The Leicester Medieval Research Centre

MRC Conference 2018: Troublesome Elements

Event details


Since early antiquity, the four elements have been a vital means for making sense of all aspects of human experience. While subject to local variations and shifting emphases over time, the four basic principles of earth, water, air and fire have proven formidably pervasive and versatile as an interpretive model, whether approached as abstract building-blocks or as concrete physical matter.

In medieval Europe, elemental theory guided understanding of a wide range of phenomena, shaping ideas of medicine, cosmology, diet, agriculture, husbandry, meteorology, the human life cycle, and many other frameworks and practices; yet the elements could also be problematic. When their harmony and proportion were thrown out of balance, they could become agents of chaos rather than order; in many respects, they might prove downright troublesome.

This one-day conference with the Medieval Research Centre at the University of Leicester on the theme of Troublesome Elements encourages critical and creative responses from across all disciplines to the various difficulties that the four elements presented to medieval culture. Themes that will be variously explored include:

  • Natural disasters - earthquakes, floods, conflagrations
  • Interpretations of natural phenomena - wind, rain, seasonal change
  • Agrarian practices - soil and animal husbandry, crop failure
  • Architecture and settlement plans - building and street orientations, salubrious and insalubrious landscape situations
  • The role of the elements in human experiences - disease, deformity, sex and gender, diet, ageing, psychology, and mortality
  • The symbolism of the elements in medieval art - in poetic, mystical or iconographic discourses
  • The elements in religious life - responses to the Flood, apocalypse, miracles, wonders


9.00-9.30: Registration and Coffee

9.30-11.00: The Good Earth: Exploiting the Elements

Susan Kilby (Leicester), 'Troublesome Earth: Medieval Peasants, Sustainable Farming and Elemental Theory'

Elisabeth Maria Magin (Nottingham), 'Taming Fire, Taking Revenge - Medieval Runes and Magic'

Alexandra Rowe (California State), 'Dirty Hands: The Role of the Elemental Earth in The Passion of Saint Christopher

11.00-11.15: Break

11.15-12.45: Knowing Air: The Elements and Knowledge

Miguel Ayres de Campos-Tovar (Courtauld Institute), '"Like lanterns lighting up the dark night": Fire and the Nature of Vision in Wonders of the East

Michael Warren (Royal Holloway), 'Aeolian Change: Affective Winds in Middle English Love Lyrics'

Elisa Ramazzina (Queen's University Belfast), 'Rainbow and Flood in Anglo-Saxon Computus Tradition'

12.45-13.45: Lunch

13.45-15.15: Troubled Waters: The Elements and Crises

Goutam Karmakar (National Institute of Technology, Durgapur), 'Of Perceiving Men and Nature: Negotiating Calamities in the Middle Ages and the Interpretation of Climate Change'

Imana Pal (University of Calcutta), 'Imbalance of Elements and Impact on Climatic Change: A Comparison Between the Medieval and Modern Eras'

April Armstrong-Bascombe (Durham), 'The Art of Salvation: A Mid-Fourteenth-Century Catalan Polyptych'

15.15-15.30: Break

15.30-17.00: Fire and Brimstone: The Elements and Justice

Andrew Daventry (Associazione Culturale Sculpsit), 'A Song of Ices and Fires'

Emma Knowles (Cambridge), 'Troublesome People and Obedient Elements: Nature and Justice in the Junius 11 Manuscript'

Costanza Benedetti, Marta Luccarini and Aurora Pesi (Associazione Culturale Sculpsit), 'The Lexicon of Myth: Ovidian Flood and Local Chronicles'

17.00-17.15: Break

17.15-18.15: Keynote

Hetta Howes (UCL), 'Women, Work and Water'

Back to top