by plague; after Pope Pelagius II succumbed to the pestilence, he was succeeded by another Gregory, “the Great,” whose own pontifical career began in the midst of what must have seemed truly an annus horribilis to the beleaguered Roman populace. This remarkable chain of events leaves us with puzzling questions. What particular significance would Gregory have located in such a narrative? For a modern reader, the account (apart from its dragon) reads as nothing so much as the description of a natural disaster, or a series of them. Yet how did people in the early Middle Ages themselves perceive such events? This paper will argue that, in making sense of the calamities at Rome in 589, Gregory reveals something of his historical consciousness: drawing on both biblical imagery and pagan narratives, Gregory struggles to identify appropriate objects of both blame and succor in the wake of upheaval.


 Paper Contribution:

European weather extremes in the lifetime of Charlemagne (c.742 – 814 AD)

Dr Conor Kostick (University of Nottingham)

Dr Francis Ludlow (Harvard University )


This paper will examine the historical and natural proxy evidence for Europe’s climate, c.742-814 AD and make the observation that this was a time when Europe was experiencing severe variation in weather, from heatwaves to short but intense periods of wet weather and flooding. The severe winter of 764 that has been attributed to the effects of a major volcanic eruption was perhaps the most dramatic environmental calamity in Charlemagne’s lifetime, an event that has been discussed by Historical Climatologists before now. But recent research into historical records, European tree-rings and other natural proxies, including cave speleothems, Greenland ice-cores and sedimentary archives, allows for a comparative perspective on the historical evidence with a tighter focus on more subtle environmental patterns and their sometimes counterintuitive social effects. It was, for example, an unnaturally mild winter in 808 that allowed a pestilence to flourish according to contemporaries of the time.


 Paper Contribution:

“...half so greet was nevere Noes flood”: Memory, Prediction and Chaos in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale.

 Carrie Griffin

(University College Cork, Ireland)


Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, a fabliau involving a comic love triangle which is most commonly read and understood in conjunction with the Knight’s Tale, features the threat of a second flood which is predicted by the clerk Nicolas in order that he can buy some time with the carpenter’s young wife Alison. The tale is certainly bawdy, at time rude, and hugely enjoyable; however, as is the case with many of his works, it also offers more serious reflections on the world in which Chaucer was writing. The Miller’s Tale, under the surface of the comic deception, offers commentary on contemporary practices associated with prediction, prognostication and related attempts to control or at least be certain of future events. This, coupled with the uncertainty associated with the methods used by Nicolas, and his manifestly duplicitous nature, presents to the reader a world that is chaotic and unpredictable, a situation that converges on the promised Second Flood and the calamity and confusion that ensues, paradoxically, the non-occurrence of that Flood. Chaucer asks us to consider two canonical texts and traditions: the Bible (which is both text and event) and the Almagest of Ptolemy which is owned by Nicolas, each of which imaginatively stands at the beginning and the end of the text, but between which there is chaos and uncertainty. In between those pillars people encountered versions of those texts and traditions which may often be unreliable and, therefore, potentially calamitous in their effect. This paper and presentation will consider how the Miller’s Tale represents and theorizes the chaos and uncertainty that was very often a feature of real life in England in the fourteenth century, and Chaucer’s attitudes to the ways in which people attempted to counteract this. It will also consider the importance of the ‘memory’ of the Flood, an ‘event’ that impacted on medieval human experience and collective imagination.


 Paper Contribution

The Rhetoric of Stasis and Chaos in the York Judgement Play

 Douglas W. Hayes (Lakehead University)


The York Play of the Last Judgement, coming at the end of the day-long performance of this important Corpus Christi cycle from medieval and early modern York, was an impressive spectacle, as a still extant description of the Judgement pageant wagon suggests.  The catastrophe of the end of the world was a visually striking event, complete with clockwork angels, a lift for God, and a spectacular Hell.  However, it is also a rhetorical tour de force that underscores the Augustinian concepts of righteous stasis and chaotic evil that Alexandra Johnston has argued shape the cycle as a whole.  An analysis of the rhetorical structure of this play demonstrates the extent to which rhetorical stasis and chaos are balanced to shape a dramatized event that is both a catastrophe and a divine consummation. 


Paper Contribution:

Historical Anthropology of a Catastrophe:

The Huaynaputina eruption in 1600 and its cultural dimensions

 Iris Gareis (Institut für Ethnologie, Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt)

On 19 February 1600 the eruption of the Huaynaputina (“young volcano” in Quechua) in southern Peru devastated villages, vineyards and the cities of Arequipa and Moquegua. The explosion of the stratovolcano, the largest in South America in historical times, had blown away the upper part of the mountain and killed 1,500 people almost instantly.

 My concern is especially with the cultural dimensions of this event. Creoles, colonial Spaniards, indigenous people, and other groups of the multicultural colonial society, interpreted the catastrophe in different ways. There is, however, a consistent interpretation within all social groups as punishment inflicted by God or Andean deities. While the colonial Spanish performed penitential processions, millenarian believes spread among the indigenous people and some even sacrificed themselves to the mountain god. Further research will consider among other problems the change in the perception and order of the space.


Paper Contribution:

Ann De Leon and Tanya Ball

Explaining Natural Catastrophes through European and Amerindian Archives in Chimalpahin’s Seventeenth-Century New Spain Historical Annals

Prior to the Conquest of Mexico, historical records or annals were traditionally painted by the Nahuas in black and red ink, and were also preserved through a rich oral tradition. Originally these Nahua annals or xiuhpohualli (year-counts) were pictographic, but after the Conquest this style began to be replaced by alphabetic writing and began to incorporate the Christian calendar alongside the Nahua calendar. When discussing the ancient Nahua calendar in his alphabetic Nahuatl-Spanish annals, Chimalpahin was proud to note how he successfully “adjusted and harmonized [the ancient count] with the Christian month count” (Codex Chimalpahin Vol. 2, 119). In reconciling multiple systems of timekeeping, history, and cosmovision, Chimalpahin was no different than other New World Indigenous or Mestizo historians as they too incorporated a variety of European sources such as the Bible and Classical texts. Where Chimalpahin stands out is in his inclusion not only of European cosmographies (which incorporated astrology and medieval views of the cosmos), but also the new sciences in their explanations of celestial phenomena such as eclipses (Enrico Martinez).

This scientific explanation of celestial phenomena, leads us to ask the question: why is there a sudden interest in the scientific explanation of the universe? Moreover, why is it that Chimalpahin holds Martinez’ research in high regard? The answer to this question is perhaps clarified by further investigating Martinez, who is often presented as a mysterious, yet particularly fascinating figure within Mexican history. As an interpreter for the Inquisition, he was privy to information and confiscated items. Among these confiscated items was a Dutch printing press, which was given to him thanks to his previous knowledge of the printing craft. This allowed him to produce and distribute a variety of works including his famous Repertorio de los tiempos, where he explored the concept of the universe from a scientific perspective. It is this perspective that intrigued numerous copyists including Chimalpahin who were increasingly interested in the history of Europe and the world in general.

It is no surprise that in the last ten years Chimalpahin’s work has attracted the attention of scholars. Among them, Susan Schroeder who has carried out the most extensive work on Chimalpahin’s texts noting in passing that in his “portrayal of natural phenomena and in particular natural disasters, his split personality in terms of upholding indigenous traditions versus embracing modernity comes to the fore […] Ultimately, church processions replace ancient Mexica rituals as a means of coping with natural disasters in the annalist’s accounts” (Annals of His Time 8).  Thus, a study of the representation of nature and natural catastrophes enables us to gain more insights into how indigenous colonial historians and intellectuals viewed their world and how they struggled to reconcile and integrate both European and Indigenous archives and worldviews.



About Our Contributors


Tanya Ball (University of Alberta)


Tanya Ball is a first year MA student in the department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, specializing in Spanish and Latin American Studies. Her research interests include pre-columbian and colonial Latin American history with an emphasis on Aztec religion and indigenous agency. 

Ann De Leon (University of Alberta)

Ann De Leon's research interests focus on an interdisciplinary approach to Colonial Latin American Literatures and Cultural Productions, Transatlantic studies, and Post-Colonial Theory with emphasis on Mexico. She is also interested in Latin American Indigenous cultural productions, Material Culture, Codices, the Aztec language (Nahuatl), Gender Studies, and Translation Studies




Ruth Dwyer (University of Toronto)


Iris Gareis (Institut für Ethnologie, Goethe-Universität) 

 Iris Gareis has extensive experience in archival studies in Spain and Latin America. Her research interests include religion, witchcraft studies, early modern popular cultures of knowledge, gender and transculturation and utopias of the Hispanic and Lusitanian world and the Americas.

A list of  her publications can be found at:



Carrie Griffin (University College Cork, Ireland)

 Dr. Griffin is a  Irish Research Council Marie Curie/CARA Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of English, University College Cork, Ireland. Her research interests are in late-medieval and early modern book history and the production, circulation and readership of scientific/instructional texts. She is also interested in the intersection of science and literature; cultural studies and medievalism; medieval drama; digital humanities; and book-collecting. Her edition of the Middle English Wise Book of Philosophy  and Astronomy_ will be published Middle English Texts (Heidelberg:
Universitatsverlag Winter) in early 2013, and she is completing a monograph
entitled Learning and Information from Manuscript to Print for Ashgate.
She has also co-edited a collection of essays _Readings on Audience and
Textual Materiality (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011).




Douglas Hayes (Lakehead University)

Dr. Hayes' research interests include medieval and Tudor drama, rhetoric, the Scots Makars, and editing. In addition to his book, Rhetorical Subversion in Early English Drama, I've published papers on the N-Town Plays and the Castle of Perseverance, early Scottish drama, and Thomas Blount, and I've edited the Scots Makars and Ulpian Fulwell's Like Will to Like for The Broadview Anthology of British Literature and the Broadview Anthology of Medieval Drama.



Conor Kostick (University of Nottingham)

Conor Kostick holds an Advanced Research Fellowship from Nottingham University (UK). His two year project is to amass the historical data for European weather extremes 400 - 1000 AD, to devise a method for weighing the reliability of the data, and to correlate it with the natural proxy data for the same period. Dr Kostick has previously held the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Science's post-doctoral fellowship, based at Trinity College Dublin as well as awards from Marsh's Library Dublin and the Office of Public Works (Ireland). His publications include, The Social Structure of the First Crusade (Brill, 2008), The Siege of Jerusalem (Continuum, 2009), Medieval Italy, Medieval and Early Modern Women - Essays in Honour of Christine Meek (Four Courts, 2010), editor, The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories (Routledge, 2010), editor.



Francis Ludlow (Harvard)

Francis Ludlow is a Ziff Environmental Fellow with the Harvard University Center for the Environment (since 2011) where he is working with Prof. Michael McCormick of the Department of History, Harvard University, to combine the climate record of the Irish Annals with the Irish oak tree-ring record and Greenland ice-core data. From 2009 to 2011 Dr Ludlow was a Research Fellow with the Trinity Long Room Hub. In 2006, he was a Visiting Scholar with the School of Geography, Archaeology and

Palaeoecology, Queen's University, Belfast. Here he worked with Prof. Mike Baillie and Mr. David Brown on a comparison of historic weather extremes and the Irish oak dendrochronological record.



David Patterson (University of British Columbia)

David Patterson is a second-year MA student in the History program at the University of British Columbia, where his thesis supervisor is Dr. Courtney Booker. Research interests include pre-modern understandings of “natural disaster,” late antique and medieval historiography, and the works of Gregory of Tours.








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