The International Courtly Literature Society: A Brief History

by Raymond Cormier, Visiting Professor of French
Longwood College

The Society was officially launched at the Modern Language Association meeting in Chicago in December, 1973, at a special seminar on medieval courtly literature, organized by R. Cormier. The Constitution and By-Laws, which had been drafted by co-founder P.A. Thomas and Cormier over the summer and fall, were adopted by those present–who included many of the same scholars who had originally, though perhaps at first quizzically, endorsed the creation of such a Society back in May, 1973, at the end of a Kalamazoo session on the theme of Courtly Love (organized by P.A. Thomas).

Soon after the founding in December, the first Triennial Congress of the Society was held in Philadelphia (April 1974). Co-sponsored by Temple University, it featured guest speakers Peter Dronke (Cambridge) and the late Reto R. Bezzola (Zürich). One highlight of the program was a student production of Aucassin et Nicolette, which was videotaped and made available for rental at a nominal charge during the 70s. Unfortunately, the papers for the Acta of the meeting could not be published, although one session’s papers appeared as In Pursuit of Perfection: Courtly Love in Medieval Literature, ed. Joan Ferrante and G. Economou (1975); Peter Dronke’s plenary paper on Paolo and Francesca was published in Comparative Literature (1975).

The University of Georgia was the venue for the second Triennial Congress, March-April 1977. This meeting, organized by Nathaniel Smith and Joseph Snow, also attracted over 100 participants. The late John F. Benton (CalTech) was a plenary speaker. Audio cassette tapes of the meeting’s plenary sessions were made available to participants, and a selection of papers was published by the University of Georgia Press (The Expansion and Transformation of Courtly Literature; 235 pp.), edited by the organizers. If the mood in Philadelphia was uncertain, the character of the Athens meeting was sanguine. We had asserted once and for all our distinctiveness from the International Arthurian Society. We had seen, because of a sharper focus in our self-definition, the first signs of real interest on the part of young scholars. Sessions on courtly literature were under discussion with willing organizers for regional meetings (e.g., SCMLA, SAMLA, RMMLA, and so forth). And the British Branch, ably led b y Glyn Burgess (University of Liverpool), became a reality, with yearly colloquia eventually attracting upwards of 100-110 participants. Similar regular meetings later took place in Canada, France, and Germany. In addition, international correspondents were contacted so that the bibliography would reflect a global scope. Other international branches were established in Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan, Belgium, Denmark, and Germany-Austria. Throughout the 70s and early 80s, many, many volunteer scholars helped make the ICLS a viable and creditable learned society, among them (to mention only the North American team), Judith Davis, Karina Niemeyer, Ron Akehurst, Charles Dahlberg, E. Paige Wisotzka, Deborah Nelson, Merritt Blakeslee, Wendy Pfeffer, Douglas Kelly, Don Maddox, Patricia W. Cummins, and of course all the section and Congress organizers over the years.

Just in time for that second Congress in 1977, the first issue of the Society’s publication, the bibliographical bulletin Encomia, appeared (documenting 1974 courtly bibliography), and was well received. Library subscriptions were beginning to come in and the membership ranks were increasing. This journal included an indexed and abstracted Bibliography of Courtly Literature, produced by an international team of scholars, as well as occasional book reviews and news of members. Membership as of fall 1994 hovered just below 1000 members world wide, which reflects the current circulation of Encomia, around 900.

The next large gathering of the Society took place three years after the one in Georgia; August 1980 saw the Society traveling across the Atlantic to the University of Liverpool, our host for the third Triennial Congress, with Glyn Burgess as the Organizing Secretary. This affair was trilingual, with English-speaking, French, and German scholars in attendance, a trend that continues to this day, along with the addition of Italian and Spanish as official languages.

From Liverpool, excursions to authentic medieval sites were included in the program (e.g. Skipton Castle, Fountains Abbey). The organizer was also able to secure funding for an expanded volume (nearly 400 pages) of Acta, entitled Court and Poet: Selected Proceedings of the Third Congress of the ICLS (Liverpool, 1981; 364 pp.).

The setting of the Fourth Triennial Congress was glittering University of Toronto (August, 1983) and was organized by Robert Taylor. The number of presenters and participants at this meeting topped 150 for the fist time. Once again, selected Proceedings were edited by the organizer (along with Glyn Burgess again), and published as The Spirit of the Court (Cambridge, 1985; 408 pp.).

At a quaint conference center, on a charming canal in a Dutch country setting, there gathered some 175 medievalists in August of 1986. This was the site for the truly international Fifth Triennial Congress in Dalfsen, The Netherlands. The spirit was at once jovial and intense, with time spent profitably on excursions to such medieval delights as the Cathryn-Convent in Utrecht. From the Proceedings, some forty-five selected articles were collected, edited, and seen through the press by the organizer Keith Busby, assisted by E. Kooper (Courtly Literature: Culture and Context, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 1990; 621 pp.).

In spite of a few organizational miscues, the Sixth Triennial Congress in Salerno, Italy (August 1989) turned out for the best. The highlight of this somewhat more modest meeting was a cozy and captivating closing banquet held in Capri on the patio of a restaurant high above the lapping Mediterranean waves–while we were treated to a poignant impromptu concert of Troubadour cansone. Some forty papers from the meeting were published as L’imaginaire courtois et son double, edited by the Congress organizers, Giovanna Angeli and Luciano Formisano (Naples, 1991; 519 pp.).

Literary Aspects of Courtly Culture, edited by Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox (Cambridge, 1994; 360 pp.), represents a careful and balanced selection of thirty-four papers from the ample program for the Seventh Triennial Congress held at the University of Massachusetts-Armherst, July-August 1992). The organizers (also the editors) arranged an unforgettable and extraordinary meeting, whose highlights included a typical New England clam bake and a concert of medieval Trouvère, Minnesinger , and Troubadour music by members of the Boston Camerata led by Joel Cohen.

Although the original bold plans, proposed in 1977, for post-doctoral fellowships to advance international research and exchange, for a new journal devoted to comparative courtly issues, and for an international research team project to focus on the medieval court of Champagne as a cultural center, have not been realized–for various reasons–there is room for hope. Our Eighth Triennial Congress in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at Queen’s University (July 1995), with the theme “The Court and Cultural Diversity,” promises to be our largest and most international so far. The Society has been pushing, even elbowing, the envelope of parochial definitions of courtly literature, in response to the life long dream of Reto Bezzola, author of the five volume study, Les Origines et la formation de la littérature courtoise en Occident. Thus we march to a different beat, yet we rise.

Summer 1995

Report on the VIII TC ICLS Congress,
Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland

by Raymond Cormier, French Instructor
Central Piedmont Community College
Charlotte, NC

The Eighth Triennial Congress opened on Wednesday afternoon, 26 July, with guest registration at the Elms, a modern and efficient dorm complex about two miles north of the main University campus. Professors Evelyn Mullally and John Thompson, of the School of Modern and Medieval Languages, were the tireless organizers of the meeting.

After a Reception in the lower dining hall, the first Plenary address, “The City of Gold and Jewels: Cross Cultural Exchange in Late Medieval England,” was offered by Felicity Riddy, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York.

To launch us in the morning (now located at Queen’s University), Michel Zink of the Collège de France gave the second Plenary talk, “La Fin des Chroniques de Froissart et le tragique de la cour.” After generous helpings of coffee, tea, and chocolate biscuits, we proceeded to Sessions 1,2, and 3 (four simultaneous sections, each with three to four papers)

ICLS National Branch meetings followed, with a showing of videos to promote Saturday’s excursions. That evening a banquet featuring Irish cuisine was offered in the Great Hall of the University.

Gearíd Mac Eoin offered the third Plenary, “Poets and Princes in Early Irish Literature,” on Friday morning. Sessions 4,5, and 6 provided a full day of working papers (some thirty three different presentations), followed by a Triennial General Meeting, a buffet dinner and musical entertainment by the group Trasna.

Except for the fourth Plenary address by John Scattergood, “Courtliness in 14th Century English Pastourelles,” Saturday’s energies were devoted to an organized excursion, some going south to Armagh and Emain Macha (Navan Fort), others to the Giant’s Causeway. Those going to Armagh were able to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the charming public library. Sunday morning was filled with multimedia presentations, as well as a promotional video for the University of British Columbia site of the IX TC ICLS in three years.

Sessions 7,8, and 9 brought the very busy weekend to a close with some thirteen different sections again with two to four papers in each. Buses departed for the elegant Malone House, where we were officially welcomed by Armagh’s Lady Mayor and treated to a delightful farewell banquet, which proved to be the closing event (as always, bittersweet) for the Congress.

Some were called away to other activities on Monday, such as a visit to the breathtaking Botanical Garden (next to the fascinating Ulster Museum of Folk Life). The organizers had arranged for two different day long excursions, one to Dublin and another to St. Patrick’s Purgatory.

Most participants departed on Tuesday morning.

Now we forge ahead to Vancouver in 1998, the twenty fifth anniversary of our founding.

October 1995




Minutes of the General Assembly, Thursday, July 30, 1998

1. Venue of the Tenth Triennial Congress, 2001

Two proposals were presented:

(a) Christchurch, New Zealand: apologizing for the lateness of the proposal, Margaret Burrell circulated a handout and emphasized that the holding of the conference in New Zealand would provide much-needed support for European Medieval Studies, which were otherwise in danger of disappearing. Moreover, the year 2001 was the only feasible one for organizing such a conference herself, and a team was in place to assist. She was skeptical whether there would be anyone to organize one at a later date. Air New Zealand had promised a discount for group departure, and sponsorship money should be forthcoming. The cost, once there, would be fairly low, and the climate reasonable; the conference would take place in July in a centrally-placed Convention Centre.

(b) Tübingen, Germany: Christoph Huber, Henrike Lähnemann, and Annegret Fiebig, faculty members at the Universität Tübingen, who had been planning for the 2001 ICLS congress for the preceding seven months, gave an account of Tübingen’s history and emphasized the city’s appropriateness as a meeting place for the Society, as well as the breadth and depth of its programs in Medieval and Early Modern Studies. The congress would be organized under the auspices of the Graduiertenkolleg “Ars und Scientia im Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit,” which includes 25 full time faculty and some 40 graduate students and research fellows. Several other departments at the Universität would also be involved in its organization. Costs would be reasonable, and accommodation would be in student residences or hotels. Located in the mountainous region of Swabia, in southwestern Germany, Tübingen is easily accessible by both air and ground transport.

After some discussion from the floor on the merits of each case, and in the absence of the presenters, a vote was taken: Tübingen received 47 votes, Christchurch 26.

2. Minutes of the Belfast General Assembly

The minutes of the Eighth Triennial Congress, held in July 1995 in Belfast, were approved.

3. Matters arising

There were no matters arising which would not be dealt with in subsequent items.

4. President’s Report

The President gave an account of recent visits to France, Germany and Italy to discuss matters pertaining to the national branches in those countries. He announced that the Italian and French sections had recently changed officers: the incoming President of the Italian section is Valeria Bertolucci-Pizzorusso; the new Secretary is Fabrizio Cigni. Both are from the Università degli Studi di Pisa. The incoming Secretary of the French section is Michelle Szkilnik, of the Université de Nantes.

At his meeting with representatives of the German section last May, it was foreseen that its reorganization would begin at the Vancouver congress, and he invited Volker Honemann, of the Universität Münster, to address the group with a brief report on progress to date, as well as on future plans for the section.

He reminded the meeting that the Newsletter of the North-American section, which appears three times per year, welcomes contributions about events and activities in other countries. [N. B.: submissions, ideally in September, February, and April, should be sent to Professor Debora B. Schwartz, Department of English, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA USA – 93407; e-mail: dbschwar@polymail.cpunix.calpoly.edu ]

He announced that, in collaboration with Gerard J. Brault and the Graphics Department at Pennsylvania State University, the Society has acquired a new logo for use on its documents and publications. One variant of the emblem appeared on a t-shirt on sale at the Vancouver congress. He also announced that a complementary emblem based on medieval heraldic charges was being devised by Jonathan Boulton, of Notre Dame University, and that it would be presented at the congress in 2001.

5. Secretary’s Report

The Secretary stated that he had canceled the Society’s subscription to FILLM, in accordance with a decision taken at the Belfast meeting.

He had also completed surveys concerning our past meetings (numbers attending, places, etc.) for ICCA DATA (Netherlands), and would be completing a further one for the Vancouver conference.

He had been invited twice to Geneva for an International Conventions meeting, but had declined, because the meetings occurred at a difficult time (early May), and the event in any case seemed to be directed more at business, whereas our meetings were usually held on University premises. He had also received an inquiry whether we would be interested in meeting in Jakarta.

He had written to two British Universities, anxious at the non-appearance of Encomia, for which they were paying annually, in order to reassure them and urge them not to cancel their subscriptions.

He had kept Branch Secretaries informed of the situation concerning Encomia, and requested up dated membership lists in 1997, receiving replies from Switzerland, Denmark, Italy, Belgium, Holland, USA/Canada, and the UK.

Three months prior to the Vancouver meeting, he had circulated to all Branch secretaries the proposed amendments to the Constitution, as required by the Constitution, and requested feedback on any comments from members. He received replies from the USA/Canadian and Belgian branches, offering no objections to the proposals.

6. Treasurer’s Report

The Treasurer reported that $1500 in seed money had been allocated to the Organizers of the Vancouver congress.

Only one issue of Encomia had been published since the last conference, and a total of 794 copies distributed. The volume had been paid for and national branches were billed for the appropriate amount.

7. Editor of Encomia‘s Report

Following the delay in publication of Encomia, either a double issue (vols 18/19) would be published in the Spring of 1999, or the two issues would appear separately in the course of that year.

Membership was reported to be about 750, but this figure was expected to increase to 800 or more as a result of the Triennial Congress.

8. Chief Bibliographer’s Report

The production of the Bibliography had held up the publication of Encomia. European branches needed to be reactivated and deadlines for submission restated: national bibliographers should submit copy by November each year to the Chief Bibliographer, so they should request submissions from their assistant bibliographers by September.

The question of what to include should be left to the discretion of national bibliographers, who were invited to add a keyword to individual items to assist the indexing.

As a further way of ensuring that items are registered, authors were invited to submit details direct to the Chief Bibliographer.

The possibilities of improving communication electronically were mentioned.

9. Revision of International Constitution and Bylaws

The proposed changes were read out by the Secretary and approved. These involved the deletion of the reference to Arthurian material under Constitution II Purposes (I) and rearrangement of the wording; the simple correction of the wording of Bylaws III International Congresses (iii); and the referring to reimbursement of International Officers for attendance at International Congresses.

10. Election of Officers

The following officers were re-confirmed in office or elected to replace existing officers:

President: Donald Maddox (continuing)
Vice President: Erik Kooper (continuing)
Secretary: Leslie Brook (until July 1999); Wendy Pfeffer (from July 1999)
Treasurer: Stephanie Cain Van D’Elden (continuing)
Editor, Encomia: Maria Dobozy (for the forthcoming vol.); Jean Blacker (thereafter)
Chief Bibliographer: Heather Arden (continuing)

11. Any Other Business

There was a proposal of thanks to Chantal Phan for the organization of the Vancouver conference, and one to Margaret Burrell for her presentation of the Christchurch proposal.

Contributors to Encomia were asked to leave their addresses with Heather Arden to facilitate the transmission of information.

Erik Kooper announced a congress on chronicles to be held at Utrecht in 1999.