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Conques in the Global World. Transferring Knowledge: from Material to Immaterial Heritage

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CONQUES (Conques in the Global World. Transferring Knowledge: from Material to Immaterial Heritage)

Reporting period: 2021-01-01 to 2022-12-31

The CONQUES project aims to carry out interdisciplinary and integrative research on Conques, a small pilgrimage and tourist site in Southern France featuring outstanding visual, material, and ritual culture from the 9th to the 21st century. The project’s approach combines expertise from a variety of different fields (art history, history, anthropology, music and performance studies, archaeology, archaeometry, digital technology, and visual studies) in order to study this unique site, its monuments, their dating, levels of reconstruction, and place in history and art history in a systematic way.
The main goal of the CONQUES project is to expand the currently marginal role the exceptional site of Conques has in scholarly discourse and its popularity among public. The research team, consisting of experts from six European and two American institutions, will examine the main stages in the medieval construction of Conques – its abbey, treasure, buildings, landscape, and immaterial performative culture – to reconstruct crucial aspects of the development of the medieval European cultures involved. Finally, this integrative approach will allow us to unfold and understand the narratives of the 19th- and 20th-century re-invention of the European Middle Ages, which are today so profoundly misused for political purposes.
The overall objectives for the project’s first year were to perform preliminary analysis on the site and examine materials in archives and libraries, focusing on the historiography of the medieval site of Conques. This included both material analysis and archival research to study the site’s restoration history. This first step was achieved thanks to an initial workshop with members from the consortium present on site in Conques in June 2021. This presented the occasion to discuss, study, and assess the long history of restoration and re-shaping of the site in the 19th and 20th centuries in the presence of local and international authorities. Several presentations on archival materials preserved in Conques, Rodez, and Paris were given, clarifying scholarly knowledge of the dynamics of a restoration project in the 19th century.
At the same time, initial non-invasive analysis of the site was performed, including a ground-penetrating radar of the floor of the abbey-church in order to identify traces of the primitive structure of the Carolingian abbey-church, and to assess the extent of the 19th-century transformations. This material analysis will be continued in the following year, thanks to a collaboration established with the Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles of the Occitanie region, which provided the authorisation to carry out these actions.
These two preliminary but fundamental and collaborative steps – historiographical research and material analysis – have already confirmed the established hypotheses and suggested the main research paths the project will follow in the coming years. One of these is the study of the original intentions behind the construction of the abbey-church – that is, the hypothesis that builders voluntarily used visual and architectural references to the Carolingian past as a means of increasing the prestige of Conques and its monastic community. This hypothesis, as well as the earliest results from the archival research, has been presented at public lectures and scholarly conferences, and an initial open-access article indicating the directions the project will take in the years to come has already been published.
The project’s ambitions as well as its early scholarly results have received an amazing response in scholarly circles: the original consortium was joined by another two experts on Conques and medieval visual, literary, and performative cultures, namely Lei Huang and Vincent Debiais. The participation of these research fellows in the workshops and conferences organized as part of the Conques project is proof that it has a truly global impact, addressing fundamental questions related to the arts of the pilgrimage roads, the interactions between medieval visual and literary cultures, and the role of Conques in nascent medieval Europe.

Furthermore, one of the desired outcomes of the project is a maintained dialogue between local and global, and between the scholarly audience and the wider public: in this regard, the project has been a true success, with positive feedback from local authorities and audiences, including the religious community, the mayor, the citizens of Conques, and pilgrims who visit the site annually. More concretely, a short booklet presenting some of the project’s outputs – intended for a broader audience – has been published and received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Two more booklets devoted to the general public are planned and will certainly elicit a similar response.

The research team was thus able to engage, through public lectures, presentations, and discussions, with a wide array of people, including local authorities. This has confirmed the need to mediate and disseminate the results of scientific projects to a broader audience, eager to engage with medieval culture, so distant from contemporary popular and fantasy culture, and its political-nationalist misuse.
Morgan Library, New York, NY workshop 2022
Conques abbey-church, Conques summer school 2021
MET Cloisters, New York, NY workshop 2022
Conques site walking tour, Conques workshop 2021