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Absence in the Middle Ages

L’absence au Moyen Âge

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Published on Friday, October 02, 2020


During these days, the papers will seek to explore the notion of absence in the Middle Ages. This multidisciplinary symposium will be an opportunity to explore and discuss central influence on medieval culture.


9 - 10 September 2021, International Postgraduate Symposium CESCM (Université of Poitiers, France)


The CESCM (centre d’études supérieures de civilisation médiévale, University of Poitiers) in collaboration with the Research Unit transitions (research department on the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, University of Liege) and the Centre for Medieval Literature of the Universities of York and Southern Denmark (Odense) is pleased to open the call for the second session of the postgraduate symposium.

The first session was held in Liège, Belgium, in February 2020 and was dedicated to the notion of margins (XIth-XVIIth centuries). The second session will be held in Poitiers, on April 8th-9th 2021 and will be dedicated to the notion of absence in the Middle Ages. The third part will take place in York.


"For everything in this world is withering away; everything is subject to failure and death. Thus they are just born and they already tend to grow to a more perfect being, and the more hastily they hasten to be the most perfect things that they know how to be, the more hastily they hasten to be no more”. Saint Augustine, mourning the death of his friend, becomes aware of the ephemeral nature of the earthly world: everything is heading towards its own demise. His suffering in the face of the absence of his loved one is proportional to his desire to keep him at his side.

Absence is, in fact, only perceptible to the individual who is aware of the deficiency it induces. In this, it is different from nothingness. By taking the form of a deficiency, absence necessarily implies the concept of temporality. To feel absence is to maintain a memory, as much as a desire. Absence appeals to memory and affect, to nostalgia. In return, the awareness of a presence is revealed by the possibility of absence.

The theme of absence will be at the heart of this symposium. The notion of absence is at the foundation of all historical science; the principle of history is to bring to light the presence behind the lack. Absence can first of all be considered as the absence that the medievalist confronts. If the sources are the basis of his reasoning, the consideration of their absence is the safeguard of his work. More than the sources themselves, which may have undergone modifications, deletions or simply been lost over time, their defect may prove to be revealing for the researcher.

Beyond the method, the medievalist's object of study gives pride of place to the notion of absence. The latter is the driving force of medieval society. From the Latin abstentia to its appearance in the French vocabulary at the beginning of the 13th century, the term "absence" is defined by contrast: it literally means "non-presence". It is applied to a person's physical absence, but can also embody a more abstract lack. To question the notion of absence is to question Man - his being, his desires, his memory, his reactions to grief, to separation and the questions that arise from it. At the level of society as a whole, it is also a question of asking how institutions frame and meet the needs that result from absence. Consideration of the concept of absence in fact involves putting medieval structures in order: the feeling of injustice, for example, motivates the establishment of legal institutions, the failure of the body leads to recourse to medicine, the absence of the incarnate presence of the divine makes the mediation of the members of one's church indispensable.

In a second way, absence can be thought of at the individual level. Very often painful when it concerns friends, family or the loved one, absence can be fruitful. It proves to be a subject of great richness in art. To express absence is also to exalt, by contrast, an ideal. Moreover, fictional formating has the power to make the absent present in the mind. In absentia, the plastic or literary figure becomes the allegorical substitute for the object.

However, absence cannot only be seen as the negative counterpoint to presence. Spiritual practice bears witness to this. In the eremitical or anachoretic way of life, in particular, the will to "die to the world" of the great loners, implemented by an intensive practice of asceticism, enables them to acquire the impassibility conducive to spiritual elevation. Finally, it will be a question of reflecting on the way in which medieval people sought to compensate or exacerbate absence through various modes of thought and representation. How, for example, to say and represent the divine principle? Faced with the acknowledgement of the absence of its knowledge, advocated in particular by apophatic theology, the establishment of relic worship and the representation of signum (alphabetical and iconic) of the divine presence are all means implemented in response to the human feeling of absence.

In summary, we hope that the theme of absence will allow us to take a fresh look at fields as diverse as they are essential to medieval society: theology and philosophy, but also artistic, political, judicial or family practice. For the concept of absence embraces all spheres of human life, there is no research work specifically dedicated to this object of study. It has, however, been approached as a filigree by many medievalists. Among these can be cited Claude Gauvard, in the judicial field, Martin Aurell and Barbara Hanawalt, on kinship, André Vauchez and Peter Brown, on holiness, Michel Zink and Herbert Kessler, on medieval creation, or Alain de Libera and Olivier Boulnois, on the theological implications of the notion. During these days, the papers will seek to explore the notion of absence in the Middle Ages. This multidisciplinary symposium will be an opportunity to explore and discuss central influence on medieval culture. It is widely open to researchers in history, history of texts and literature, philology, history of art and images, philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, etc.

Proposals must fall under one of the following headings:

  1. The medievalist faced with the absence
  • The trace: missing words or objects, lost sources, perishable objects, the fragment, etc.
  • The expression of absence: the ellipse, the shortcut, the synthesis, the faulty lexicon, the void, the dark or the white, the unsaid
  • Voluntary absence: the use of forgeries, erasure, deliberate destruction, iconoclasm
  • Enquiry, quest,  the unreachable, the  implicit
  1. Absence in the judicial and political field
  • legislation and absent ones
  • Judgment in absentia
  • Exile and banishment in imposed absence
  • Reactions to the absence of political power
  • The shortcomings of society : famines, popular uprisings
  1. The experience of separation
  • Failing family ties: abandonment, infanticide, divorce, separation
  • The defect or departure of the loved one
  • The death of a loved one and their grief
  • waiting, flight, experience of emptiness,  mystery of love
  1. Lack of faith
  • Atheism and heresy.
  • Disloyalty, infidelity and felony in feudal relations
  1. The desired absence
  • Perfection (the absence of errors)
  • Asceticism (monasticism, the eremetical life and anchoriteism, voluntary poverty, renunciation, loneliness)
  • Practicing absence: silence, fasting, deprivatin, mustism.
  1. To tell and overcome absence
  • The materialisation and circumvention of absence in the process of literary and plastic creation (cultural transfers, translatio, figuration of otherness) as well as theatre (playful absence, simulacrum).
  • The articulation between fiction and reality (quarrel between universals, debates on Eucharistic realism, rhetoric of absence)
  • Thinking about the concept of absence: apophatic theology, evil versus absence of good, the stakes of mystery in theology and liturgical practice, the description of "Ineffable".
  • Substitution: the worship of relics, signs of the divine presence, miracles

Presentations (c. 20 min.) can be given in either French or English.

Practical Informations for submission

Proposal must be submitted by December 15th 2020 at the latest,

in pdf format, and sent by e-mail to colloque-absence@protonmail.com. The proposal will include the name and surname of the PhD candidate and those of their advisor(s), as well as the title of the thesis, the starting year of their PhD, the title of the lecture and a short abstract (no longer than a page)  followed by a short bibliography.

Applicants will be contacted by June 15th 2021, after the committee completes the selection process. At the end of the symposium, a certificate of participation will be released on request.

CESCM will offer lunches and coffee breaks to the participants. Travel and accommodation costs, however, will be at the expense of participants or of their research centres.

Organising committee 

  • Corinne Lamour,
  • Emilie Margaix,
  • Cécile Maruéjouls,
  • Elise Vernerey.


  • Hôtel Berthelot, 24 rue de la Chaîne, 86000 Poitiers - CESCM-UMR 7302, Université de Poitiers
    Poitiers, France (86)


  • Tuesday, December 15, 2020


  • absence, Moyen Âge, histoire, représentation, théologie, philosophie

Information source

  • Elise Vernerey
    courriel : colloque-absence [at] protonmail [dot] com


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Absence in the Middle Ages », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Friday, October 02, 2020, https://doi.org/10.58079/15d2

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