I said, ‘I think you have a book here!’ I certainly wasn’t prepared to be involved in said book, or for the dominant part it would play in my life for the next five years, but I was and it did and now it is published.
This initial enthusiasm on my part followed a session at the Leeds International Medieval Congress of 2017 for which the theme was ‘Otherness’. Naḥum Ben-Yehuda, an Israeli scholar with a longstanding interest in textiles had organized a session called ‘Dressing Otherness – Garments as Expressions of Diverse Ethnicity in Medieval Iberia’ featuring Dolores Serrano-Niza, Joana Sequeira and María Barrigón, under the sponsorship of DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics and Fashion) which I had co-founded.
Joana and María undertook to approach suitable speakers from Portugal and Spain respectively, and Naḥum to co-ordinate. They were unanimous in wanting an English language publication. I agreed to advise on approach to a publisher and to check on the English of the final submissions as none of the contributors, except Naḥum, would have English as a first language.
I soon learned that mañana is not a joke. Things move slowly in Spain, where people mull over the pros and cons of a suggestion before replying. It was a year later, at the Leeds 2018 Congress, when we got together again for a meeting with Caroline Palmer of Boydell, to discuss a firm proposition. Joana planned a conference for June 2020 where all the contributors would present an outline of their planned chapter, in English, after which we could all thrash out an inconsistencies, omissions and problems.
The conference, generously hosted by CITCEM (Centre for Interdisciplinary Research ‘Culture Space and Memory’) at the University of Porto, was a delight. Between sessions we spilled out onto a flat roof with a glorious view and endless sunshine, eating pasteis de nata (others may have been eating some of the different pastries on offer, but I adore these rich Portuguese custard tarts and was content with those). I found, however, that my role was perceived as bigger than I had envisaged. I was treated as an honoured guest and presented with a gift. I gave the opening presentation. I think protests on my part were read as modesty. However, I had serious doubts about my suitability for the task. My own expertise is on English dress and textiles from the fifth century to the eleventh while the Iberian material presented at the conference did not start until the twelfth century. I don’t write Spanish or Portuguese. I don’t speak Spanish, other than ordering a coffee, and I only have the most rudimentary, social Portuguese, pretty rusty at that.
I can, however, read both languages, including medieval versions, through my knowledge of Latin and French; I am an experienced editor, having been involved in 20 books, as well as books I have written; and I enjoy the camaraderie of collaborative work. I accepted that I had become one of the editors. Eventually, the other 3 editors agreed that I should become Chief Editor. I grew into it, getting more authoritative over the course of the experience.
We lost some potential contributors at and following the conference, people who felt they could not give us the kind of material we wanted. While some authors accepted editorial suggestions cheerfully, others needed tactful conciliation. We had up and downs through illness and sadly lost an author to a heart attack; we have published her chapter posthumously. Some authors had never published illustrations before and were daunted by demands of high resolution and need for permissions. We had our joys too: two grants were awarded towards the cost of colour illustrations; several authors received promotion or moved to new jobs, helped a little by the information that a prestigious publication in English was forthcoming; María got her doctorate.
And as I held my advance copy in my hand, I felt the experience was well worth it.
This guest post was written by Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Professor Emerita of The University of Manchester, UK. She has published extensively on early medieval culture and co-edited Boydell & Brewer’s Medieval Clothing and Textiles series for many years.