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Carmelites attend International Medieval Congress in Leeds
09 July 2012

A number of scholars working in the field of Carmelite Studies took part in the International Medieval Congress (IMC) at the University of Leeds between 9th and 12th July 2012.

The annual Congress is the largest gathering in Europe of academics researching the Middle Ages, attracting more than 1,600 participants from all over the world. Members of the Carmelite Family have been taking part in the IMC since soon after it began in 1994.

Perhaps because so much of medieval culture was influenced by religious belief, a good number of scholars of the period are Christian, and each morning of the Congress the Eucharist was celebrated by Carmelite friar Fr. Kevin Alban, O.Carm. During the Masses Kevin prayed for the IMC's organisers and speakers. It was particularly significant to celebrate the feast of St. Benedict during the Congress, with several experts in Benedictine history and spirituality taking part in the worship. One of the Masses during the week was celebrated in a particular way for evangelisation, since, as Kevin said, the work of scholarship is ultimately about proclaiming the truth which leads us to God.

Fr. Kevin Alban celebrating Mass in one of the IMC's lecture rooms.

Fr. Kevin is a friar of the British Province who is serving the Order internationally as Bursar General, based in Rome. Kevin recently completed his doctorate in medieval spirituality, and on the first morning of the Congress delivered a presentation on the theological debates around sacramentals that took place in fifteenth-century England, in a session organised by The Lollard Society.

Kevin speaking at The Lollard Society session.

The Lollard Society promotes research into the religious practices, language and literature of the late Middle Ages, a time when Carmelites were engaged in debate with the dissenting theologian John Wyclif and his followers, sometimes known as Lollards. Presenting papers on debates about sacraments and sacramentals alongside Fr. Kevin were Dr. Mishtooni Bose (University of Oxford) and Dr. J. Patrick Hornbeck II (Fordham University). The session was moderated by Johan Bergström-Allen, a Lay Carmelite who is researching a doctorate in medieval literature, and who runs the Projects & Publications Office of the British Province of Carmelites.

Kevin, Mishtooni and Patrick at The Lollard Society session on
'Wycliffites, Sacraments and Sacramentals'.

The following day a specifically Carmelite session took place at the IMC, co-sponsored by the British Province of Carmelites, the Institutum Carmelitanum (the Order's scholarly academy based in Rome), and the Carmelite Institute of Britain & Ireland (CIBI). The session was moderated by Fr. Antony Lester, O.Carm., prior of the Carmelite friars in York and CIBI Executive Board member, who is conducting postgraduate research.

Fr. Tony (right) introducing the Carmelite-sponsored session at the IMC.

The first speaker in the session was Brother Patrick Mullins, O.Carm., Director of CIBI and Professor in the Department of Systematic Theology and History at The Milltown Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Dublin. Pat recently completed a second doctorate on the document that became the Rule of Saint Albert, and his paper considered how this text developed from a lay 'formula of life' to a religious rule. Pat spoke about the bishop who approved the 'formula of life' requested from him by the first hermits on Mount Carmel, Saint Albert Avogadro; Pat explained that Albert approved what was effectively the first 'Third Order Rule' in the Church for a group of 'Humiliati' in Italy, and the original Carmelite 'formula of life' was a similar document for a group of lay penitents. He spoke about the text's gradual approval by the wider Church, and how all the various branches of the Carmelite Family that exist today can legitimately draw inspiration from the original text.

Pat Mullins speaking during the Carmelite session at this year's IMC.

The second paper in the Carmelite-sponsored session was due to be given by Fr. Giovanni Grosso, O.Carm., the Order's Postulator General (responsible for overseeing Carmelite canonisations) and President of the Institutum Carmelitanum. Giovanni had travelled to Leeds, but sadly had to return to Rome on the morning of the session because of a family illness. In his stead Kevin Alban read Giovanni's paper on 'Blessed John Soreth's Reform of the Carmelite Order'. The paper recounted how Soreth (d. 1471) had looked to the Rule of Saint Albert for inspiration in his attempts to revitalise Carmelite life in the fifteenth century.

Blessed John Soreth featured prominently in the third paper of the Carmelite-sponsored session, given by Dr. Bram van den Hoven van Genderen, who teaches in the Department of History and Art History at the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands. Bram's paper was entitled 'The Benefits of Observance?: The Accounts of the Carmelites in Utrecht'. He explained that very detailed financial accounts of the Carmelite friars survive in Utrecht, giving an interesting glimpse into the community's daily life. The friary in Utrecht was one of the reformed convents inspired by Blessed John Soreth's renewal of the Order, but Bram's study of the friars' accounts shows that the reform was only successful in part. The accounts show that the Utrecht Carmelites lived permanently on the brink of financial meltdown. They had very little estate properties and rents (one of the consequences of reform), relying instead on a wide range of income sources which depended on the friars engaging with a broad network of supporters (thus compromising some of the ideals of the reform).

Bram's presentation included images of the accounts
kept by the Whitefriars in Utrecht.

Throughout the International Medieval Congress scholars were able to browse the various published resources available in the field of Carmelite Studies, at a book stall run by Saint Albert's Press.

Johan Bergström-Allen, director of Saint Albert's Press,
at this year's IMC Carmelite book stall.

On the Wednesday afternoon of the Congress, a paper on the Carmelites was included in a session organised by a research project based at Technische Universität Dresden in Germany which is making a comparative study of religious orders in medieval Europe (Forschungsstelle für Vergleichende Ordensgeschichte, abbreviated to FOVOG). The Curia of the Carmelite Order in Rome is in partnership with FOVOG, producing an online database to be called the Bibliotheca Carmelitana Nova (BCN). The BCN will catalogue Carmelite authors from the first few centuries of the Order, allowing scholars to better identity Carmelite writings and encouraging new research into the Order's history.

The BCN is being compiled by Dr. Coralie Zermatten, who gave a paper at the IMC considering how the Carmelite Order changed its 'propositum' (its basic purpose and mission) in the thirtenth-century, which enabled the brothers to move from hermit communities into the wider Church and Society of medieval Europe.

Coralie presenting her paper at the IMC.

Since its inception in 1994 the International Medieval Congress has been based at The Weetwood Hotel and Bodington Hall, one of the campuses of the University of Leeds on the northern side of the city. Next year the Congress will be held a week earlier and at a new venue, the University's main campus in Leeds city centre. To mark the last IMC at Bodington Hall, a festive evening was celebrated on the last night of the Congress. Medieval music was performed as delegates walked to a field adjoining Bodington Hall. There they watched a spectacular display of medieval jousting and horse-riding skills.

Delegates were led to the temporary jousting field by the sound of medieval music.

The jousting and equestrian display gave the final IMC to be held at Bodington Hall
a truly medieval flavour.

The Congress was an extremely stimulating and entertaining gathering, which helped to advance Carmelite Studies in some very important areas of research. Carmelite scholars look forward to gathering at the IMC's new venue next July.