What is IONA?

In 2016, a new kind of early medieval conference was hosted at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado.

Seafaring: Islands of the North Atlantic (IONA) was meant to provide a space where scholars of the often-siloed fields of Anglo-Saxon studies, Celtic studies, and Old Norse studies could conference together in a denationalized, collaborative space.

As part of changing the tenor of how scholars in these fields might interact with one another, the Denver organizers decided to reformat the conference, replacing the “three-paper session” model with seminars, during which 10-12 participants met for three, two-hour blocks during the conference in order to discuss a common topic.

 In addition to seminars, the Denver conference also held workshops—hands-on, interactive experiences that focused on reinforcing skills critical to early medieval scholars; providing initial or continuing language training; or introducing critical theories, methodologies, and pedagogies relevant to early medieval studies.

Soon after the Denver conference, a group of its participants decided to organize a second conference in Vancouver, Canada. Several months later, IONA was created as an organization that hosts the Seafaring conference as well as projects that fall under the purview of its mission statement.

Why IONA?

The last few years have presented a series of challenges to the study and understanding of the early medieval cultures and literatures of northwest Europe. Even as early medieval studies is being treated as irrelevant to the aims of the STEM-driven neoliberal university, isolating scholars in the field, a series of political and cultural crises have put early medieval studies back at the centre of the academy and society. 

IONA responds to the institutional pressures put on early medieval studies and the politics in which our field has been entangled. It understands that in order to maintain the vibrancy of our field amid shrinking medieval faculty at many universities, organizations like ours must offer training in professional skills that are often no longer available as for-credit coursework. To these ends, IONA conferences include workshops like Beginning Middle Welsh, Beginning Old Irish, Insular Latin Paleography, Old Old English, Old Frisian Runes, and Scandinavian Runes.

Further still, IONA is dedicated to deconstructing white supremacist fantasies of the early Middle Ages and exposing the disciplinary elements that are implicated in such fantasies. Its collaborative and non-hierarchical structure seeks to develop knowledge, networks, and skills to reinvigorate and rethink early medieval studies of the islands of the North Atlantic by denationalizing and decolonizing the field.

The centrality of early medieval art, literature, and culture to this present politically charged moment only demonstrates how crucial connections and renewal are for the field. In the academy, early medievalists are committed to working in contemporary arts and politics, strengthening individual scholars’ theoretical and methodological tools, and interrogating national and period divisions. And in public discourse, an engaged, critical and decolonized early medieval studies is central to correcting and countering the problematic and ahistorical interpretations of race and nation in contemporary populist politics.

When and Where is IONA?

While IONA is a professional organization of early medieval scholars, we do not perceive the field to be limited by periodization or by place. The expression “North Atlantic” locates our scholarship in the region of the British archipelago, but it does not limit us to these parts or set temporal restrictions on our scholarship.