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Archive for the ‘Polaris’ Category:

Polaris 2021: A New Editorial Team

We are Kyle Dase and Tristan B. Taylor, the newest additions to the editorial team of JNR: Polaris. Both Kyle and Tristan are currently doctoral candidates in the Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan. Kyle’s research contextualizes John Donne’s verse epistles from the perspective of Renaissance sociability through the use of digital methodologies. Tristan’s research centres on Thomas Becket’s life in the South English Legendaries and the rhetorical effect of genre hybridization on manuscript production and reception in pre- and post-Reformation England.

Polaris is a forum for explorations and discussions of the Northern Renaissance that don’t fit comfortably within the restraints of the orthodox academic essay. As the new faces at the helm of this radical, open-source space, we are excited by the possibilities that Polaris affords. In addition to traditional short notes, we will be emphasising podcasts, conference reviews, research profiles, and more. Polaris is the space to explore all things concerning the Northern Renaissance, broadly defined. In 2021, we plan on providing reviews of popular and innovative conferences in Renaissance studies as an indicator of shifts in the field; profiles on interesting, international research projects and scholars; and interviews that offer unique perspectives from a range of subjects, from junior and senior researchers to journal editors and grant application board members, on a range of topics, from research methods to favourite libraries. This programme will start with a round table with senior editors from our very own editorial staff as part of a celebration of over ten years of JNR!

We publish conference, exhibition, TV and film reviews, speculative essays, and even host podcast episodes. We welcome submissions of around 750-3,000 words on all aspects of cultural practice in Northern Europe in the period 1430-1650. We are especially interested in pieces that explore shifting pedagogies and praxis. Initial proposals regarding submission are encouraged, and should be sent to polaris.jnr@gmail.com (or click here). Even if you only have an idea for a post, we’re happy to work with you to help you find the proper format for their ideas.

Kyle and Tristan

Olaus Petri and Josephus Flavius: A Comparison

Andrey Scheglov (Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences)

Editors’ Note: This article is an expansion upon Scheglov’s previous Polaris contribution ‘Olaus Petri: A Protestant reformer who approved of dissection’, posted in August 2018.


Olaus Petri’s A Swedish Chronicle (En Svensk krönika) was a pioneer work in Swedish historiography. In modern scholarship, attention has been paid to the question of which ancient historians could have served as examples for Olaus Petri. Olle Ferm has pointed to the fact that A Swedish Chronicle has parallels with ancient historical writings, especially with the works by Polybius.[1] This article demonstrates that there are parallels between Olaus Petri and another ancient classic, Josephus Flavius.


[1] Alongside his activities as a theologian, Olaus Petri wrote an historical work which he called A Swedish Chronicle.[2] After the death of Olaus, King Gustav Vasa read the chronicle and was displeased. The king blamed the author for a lack of patriotism and declared that Olaus had betrayed the course of the Reformation. The king stated that Olaus expressed too much respect for the rulers of foreign origin and for the Roman Catholic clergy. Gustav Vasa ordered to confiscate Olaus Petri’s library, as well as the manuscripts of his chronicle. A Swedish Chronicle remained unpublished until the nineteenth century. However, handwritten copies of the work circulated in Sweden, Finland and Denmark. As a result, Olaus Petri’s chronicle was read and appreciated by many North European authors of the Early Modern Age.

Modern scholarship on Olaus Petri’s chronicle

[2] Since the end of the eighteenth century, A Swedish Chronicle became an object of scholarly studies. Specialists concluded that Olaus Petri’s chronicle was partly based on the work Chronica regni gothorum written by Ericus Olai, the Swedish historian who lived in the fifteenth century.[3] It was ascertained that Olaus verified and complemented Ericus Olai’s data with the help of other sources. Many parts of A Swedish Chronicle must be regarded an independent work by Olaus Petri.[4]

[3] Analyzing Olaus Petri’s thoughts concerning history, Olle Ferm detects common features between Olaus Petri and Polybius. Both Polybius and Olaus stress that historical works must be studied due to their practical usefulness. Both Polybius and Olaus Petri thought that a historian must pay attention to the causes of events. Both stated that historical works must be truthful: otherwise, they are but useless fables. Polybius and Olaus were convinced that a historian must be objective. Both authors were strict in their selection of sources and refused to rely on oral tradition.[5]

[4] However, Ferm remarks that similar ideas were expressed by ancient historians other than Polybius. In this context, it is interesting to study the parallels between Olaus Petri and an ancient classic whom Ferm does not mention in his monograph – Josephus Flavius.

Why precisely Flavius?

[5] As we all know, Flavius was one of the most respected historians in Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Age. His works were also known in Sweden. One historical work by Flavius is mentioned among the books which King Gustav Vasa ordered for the education of his sons – princes Erik and Johan.[6] Flavius’ works could be useful for Olaus Petri in a number of ways: firstly, as a sample, due to the fact that their subject was the history of a people, historia gentis. Consequently, they could inspire Olaus and provide him with ideas, because he focused on the history of the Swedes.

[6] Flavius’ historical works could also be useful due to their didactic character. Flavius attempted to demonstrate that God punishes the evil and rewards the good, a feature which is also present in Olaus Petri’s chronicle. There is an evidence of Olaus Petri’s acquaintance with a work by Flavius. In a theological treatise, A Useful Teaching (Een nyttwgh wnderwijsning) Olaus reminds how God punishes people for the sin, quoting the Old Testament and two historical works – The Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius and The Jewish Antiquities by Flavius.[7] The idea that Flavius could have influenced A Swedish Chronicle can be supported with the help of a comparison of the chronicle mentioned and Flavius’ works.

A Swedish Chronicle and The Jewish Antiquities

[7] There are a number of similarities between Olaus Petri’s chronicle and Josephus work The Jewish Antiquities. To begin with, both authors stress the usefulness of history:

The Jewish Antiquities A Swedish Chronicle
Those who essay to write histories are actuated, I observe […] by many widely different motives […] Many have been induced by prevailing ignorance of important affairs of general utility to publish a history of them for the public benefit. Of the aforesaid motives the two last apply for myself.[8] God who created all things for the use and benefit of the people has […] ordained and arranged that the lives and the deeds of those who lived in the world in the past shall be described for the instruction and warning of their descendants […][9]


And because this Chronicle is written for the sake of those who are simple-minded, so that they derive some instruction from it, therefore it contains not only stories and accidents; but alongside with them, when appropriate, some special teaching is included, so that one could draw a certain moral […][10]

Both historians, Josephus and Olaus, claim that their predecessors wrote historical works in a wrong way:

The Jewish Antiquities A Swedish Chronicle
For, having known by experience the war which the Jews waged against the Romans […] I was constrained to narrate in detail in order to refute those who in their writings were doing outrage to the truth.[11] But there were many of those who wrote chronicles, yet there were few who did it in an appropriate way.[12]

Both declare that chronicles should educate by demonstrating how God rewards the righteous and punishes the sinners:

The Jewish Antiquities A Swedish Chronicle
But, speaking generally, the main lesson to be learnt from this history by any who care to peruse it is that men who conform to the will of God, and do not venture to transgress laws that have been excellently laid down, prosper in all things beyond belief, and for their reward are offered by God felicity, whereas in proportion as they depart from the strict observance of their laws, things (else) practicable become impracticable, and whatever imaginary good thing they strive to do ends in irretrievable disasters.[13] In the same way, God who taught people that the events of the past must be written down, did not mean that such writings should be read only for leisure and entertainment. His intention was that people should see the flow, the vanity and the instability of this world […] Also, we […] must realize that although the devil plants all kind of evil […], God often reduces his malice to nothing and drives everything to a better end […] This is the main thing which we, being Christians, must observe in all historical works, both pagan and Christian. And if they are read in such a way, people benefit from them, and history is used in an appropriate manner.[14]

[8] In connection with this understanding of history writing, both authors reject myths as a historical source. Flavius advises the readers “to fix their thoughts on God, and to test whether our lawgiver has had a worthy conception of his nature and has always assigned to Him such actions as befit His power, keeping his words concerning him pure of that unseemly mythology current among others”.[15] Olaus, too, criticizes historians who rely on myths: “As a rule, the things which are not written down but transferred orally from one to another, are not perfectly reliable”.[16]

[9] At the same time, both historians stress the modesty of their work, implementing the so-called humility topos.[17] Flavius confesses that he experienced doubt regarding his ability to accomplish such a monumental work:

[…] as time went on, as it wont to happen to those who design to attack large tasks, there was hesitation and delay on my part in rendering so vast a subject into a foreign and unfamiliar tongue […][18]

In the case with Olaus Petri, the humility topos is implemented in the following way: the author presents his chronicle as small and secondary (“But presently also I have taken up the task of compiling one small chronicle from the others”) [19], while in fact it is a large and in many respects independent work.

A Swedish Chronicle and The Jewish Wars

[10] The similarities between Josephus’ other important work, The Jewish wars, and Olaus Petri’s chronicle are even more striking. In both works, the authors declare that the previous historical works were written in a wrong way. Both explain the nature of the predecessors’ errors, firstly that they based their chronicles on rumours; and secondly that they hated alien peoples:

The Jewish Wars A Swedish Chronicle
The war of the Jews against the Romans […] has not lacked its historians. Of these, however, some, having taken no part in the action, have collected from hearsay casual and contradictory stories which they have then edited in a rhetorical style, while others, who witnessed the events, have, either from flattery of the Romans or from hatred of the Jews misinterpreted the facts, their writings exhibiting alternatively invective and encomium, but nowhere historical accuracy.[20] And much was written by biased people. Such people extolled those whose side they took, and treated their opponents with contempt, and they did not count with verity at all. This can be clearly seen in Swedish and Danish chronicles: the Danes boast with the outstanding deeds which their rulers committed in Sweden, and the Swedes evaluate high their heroic deeds performed in Denmark. Thus, presently, it is but impossible to learn the truth from Danish and Swedish chronicles, even if one has the desire and the necessity to do so.[21]

Both authors expand on the issue:

The Jewish Wars A Swedish Chronicle
Though the writers in question presume to give their works the title of histories, yet […] they seem, in my opinion, to miss their own mark. They desire to represent the Romans as a great nation, and yet they continually depreciate and disparage the action of the Jews […][22] Since the ancient times (let God improve that!) there has been a concealed and, probably, natural hostility between the Danes and the Swedes: they look down on each other, and none of them wants to concede. That is why the chronicles which we have now are similar to the thoughts of those who wrote them. For this reason, the Swedish chronicles do not agree with the Danish, and neither part writes anything good about the other; therefore, it is not even worth trying to derive any benefit from these chronicles.[23]

In both historians’ opinion the predecessors did not try to understand the causes of wars. Both think that a historian must ascertain the origin of wars:

The Jewish Wars A Swedish Chronicle
…Parthians and Babylonians and the most remote tribes of Arabia with our countrymen beyond the Euphrates and the inhabitants of Adiabene were, through my assiduity, accurately acquainted with the origin of the war.[24] It is not enough to know that wars occurred frequently in this world; one must know the origins of them […]


They all write about wars; yet why these wars occurred, and on which side the justice was, concerning these matters too little is said; that is why the descendants cannot derive the necessary benefit from the history of their ancestors.[25]

Feeling sympathy with compatriots, both historians, however, refuse to exaggerate their deeds:

The Jewish Wars A Swedish Chronicle
I have no intention of rivalling those who extol the Romans by exaggerating the deeds of my compatriots.[26] Our Swedish chronicles laud the Swedes immensely for the fact that the Goths who, according to the writers of the chronicles, came from Sweden, performed so many deeds in alien lands. But, judging fairly, there is little honour in these deeds.[27]

They declare that they strive for objectiveness and truth:

The Jewish Wars A Swedish Chronicle
I shall faithfully recount the actions of both combatants…[28] …And I included the things which I found most plausible, for I wish to write what is true…[29]

Both authors criticize foreign historians for lack of objectiveness. Josephus blames Greek historians. Olaus expresses a sceptic attitude towards Danish and German chronicle writers:

The Jewish Wars A Swedish Chronicle
Let us at least hold historical truth in honour, since by the Greeks it is disregarded.[30] Also, the accounts of Sweden which the foreign chronicle writers – the Danes and the Germans – included in their chronicles, are not reliable, because these writers based their chronicles on bare rumours.[31]

[11] Declaring the wish to be objective, both authors express respect for certain foreign rulers who governed their country. Flavius mentions the good deeds of Emperor Titus – “how often Titus, in his anxiety to save the city and the temple, invited the rival parties to come to terms with him”.[32] Olaus acknowledges the merits of King Hans, the Danish monarch who ruled Denmark, Sweden and Norway: “King Hans ruled well…”. Although this motif – the good rule of King Hans – was apparently borrowed from an earlier source, the Chronicle of the Sture Regents (Sturekrönikan), Olaus, by quoting it, shows that he shares the view of King Hans as a good ruler.


[12] A Swedish Chronicle has clear parallels with The Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish Wars. We can conclude that the parallels between A Swedish Chronicle and The Jewish Wars are especially distinct. Flavius’ intention to depict the Jews’ interaction with the Romans, and his desire to be objective when describing his compatriots and their opponents likely inspired Olaus to implement similar principles in his description of the Swedes’ cooperation and rivalry with the Danes.  The present article provides new arguments proving that the impact of the Renaissance on Olaus Petri has been underrated by some modern specialists. Olaus Petri took a scholarly interest in ancient thought, and he shared antique and Renaissance ideas concerning history writing. As I have demonstrated in my earlier research, he also shared Renaisssance thoughts regarding war and peace, as well as humanist views concerning dignity and virtue.[33] In these respects, he was a scholar influenced by Renaissance thought.


[1] Olle Ferm, Olaus Petri och Heliga Birgitta: Synpunkter på ett nytt sätt att skriva historia i 1500-talets Sverige, Stockholm 2007.

[2] See Andrey Scheglov ‘Olaus Petri: A Protestant reformer who approved of dissection’, Polaris, August 2018. Consulted 22 September 2020.

[3] See Louis Félix Guinement de Keralio, Notice d’un manuscrit suédois de la Bibliothèque du roi, Paris 1787; Gustav Löw, Sveriges forntid i svensk historieskrivning, Stockholm 1908; Gunnar T. Westin, Historieskrivaren Olaus Petri: Svenska krönikans källor och krönikeskrivarens metod, Lund 1946.

[4] See Westin 1946, passim.

[5] See Ferm 2007, p. 101–153.

[6] See Westin 1946, p. 182.

[7] OPSS I, p. 10.

[8] Josephus / With an English translation by H. St. J. Thackeray. Cambridge (Mass.), 1961. Vol. IV, p. 3.

[9] OPSS IV, p. 1. Translated from Early Modern Swedish by Andrey Scheglov.

[10] OPSS IV, p. 15. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[11] Josephus, Vol. IV, p. 3. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[12] OPSS, IV, p. 2. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[13] Josephus, Vol. IV, p. 9. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[14] OPSS IV, p. 15. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[15] Josephus, Works, Vol. IV, p. 9. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[16] OPSS IV, p. 6. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[17] Ancient, medieval and early modern writers often presented their works as small and insignificant, though in fact these works were voluminous and fundamental. This motif, humility topos (Bescheideheitstopos) was especially frequent in the Middle Ages.

[18] Josephus, Vol. IV, p. 5. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[19] OPSS IV, p. 2. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[20] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 3. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[21] OPSS IV, p. 2. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[22] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 7. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[23] OPSS IV, p. 2. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[24] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 5. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[25] OPSS IV, p. 2. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[26] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 7. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[27] OPSS IV, p. 9. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[28] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 7. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[29] OPSS IV, p. 2–3. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[30] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 11. Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray.

[31] OPSS IV, p. 6. Translation by Andrey Scheglov.

[32] Josephus, Vol. II, p. 17.

[33] See Andrey Scheglov, ““THEN FRIDH MAN FÅÅR VTAN ÖRLIGH” – Tankar om krig och fred i Olaus Petris verk En svensk krönika”, in Historisk tidskrift 139:3, p.553–566; Scheglov, ”” Men om Finland är clart noogh…” Erik den helige och hans korståg till Finland i Olaus Petris krönika, in Finsk tidskrift 5/2019, p. 7–25.

Works Cited

Ferm, Olle. Olaus Petri och Heliga Birgitta: Synpunkter på ett nytt sätt att skriva historia i 1500-talets Sverige. Stockholm, 2007.

Gunnar T. Westin. Historieskrivaren Olaus Petri: Svenska krönikans källor och krönikeskrivarens metod. Lund, 1946.

Josephus / With an English translation by H. St. J. Thackeray. Cambridge (Mass.), 1956–1961. Vol. II–IV.

Keralio, Louis Félix G. Notice d’un manuscrit suédois de la Bibliothèque du roi. Paris, 1787.

Löw, Gustav. Sveriges forntid i svensk historieskrivning. Stockholm, 1908.

Petri, Olaus. Samlade skrifter, vol. 1–4. Uppsala, 1914–1917.

Scheglov, Andrey. ““THEN FRIDH MAN FÅÅR VTAN ÖRLIGH” – Tankar om krig och fred i Olaus Petris verk En svensk krönika”, in Historisk tidskrift 139:3, p.553–566.

Scheglov, Andrey. ““Men om Finland är clart noogh…” Erik den helige och hans korståg till Finland i Olaus Petris krönika”, in Finsk tidskrift 5/2019, p. 7–25.

MEMOs: An Exciting New Digital Hub for Early Interactions Between England and the Islamic Worlds

Lubaaba Al-Azami & Samera Hassan

[1] Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs) is a recently launched AHRC-funded collaborative project that seeks to illuminate the encounters between England and the Islamic worlds of the medieval and early modern ages. MEMOs seeks to be the primary port of call for anyone with an interest in this rich and fascinating history. We are delighted with the overwhelming positive response we have received since our launch, from individuals and organisations the world over. The enthusiasm and interest MEMOs has garnered is a reflection of the desire and need for learning and celebrating this important epoch in our shared history.

[2] MEMOs was conceived several years ago to provide a much-needed corrective to the lack of knowledge of England’s symbiotic relationship with the Islamic worlds of the medieval and early modern periods. It is a vitally important aspect of history that has been neglected in dominant historical accounts. It is not a history that is taught in schools. It is not a history that has a place in the everyday cultural discourse of the people whose world has been shaped by it. And of course, knowledge of historic cultural interaction and of empire is crucially necessary in understanding the world in which we live today. This is currently illustrated most powerfully by the discussions on the history of empire, in the context of Black Lives Matter. The debate around the presence of statues for those who gained their wealth from the trading of slaves casts a revealing light on the nature of received historical knowledge that has permitted these monuments to be erected and maintained.

[3] MEMOs offers an intersectional and decolonial platform to discuss, dissect and disrupt accepted knowledge around England’s early interactions with the wider world in general, and the Islamic worlds in particular. By critically and conscientiously challenging prevailing accounts of history, we aim to inform and equip our readers to confront these narratives and the inequities that they help support to this day.

[4] There have been numerous researchers addressing the dearth of awareness of this history in recent years, and MEMOs hopes to join the front ranks of these efforts to promote, share and disseminate this research within and well beyond the academic community. In the same way that the Journal of the Northern Renaissance works to challenge established paradigms and disrupt existing narratives of the Renaissance, we hope to challenge received knowledge of this period by reframing the discourse and bringing to light little-known or alternative aspects of interaction.

[5] MEMOs hosts a number of features on our site to provide information about these historical interactions. Our specialised maps of the Islamic empires detail important geographical locations and borders. Alongside these are overviews and timelines of key historical moments of cultural, diplomatic and military points of encounter, and bibliographies for further reading. We hope readers will particularly enjoy our blog, regularly updated by those working in the archival trenches and sharing their fascinating discoveries. Our News and Events pages will be spaces to share all happenings medieval and early modern. We also look forward to hosting freely accessible digital MEMOs events in the near future. As we expand our team and our expertise, we hope to expand our informative coverage, both temporally and geographically.

[6] We are grateful for our fabulous Research Team at MEMOs – a team we hope to see grow in number. These archival investigators spread across four continents, who daily weave new and broader realms of knowledge with erudition, are what make MEMOs the enriching space it is. Our thanks to the incredibly talented Programming and Design Team who succeeded in fashioning a stunning digital work of art out of our often incoherent aspirations. And our sincere gratitude to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and in particular the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership (NWCDTP), for their generous funding that has allowed MEMOs to come into being.

[7] MEMOs goes live at an unusual and uncertain time. The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt acutely worldwide, and no less in academia. The closures of universities, libraries and other institutions of learning, alongside the postponement or cancellation of conferences and international travel restrictions have severely limited face-to-face learning, networking and collaboration. This has imposed a necessity to find creative ways of exchanging knowledge.

[8] The online presence of MEMOs enables us to come together, beyond the necessary physical restrictions placed on us, to collaborate on a truly global scale. By connecting people with knowledge and with each other, MEMOs seeks to build an enriching and boundary-defying network of ideas, research and action. MEMOs warmly welcomes your questions, suggestions and comments on our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages. If you are interested in submitting your own blog pitch or announcements, please visit our Submissions page.

[9] We are humbled to have already connected and exchanged knowledge with so many people through this project. We look forward to seeing the continued growth of this truly vibrant global community.

Lubaaba Al-Azami
Samera Hassan
Editors, MEMOs

Olaus Petri: A Protestant reformer who approved of dissection

Andrey Scheglov (Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences)

[1] Could a sixteenth-century cleric approve of dissecting human bodies for scientific purposes? The case of the Swedish Lutheran reformer Olaus Petri (c. 1493–1552) proves that it could be so. In his theological treatise, ‘A Teaching on the Noble Creation, Fall and Restoration of Man’ (‘Undervisning om människans ärliga skapelse, fall och upprättelse’, in his Samlade skrifter (henceforth OPSS), 3:513-75), Olaus[1] mentions dissection and speaks positively of it, in connection with his reflections on the human body as God’s masterpiece. This is a fact which is known by scholars (cf. Ingebrand 1964: 161-3), but the question of what particular treatise could have served as a source of Olaus Petri’s knowledge of anatomy has not been raised in scholarly literature and requires discussion. The aim of this essay is to give an answer to this question.

[2] Olaus Petri, or ‘Master Olof’, as he is often called, is a key figure in the history of the Swedish Reformation. Like many learned people of the Renaissance Age, he was a versatile personality and a prolific author – a theologian, a polemist, a historian, a translator, a poet and a law scholar (cf. Hallencreutz & Lindeberg, 1994).  He obtained his education in Germany, primarily at the University of Wittenberg where he experienced the influence of Luther and Melanchton (cf. Murray 1952; Bergendoff 1965). On his return to Sweden, he took an active part in the Reformation, together with King Gustav Vasa (1523–1569) and other Swedish reformers. In connection with this, he wrote a number of works in Swedish, one of which, the aforementioned ‘Teaching on the Noble Creation’, contains the author’s thoughts on the human body (see Appendix, below).

[3] The manuscript of this writing is preserved in the State Archives of Sweden. The work originally lacked the title, which was added by a later scribe. The editors of Olaus Petri’s Works express the opinion that the treatise was written in the 1530s; however, they do not provide any arguments to support this statement. We cannot exclude the possibility that the work was written later, in the 1540s. The treatise remained unfinished. Some parts are based upon an earlier work by Olaus Petri, ‘A Useful Teaching’ (‘En nyttig undervisning’), while the other parts do not have a parallel in Olaus Petri’s previous works.

[4] In the prologue, the author explains the meaning of the name of Christ – Anointed – and says that this meaning is used in two senses: Christ is an anointed priest and an anointed king. As a priest, He reconciles people with God, and as a king, He protects people from evil (OPSS 3:515). Olaus aims to explain how these two duties of Christ are performed, and in the first turn he expands on the subject, how perfectly man was created by God. Man was created in the image of God: not in the bodily sense, for God is a spirit, but regarding the nobleness and the powers of man (OPSS 3:518–9). The human body was created from the earth, which was by no means a shame, but an honour, because at that time the earth was sacred, blessed and pleasant to God (OPSS 3:519-20).

[5] Then follows a praise of the human body. Olaus explains that both parts of man, the spiritual and the temporal, were God’s masterpiece. The body contains numerous parts, and each of them fulfills its own duty. The powers of the external limbs can be seen by everyone, but the parts of body which are concealed, are endowed with even greater powers. Many learned people attempted to study the inner organs, Olaus says, and for this purpose they dissected many dead bodies, and yet they did not manage to discover everything. Still, they discovered so much that they called the man ‘the smaller world’. The perfectness of God’s work can be observed in the human eye which consists of many films with a liquid between them which looks like a mirror. And such a small thing as the eye stone possesses a magnificent power: through such a tiny dot one can watch the whole world. God gave miraculous power to the eye, and so He did with other human organs, so that we could see how wonderful His work is, and praise Him for that (OPSS 3:520-2)

[6] Thus Olaus Petri acknowledges dissection as a scientific method and demonstrates a knowledge of anatomy, in particular the anatomy of the human eye. His praise of the human body and his treatment of the man as a microcosm are common for thinkers of the Renaissance era. But what work on anatomy served as a source for Olaus Petri? Such a source must meet the following criteria: 1) it must be an internationally known treatise; 2) it must be a work which was published before the middle of the 16th century; 3) it must be written in (or translated into) Latin or German, the languages which Olaus spoke fluently. Several works which were accessible in Latin before 1550 match these criteria.

[7] The first work to be mentioned is Vesalius’ Humani corporis fabrica (1543), the most significant anatomic treatise at that time. In this book, Olaus could find reflections on the multiplicity of human organs and their functions, as well as a detailed description of the eye (643–50). However, Vesalius’s treatise lacks connotations with Olaus Petri’s description of the eye and of the human body in general as a masterpiece of God for which God should be praised.

[8] Another possible source is Charles Estienne, De dissectione partium (1545), which provides a detailed description of the eye as well as general reflections concerning the use of anatomy. However, this work, in its turn, lacks the thoughts on the wisdom of God, which could be similar to Olaus Petri’s ideas that are present in the treatise ‘On the Noble Creation’.

[9] There was, however, an author who expressed such thoughts – Berengario da Carpi. He declared that the benefit of anatomy consists not only in the knowledge of the structure of the body but also in the knowledge of the function of the organs (Da Carpi, Isagogae: 43). Da Carpi proclaims that anatomy is useful because by studying it we learn to admire the omnipotence of God (1521: v). In connection with this statement, Da Carpi quotes Galen.

10] This quotation is not accidental. Like Vesalius and Estienne, Da Carpi had a great respect for Galen. However, these scholars, especially Vesalius, not only followed Galen, but also verified and corrected his conclusions. They regarded anatomy as an experimental science, and they paid great attention to its practical use. Galen’s philosophic ideas were apparently less important for them.

[11] This leads us to the point that the philosophic ideas connected with the admiration of the human body, in particular, of the human eye, which are characteristic of Olaus Petri’s treatise, could be inspired by Galen rather than by Renaissance scholars. Concerning the description of the eye, the similarities between Olaus and Galen are striking. Galen describes the crystalline as white, transparent and clear; he characterizes the eye liquid as resembling a looking-glass (2.b.10; Ch. 1-6). He admires the perfectness of the eye, and in connection with this, he praises the wisdom of God (2.b.10; Ch. 3-4, 9) All these features are present in Olaus Petri’s work, and we can conclude that Olaus apparently used Galen’s treatise as a source on anatomy.

[12] However, it is also possible that Olaus was acquainted with another significant work: the treatise on optics written by the celebrated Arab scholar Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen. This treatise was translated into Latin and was widely known in medieval Europe. It is a well-known fact that Ibn Al-Haytham was a pioneer in the field of optics; but we also know that he experienced the influence of ancient scholars, in particular of Galen. The philosophic views expressed by Galen and by Ibn Al-Haytham in connection with the description of the eye are similar. Like Galen, Ibn Al-Haytham thought that the perfectness of the eye demonstrates the wisdom of God: ‘The matters we have mentioned are the utilities of the instruments of sight. They are subtle matters that show the wisdom and mercy of the exalted Artificer and the consummate perfection of His work, the skillful ways of nature and the subtlety of her productions.’ (Sabra 1989: 104)

[13] It would be logical to conclude that Olaus Petri, regarding the views on the human eye, was inspired by Galen, or by Ibn Al-Haytham, or by both scholars.


[14] The subject of this article relates to the history of medicine; but the conclusion is also interesting in the context of Reformation history. In this case, we see a particular example of how ‘the old’ and ‘the new’ interacted in Reformation and Renaissance thought. Although the Early Modern Age apparently gave Olaus Petri an intellectual impulse stimulating his interest towards anatomy and dissection, his concrete source of knowledge may have been an older one – either the work by Galen, created in Late Antiquity and known throughout the Middle Ages, or the medieval treatise by the distinguished Arab scientist.



Olaus Petri’s Reflections on the perfection of the human body,
extracted from his ‘On the Noble Creation, Fall and Restoration of Man’

(Olaus Petri, Samlade skrifter, vol. 3, pp.520-22)

[a] […] And so has God, wondrously and skillfully indeed, created human beings of two different things – the body and the soul, the flesh and the spirit; and he shaped and adorned both parts so masterly that no human can explore them perfectly in this temporal life.

[b] The body, which is possible yet to watch with the corporal eyes, is made of limbs, skin, flesh and bones, as well as of gristle, sinew and veins, in such a way that one ought to regard it as God’s masterpiece. And how remarkably many different parts are contained in the human body! And each part has its own duty: the eye sees, the ear hears, the nostrils smell, the tongue tastes and, together with the other parts that relate to the matter, speaks also. And, to say it shortly, every tiniest part of the human body carries out its own duty and work which is useful for the whole body. Everyone can see, what power the hands, the feet and the other outer limbs are endowed with. And still, the parts that are inside and are covered by the skin, are endowed with even greater powers than those one can see from outside. How the heart, the lung, the belly, the liver and the kidneys perform their duty and work in a human, is a wonder that no one will ever be able to describe. Many learned and wise people have tried to discover all the human limbs, sinew and veins, and to explore their work and powers. For this purpose, they cut many dead bodies, separating their parts and limbs, and yet they could not reveal everything that God has put into them. Still, they discovered so many wonderful things in the course of their studies that they called the human being ‘the smaller world’. By this they meant that, in the same way as the big world containing the sky and the earth, the air and the water, has many wonderful things with various powers, which are so many and so splendid that no one can comprehend them all, so it is in the case with the human being: God has put more in it than anyone can perceive. That is why it deserves to be called a world, although the smaller one, or just the small world. And for the sake of this small world, the big world was created.

[c] The one who wishes to see wonders, does not need too much to travel round the big world in order to watch rare and curious things. Instead, he can watch more of God’s splendid, magnificent and admirable works in oneself, in his own small world. There, he can find more wonders than he can understand. The one who just carefully examines the eye, which is but a small organ, will observe God’s wondrous work in it: how it is composed of many membranes – one over another, with a liquid between them, looking like a clear mirror. And there is a tiny dot called the eye stone, which possesses a wonderful power: through such a small thing one can contemplate the sky and the earth, with all the temporal things, in their width and magnitude. Who can understand and explain in a perfect way that such a tiny dot as the eye stone would be able to contemplate so wide and magnificent things? And yet we experience this ourselves, day by day! God has endowed the eye with a wonderful power, and so has he done with all other parts of the human body. This is what we can conclude if we consider the issue properly; and thus we can give God the praise that we owe Him.

~ translated from the Early Modern Swedish by Andrey Scheglov


[1] His first name is also spelled as ‘Olavus’. ‘Petri’, in its turn, is a patronymic, not a surname. That is why Olaus Petri’s name should not be reported as ‘Petri’ or ‘O. Petri’. Scholars often reduce it to the first name, and I follow this tradition.[back to text]

Works Cited

Bergendoff, Conrad. Olavus Petri and the Ecclesiastical Transformation in Sweden. Philadelphia, 1965.

[Da Carpi, Berengario], Isagogae breves et extatissimae in anatomiam humani corporis. (s.l., s.d.)

____. Carpi Commentaria cum amplissimis additionibus super anatomia mundini. s.l.; 1521.

Estienne, Charles. De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres, Paris, 1545.

[Galenus, Claudius]. De usu partium corporis humani, Libri XVII. [Ed. Niccoló da Reggio]. [Lyon], 1550.

Hallencreutz, Carl F., & Sven-Ola Lindeberg, Olaus Petri – den mångsidige svenske reformatorn. Uppsala, 1994.

Ingebrand, Sven. Olavus Petris reformatoriska åskådning. Uppsala, 1964.

Murray, Robert.  Olaus Petri. Stockholm, 1952.

Petri, Olaus. Samlade skrifter, vol. 3. Uppsala, 1916.

Sabra, A.I. (ed., trans.). The Optics of Ibn Al-Haytham. Books I-III: On Direct Vision. London: Warburg Institute, 1989.

[Vesalius, Andreas]. Humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Basel, 1543.

Exhibition review:
The Slovak National Gallery’s Non-Permanent Exhibition

Magdalena Łanuszka

[1] Usually, when a gallery needs reconstruction, exhibitions are closed, but when the reconstruction is planned to go on for a longer time, the galleries tend to organise temporary exhibitions of the highlights of the permanent collection. The curators of the Slovak National Gallery Old Masters, Katarína Chmelinová and Dušan Buran, have decided to do something else instead. They have created an amazing “Non-Permanent” exhibition that shows the Gothic and Baroque collection in a brand new perspective. The reconstruction of the Slovak National Gallery building in Bratislava started in 2014, and since then the art pieces of the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries have been displayed in the aforementioned temporary exhibition in Esterházyho Palác in Bratislava.

[2] It is difficult to exhibit the artwork of so called ‘Old Masters’ in the traditional way in a modern context. We would like to see the paintings and sculptures in the environment they were designed for, but that environment simply does not exist anymore. Even if the piece of art is still in situ – in the church or in a palace – this environment is not exactly as it used to be hundreds of years ago. Even if all the furniture and decoration were intact, which is very unlikely, we would now look at it with the eyes of a twenty-first-century viewer: our eyes are not used to the darkness and we can’t imagine any interior without electric light. How then can we best exhibit those pieces of art in the artificial environment of a museum? The most popular way is to just place them against a neutral background, a “white cube”. This method is certainly good for the art historians who seek the opportunity to examine all the details of the painting, preferably in the lab-like circumstances, but is this useful for the non-professional viewer? In my opinion it is not only boring, but it also violates the artist’s vision: the Old Masters did not design their pieces as something to be displayed in a “white cube”. Do we ever really think about the fact that those paintings were designed to be in the altarpieces surrounded by the candles in the dark interiors? Can we imagine the effect of the chiaroscuro contrasts of those paintings in such circumstances? Even the natural daylight, surely considered by the Old Masters in their works, is now often overlooked, as the artificial light is usually used even in the churches and palaces all day long. Nowadays, almost no-one cares about the different angles of the sunlight during the different days of the year. Of course, making “fake” historical interiors for the purposes of the exhibition would not be a very good idea either. Our eyes are used to different light anyway – we will never see things as our ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

[3] What should we do then? Well, we should not pretend anything, but rather start a dialogue with the artworks. Beginning with the question “what was the effect supposed to be”, we can move towards creating the effect in our own modern way. The revolutionary concept of the Slovak National Gallery curators was to give the task of designing the exhibition directly to the architects (Igor Marko, Martin Jančok, Aleš Šedivec). This meant that the presentation of the artworks was not planned by art historians, but by people who think about the objects and the space in a very different, modern way. Architects were free to think about the space without considering chronology and academic descriptions. They used very few presentation cases. The works of art are as close to the viewers as possible. If you want to sit down, you can get a chair and sit in front of any piece of art you like – there are no fixed museum couches either, but the chairs are available all around. As a result, the viewers may exercise the freedom to enjoy any piece they like, and in the most convenient way. Fixed couches provide the message: ‘Sit here, this is the most important work of art in this room and you should watch it from this particular distance’. With the portable chairs viewers can decide for themselves which piece is the one they want to stop by, and how closely they want to watch it.

[4] Please note that I have decided that in this review I will not refer to publications on the theory and methodology of designing the exhibitions, nor will I name the artists and the masterpieces that are shown at this exhibition. If anyone wants to know further details about each piece of art from this exhibition, it is all available in the brochures and in the catalogue with some information online.

 [5] The first part of the exhibition is called “Expression and Emotion” – it contains Gothic and Baroque religious paintings and sculptures, juxtaposed against each other and suddenly showing surprising similarities in spite of the fact that they represent different styles. The black curtains create a stage-like environment which emphasises the theatricality of the old religious art. It stresses the fact that back in the past the liturgy had more dramatic elements and the altarpieces served as the scenery. “Emotion” and “expression” are present not only in the faces of the depicted characters, but also in their gestures and dynamic folds of their clothes – in that aspect the Gothic and Baroque are not that different from each other. Discovering their similarities is possible thanks to the unusual, non-chronological arrangement of the pieces of art – it leads to the conclusion that certain ways of expressing emotions are timeless and present in European art throughout the centuries.

[6] Similar conclusions may be developed by visiting another part of the exhibition, called “Body and Gesture”. It corresponds well with young viewers; the generation of the Internet apparently discovered that there are very “modern” emotions hidden in the artworks of the Old Masters. We may see that for example in popular memes created by adding inscriptions to the reproductions of the famous masterpieces, revealing a surprising fact that people depicted in those paintings are showing emotions that may be placed in a modern context. In fact there is a beautiful truth behind this: human experience has not changed over the centuries and that we can find the old masterpieces surprisingly familiar if only we reject the distance created by the fact that they are so old and precious. This exhibition helps us to appreciate the Old Masters’ art exactly in this way.

[7] The next room of the exhibition, entitled “Type and Individual”, collects both religious works of art (like figures of the saints) and secular portraits. We think of portraits as images of the individuals: particular people with their own unique features. On the other hand, on a stage-like platform we will see a group of saints in this room: medieval sculptures of the Virgin with Child represent “types” that were repeated over the centuries. Interestingly, they are grouped together in a way that creates an illusion that they walk towards the viewer, who suddenly discovers that each of them is still individual, despite being examples of ‘type’. Being theatrically gathered, the “types” surprisingly become a group of “individuals”, not less unique in their features then the sitters in the portraits on the other wall of the room. After all, each artist probably used someone as a model, even for the most typical image of the Virgin and a Child.

[8] The “Life and Death” room contains the most surprising installation of art: works are placed against a wooden construction painted in a vivid blue colour. The depictions of Nativity are juxtaposed with the images of Lamentation over the body of dead Christ and completed with secular post-mortem portraits. It suddenly becomes clear that once upon a time death was as present in everyday life as any other aspect of human existence. Nowadays death is pushed away, hidden somewhere in the hospitals and cut out of the image of joyful life, promoted by the present visual pop-culture. A few centuries ago people looked at the depictions of the dead Christ and considered them not symbolic, but realistic – they were familiar with the idea of the dead body and with the concept of depicting it, also in the form of post-mortem portraits of their loved-ones. Accepting death as a natural part of life makes it less serious and depressing; perhaps because of that those images look powerful against a vivid blue background. Prior to the nineteenth century, it is fair to say that art and architecture was colourful– certainly those paintings were never intended to be placed on black or white surface. The Old Masters’ images of births and deaths become alive and natural in this unusual and extravagant arrangement. They would not work so well in a “white cube”, mentioned earlier, as they were not intended to be presented in it in the first place.

Non-Permanent Exposition at the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava. Curator: Dušan Buran, Katarína Chmelinová. Photo: Archive SNG, Martin Deko

[9] In the room called “Space and Illusion” the viewers get the unique opportunity to look at the paintings from the both sides. Some of them, such as the gothic altar-wings, were designed to be viewed like this and were painted on both sides. But most of the paintings contain the image only on one side, yet in many cases extremely important things can be spotted on the painting’s back. Sometimes one may find an inscription (for example, with the painting’s title, date or the name of the painter), and sometimes there are labels documenting the exhibitions that the painting was shown at. We may also find labels or stencil marks from particular auction houses, as well as the inscriptions or the seals of the past owners, which helps reconstruct the painting’s history. Finally, looking at the verso side of the paintings enables the viewers to discover the technical differences between various supports such as canvas and panel.

[10] Every exhibition is supposed to be educational – that is what we were always told – but I feel that a good exhibition should also be stimulating and fun! Viewers should not feel that going to the gallery is some kind of boring activity, obligatory for their education – that is unfortunately a common mistake, especially with children who later avoid museums when they grow up. The galleries should not be for the art historians. They should attract everyone else – the art historian will come anyway. In fact, an exhibition attractive for non-professional viewer is still valuable for the specialist; you can study the details of works of art no matter if they are displayed chronologically or not. For me this exhibition was particularly interesting, as it emphasised how timeless human emotions are and how similar, in spite of all the stylistic differences, was their expression in art throughout the centuries.

Non-Permanent Exposition at the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava. Curator: Dušan Buran, Katarína Chmelinová. Photo: Archive SNG, Martin Deko

[11] We assume that an exhibition should contain both the artworks and labels that would give us all the necessary information: attribution, dating, provenance etc. That is indeed helpful when you study art history. But for the non-professional viewer those labels often create a distance: they contain information that may seem hermetic or even difficult to understand. The labels communicate to the viewer that the work of art belongs to a secret world of the past and that it is so precious and serious that in fact it should only be analysed by the professionals. The paradox here is that the information given in the labels not so much educates the viewers as it makes them feel incompetent. By giving all the scholarly information on the artwork we deter people from interpreting it by themselves. In this exhibition there are no labels – the only information given “on the walls” are the introductions to each room; in fact in my opinion they could be even shorter, limited to only few sentences (or maybe questions) that would stimulate the viewers to interpret each part of the exhibition in their own way. Of course, if you need the information, you can still have it: the displayed artworks are numbered and you can check their descriptions in the leaflet provided by the museum.

[12] Certainly this temporary exhibition in the Slovak National Gallery shows their collection in a new perspective. It also raises the question about how permanent any exhibition should be nowadays. Works of old art may be interpreted in many ways and on many levels; re-arranging them and placing them in a new context may change their reception. The Bratislava exhibition of the Old Masters is designed to be combined with temporary “interventions” of the contemporary art, but that’s a separate issue. This exhibition enables a modern viewer to touch the old art in a new way and to emotionally connect with it. I would definitely recommend that you go to Bratislava and experience it for yourself.

Magdalena Łanuszka (PhD, Jagiellonian University, Cracow) is an art historian specialising in late medieval painting. As a researcher she has worked in the National Inventory Research Project, examining pre-1900 European paintings in the collection of York Art Gallery (UK), and more recently in the PAUart project (digitalisation of print and photograph collections of Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, http://www.pauart.pl/). As an academic teacher she has cooperated mainly with the Jagiellonian University (Cracow, Poland). Her personal website (including her blog on art history) can be found at http://en.posztukiwania.pl/

Habits of Highly Effective Researchers? Online Communication and the Early Modern Boundaries Network

Peter Auger (Queen Mary University of London)


[1] In his English translation of Michel de Montaigne’s essay ‘Of Custome’, John Florio writes that ‘whatsoever is beyond the compasse of custome, wee deeme likewise to bee beyond the compasse of reason; God knowes how for the most part, unreasonably’.[1] The same essay argues that ‘custome doth so bleare us that we cannot distinguish the true visage of things’. Pessimism about customary thinking can also inspire an empowering awareness of how new habits drive innovation. This can help us to reflect on Renaissance studies as a discipline, like all disciplines, in which research follows established conventions that define what counts as valuable and reasonable. Change the routines, and discoveries become possible that can expand the compass of our understanding.

[2] The Early Modern Boundaries project, funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award between 2015 and 2017, spent its first year examining how early modernists might develop working practices that better reflect the transnational and multilingual nature of early modern cultures. As recorded in our first report for this journal, a symposium held at Queen Mary in September 2015 highlighted the value of paying greater attention to transnational and regional movements, and seeking opportunities for collaborative research and improved language skills. The last of these points became the subject of a follow-up workshop at Newcastle in March 2016 that identified practical ways to promote language skills and exchange (twenty of which are listed on the project website).

[3] At both events, online communication came up as an area where new structures might usefully emerge to facilitate collaboration amongst early modernists, especially on language-related matters. In particular, participants raised the idea of an online professional network that would allow early modernists to ask and answer questions among colleagues with adjacent interests. So when the British Academy awarded us follow-on funding in Spring 2016, the obvious next step was to set up such a network to allow the research community to begin interacting in these new ways. In order to get a better picture of how research-related online communication currently works, we spent a couple of months talking to colleagues with diverse research interests and social media habits. Mailing lists (like JISCmail and H-Net), we learnt, are good for announcements but are often too large to initiate discussions among new members, plus it is hard to find out who else is on the list and only possible to contact the whole group en masse. For those who use it, Twitter is the best available tool for contacting many other researchers at once, and is especially useful during conferences; however, it feels too public for some, and is not as effective for directing questions to experts. Facebook groups can also generate a sense of scholarly community, but the blurring of personal and professional lives can be even more off-putting.

[4] We also received sensible practical advice. Don’t tell people how to interact – this was a project that should showcase new ways to communicate and see how researchers take them up. Don’t convene an omnium gatherum of early modernists, or something that just feels like yet another thing to sign up to. Instead, do have a clear identity: make the most of the emphasis on multilingual, transnational and comparative research to target a like-minded section of the larger community. Do concentrate on supplying a service that meets researchers’ current needs. Do gather together existing networks of people who have met in person rather than be wholly virtual; the group might even aspire to be a network of networks. Finally, don’t create an electronic island, but do create links with ways that researchers already meet and interact.

[5] With a sense of timeliness for a project aiming to strengthen ties between scholars in the United Kingdom and abroad after Britain’s EU Referendum, the Early Modern Boundaries network launched its pilot initiative in Autumn 2016, offering ‘a new platform for early modernists to discuss research queries among targeted groups of other researchers’. Hosted by a communications hub called Mobilize that has been evolving while we have been subscribing to it, at the time of writing we have 170 members from across the world – from Korea, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, India, the United States and Canada as well as a host of European nations. New members are always welcome: the project website has full details about the project and its uses, and how to join.

[6] The network operates roughly like a customizable mailing list. On joining, members can add information about research interests, languages and periods of study, then search a directory of other researchers who are willing to offer assistance, and contact sections of the group or individuals with research queries. The platform works best for research enquiries directed solely at recipients with shared interests, such as seventeenth-century Spanish, sixteenth-century French or outreach activities for English literature. Members of our community have been offering unfailingly prompt and well-informed assistance to questions asked on these and other areas. It is through such queries that the platform has enabled a kind of communication that could not have happened without the network’s existence.

[7] Members can also make announcements to the whole group if they wish. In order to reduce email volume, we encourage members to post general announcements on the platform where they will be immediately visible to anyone who logs into the platform (which, in practice, is hardly anyone as members can use the service entirely by email) and are then included in a regular email update sent to all members. Members can choose whether to receive emails from the platform immediately, daily or never. Almost all members have chosen to subscribe to email updates, and we try to keep messages at a minimum. However, whole-group messages, including newsletters, do not necessarily have a higher rate of engagement than targeted messages: messages sent by email to the whole group are usually opened by just over half of all members, e.g. fifty-six percent viewed the most recent newsletter (the platform lets you see who views or clicks on your messages).

[8] Having shown what the platform offers to the community, the network’s next task is to explore possibilities for integrating its activities with those of other researchers and projects working on cross-cultural and multilingual topics. The pilot initiative has one-and-a-half years left to run, after which time it will become clearer whether its new modes of communication offered a handy window of opportunity to ask questions, or whether they have revealed new habits among the global research community in early modern studies. The priority so far has been on setting up the platform such that members enjoy the experience, find it simple to interact with other members, and feel rewarded and part of a community when they contribute. The biggest question for the network in its current form is whether its passive members will become more active over time, feeling at home with the platform and able to contribute questions and ideas when they arise.

[9] The network also needs to link its interactions more closely to existing research activities and events. In order to generate discussion about how digital tools enable transnational and multilingual scholarship, the project sponsored a drinks reception at the conference ‘Reception, Reputation and Circulation in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800’, held at the National University of Ireland, Galway, in March 2017 (podcasts and abstracts are now available online). In introducing the project and its aims to potential new members, this contribution was in effect more like a conference paper than a new partnership: as a one-off collaboration, it made little sense to use the platform’s calendar, events and discussion functions to bring participants together. The network might well consider how it could attach itself to a series of occasional meetings to develop its sense of community, and even how such meetings might use video conferencing or recordings to engage participants from right across our international network. An aspiration to use the platform to engage infrequent tweeters in the rich conversations on Twitter has not yet been realized since Mobilize does not offer integration with social media platforms for the time being (though it can now be used via an app).

[10] Another area where the network could grow in response to need is to help more graduate students and other early career researchers to strengthen their personal research network. The network provides a supportive environment for junior academics to seek advice beyond their institution and discipline, to ask questions about languages and cultures beyond their specialism, and to gain tips about research, teaching and careers. The network has created a space for interdisciplinary discussion that complements disciplinary training among a self-identified group of scholars who are open to such conversations.

[11] The larger issue at stake is how the emerging area of transnational early modern studies can create and nurture a research community responsive to new developments that is not dependent on funded initiatives like this one nor on large fixed-term research projects. The network needs to become more closely embedded with activities at institutional and other research centres, and we would be interested to hear from other individuals and universities about creating links, in particular from those who already have an established community in a relevant area (all the more so if located outside the United Kingdom).

[12] The time and money invested in the Early Modern Boundaries project has generated a burst of creative energy to illuminate how linguistic and disciplinary boundaries shape research, and how researchers might organize themselves individually and collectively in response to the need for more work on transnational, multilingual and comparative areas of early modern studies, areas like the Northern Renaissance and Eastern European literature, to name just two. The pilot initiative’s purpose is ultimately greater than making this particular platform succeed: it has challenged members of the global research community to develop more robust methods that enable frequent and casual research collaboration. Such habits will usefully extend the compass of our customs if they help researchers to be visible and approachable members of a single research community that operates across disciplines and nations.

[13] All researchers with relevant interests are warmly invited to join the pilot initiative, which runs until January 2019. Members are very welcome to give thoughts and feedback on the network, and the comments box below offers a place to do so. To learn more and to join, see www.earlymodernboundaries.com.



[1] Montaigne’s Essays, trans. John Florio, 3 vols (London: Dent, 1910; repr. 1965), I, p. 114-15. I am very grateful to Kate De Rycker for comments on an earlier draft. [back to text]

Fake News in Early Modern England

Polaris Podcasts: Three Lectures by Rebecca Hasler

[1] Welcome to the latest Polaris podcast, this time a series of three public lectures by Rebecca Hasler at the University of St Andrews. The lectures were this year’s St Leonard’s College Research Prize Lectures in the Arts & Humanities.

[2] In the first lecture, ‘New and Fake News in Early Modern England’, Rebecca argues that ‘in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, there was no clear divide between news and fake news. Instead, both were used as a means of documenting God’s providential interventions in the world’. Covering examples from dragons to spontaneous combustion, we learn that what matters for definitions of fake news ‘depends upon the perspective of the reader’.

[3] In the second lecture, ‘Discovering Crime, Real and Fake’, Rebecca assesses the credibility of reports claiming that London was overrun by a hierarchical underworld of criminal beggars. How does fake news create the impression of real and serious social problems? And what are the parallels between the criminalisation of vagabonds in early modern England and fake news about immigrants today?

[4] In the third and final lecture of the series, ‘Fake News: Satire and Fiction’, Rebecca argues that satire can provide an inoculation against the allure of fake news, taking as her starting point similar language used to condemn early modern news readers and today’s victims of fake news. Both groups run the risk of being accused of gullibility. Taking up examples of satirical news, on subjects ranging from astrology to the plague, Rebecca suggests that the critical reading encouraged by satire, and the self-awareness that this fosters, can train us to be less gullible when we stumble across fake news reports.

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, The Cardsharps (c. 1595) © 2017 Kimbell Art Museum

[5] You can share your thoughts about the lectures in the comments section below. Respond to Rebecca direct with any questions on Twitter @RLHasler. Or feel inspired to respond to the Call for Papers for ‘Pamphleteering Culture, 1558-1702‘, an upcoming conference at the University of Edinburgh. More information can be found at https://pamphleteering2017.wordpress.com.

Zoë Sutherland

‘The Masque of the Olympic Knights’, St Andrews, 11 February 2017

Rachel Horrocks (University of St Andrews)

[1] On 11 February 2017 the University of St Andrews hosted a reconstruction of Francis Beaumont’s 1613 court masque, The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn. Funded by the Historical Dance Society, the reconstruction followed a weekend of early dance workshops led by scholar-practitioner Dr Anne Daye, and was attended by students and dance enthusiasts from St Andrews, Dundee, and Inverness.

Promotional poster, The Masque of the Olympic Knights

[2] For the event, the masque was renamed The Masque of the Olympic Knights and billed as a public showcase. The cast consisted of almost 40 dancers, musicians, singers, and actors, and the showcase was attended by 50 members of the university and community. The performance featured three rehearsed dances (choreographed by Daye), 20 pieces of early music involving a dozen musicians and two singers (arranged and conducted by Dr Jane Pettegree), and a cut version of the dialogue (directed by myself). To give audience members a sense of the original scenery and costumes, we projected a series of Inigo Jones’ original sketches from early masques on a screen at the back of the stage.[1]

[3] The project was intended to augment my doctoral research into the evolution of the antimasque form. Much of the research into the antimasque, and the masque as a whole, consists of analysis of the masque as a literary text, or of locating the masque within its historical context. These historical and textual approaches are valuable.[2] However, the fact that the masque was primarily a physical performance—bodies moving in time and space—has largely gone unstudied.[3] I am particularly interested in the relationship between masque and antimasque onstage, and much of my research consists of using texts and eyewitness accounts to imaginatively reconstruct performances. This approach allows me to discover patterns which are not immediately evident from the text, such as the prevalence of circles and crescents in Hymenaei (1606), or the continuous on-stage presence of the comic cupids in The Masque of Beauty (1608). By studying these patterns of movement, we gain a greater understanding of the physical interactions and divergences of the masque and antimasque.

[4] The Masque of the Olympic Knights was a large-scale, practical outworking of this reconstructive method, allowing us to explore the patterns of movements that emerge onstage. During rehearsals, several elements immediately became clear. Firstly, Beaumont’s masque is imbued with a terrific energy: Mercury and Iris enter chasing each other, the second antimasque dashes in and out, and the main masque is composed of the virile Olympic Knights. Secondly, as can be expected for a marriage masque, the performance consistently drives toward male-female pairings.[4] Mercury and Iris’ squabble represents the eventual reconciliation of Juno and Jove, while both antimasques attempt to split into couples, yet in each case the odd number of dancers makes pairing impossible. It is not until the arrival of the Olympic Knights, and their advance to invite the ladies of the court to dance, that the equal pairings are finally achieved. As Daye emphasized during rehearsals, through both the antimasque and the main masque, The Masque of the Olympic Knights celebrates energy and fecundity.

Antimasque of Naiads and Hyades

[5] One element I was particularly intrigued to see in performance was the Revels, the section at the conclusion of the main masque where the masquers “take out” the audience to dance. This segment would often last for hours, including both group dances and opportunities for couples to demonstrate their prowess. For our purposes, we chose two simple group dances, so that the spectators would easily be able to learn the steps, and not be embarrassed by dancing in front of a group. In Pettegree’s introduction to the evening, she informed audience members that there would be an opportunity for participation, and all our publicity also mentioned the interactive nature of the masque. Thus, those who did not wish to participate simply sat further back. The invitation to dance, then, proceeded far more smoothly than I anticipated, as everyone sitting within easy reach of the dance floor was eager to join in. With around twenty masque dancers, we managed to “take out” just under half the audience, which nicely filled our dancing space (as can be seen in Image 3). The Revels are often written about as the fulfillment of the harmony wrought by the early masque, which was certainly the case in our experience.

[6] As a dramatic performance, The Masque of the Olympic Knights was a greater success than we dared anticipate. Our workshop participants, who, for the most part, had no experience with early dance, learnt and remembered the steps with impressive accuracy. The live music imbued the performance with energy, and the songs were emotionally moving. The dialogue, although challenging, revealed an unexpected psychological depth to the characters and held the performance together as a single dramatic entity.[5] Most importantly, both audience and participants genuinely enjoyed the experience. While it was a workshop, rather than a polished performance, respondents to our follow-up survey consistently described the event as both informative and enjoyable. The Masque of the Olympic Knights was designed as an academic project to inform my doctoral research into historical performance, yet ultimately proved that the court masque is still a viable form of entertainment for a modern audience.


[7] The Masque of the Olympic Knights was generously supported by the Historical Dance Society (see https://historicaldance.org.uk/events), the University of St Andrews Music Centre, and the School of English. Choreography was provided by Anne Daye, the music was arranged and conducted by Jane Pettegree, and the dialogue was directed by Rachel Horrocks. For more information you can go to http://olympicknightsmasque.blogspot.co.uk/


[1] Unfortunately, no images from The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn survive.

[2] I am especially indebted to Stephen Orgel, Martin Butler, James Knowles, and David Bevington, among others.

[3] Barbara Ravelhofer notably adopts a performance-based approach in The Early Stuart Masque (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006).

[4] The masque was originally performed in 1613 to celebrate the wedding of Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick, the Elector Palatine.

[5] Both the actress portraying Iris and I (playing Mercury) found the dialogue more difficult to memorise than other early modern drama.

Conference Report – Myth and Emotion in Early Modern Europe

Katherine Heavey (University of Glasgow)
& Gordon Raeburn (University of Melbourne) 


[1] On 10 March 2016, the University of Melbourne, in association with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE), hosted a one-day seminar on the topic of ‘Myth and Emotion in Early Modern Europe’. The seminar was organised by Dr Gordon Raeburn (University of Melbourne) and Dr Katherine Heavey (University of Glasgow) and was generously supported by CHE and the University of Melbourne. The seminar attracted speakers from across Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, and the keynote lecture was delivered by Professor Cora Fox (Arizona State University).

Lucas van Leyden, Pyramus and Thisbe, 1514

Lucas van Leyden, Pyramus and Thisbe, 1514

[2] Established in 2011 under the Australian Research Council’s Centres of Excellence Program, and based at the University of Western Australia in Perth, CHE has nodes at the University of Melbourne, the University of Sydney, the University of Adelaide, and the University of Queensland in Brisbane. The Centre’s overarching purpose is to recover the history of emotions from Europe between 1100 and 1800. The History of Emotions is a broad field, which has garnered attention in recent years, and attracts scholars from fields beyond the humanities, such as neuroscience and psychology. One of the emerging strengths of the field is the multiplicity of ways in which emotions are approached in relation to other aspects of history and literature, for instance the focus in this seminar upon the place of emotions within early modern reimaginings of classical myth.

[3] This seminar sought to underscore and explore the connections early modern authors perceived between myth and emotion, and explored a range of research questions, including:

  • Which classical myths were most popular, among authors seeking emotional effect?
  • How were myths rewritten to alter or increase the emotional impact? Could comic myths become tragic, or was it more likely for tragic myths to become comic?
  • Why did authors choose to rewrite known stories in this way? How does an iconic reshaping of a classical story’s emotional impact (such as Shakespeare’s rewriting of Pyramus and Thisbe into a comic interlude) affect our perception of the original myth, or hypotext?
  • What might the ‘emotionalising’ of a particular myth (for example by giving the reader access to a character’s previously unspoken thoughts or feelings) have to tell us about the cultural or literary context in which it was written? What might it suggest about attitudes to women; foreigners; or the relationship between reader and audience?

The seminar addressed the marrying of myth and emotion across a wide range of genres (poetry, prose, drama, epic), from the Middle Ages to the early eighteenth century, and in the works of both canonical early modern authors (Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson) and their lesser-known predecessors and contemporaries (John Rolland, Richard Robinson).Papers approached the topic from a variety of perspectives, asking how myth might be used to intervene in, or contribute to, political or religious debates (for example Gordon Raeburn’s paper on John Rolland, and Brandon Chua’s on Eliza Haywood); how myth might manipulate emotions to entertain as well as educate (Katherine Heavey on Ben Jonson and Richard Robinson); and how female writers received and reworked myths (Bronwyn Reddan on the myth of Cupid and Psyche in the work of Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy).

[4] The event began with the keynote lecture by Professor Cora Fox, entitled ‘Awe, Happiness and Emotive Intertextuality in The Winter’s Tale’. Fox described The Winter’s Tale as ‘Shakespeare’s most mythic play…dependent on a web of fictional and cultural narratives’. Professor Fox provided a reading of the play – in particular Hermione’s climactic and tragicomic transformation – which demonstrated the work’s ‘emotive intertextuality’, its employment of earlier mythic models (such as the story of Pygmalion) not just to provoke emotional response, but to ‘constitute and attach value to emotions’. Professor Fox showed how the creation of emotion – happiness, sadness, awe – was, and is, key to the play’s impact, in Shakespeare’s day and today. The subsequent discussion broadened to consider how the emotions on display in Shakespeare’s tragicomedy had evolved (and often changed entirely) from his most important contemporary source, Robert Greene’s prose fiction Pandosto (1588). This work does not include Hermione’s famous transformation, but nevertheless, at its climax it draws explicit attention to the question of how an author creates emotional response in the reader, and highlights the fine line between tragedy and comedy.

[5] The first session comprised papers from Dr Katherine Heavey and Dr Diana Barnes (University of Queensland). In her paper, ‘Myth and Emotion in Early Modern England’, Dr Heavey showed how a range of authors, from Ben Jonson to Richard Robinson, reshaped classical myth (and the classical adaptations of their contemporaries, such as Christopher Marlowe) with the intention of creating specific emotional responses in readers and audiences. In Bartholomew Fair, for example, Jonson wants at least a section of his audience to appreciate how his lowbrow and scurrilous rewriting of the story of Hero and Leander differs from Marlowe’s popular poem, and to laugh at his irreverent reworking of myth. In work that was written to be read, too, authors saw the potential to heighten the emotional impact of their source myths – in the little-known dream vision poem The Rewarde of Wickednesse (1574), Richard Robinson gives a posthumous voice to Helen of Troy. The poem exaggerates Helen’s grief, as she recalls her sins in the afterlife, and moreover attempts to dictate the emotional response of Robinson’s readers: women in particular, he argues, should weep (and examine their own moral failings at the same time) as they read the (largely invented) grief of a well-known mythical heroine.

[6] Dr Barnes’ paper, ‘Myth and Emotion “clowdily enwrapped” in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene’, argued that the piece in question was a kaleidoscope of myth generating an array of emotional effect. In The Faerie Queene Spenser sought to lay claim to inherited literary traditions, and to build something new in the process. In so doing he drew threads from a wide range of classical and medieval works, representing his literary inheritance as a repository of myth, resulting in a digressive, episodic, allegorical, and incomplete heroic romance constituting six books and fragments of a seventh. Barnes argued that despite the narratives being bound together by the myth of King Arthur’s service to the Faerie Queene this work was in no way unified by a singular mythic or emotional drive. Dr Barnes highlighted the lack of focus by Spenser scholars upon the relationship between myth and emotion. Finally, she argued that a theory of emotion and its proper governance was at the centre of Spenser’s view of the function, responsibility, and scope of a heroic poetics that serves the commonwealth.

[7] The second session comprised papers from Dr Kirk Essary (University of Western Australia) and Dr Gordon Raeburn. Dr Essary’s paper, ‘Proteus in the Renaissance: Myth and Emotion in Erasmus’, addressed how Erasmus of Rotterdam, a voracious reader of classical myth, recast tales from Greece and Rome within a wide variety of emotional contexts and forms, such as his metaphorical invocation of the shapeshifting Proteus in the Enchiridion, or his use of the battle of Achilles and Hector in the Iliad to instil fear into the Christian soldier through rhetorical amplification. Elsewhere, in the Ecclesiastes Erasmus warned the prospective preacher against the Scylla of arrogance and the Charybdis of despair. Erasmus, of course, was not unfamiliar with irony and laughter, and in the Praise of Folly he employed twisted retellings of ancient myth to such an end. Conversely Erasmus emphasised the pathos of Ovid’s Nux to show how an ostensibly playful poem actually induces pity. Dr Essary ultimately highlighted how Erasmus’ willingness to interact with ancient myth in a variety of emotional contexts over his career reveals his own protean tendencies.

[8] Dr Raeburn’s paper, ‘Myth, Emotion, and Identity in Rolland’s The Court of Venus’, examined the allegorical use of the myth of the court of Venus to describe the state of Scotland and the Scottish church during the period of the European Reformation. The idea of Rolland’s work being allegorical is not new, but it was previously believed to be an allegory for the state of the Scottish law courts at the time. Dr Raeburn demonstrated that Rolland had a deeper layer of allegorical meaning, arguing for reform of the Scottish church from within the pre-existing Catholic structures. Rolland, a Catholic priest until at least 1554, ultimately converted to Protestantism by 1560. It is possible, however, that during the intervening years Rolland recognised the need for the Church to change, without going so far as to embrace Protestantism. Throughout Scotland this would, of course, have been a tumultuous time for both Rolland and others affected by the growing winds of change. As such, in this paper, Raeburn described Rolland’s work as an allegorical description of the emotional state of mid-sixteenth-century Scots.

[9] The third and final session comprised papers from Ms Bronwyn Reddan (University of Melbourne) and Dr Brandon Chua (University of Queensland). Ms Reddan’s paper, ‘Reimagining Cupid and Psyche in the fairy tales of Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’, considered d’Aulnoy’s version of the Cupid and Psyche tale in her 1697 work, Serpentin Vert. This work retells and revises the Cupid and Psyche myth in order to address the question of whether or not it is possible to love without knowing or seeing the beloved. Unlike Psyche’s perfect physical beauty, d’Aulnoy’s heroine Laideronnette is cursed with a profound ugliness. Laideronnette, like Psyche, marries an unseen husband whom she is prohibited from looking upon, a prohibition she disobeys, resulting in her punishment. Ms Reddan argued that when read in light of d’Aulnoy’s representation of love in her other tales, Laideronnette’s failure to obey is inevitable, because d’Aulnoy suggests that sight is imperative to love. As such, Laideronnette cannot love her husband without looking upon him. Her curiosity is not emblematic of female weakness; it rebalances the relationship between husband and wife.

[10] Finally, Dr Chua’s paper, ‘Myth, History, and the Orient: Eliza Haywood’s The Adventures of Eovaii (1742) and the Politics of Sinophilia’, examined the fusion of Greco-Roman myth with the oriental tale in the Secret History, a subgenre of historiography that thrived in the Restoration and the eighteenth-century print market. The form of the Secret History was shown to have exploited the growing appetite for political scandal in the period following the English Civil Wars, using the distancing frames of classical myth and the oriental tale to demystify the secret workings of the state by publicising and politicising the private lives of the chief players at court. Dr Chua’s paper, employing as a case study Eliza Haywood’s scathing history of the Walpole administration, considered how the transportation of classical myth into the oriental tale enabled the genre of the Secret History to register the representational crises at stake in a public sphere undergoing profound reconstitutions by new forms of political literacy.

11] ‘Myth and Emotion in Early Modern Europe’ showed how early modern myth might be outward-facing and dynamic, reflective of the present moment and contemporary concerns as well as of the past. Simultaneously, it showed how for hundreds of years, authors have been preoccupied with using literature to explore the nature, creation and expression of emotion. The range of papers and critical and theoretical approaches demonstrated the centrality of myth to the early modern literary imagination, but also its flexibility. Myth was adopted and adapted in a myriad of ways to reflect and to shape both individual and collective emotion in early modern Europe.

[12] The organisers would like to extend their thanks to all participants, and to the University of Melbourne and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Further information about the Centre and its work can be found here: http://www.historyofemotions.org.au/ and you can also follow its research activities on Facebook and on Twitter: @ThinkEmotions.

‘Parenthood and Childhood in the Middle Ages’, Edinburgh 8-9 October 2015

Rachel Delman (University College, University of Oxford)
Phoebe C. Linton (University of Edinburgh)


Parenting and Childhood Conference Report Image[1] From 8-9 October 2015 the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh hosted an international and interdisciplinary conference on ‘Parenthood and Childhood in the Middle Ages’. Generously funded by the Royal Historical Society and supported by the Edinburgh Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, this two-day conference brought together almost 40 academics from all career stages, including established academics, early career scholars, independent researchers and postgraduate students. The 22 speakers came from a range of countries, including Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy, Canada and the USA, as well as more local cities; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, York, Manchester, Newcastle and London.

[2] The theme for this conference was initially inspired by the co-organisers’ experience of the Gender and Medieval Studies gathering at the University of Winchester, 9-11 January 2014. Having shared research interests there, the organisers decided to plan a conference that would approach the broad and ever-expanding field of medieval gender studies from a more specific angle. They discussed how concepts such as ‘family’ and ‘the home’ have assumed an important place in scholarly discussions of the social, economic and political life of the middle ages, yet they also recognised that approaches to the themes of motherhood, fatherhood and childhood have nonetheless remained disparate and self-contained. They accordingly decided that parenthood and childhood would form the dipartite focus of the conference. Building upon the growing interest in these areas, the organisers’ aims were to facilitate dialogue between researchers working on these different areas, and to highlight the value of doing so for future research in the field.

[3] Though nominally a conference on the Middle Ages, an awareness of periodicity came through strongly both during presentations and in questions and discussion afterwards, since the papers spanned the 9th to the 16th centuries. This meant that the sometimes disconnected subdivisions of early-medieval, late-medieval and early modern studies were considered more closely in relation to each other. Indeed, the keynote speaker Dr Sarah M. Dunnigan (University of Edinburgh) addressed the late medieval/early modern divide in her paper, ‘Childhood and Youth in Late Medieval and Early Modern Scottish Literature.’ Dunnigan’s paper provided an imaginative and thought-provoking analysis of the ways in which Scottish literary texts conceive the relationship between parents and children, authority and perceived transgression. She argued for the particular significance of literary culture in moulding and nurturing expectations of youthful conduct, as typified by verse miscellanies like the Maitland Quarto.

[4] The range of materials discussed by speakers also highlighted a variety of similarities and differences across broad geographical boundaries. Although the focus of the conference was primarily on Central European history and art, studies of family in as distant and culturally distinct places as pre-modern Sweden, Islamic Iberia and the Middle East were also included.

[5] While the papers on the first day offered a variety of topics and perspectives, education emerged as the overarching theme. Sessions included ‘Motherly Models’, ‘Fathers as Educators’, and ‘Fosterage and Surrogate Families’. The above-mentioned keynote, which completed the first half of the conference, engaged with the theme of education, whilst also anticipating the core theme of the second day, emotion. The papers in the second day emphasised the place of affect within the history of the family, with the sessions consisting of ‘Emotional Concepts of Family’, ‘Alien and Absent Children’, ‘Material Records of Growing Up’ and ‘Commemorating the Family.’ The papers within these sessions touched upon issues such as the loss of parents or children and the commemoration of familial relationships through a variety of media. Overall, the two days’ themes pointed to four sub-strands of thought: space, bonds, status and memory.

[6] Space was a recurrent strand, since speakers considered in different ways how the family unit is a place of education, whether domestic or political, secular or religious. Ana Miranda (University of Lisbon) and Robert Grout (University of York) spoke about the paternal instruction of children in the contexts of the learned elite in Muslim Spain and the mercantile class of Christian England respectively. An especially interesting aspect of discussion common to their papers was the notion that parents, as well as children, were seen to be capable of making mistakes and thus equally needed instruction in order to learn appropriate behaviours. An alternative image of paternal education was imagined by Daniel Brown (University of Cologne), whose analysis of the Historia Normannorum by Dudo of St Quentin raised the idea of book-as-father in teaching the duke how to be an appropriate ruler of his people.

[7] On the other side of the parental spectrum, Jane Bonsall (University of Edinburgh) suggested a direct relationship between the differences in Middle English versions of Tristan and Isolde in courtly narratives and the absence or presence of Isolde’s mother’s educating influence. In a religious context, Hannah Shepherd (University of Edinburgh) explored how conceptions of female childhood were formative in the maturation of a specifically feminine spirituality when adulthood was reached.

[8] Considering the relationship between human and godly spaces, Dr Simone Sari (Independent Researcher) illustrated how a Spanish Vita Christi framed religious practice within common domestic and enclosed spaces like the convent as the location from which divine space in the palace of heaven could be accessed, enabling mortal families to join the holy family. A recurrent idea throughout these papers was of how the education of children in exclusive, elite or otherwise distinct social places encouraged their socialisation and integration into public spaces, ultimately conflating personal life of the family with the wider social and political world.

[9] Our dialogue progressed from family spaces to the bonds between people within them, a highly nuanced theme during both days of the conference. Considering the subject of feelings within the medieval and early modern family, Dr Janay Nugent (University of Lethbridge) reversed the parent-centric view of familial love to question the love of children for their parents, as well as the role of their feelings in a social context. Consequently the question of how love frequently transcended conventional boundaries was raised, despite often being viewed in scholarship as having been of secondary importance to more practical concerns about land, money and influence. Issues of space and education mentioned above are often seen in terms of theoretical binaries with fathers instructing sons and mothers their daughters; likewise such instruction can be divided as pertaining to the more active political sphere versus the domestic household. However, as Dr Lucinda Dean (University of Stirling) demonstrated, society was rife with both lateral and horizontal connections that reveal the historic existence of alternative forms of non-biological parenting, and which also complicate and conflate the perceived binaries of public and private. Dean’s paper on Scottish godparents and godsiblings explored how de facto adoptions were a common practice among the premodern laity. The exchange of children between families created affinities and networks between individuals and groups, which reached far beyond their natal homes. In this respect, motherhood presented the opportunity for the creation of bonds between groups, and these informal networks importantly often underpinned the more formal expression of power through official patriarchal structures.

[10] Fosterage within religious communities was also emphasised by Thomas O’Donnell (University College London). O’Donnell discussed Irish mystical sources, suggesting the role of foster-carer could help practitioners achieve closeness to God with particularly vivid anecdotes of parental care in saints’ bodily nurture of giant beetles and sucking of snot. These visceral yet comical images illustrated how devotion was sometimes re-imagined as an alternative form of non-biological motherhood, offering more individual spiritual exemplars of nurture by synthesising religious and secular family models. Godelinde Perk (University of Umeå) argued with examples of Birgitta of Sweden, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe that the trend in artificial application of child or parent models on unrelated figures in fact enhanced the authority of devotional practices by employing yet transcending typical configurations of family. Thus a salient connection between these different papers was the notion of the performativity of parenthood, where the adoption of children in medieval and early modern periods made familial constructs available to those who were not biological parents.

[11] The impact of social status on the expectations and realities of parenthood and childhood was repeatedly raised throughout the conference. The papers responded to the uneven source survival for this period creatively and imaginatively, with the discussions spanning the entire social spectrum. In her consideration of royal baptisms in late medieval Scotland, for example, Dean showed how illustrious social status was a crucial factor governing the choice of godparents for a royal infant. At the other end of the scale, Janine Bryant (University of Birmingham) and Dr Miriam Müller (University of Birmingham) highlighted the immense value of coroners’ and manorial court rolls for shedding light on the everyday challenges and hazards facing peasant children in late medieval England. Müller and Bryant’s papers also provided a rare and valuable glimpse into peasant life as it was actually experienced by contemporaries, circumventing the often highly stylised impressions gained through literary and narrative accounts. Moreover, their papers illuminated the more ‘ordinary’ experiences of daily life, which have often been ignored in favour of exceptional or more unusual examples.

[12] The impact of social status on individual and familial identity was powerfully demonstrated in Esther Bernstein’s (City University of New York) comparative reading of the romances of Horn and Havelock. In her discussion, Bernstein argued that the upbringing of the two male protagonists, one raised by royalty and the other by fishermen, profoundly shaped the men’s characters as rulers.

[13] The aforementioned attention placed on the performativity of parenthood also raised questions about the preservation of power and status. Several of the papers showed how access to parental models was important for the enhancement of authority in various contexts. Grout, for example, highlighted how clerical authors consciously utilised the paternal narrative voice in order to convey an authoritative tone in advice literature, while Sari emphasised the importance of Marian motherhood for reinforcing Isabelle de Villena’s authority as abbess of the Real Monasterio de la Trinidad of Valencia. The notion of motherhood as a means of accessing and displaying social, economic and political power came across strongly in Dr Richard McClary’s (University of Edinburgh) discussion of the architectural commissions of the royal women of the Seljuk dynasty. McClary highlighted how these women were able to circumvent their limited visibility at court by using their architectural commissions to make a prominent statement about their piety and wealth as the mothers of sultans. Access to power through the family was also central to Hanna Kilpi’s (University of Glasgow) discussion of familial relationships and Anglo-Norman charters. In her paper, Kilpi explored how the issue of charters by lesser aristocratic women under their parents’ names reveals the importance of lineage to female expressions of power in twelfth-century England.

[14] A more visceral take on the power of blood ties was provided by Grace Timperley’s (University of Manchester) consideration of inheritance romance narratives. Focusing on instances of bloodshed, Timperley emphasised the transformative nature of acts of violence against children in these texts, which sever the protagonist from his family and birth rights and induct him into the adult, martial world, where he emerges as a hero. Anxiety surrounding lineage and bloodlines was also central to Kathy Hardman’s (University of California, Riverside) discussion of childlessness in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and at the court Richard II. By comparing Chaucer’s version of the story to Boccaccio’s text, Hardman highlighted how the positive presentation of Criseyde’s childlessness by Boccaccio is completely lacking in Chaucer’s Middle English adaptation. Although careful not to read Chaucer’s text as a direct commentary on the political circumstances of Richard’s reign, Hardman nonetheless used the comparison between literature and reality to highlight pertinent and widespread social anxieties surrounding lineage and futurity in late medieval England.

[15] Discussions of lineage and social status were also closely linked to another of the conference’s themes, memory. Several of the papers explored the centrality of the family to commemorative practices. Harriette Peel (The Courtauld Institute of Art), for example, showed how parents in late medieval Flanders often included images of their deceased children in their own effigies to comment on the interrelationship between individual and familial identities. Moreover, through her focus on the context of these monuments within the highly visible and public space of the late medieval church, Peel showed how these representations of deceased families became widely accessible as sites of devotional contemplation and instruction for their viewers. The celebration of familial ties within secular, domestic settings was explored through the papers of Dr Amy Orrock (Independent Researcher) and Oliver Fearon (University of York and The Burrell Collection). Considering the shifting character of English portraiture between the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Orrock explored how visual representations of the ‘middling sorts’ became less concerned with the inclusion of pious motifs and more preoccupied with the lifelike representation of their sitters within their domestic environs. In her discussion, Orrock emphasised how these representations celebrated their subjects as part of a broader and ever-growing nexus of individuals, to include servants and deceased relatives, the latter of whom were skilfully included through the depiction of a portrait within the portrait.

[16] The celebration and crystallisation of familial connections was also presented through Oliver Fearon’s consideration of the heraldic stained glass commissioned by the Knightley family of Fawsley Hall in Northamptonshire. In his discussion, Fearon showed how social upstarts used heraldic display as a means of forging and crystallising a memory of familial longevity, enabling them to navigate the complexities of their contemporary political circumstances. Fearon’s paper laid heavy emphasis on the locational nature of memory, highlighting how the display of heraldic motifs in prominent locations within the gentry residence, such as the Great Hall, powerfully proclaimed the family’s longstanding regional importance to neighbouring elites.

[17] In contrast to the highly stylised and controlled instances of commemoration considered by Peel, Orrock and Fearon, was Dr. Cordelia Beattie’s (University of Edinburgh) discussion of the 1561 will of Margaret Lane. Through her exploration of the relationship between text and marginalia, Beattie argued that the scribal defacement of Margaret’s will with monstrous images can be read in light of the connections made in sixteenth-century thought between the morally corrupt female body and foetal deformity, and also as a comment on the ‘unnaturalness’ of a married woman making a will at this time. Beattie argued that to the medievalist, Margaret comes across as a sophisticated and astute parent, who shows an active concern for her daughter’s future, yet through the eyes of the sixteenth-century cleric, she is presented to us as an individual who defied the expectations and norms of her contemporary society. Beattie’s paper offered a powerful reminder of the challenges the modern scholar faces when approaching their source material through the lens of post-medieval thought, and also of the distance between medieval and modern conceptions of parenthood.

[18] The richness and diversity of the discussions over the course of the two days attests to the family’s now central place in medieval scholarship. Once treated as a marginalised or specialist topic, the papers highlighted how a consideration of the family can unlock diverse and wide-ranging aspects of medieval life, from the social and cultural to the economic and political. Moreover, the discussions emphasised that medieval conceptions of the medieval family were far from fixed or static, but constantly in flux, with familial networks expanding and contracting not only over the course of an individual’s lifespan, but more broadly over time. In this respect, the conference’s uniting of the often disparate and self-contained strands of ‘motherhood’, ‘fatherhood’ and ‘childhood’, did much to highlight the complexities of the word ‘family’, reminding us that the term encompassed a broad and diverse range of relationships, just as it does today. The papers revealed the immense value of considering ideologies and actualities of parental and childhood experiences side-by-side, bringing us ever closer to a more nuanced understanding of family life as it was actually lived and understood in the medieval world. Yet, it was also apparent that there is still much work to be done in this field. The presence of shared themes and conclusions across geographical, temporal and disciplinary boundaries highlighted the rich potential for future studies to explore medieval family life through comparative and interdisciplinary approaches.

[19] The conference also highlighted that for many medievalists, parenthood is not just a topic of scholarly inquiry, but a daily reality. Our second invited keynote speaker, Dr Rachel Moss, was unfortunately unable to attend, due to the proximity of her labour date to the conference. Despite her absence, however, Moss’s timely blog post, ‘Academic Bodies, After Labour’ provided food for thought as the conference came to a close, and her subsequent posts have importantly highlighted the impact of conferences and academic events on present day experiences of parenthood and childhood.

[20] The organisers would like to express their thanks to the Royal Historical Society (RHS) and to The Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS) at the University of Edinburgh for providing the funds and space, which made the conference possible. In addition, thanks are due to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, who have provided funding for the organisers’ doctoral research. Last but not least, warm thanks also go to Lucinda Dean, Elizabeth Elliott, Lucy Hinnie and others, who live-tweeted the conference proceedings. For a Storify summary of moment-to-moment reactions and highlights of all the delegates’ papers, see https://storify.com/yclepit/iashpc2015.

Worshipping at the Altar of the Bard

Polaris Podcasts: a JNR special by State of the Theory

[1] Welcome to the first in a series of posts showcasing podcasts which will, we hope, be of interest to our readers. State of the Theory is a podcast about power, politics and popular culture by Dr Anindya Raychaudhuri and Dr Hannah Fitzpatrick at the University of St Andrews. In each episode Anindya and Hannah discuss a topical news story or trend in pop culture in light of critical theory. Recent episodes have focused on fascism, sexualities, free speech, the Panama Papers, Hillsborough 1989, and Walter Benjamin.

[2] State of the Theory‘s latest episode, ‘Worshipping at the Altar of the Bard’, was generously made with a JNR/Polaris audience in mind. You can listen here:

– and you can join a discussion about the episode by posting questions and comments below, and by tweeting at the journal (@JNRJournal) and at Anindya (@DrAnindyaR) and Hannah (@DrHFitz).

[3] Many early modernists object to representations of Shakespeare’s life and works that elide a myriad of messy issues. Offering something in the way of an aspirin to those who had little choice but to RSVP ‘yes’ to the party of the last four centuries, ‘Worshipping at the Altar of the Bard’ takes up the politics of the commemoration of Shakespeare in 2016, on the 400th anniversary of his death. Anindya and Hannah discuss conflicting representations of Shakespeare as distinctively British and universally human, morally instructive and morally relativistic. We hope you will weigh in on these points with arguments of your own and with any thoughts that have been niggling in response to the 400th anniversary commemorations.

[4] Anindya and Hannah give a particularly interesting reading of the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. The well-known Shakespearean actor Sir Kenneth Brannagh played the leading engineer of the industrial revolution, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, reading Shakespeare. Rather than celebrate ‘Great Britain’ with the ‘scepter’d isle’ speech from Richard II, the ceremony’s director, the film maker Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), selected Caliban’s ‘the isle is full of noises’ speech from The Tempest. This throws up a range of issues in light of postcolonial readings of The Tempest and of Caliban’s subjugation. As Anindya says, the character of Brunel is here celebrating an industrial Britain which has benefited from a repressive empire, using the words of Shakespeare’s Caliban, who arguably has not.

[5] All this is not to deny the power of Shakespeare’s language, but following Foucault, where there is power there is resistance. And as many of our readers are acutely aware, resisting Renaissance narratives is often a profitable thing to do, at least intellectually.

[6] Listen, let us know what you think, and feel free to continue the discussion about the themes raised in this JNR/Polaris special. As State of the Theory focuses primarily on critical theory, it would also be interesting to know if listeners have any particular thoughts on the role of theory in early modern studies. If in some respects we are now ostensibly ‘post-theory’ – following the more explicit work of poststructuralism in drawing our attention to the production of cultural norms which we seemingly deviate from, even as we live by them – is it worth revisiting theory? Or not? What is some of the work being done in this respect that readers would recommend?

[7] If you make or listen to a podcast that you think we should feature as part of ‘Polaris podcasts’ please let us know at northernrenaissance@gmail.com.

Zoë Sutherland

TV Review: The Renaissance Unchained

Rebecca Unsworth (Queen Mary University of London / The Victoria & Albert Museum)


[1] In his recent BBC4 television series rethinking the art of the Renaissance, Waldemar Januszczak began with Giorgio Vasari. According to Januszczak, that ‘Michelangelo groupie’ was responsible for inventing the Renaissance in his use of the term rinascita to describe what was happening around him artistically. The tale which Vasari wove in his Lives of the Artists was one of cultural triumph, with a return to civilisation in Italy and a rebirth of the ideas of classical antiquity. Whilst this vision of the Renaissance has become canonical in art history, it is this version of events that Januszczak set out to challenge.

Waldemar Januszczak in BBC4's The Renaissance Unchained

Waldemar Januszczak in BBC4’s The Renaissance Unchained

[2] Instead, he argued that although to an extent there was a search for knowledge and revival of classical civilisation in the Renaissance, generally in this period art was ‘doing what art always does. Imagining the unimaginable and inventing things, expressing its emotions and describing its fears, enjoying itself and breaking the rules’. The Renaissance was not a period of civilised calm and enlightenment, and if it was “progressive”, it was in ways other than those we have been led to believe.

[3] In the first episode, ‘Gods, Myths and Oil Paints’, Januszczak pitted himself directly against Vasari, questioning his timing and geography. For Januszczak argued that by ignoring Northern Europe – and what might be now termed the Northern Renaissance – Vasari had ignored some major developments in art, and had in turn planted 500 years of prejudice against northern art in favour of that from Italy in the annals of art history. By focusing on artists such as Jan van Eyck, Quentin Metsys, Hans Memling, Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer, Januszczak set out to show that actually painting had become much “better” much earlier in Flanders and Germany than in Italy, helped by their earlier adoption of key developments like oil paints and lenses.

[4] The premise of the second episode, ‘Whips, Deaths and Madonnas’, was that although many have claimed that the Renaissance saw the birth of modern thought and a greater secularisation of society, religion remained hugely important. Indeed, the reason for there being so much great Renaissance art, according to Januszczak, is because so many great Renaissance sinners were trying to get into God’s good books. Through the frescoes of Giotto, the various Madonnas of Piero della Francesca and the Sistine Chapel of the ‘guilty, angsty and devoted’ Michelangelo, Januszczak showed how paintings in this period were finding ways to depict the previously unimaginable and make the impossible seem vivid and real.

[5] In the third episode, ‘Silk, Sex and Sin’ – interesting in its own right, but the programme least successfully tied into the wider argument of the series – Januszczak moved the action to Venice, questioning why its art was so different from everyone else’s. The answer that he gave was that it was due to the peculiarities of Venice’s location, ‘floating off the coast of reality’ and forming a cultural meeting point between East and West. Examining the works of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Bellini and Giorgione, Januszczak both continued the focus on religious art and also moved into the sensual, with a look at depictions of Venus, Mary Magdalene, and the numerous sexual conquests of Zeus.

[6] The fourth and final episode, ‘Hells, Snakes and Giants’, was dedicated to the more unsettling and strange aspects of Renaissance art. Januszczak argued that the Renaissance was a far wilder period than we are typically led to believe, and that instead of being the first modern age of reason, it continued to be full of unreason. Thus by creating artworks which were more surreal or pessimistic in outlook, artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco, Leonardo da Vinci, Archimboldo and Jacopo Pontormo were not betraying Renaissance values. The development of Mannerism in the sixteenth century did not signify the decline of the Renaissance then, according to Januszczak, but its climax.

Hiereonymus Bosch, detail from 'The Garden of Earthly Delights', c.1500

Hiereonymus Bosch, detail from ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, c.1500

[7] With his quirky presenting style – which often involved the use of unusual props, such as a plaster head of Michelangelo, or a taxidermied squirrel in order to explain the furs seen in van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait – and witty quips, Januszczak has produced a fascinating whistlestop tour through a selection of artists and works which are often slightly more off the beaten track. His occasional extended riffs on individual paintings such as Giorgione’s Tempest, van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (memorably described by Januszczak as a ‘theme park of sin’) are very engaging, and certainly leave you with a greater insight into these works than you might have had before. Some of the more contextual topics that he deviates into, like the depiction of shot silk in Venetian art, the use of mirrors in Flemish art, and Rudolf II and the court in Prague, are incredibly interesting in their own right, and leave you wishing that there had been more time to dwell on them. Indeed, the programmes are such cornucopias of ideas and images and switch so peripatetically between different locations across the continent, it would have good to have had captions elucidating who the numerous works thrown up on screen but not necessarily discussed were by and where they can be found.

[8] Despite, or perhaps because, Januszczak has chosen to cover such a plethora of works and topics, the series is rather lacking in contextualisation and historical grounding at times. Although reasons are posited for the earlier development of Northern Renaissance art, these are not discussed in enough depth. If the capacity to produce and use oil paints and lenses was crucial to the advancement of art, why was it that Flanders had these items earlier than in Italy, and how was it that they came to migrate south? Why was Northern Europe left out of Vasari’s vision of the Renaissance? Despite categorising Vasari as arch enemy number one, no explanation is given of Vasari’s aims in writing his Lives, where he got his information from, or how it was that his narrative and conclusions were so readily adopted by art historians and propagated down the centuries.

[9] For although Januszczak begins the series with Vasari, not only does he then omit him from the following three episodes, but he also fails to deliver any real understanding of how Vasari or his followers conceptualised the Renaissance. He is challenging the chronology, setting and characteristics of Vasari’s (or at least the “traditional”) Renaissance without fully explaining the model that he is arguing against. Assumptions seem to have been made that the viewer already knows what “typical” Renaissance art looks like, so that whilst Januszczak concentrates on the deviations, he never shows the standard. To have more successfully made his case for difference, it would have been helpful to have had more direct comparisons, to have been shown what the works and artists were which Vasari believed to have exemplified the Renaissance and why he saw them as doing so.

[10] The term Renaissance is itself bandied about in the series with sheer abandon, but exactly what Januszczak is using that term to encapsulate is unclear. When he says of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights that ‘this is Renaissance art as well, just as Renaissance as the Mona Lisa’, what does that mean? Is it simply that both were created around the same time, or is it that Januszczak wants us to reconceptualise the ideals that Renaissance art is supposed to exhibit? Frequently he talks about the Renaissance as a period, although he covers ground from the early fourteenth century to the end of the sixteenth century. At other times however he gives the impression of the Renaissance being a movement in art whose parameters he wants to expand. But if the whole original conception of the Renaissance was as a rebirth of antiquity, does it work for Januszczak to bring works like Giambologna’s Apennine Colossus, ‘so clearly not influenced by the Greeks’, under the umbrella of the term Renaissance?

[11] At other times, the notion of the Renaissance for Januszczak appears to mean that the era saw a wider cultural shift beyond just changes in painting. This can be seen for example in his discussion of Savonarola in the second episode, where he argues that if the Renaissance was genuinely an enlightened and progressive time, then Florence would have ignored Savonarola rather than being enthralled by him. Generally however Januszczak steers clear of delving into the actual history of the period or into other media and cultural outputs. The focus is very firmly on painting and the odd sculpture or two, although Januszczak does occasionally meander into the realm of the decorative arts, with discussions of maps, glass, and the life-cast ceramics of Bernard Palissy. But the common conceptualisation in the period, key in particular to Vasari’s understanding of art, that the liberal arts of painting, sculpture and architecture were on a higher and more intellectual plane to the mechanical arts is completely absent from the series.

12] Given the lack of cohesion as to what the central term of the series actually referred to, might The Renaissance Unchained have been better reconceived as simply an exploration of some of the perhaps lesser appreciated ideas and corners of late medieval and early modern art? Certainly the artistic content provided the excitement whilst the actual thesis felt lacking. But one suspects that Januszczak wants to be seen as the revolutionary firebrand overturning the canon, even though there is not enough clarity and context to his argument to make it convincing. It seems probable that the term Renaissance is also an easier and more recognisable hook for the general public, especially compared to the vague and little known (at least outside of academia) early modern.

[13] Challenging the concept of the Renaissance is no bad thing, but The Renaissance Unchained’s premise is impeded by its own confusion surrounding that term. There is definitely another show to be made examining what exactly the Renaissance was, why it was conceived of in such a way, and the impact that idea has had on subsequent understandings of history and art. But in making the case for an alternative vision of Renaissance art, The Renaissance Unchained does convince of the wealth of beauty and interest to be found in works beyond those of the “greats”, and hopefully more of these artists and topics will get their own expanded air time in the future.

Reflecting on ‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies’ (in English, Nederlands, Français, Italiano, & Español)

Peter Auger (Queen Mary University of London [QMUL])
Alice Brooke (Exeter College, Oxford)
Alessio Cotugno (Warwick)
Lotte Fikkers (QMUL)
Jennifer Oliver (St John’s College, Oxford)
Nydia Pineda De Avila (QMUL)


This symposium report is offered in five languages,  English, Nederlands, Français, Italiano and Español: please choose your preferred version below.

Reflecting on the symposium ‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies’
Reflecteren op het symposium ‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies’ (‘Nationale grenzen in vroeg moderne literatuur studies’)
Réflexions sur le colloque « National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies » (« Les frontières nationales dans les études littéraires de la première modernité »)
Riflessioni sul simposio ‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies’ (‘I confini nazionali negli studi letterari dell’età moderna’)
Reflexiones sobre el simposio ‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies’ (‘Las fronteras nacionales en los estudios literarios de la Primera Modernidad’)


Reflecting on the symposium ‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies’

[a1] Most researchers studying multilingual and transnational aspects of Renaissance literary culture work within departments centred on individual languages and national canons. The co-authors of this piece, for instance, include a specialist in the Spanish New World who teaches Cervantes, and someone from an English department working on Franco-Scottish poetic relations. A symposium on ‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies’, held at Queen Mary University of London on 18 September 2015, gathered early career researchers from institutions in the UK, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic to discuss how to pursue cross-cultural research interests whilst building professional identities within recognized disciplines.

[a2] The symposium — the programme of which is available online, as is a report written by Rebecca Unsworth — identified three ways to promote innovation, excellence and internationalism. The first is paying closer attention to regional and linguistic identities. Prof. Ingrid De Smet’s keynote address acknowledged the continuing need for centres, journals, and research clusters devoted to ‘Renaissance studies’ as a whole, while also emphasizing how research parameters can be defined in an enriching diversity of ways (of which the Journal of the Northern Renaissance offers a fine example). This is necessary because sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europeans had conceptions of borders, frontiers and identities that differed from one another’s, as indeed from ours. The territory that now forms Italy, for instance, was a collection of smaller kingdoms and states within which Naples, Sardinia, and Sicily were Viceroyalties of the Spanish crown that enjoyed the same political status as Mexico and Peru.

[a3] Several speakers vividly illustrated the value of self-consciousness about which regions of ‘the Renaissance’ or ‘early modern Europe’ we study, and how they correspond to historical definitions: Niall Oddy demonstrated the instability of the concept of Europe within sixteenth-century French literary culture; Martina Pranić, drawing parallels between the Croatian playwright Marin Držić and William Shakespeare, argued that the Eastern European Renaissance deserves much greater attention than it has received, particularly among Western European scholars; and case studies from John Gallagher and Bryan Brazeau invited us to reconsider early modern London as a multilingual space of fluid and interconnecting linguistic spheres.

[a4] Renaissance concepts of translation were themselves contingent on the regions, languages, traditions and periods involved, as Emilie Murphy observed. Alisa van de Haar’s work on Philips of Marnix of Saint-Aldegonde, who attempted to expurgate French and Dutch of lexical ambiguities, illustrated how historiographies of national literatures benefit from studying bilingual authors and translators in their multilingual contexts. This case highlights an ideal of translation that sought to standardize languages in order to create a sense of community in the Low Countries. Raphaële Garrod exhibited a different notion of translation in her survey of the lexicographical discussion around the word ingenium, one for which the original meaning of a word was consciously adapted to French and German national stereotypes. Several speakers touched on how aspects of visual and aural culture, such as frontispieces and songs, were translated as they travelled across territories.

[a5] The other two modes discussed — collaboration and language skills — represent more practical concerns. Several participants reflected on collaborative projects: present, for example, were postdocs from the ERC-funded ‘Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing 1550-1700’ project at the National University of Ireland, Galway; graduates of the Text and Event in Early Modern Europe (TEEME) Erasmus Mundus Doctoral Programme; and researchers affiliated to a host of scholarly societies and networks (a list is posted online). Una McIllvenna, describing challenges of researching early modern news songs in four languages, argued that fruitful one-to-one collaborations develop when research topics require us to reach out to experts. Online engagement was both discussed and put into practice: our live-tweeting of the event extended the boundaries of the conversation beyond Queen Mary’s campus, and helped us to think about which online forums and networks are most suitable for encouraging interdisciplinary discussions. Attendees noted the need for a platform where scholars researching foreign archives could find information about digital resources.

[a6] The value of language skills was an appropriate theme given that the British Academy, who provided generous support towards the symposium, has recently led a programme to deepen awareness of their importance. The symposium acknowledged that languages, in both their modern and historical forms, are an essential part of research identities that define what we read and the critical discourse in which we read them. Latin, as Prof. De Smet noted, is a much-needed skill. The vital importance of encouraging multilingualism came up during discussions about international collaboration; as Oren Margolis and others stressed, more researchers (especially, perhaps, Anglophone researchers) should be willing to throw themselves into using whatever language skills they have. Several participants thought about ways to support British undergraduates and post-graduates in using the languages they studied at school. Thinking about conference papers, Prof. Warren Boutcher noted that delivery makes a huge difference to how well speakers communicate, regardless of the language used.

[a7] These observations and others highlight the need to create collaborative environments in which people feel comfortable talking across languages and outside of their disciplinary specialisms. On the day, these discussions were all held in English, though in hindsight a bilingual French and English symposium might have been possible, and desirable. As a small gesture towards encouraging a multilingual conversation, we offer this reflection in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch. The authors (whose email addresses are available here) would be delighted to talk more with readers of Polaris, especially early career researchers, about initiatives and ideas for advancing research across national boundaries. The discussion can also be continued here: please consider making your own contribution by adding a comment below.

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Reflecteren op het symposium ‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies’ (‘Nationale grenzen in vroeg moderne literatuur studies’)

[b1] De meeste onderzoekers die meertalige en transnationale aspecten van de literaire cultuur van de renaissance bestuderen werken in departementen gericht op individuele talen en nationale canons. Onder de co-auteurs van dit stuk, bijvoorbeeld, bevindt zich onder andere een specialist van de Spaanse Nieuwe Wereld die ook Cervantes doceert, en iemand werkend in een departement Engels die zich tevens bezig houdt met Frans-Schotse dichterlijke relaties. Een symposium over ‘Nationale grenzen in vroeg moderne literatuur studies’, gehouden aan Queen Mary University of London op 18 september 2015, bracht onderzoekers in een vroeg stadium van hun carrière uit het Verenigd Koninkrijk, Ierland, Frankrijk, Nederland, Duitsland, Italië en Tsjechië bij elkaar om te discussiëren hoe cultuuroverschrijdende onderzoeksinteresses nagestreefd kunnen worden, terwijl tegelijkertijd gebouwd kan worden aan een professionele identiteit in een erkende discipline.

[b2] Het symposium — waarvan het programma online beschikbaar is, evenals een rapport geschreven door Rebecca Unsworth — heeft drie manieren geïdentificeerd om innovatie, excellentie en internationalisme te bevorderen. De eerste manier bestaat er uit meer aandacht te schenken aan regionale en taalkundige identiteiten. In haar keynote toespraak erkende Professor Ingrid De Smet de continue noodzaak voor het bestaan van instituten, tijdschriften en onderzoekscentra toegewijd aan ‘renaissance studies’ als een geheel, terwijl ze tegelijkertijd ook benadrukte hoe onderzoekskaders bepaald kunnen worden in een verrijkende diversiteit aan manieren (waarvan The Journal of the Northern Renaissance een uitstekend voorbeeld is). Dit is noodzakelijk omdat zestiende- en zeventiende-eeuwse Europeanen sterk verschillende ideeën hadden over grenzen en identiteiten, zoals dat ook nu nog steeds het geval is. Het gebied dat hedendaags Italië vormt, bijvoorbeeld, was een verzameling van kleinere koninkrijken en staten, en Napels, Sardinië en Sicilië waren onder-koninkrijken van de Spaanse kroon met dezelfde politieke status als Mexico en Peru.

[b3] Verschillende sprekers illustreerden op levendige wijze de waarde van bewustzijn over welke regio’s van ‘de renaissance’ of ‘vroegmodern Europa’ we bestuderen, en hoe deze corresponderen met historische definities: Niall Oddy demonstreerde de instabiliteit van het concept van Europa in de zestiende-eeuwse Franse literaire cultuur; Martina Pranić, die verbanden legde tussen de Oost-Europese toneelschrijver Marin Držić en Shakespeare, beargumenteerde dat de Oost-Europese renaissance grotere aandacht verdient dan deze tot nog toe heeft gekregen, vooral onder West-Europese onderzoekers; en case studies van John Gallagher en Bryan Brazeau nodigden ons uit om vroegmodern Londen te heroverwegen als een meertalige ruimte van onderling verbonden en in elkaar overvloeiende taalkundige terreinen.

[b4] Renaissance concepten van vertaling waren zelf afhankelijk van de betrokken regio’s, talen, tradities en periodes, zoals Emilie Murphy observeerde. Alisa van de Haar’s werk op het gebied van Philips van Marnix, Heer van Sint Aldegonde, die probeerde de Franse en Nederlandse taal te zuiveren van lexicale onduidelijkheden, illustreerde hoe geschiedschrijvingen van nationale literaturen voordeel kunnen behalen door het bestuderen van tweetalige auteurs en vertalers in hun meertalige contexten. Dit geval benadrukt een ideaal van vertaling dat zag op het standaardiseren van talen om zo een besef van gemeenschap te creëren in de Lage Landen. Raphaële Garrod stelde een ander idee van vertaling ten toon in haar studie van de lexicografische discussie rond het woord ingenium, waarbij de originele betekenis van een woord bewust werd aangepast aan Franse en Duitse stereotypes. Verschillende sprekers bespraken hoe aspecten van visuele en auditieve cultuur, zoals titelplaten en liederen, werden vertaald terwijl deze reisden door verschillende gebieden.

[b5] De andere twee manieren die besproken werden — samenwerking en taalvaardigheid — vertegenwoordigden meer praktische bezwaren. Verschillende deelnemers reflecteerden op collaboratieve projecten: aanwezig waren, bijvoorbeeld, post docs van het door het ECR gefinancierde ‘Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing 1550-1700’ project van de National University of Ireland, Galway; afgestudeerden van het ‘Text and Event in Early Modern Europe (TEEME)’ Erasmus Mundus doctoraal programma; en onderzoekers geaffilieerd aan een diversiteit van genootschappen en netwerken (een lijst hiervan kan online gevonden worden). Una McIllvenna, die de uitdagingen van onderzoek naar vroegmoderne nieuws liederen in vier verschillende talen beschreef, beargumenteerde dat vruchtbare één-op-één samenwerkingen ontstaan wanneer onderzoeksonderwerpen van ons verlangen dat we contact leggen met experts. Online betrokkenheid werd zowel besproken als in de praktijk gebracht: door tijdens het evenement te live-tweeten werden de grenzen van de discussie verlegd tot ver buiten de Queen Mary campus, en dit heeft ons geholpen na te denken over welke online fora en netwerken het meest geschikt zijn om interdisciplinaire discussies aan te moedigen. Enkele aanwezigen merkten op dat er behoefte is aan een platform waar onderzoekers die buitenlandse archieven bestuderen informatie kunnen vinden over digitale voorzieningen.

[b6] De waarde van taalvaardigheid was een geschikt thema, aangezien de British Academy, die het symposium genereus gesteund heeft, onlangs een programma heeft geleid om bewustzijn ten opzichte van het belang van talen te verbeteren. Het symposium erkende dat talen, in zowel hun moderne als geschiedkundige vorm, een essentieel deel uitmaken van de onderzoeksidentiteiten die definiëren wat we lezen, en in welke kritische ‘discourse’ we lezen. Latijn, zoals Professor De Smet opmerkte, is een veel benodigde vaardigheid. Het vitale belang van het aanmoedigen van meertaligheid kwam aan de orde in discussies over internationale samenwerking; zoals Oren Margolis en anderen benadrukten, meer onderzoekers (Engels sprekende onderzoekers misschien in het bijzonder) zouden bereid moeten zijn de taalvaardigheden die zij bezitten (wat die ook mogen zijn) in te zetten. Verschillende deelnemers dachten na over manieren waarop Britse bachelor en master studenten gesteund kunnen worden om de talen die zij bestudeerd hebben op school te kunnen gebruiken. Professor Warren Boutcher merkte op dat met betrekking tot conferentie papers de manier van presenteren een enorm verschil maakt in hoe goed een spreker communiceert, ongeacht de gekozen taal.

[b7] Deze en andere observaties benadrukken de noodzaak om collaboratieve omgevingen te creëren, waarin mensen comfortabel kunnen spreken in verschillende talen en buiten hun eigen disciplines. Alle discussies op de dag zelf werden gehouden in het Engels, alhoewel het terugkijkend mogelijk, en misschien zelfs wenselijk was geweest, om het symposium in twee talen (Engels en Frans) te houden. Als een klein gebaar om een meertalige conversatie aan te moedigen bieden we deze reflectie aan in het Engels, Frans, Italiaans, Spaans en Nederlands. De auteurs (wiens e-mailadressen hier beschikbaar zijn) gaan graag in gesprek met lezers van Polaris, en in het speciaal met onderzoekers die in een vroege fase van hun carrière verkeren, over initiatieven en ideeën om onderzoek dat de nationale grenzen overstijgt aan te jagen. De discussie kan ook hier voortgezet worden: voelt u zich vrij om uw eigen contributie te maken door hier beneden een opmerking te plaatsen.

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Réflexions sur le colloque «National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies» («Les frontières nationales dans les études littéraires de la première modernité»)

[c1] La plupart des chercheurs qui s’intéressent aux aspects multilingues et transnationaux de la culture littéraire de la Renaissance travaillent dans des départements qui se consacrent à des langues ou à des canons nationaux particuliers. La liste des co-auteurs de cet article, par exemple, comprend une spécialiste du nouveau monde espagnol qui enseigne Cervantès, et un membre d’un département de littérature anglaise qui travaille sur les relations poétiques franco-écossaises. Un colloque sur « Les frontières nationales dans les études littéraires de la première modernité », qui a eu lieu à Queen Mary University of London le 18 septembre 2015, a rassemblé des chercheurs en début de carrière travaillant dans diverses institutions au Royaume-Uni, en Irlande, en France, aux Pays-Bas, en Allemagne, en Italie, et en République tchèque, pour parler de comment on peut poursuivre des recherches interculturelles tout en bâtissant son identité professionnelle dans les bornes disciplinaires établies.

[c2] Le colloque — dont le programme, ainsi qu’un compte-rendu par Rebecca Unsworth, sont disponibles en ligne — a identifié trois moyens de promouvoir l’innovation, l’excellence et l’internationalisme. Le premier moyen serait de prêter davantage attention aux identités régionales et linguistiques. Dans son discours inaugural, la Professeure Ingrid De Smet a insisté sur la nécessité toujours présente des centres, revues scientifiques, et communautés de recherche voués aux « études de la Renaissance » dans leur ensemble, tout en soulignant la richesse et la diversité des façons de redéfinir les paramètres de nos recherches (richesse dont le Journal of the Northern Renaissance fournit un bel exemple). Cette redéfinition est nécessaire parce que les européens du seizième et dix-septième siècles se faisaient une conception de leurs frontières et de leur identité qui différaient entre elles, comme elles diffèrent bien sûr de la nôtre. Le territoire qui forme aujourd’hui l’Italie, par exemple, consistait à cette époque en une série de royaumes et d’états au sein desquelles Naples, la Sardaigne et la Sicile étaient des vice-royautés de la Couronne espagnole qui jouissaient du même statut politique que le Mexique et le Pérou.

[c3] Plusieurs des intervenants ont illustré avec éclat l’importance de s’interroger à l’égard de son choix d’étudier une région particulière de « la Renaissance » ou de « l’Europe de la première modernité », ainsi que de la mesure dans laquelle ces régions correspondent à leurs analogues historiques : Niall Oddy a fait valoir l’instabilité du concept d’Europe dans la culture littéraire française du seizième siècle ; Martina Pranić, dans un parallèle entre le dramatiste croate Marin Držić et William Shakespeare, a affirmé que la Renaissance de l’Europe de l’est mérite beaucoup plus d’attention qu’elle n’en a reçu jusqu’ici, surtout parmi les chercheurs de l’Europe occidentale ; et les études de cas qu’ont fournies John Gallagher et Bryan Brazeau nous ont invité à réviser nos idées du Londres de la Renaissance, pour le voir comme un espace multilingue composé de sphères linguistiques fluides et étroitement liées.

[c4] Les diverses conceptions de la traduction en vigueur à la Renaissance variaient selon la région, la langue, la tradition et la période dont il s’agissait, comme l’a constaté Emilie Murphy. Les recherches d’Alisa van de Haar sur Philips de Marnix de Saint-Aldegonde, qui essaya d’expurger le français et le néerlandais de toute ambiguïté lexique, ont illustré l’utilité de l’étude des auteurs et traducteurs bilingues dans leur contexte polyglotte pour les historiographes. Cet exemple met en lumière un idéal de la traduction qui cherchait à standardiser les langues afin de cultiver un sentiment de communauté aux Pays-Bas. Dans son enquête sur le débat lexicographique autour du mot ingenium, Raphaële Garrod a mis en avant une autre notion de la traduction selon laquelle le sens initial d’un mot était consciemment adapté à des stéréotypes nationaux français et allemands. Plusieurs intervenants ont évoqué la traduction de certains aspects de culture visuelle et auditive, tels que les frontispices ou les chansons, au passage des frontières.

[c5] Les deux autres approches dont il a été question — la collaboration et les compétences langagières — représentent des intérêts d’ordre plus pratique. Divers participants ont réfléchi sur des projets collaboratifs : étaient présents au colloque, par exemple, des chercheurs postdoctoraux sur le projet « Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing 1550-1700 » (« La réception et la circulation de l’écriture des femmes de la première modernité, 1550-1700 »), financé par le ERC, à la National University of Ireland, Galway, ainsi que des doctorants du Erasmus Mundus Doctoral Programme sur Text and Event in Early Modern Europe (TEEME) (« Texte et événement dans l’Europe de la première modernité »), et des chercheurs affiliés à de nombreuses sociétés et associations lettrées (dont on trouvera la liste en ligne). Una McIllvenna, dans sa description des défis posés par les recherches sur les chansons d’actualité de la Renaissance en quatre langues, a affirmé que des collaborations individuelles fructueuses peuvent se développer lorsque les sujets de recherche nous poussent à entrer en contact avec des spécialistes. L’on a discuté de l’engagement en ligne, tout en le pratiquant au cours de la journée : notre live-tweeting de l’événement a étendu les frontières de notre conversation au-delà du campus de Queen Mary, et nous a aidé à réfléchir sur la question des réseaux et forums les plus aptes à faciliter des discussions interdisciplinaires. Les participants ont constaté le besoin d’une plate-forme qui permettrait aux chercheurs ayant recours à des archives étrangères de s’informer sur les ressources numériques disponibles.

[c6] La valeur des compétences langagières était un thème idoine, vu que la British Academy, qui a fourni une subvention généreuse au colloque, a récemment mené une initiative de sensibilisation à leur importance. Le colloque a constaté que les langues, sous leurs formes actuelles et historiques, constituent une partie essentielle de nos identités en tant que chercheurs, et définissent ce que nous lisons et les discours critiques qui encadrent notre lecture. Le latin, comme l’a noté la Professeure De Smet, est une compétence cruciale. L’importance primordiale de soutenir le multilinguisme est une question qui s’est présentée au cours du débat sur la collaboration internationale ; comme Oren Margolis, entre autres, l’a souligné, davantage de chercheurs (surtout, peut-être, parmi les chercheurs anglophones) devraient être prêts à se lancer dans la mise en œuvre de toutes compétences langagières dont ils disposent. Plusieurs des intervenants ont discuté des façons dont il serait possible d’encourager les étudiants et doctorants du Royaume-Uni à se servir des langues qu’ils ont acquises au lycée. En réfléchissant aux présentations de conférence, le Professeur Warren Boutcher a observé que le rapidité d’élocution peut faire beaucoup pour (ou bien contre) la réussite de la communication, dans quelque langue qu’il s’agisse.

[c7] Ces observations, entre autres, mettent en lumière le besoin de créer des espaces de collaboration qui permettent aux chercheurs de communiquer aisément à travers les langues et les spécialités disciplinaires. Le jour du colloque, ces discussions ont toutes été conduites en anglais, mais avec du recul il aurait été possible, et bénéfique, d’organiser un colloque bilingue anglais-français. C’est en modeste témoignage de notre désir de promouvoir une conversation multilingue que nous proposons ces réflexions en anglais, français, italien, espagnol, et néerlandais. Les auteurs (dont les adresses mail se trouvent ici) seraient ravis de prolonger la conversation avec les lecteurs de Polaris, tout particulièrement les chercheurs en début de carrière, au sujet des initiatives et des idées susceptibles de faire avancer les recherches à travers les frontières nationales. La discussion peut aussi se continuer ici : merci de bien vouloir ajouter votre contribution en laissant un commentaire en-dessous de cet article.

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Riflessioni sul simposio ‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies’ (‘I confini nazionali negli studi letterari dell’età moderna’)

[d1] La maggior parte degli studiosi degli aspetti multilinguistici e transnazionali della cultura letteraria del Rinascimento lavora in dipartimenti dedicati a singole letterature nazionali e ai loro relativi canoni. Tra gli autori di questo testo, ad esempio, figurano una specialista delle letterature ispano-americane dell’età moderna che tiene corsi su Cervantes, e ricercatori che afferiscono a un dipartimento di Inglese e che lavorano sulle relazioni letterarie franco-scozzesi. Un simposio intitolato ‘Confini nazionali negli studi letterari dell’età moderna’ (‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies’), tenutosi il 18 settembre 2015 alla Queen Mary University of London, ha riunito giovani ricercatori provenienti da istituzioni del Regno Unito, dell’Irlanda, della Francia, dell’Olanda, della Germania, dell’Italia e della Repubblica ceca, per discutere su come perseguire interessi di ricerca transculturali e costruire, al contempo, un profilo di ricerca professionale congruente con le discipline ‘tradizionali’ di riferimento.

[d2] Il simposio (il cui programma è disponibile in rete, dove si legge anche una relazione stesa da Rebecca Unsworth) ha consentito di identificare tre modi attraverso i quali promuovere l’innovazione, l’eccellenza e l’internazionalizzazione della ricerca. Il primo consiste nel prestare un’attenzione più ravvicinata alle identità linguistiche regionali. La conferenza di apertura tenuta dalla prof.ssa Ingrid De Smet ha riconosciuto la necessità crescente di centri, riviste e ricerche dedicate agli ‘Studi rinascimentali’ intesi come un insieme, enfatizzando al contempo come i parametri di ricerca possano essere definiti in una ricca varietà di modi (varietà della quale il Journal of the Northern Renaissance offre un esempio appropriato). Ciò si rivela necessario poiché gli Europei del sedicesimo e diciassettesimo secolo ebbero concezioni di confini, frontiere e identità profondamente diverse tra loro e, naturalmente, assai differenti dalle nostre. Il territorio che attualmente costituisce l’Italia, ad esempio, è stato per secoli frammentato in piccoli stati e domini; al suo interno, per un lungo periodo, Napoli, la Sardegna e la Sicilia fuorono viceregni spagnoli, al pari del Messico e del Perù.

[d3] Numerosi relatori hanno illustrato efficacemente quanto sia importante riflettere su quali territori dell’Europa rinascimentale o premoderna si concentrino i nostri studi e sul modo nel quale essi si siano storicamente determinati: Niall Oddy ha dimostrato l’instabilità del concetto di Europa all’interno della cultura letteraria francese del sedicesimo secolo; Martina Pranić, attraverso un esame comparativo delle opere del drammaturgo croato Marin Držić e di William Shakespeare, ha concluso che lo studio delle letterature rinascimentali dei territori dell’Europa orientale richiederebbe molta più attenzione di quella che fino ad ora gli è stata accordata, particolarmente da parte degli studiosi provenienti dall’Europa occidentale; i due studi di caso condotti da John Gallagher e da Bryan Brazeau ci hanno spinto a riconsiderare la Londra della prima età moderna come uno spazio multilinguistico, costituito di àmbiti linguisticamente fluidi e fra loro interconnessi.

[d4] Le idee rinascimentali sulla traduzione sono esse stesse condizionate dalle tradizioni linguistiche e locali, nonché dal periodo in cui sono maturate, come ha sottolineato Emilie Murphy. Lo studio di Alisa van de Haar su Filips van Marnix, signore di Saint-Aldegonde, il quale tentò di porre rimedio alle ambiguità lessicali del francese e dell’olandese, ha mostrato come le storie letterarie nazionali riceverebbero grandi benefici dallo studio di autori bilingui e di traduttori, a patto di situarli nei loro contesti multilinguistici di provenienza. Il caso in questione pone all’attenzione un’idea di traduzione che mirava all’uniformazione di domini linguistici differenti, così da creare un senso di comunità nei Paesi Bassi del sedicesimo secolo. D’altra parte, Raphaële Garrod ha esplorato una differente nozione di traduzione nella sua indagine sulle discussioni lessicografiche intorno alla parola ingenium, il cui significato originario, nelle traduzioni in francese e tedesco, venne consapevolmente adattato ai diversi stereotipi nazionali. Numerosi relatori si sono soffermati sul modo in cui aspetti della cultura visiva e uditiva, come i frontespizi e le canzoni, furono diversamente tradotti a seconda dei diversi domini linguistici e georgrafici che attraversarono.

[d5] Le altre due modalità oggetto di discussione – collaborazione e competenze linguistiche – rappresentano preoccupazioni molto più cogenti. Numerosi partecipanti hanno riflettuto sulla possibilità di costruire progetti di collaborazione: ad esempio, tra i presenti vi erano ricercatori postdottorato della National University of Ireland (Galway) afferenti al progetto ERC ‘Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing 1550-1700’; laureati provenienti dal programma di dottorato di ricerca Erasmus Mundus intitolato Text and Event in Early Modern Europe (TEEME); infine, ricercatori affiliati a società e network di ricerca (un elenco è presente in linea). Una McIllvenna, soffermandosi sulle sfide poste dallo studio delle canzoni che avevano per tema le notizie correnti, scritte in quattro lingue, ha concluso che una fruttuosa collaborazione fra gli studiosi si sviluppa quando gli argomenti delle nostre ricerche ci impongono di ricercare esperti al di fuori del nostro campo disciplinare. Si è discusso anche in merito alle attività online, e ci si è mossi in tale direzione: il nostro live-tweeting dell’evento ha aperto i confini delle nostre discussioni ben oltre il campus di Queen Mary e ci ha consentito di riflettere su quali forum e network presenti online siano i più adatti per favorire confronti interdisciplinari. I partecipanti hanno anche manifestato il bisogno di una piattaforma nella quale studiosi che debbano svolgere ricerche in archivi stranieri possano trovare informazioni utili sulle risorse digitali.

[d6] L’importanza delle competenze linguistiche ha costituito un argomento di discussione molto appropriato considerato che la British Academy, che ha dato un generoso aiuto all’organizzazione dell’evento, ha recentemente avviato un programma finalizzato all’approfondimento della loro importanza. Il simposio ha riconosciuto che le lingue, nelle loro forme moderne come in quelle passate, costituiscono una parte essenziale nella ricerca di quelle specificità che definiscono il che cosa leggiamo e l’ottica critico-interpretativa attraverso la quale lo leggiamo. Il latino, come la prof.ssa De Smet ha sottolineato, costituisce una competenza fondamentale. L’importanza vitale di incoraggiare un approccio multilinguistico si è affacciata alla discussione particolarmente a proposito delle collaborazioni internazionali; come Oren Margolis e altri hanno sottolineato, molti più ricercatori (specialmente, forse, quelli anglofoni) dovrebbero sentire il desiderio di spingersi a usare qualunque competenza linguistica essi possiedano. Si è anche discusso su come incoraggiare gli studenti inglesi, undergraduates e post-graduates, a usare le lingue che hanno appreso a scuola. Riflettendo sui contributi presentati alla conferenza, il prof. Warren Boutcher ha notato come l’abilità oratoria fa la differenza in rapporto alla qualità degli interventi, aldilà della lingua impiegata.

[d7] Queste e altre considerazioni mostrano la necessità di creare occasioni di lavoro comune, nelle quali gli studiosi interessati possano incontrarsi e discutere di argomenti che oltrepassino le lingue e le letterature delle quali sono specialisti. Durante il simposio, le discussioni sono state interamente condotte in inglese, anche se col senno di poi sarebbe stato non solo possibile ma anche auspicabile che venissero condotte in un contesto bilingue, inglese e francese. Come piccolo contributo a quanto auspicato, per incoraggiare una discussione multilinguistica, offriamo queste riflessioni in inglese, francese, italiano, spagnolo e olandese. Gli autori (i cui indirizzi di posta elettronica sono disponibili qui) sarebbero lieti di proseguire queste discussioni con i lettori di Polaris, specialmente se giovani ricercatori, in merito ad iniziative e proposte per far progredire le ricerche letterarie che oltrepassino i confini nazionali. La discussione può anche proseguire qui: se lo volete, potete apportare il vostro contributo aggiungendo il vostro commento qui sotto.

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Reflexiones sobre el simposio ‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies’ (‘Las fronteras nacionales en los estudios literarios de la Primera Modernidad’)

[e1] La mayoría de los investigadores que estudian aspectos multilingües y transnacionales de la cultura literaria del Renacimiento trabajan dentro de departamentos enfocados en lenguas específicas y literaturas nacionales canónicas. Los autores de este informe incluyen, por ejemplo, a una especialista en literatura hispánica colonial quien dirige seminarios acerca de la obra de Cervantes, y a un miembro de un departamento de Inglés que estudia las relaciones poéticas entre Francia y Escocia. Un simposio acerca de las fronteras nacionales en los estudios literarios de la Primera Modernidad (‘National Boundaries in Early Modern Literary Studies’), que tuvo lugar en la Queen Mary University of London el 18 de septiembre de 2015, reunió a jóvenes investigadores de diferentes universidades del Reino Unido, Irlanda, Francia, los Países Bajos, Alemania, Italia y la República Checa, para discutir maneras de dedicarse a la investigación transcultural al mismo tiempo que uno desarrolla una identidad profesional dentro de una disciplina establecida.

[e2] El simposio — cuyo programa, así como un informe escrito por Rebecca Unsworth están disponibles en internet — identificó tres maneras de promover la innovación, la excelencia y el internacionalismo. La primera consiste en fijarnos, de modo especial, en las diferentes identidades lingüísticas y regionales. La conferencia magistral de Ingrid De Smet reconoció la necesidad de centros y grupos de investigación, y de revistas académicas consagrados al ‘estudio del Renacimiento’ en su totalidad. Al mismo tiempo, subrayó cómo los parámetros de investigación pueden ser definidos de varias maneras, enriqueciendo de este modo nuestro entendimiento de la época (véase como ejemplo apropiado el mismo Journal of the Northern Renaissance). Este enfoque, sin duda, es necesario porque los europeos de los siglos XVI y XVII tenían concepciones de límites, fronteras e identidades muy variadas, que se diferenciaban entre sí tanto como las nuestras difieren de las suyas. El territorio que hoy en día llamamos Italia, por ejemplo, era en aquella época una colección de pequeños reinos y estados dentro de los cuales Nápoles, Cerdeña y Sicilia eran Virreinatos de la Corona española que tenían, oficialmente, el mismo estatus político que la Nueva España o el Perú.

[e3] Muchos de los ponentes ilustraron vivamente la importancia de preguntarnos cuáles son las regiones geográficas del ‘Renacimiento’ o de la ‘Europa de la temprana modernidad’ que estudiamos, y cómo éstas corresponden con sus definiciones históricas: Niall Oddy demostró la inestabilidad del concepto de ‘Europa’ en la cultura literaria francesa del siglo XVI; Martina Pranić argumentó, sirviéndose de paralelismos entre el dramaturgo croata Marin Držić y Shakespeare, que el renacimiento en Europa del Este merece más atención de la que ha recibido hasta hoy, en particular por parte de los investigadores de Europa Occidental; con sus estudios de caso, John Gallagher y Bryan Brazeau nos invitaron a reconsiderar a la ciudad de Londres en la época renacentista como un espacio multilingüe constituido por esferas lingüísticas flexibles e interrelacionados.

[e4] Como observó Emilie Murphy, los conceptos de traducción renacentistas estaban en sí mismos sujetos a contingencias regionales, lingüísticas, de las tradiciones y los períodos en cuestión. El trabajo de Alisa van de Haar sobre Philips de Marnix de Saint-Aldegonde, que intentó expurgar el francés y el holandés de ambigüedades léxicas, demostró que las historiografías de las literaturas nacionales se benefician del estudio de autores y traductores en sus contextos bilingües; para este caso destacó un ideal de traducción en el que se buscaba estandarizar la lengua para crear un sentido de comunidad en los Países Bajos. Raphaële Garrod, en cambio, expuso una noción de traducción distinta en su recorrido por la discusión lexicográfica sobre la palabra ingenium, cuyo sentido original se fue adaptando conscientemente a estereotipos nacionales franceses y alemanes. Varios ponentes sugirieron cómo aspectos de la cultura visual y auditiva, como las canciones y los frontispicios, se traducían conforme éstos migraban entre territorios.

[e5] Las otras dos modalidades discutidas —colaboración y habilidades lingüísticas — representan preocupaciones más prácticas. Varios participantes reflexionaron acerca de proyectos de colaboración: entre los presentes se hallaban post-doctorantes del proyecto “Recepción y circulación de la escritura de mujeres en la Primera Modernidad” (Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing 1550-1700), financiado por el ERC en la National University of Ireland, Galway; graduados del programa doctoral Erasmus Mundus ‘Texto y acontecimiento en la Europa de la Primera Modernidad’ (Text and Event in Early Modern Europe (TEEME)); así como investigadores adscritos a comunidades y redes académicas (cuya lista se encuentra disponible online). Una McIllvenna, describiendo los desafíos de su trabajo con baladas noticiarias de la Primera Modernidad en cuatro lenguas, afirmaba que se pueden desarrollar colaboraciones productivas entre individuos cuando los temas de investigación nos obligan a recurrir a distintos especialistas. La actividad online fue tanto discutida como puesta en práctica: al twittear en vivo extendimos las barreras del evento más allá del campus de Queen Mary. Esto nos llevó a preguntarnos acerca de los foros y redes más idóneos para promulgar discusiones interdisciplinarias. Los asistentes identificaron la necesidad de una plataforma de información con recursos digitales para investigadores de archivos extranjeros.

[e6] El valor de las habilidades lingüísticas fue un tema tanto más pertinente cuanto que la British Academy, que brindó un apoyo generoso para este simposio, recientemente ha impulsado un programa para promover la conciencia sobre la relevancia de éstas. El simposio reconoció que las lenguas, en sus formas históricas y modernas, constituyen una parte esencial de las diferentes identidades de investigación: éstas definen lo que leemos puesto que determinan el discurso crítico en el cual interpretamos dichas identidades. El latín, cómo señaló la Prof. De Smet, es un recurso muy requerido. Las discusiones de colaboración internacional subrayaron que es vital motivar el multilingüismo. Como Oren Margolis y otros enfatizaron, un mayor número de investigadores (y quizás, sobre todo, los anglófonos) deberían estar más dispuestos a hacer uso de los conocimientos lingüísticos que poseen, cualesquiera que éstos sean. Varios participantes reflexionaron acerca de distintos modos para apoyar a graduados y posgraduados británicos para que empleen los idiomas que aprendieron en la escuela. Reflexionando sobre las ponencias académicas, el Prof. Warren Boutcher señaló que la claridad de la presentación, más que la lengua en sí, determina el éxito de la comunicación.

[e7] Estas observaciones y algunas otras resaltan la necesidad de crear ambientes de colaboración donde las personas se sientan cómodas para hablar en varias lenguas y fuera de sus ámbitos de especialización. El día del evento, dichas discusiones se llevaron a cabo en inglés aunque, en retrospectiva, un simposio bilingüe francés-inglés hubiera sido posible e incluso deseable. Como pequeño gesto para motivar la conversación multilingüe ofrecemos esta reflexión en inglés, francés, italiano, español y holandés. Para los autores (cuyas direcciones pueden consultarse aquí) sería un placer seguir esta conversación acerca de iniciativas e ideas para promulgar la investigación más allá de las fronteras nacionales. La discusión también puede continuar en este espacio: por favor deja tu contribución agregando un comentario en la sección aquí debajo.

Northernness in the Renaissance: Thoughts on the Constructivist Character of the ‘North’

Inken Schmidt-Voges

The Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus

The Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus (1539). Image: Wikimedia Commons

[1] In the learned discourse of the Renaissance, the North was not just depicted as a geographical location, but also contained a set of qualities which characterised its nature as well as the people who lived there: ‘Northernness’. It was a rough, wild place full of rocks, water, and woods, that posed a challenge for the people there. But instead of being barbarous villains – as antique, medieval and Italian humanist writers claimed – those people developed (in the eyes of historiographers from the supposedly ‘Northern’ cultures) an outstanding capacity to master their environment. To achieve this, their first and foremost qualities were bodily strength and health, inventiveness and, above all, incorruptible virtue and piety.

[2] During the sixteenth century, such concepts of ‘Northernness’ were increasingly adapted by those scholars who hoped to place their native country within the ‘competition between nations’ (Caspar Hirschi [1]), but could not rely on its participation in the Greek-Roman antiquity, or even in the sphere of Carolingian Latinity. In their historiographies, they shaped their ‘own’ Northern antiquity, on a par with its Greek-Roman counterpart, and in which they developed a cultural history of a specific Northern civility. With its unique link to nature, and nature’s impact on civility, the scholars not only formulated an ‘imitatio’ of Roman-Greek concepts, but rather an ‘aemulatio’. Thus, they responded to the offensive claims of superiority by Italian humanists. And in the religiously heated period of the sixteenth century, such Northern ‘aemulatio’ could easily transform into a protestant abiectio of Rome and all its moral depravations. In making such fundamental juxtapositions between concepts of civility, ‘Northern’ historiographers in the Renaissance drew upon a way of mapping civic Europe deeply rooted in European tradition and learned thinking.

[3] Understanding  the ‘North’ and ‘Northernness’ – not as given facts, or alleging any kind of essence to them – but rather by seeing them as outcomes of complex processes of scholarly negotiation, it is essential to analyse the learned traditions, the core elements of inventing ‘Northernness’, and the use of such concepts in the political arena. Referring to recent studies that deal with similar ideas with regard to single societies and cultures, a comprehensive view will be suggested, to offer fresh insights on the overarching context of cultural differentiation and stratification in Renaissance Europe.

[4] To produce a positive image of the North, it was vital for Northern European historiographers to overcome negative associations, which had been shaped by classical authors such as Phyteas of Massilia (c. 380 BC – c. 310 BC), Strabo (c. 63 BC – c. 23 AD) or Pliny the Elder (23-79). These writers had passed on the image of a peripheral region on the margins of the world, shaped by  darkness, fog, cold, and scarce resources. These areas, where water and land merged in what Strabo called a ‘sea-lung’, marked the transition zone between earth and sky: here lived lugubrious and menacing people like the Cimmerians. [2] The North still remained a disquieting space for medieval writers, who filled in gaps in their knowledge by referring to classical authors. Adam of Bremen, for example, wrote in the 11th-century about the regions beyond the Danish sound as an alter orbis of Sueonia and Nortmannia, which were said to be two vast Northern realms, though they were mainly unknown to ‘us’.[3] In 1185, with Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, a more detailed view of the nature, culture and history of Denmark was available to European scholars. Although he played with elements of notions of the ‘North’, he placed Denmark within the cultural and political norms of continental Europe, thus moving the ‘North’ higher in terms of latitude.[4] With the rediscovery of Strabo’s Geographia in 1469, alongside with Tacitus‘ Germania, and other ancient texts about extra-classical regions and people, this ‘new ancient knowledge’ fuelled the humanist discourse on the history of peoples and their ethnography. Such histories provided elements for a nation-based collective identity which – because of its comprehensive framework – became increasingly attractive at a time of increased political change, conflict, and fragmentation. While Italian humanists used negative depictions of Gothic and Germanic peoples and their habitats to demonstrate the superiority of Italian culture and learning [5], historiographers of those slandered regions had to draw a different picture. Their notion of the ‘North’, ‘Northernness’, and its qualities, was to contain not only equally-accepted elements of culture and civility in the sense of an imitatio, but one that exceeded those claimed by the Italian humanists in the sense of an aemulatio.

[5] The most spectacular examples were certainly the histories of the brothers Olaus and Johannes Magnus, who published the comprehensive tripartite work: the Carta marina et descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum ac mirabilium rerum in eis contentarum diligentissime eleborata (1539), the Historia de regibus Gothorum Sveonumque (1544) and the Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (1557). Their position was an awkward one, a classic double bind. As canons in Strängnäs and Uppsala they had supported the political disengagement of large parts of the Swedish elites from the Kalmar Union and Sweden’s independence which was established through the coronation of Gustav Eriksson Vasa as King in 1523. They served the new government mainly as envoys in the Baltic and Italy, using networks and contacts established during travels as students. But they clearly opposed Gustav Vasa’s move towards the reformation, so that both brothers fled Sweden in 1526 to escape the execution of a ban. Henceforth, they lived in the hospital of St. Bridget in Rome, travelling through Italy and trying to build support for a counter-reformation agenda in Sweden among the European clerics gathered for the Tridentine council. Since they were confronted with a deep lack of knowledge and ignorance as far as those Northern peripheries were concerned, they tried to implement a positive, attractive and captivating picture of the ‘North’ by depicting the benefits of ‘Northernness’ for Europe, proving the particular kind of civility that if offered.

[6] Given the existing notions of the ‘North’, they chose not to contrast nature and culture, but to relate them to each other and show nature’s impact on human life and the emergence of a specific form of ‘pure’ civility. Pursuing this task, three elements can be discerned in their historiographic work, which found their pictorial representation in the Carta marina: firstly the characterisation of Northern nature; secondly its richness and wealth of resources; and thirdly the qualities of the people living there regarding physical strength and health, bravery, and above all, piety.

[7] In humanist discourse, nature was seen as a gauge of the degree of wilderness or civility. Referring to classical texts, a wild and inhospitable nature produced wild and barbarous humans, while a moderate climate and mellow landscapes formed civilised and peaceful people. Dealing with such prevailing views, the Magnus brothers drew the picture of a rough, though elevated, nature which showed in its ‘grandezza’, and overflowing abundance, a special set of blessings within God’s creation: vast woods, roaring waterfalls and rivers, ice covering the gulfs of the Baltic in winter providing additional ground for trade, architecture and divine services, and a never-setting sun in summer that outshone the darkness of winter.

[8] The positive notion of ‘Northern’ landscapes was reflected in its richness of natural resources, such as precious furs of wolverines, polar foxes, martens, otters, seals and even polar bears. Reindeers, deer and fish provided food; whilst amber and ambergris as well as copious ore reserves made the Scandinavian North a powerful and indispensable region for European trade and well-being.

[9] But most important for a construction of Northernness was the positive impact such a natural environment had on the people living there, whose qualities were shaped and related to these special conditions.

[10] Above all, physical strength and health of the Northern people was a direct consequence of the harsh environmental conditions. Endurance and velocity in hunting marked women as well as men; subtle handicraft skills allowed them to make use of nature’s richness. Using fishbones as building material; preservation of fish by drying instead of using expensive salt; or hunting on skis: Northern people were not the supposed barbarians in an overwhelmingly rough nature. Rather they appeared as paragons of civility who tamed and subdued such a powerful territory by resilience and inventiveness.

[11] This was also true as far as the social order was concerned. Being the most significant aspect of civility, Northernness was expressed in forms such as of a literate legal culture; a political culture shaped by an elective monarchy; the rule of the best  rather than a hereditary nobility; as well as an outstanding toughness and bravery in war against outside intruders. Domestic politics however were dominated by prudent, diligent and peaceful governance; tyrants and luxurious rulers were not tolerated; and the lack of splendour in court or of elaborate ceremonial pomp was – in the eyes of the Magnus brothers – not a sign of barbarity or savagery, but an indication of a pure and plain core of human existence, shorn of superficiality and material excess (things Northern people could not afford anyway, given the severity of living).

[12] Closely intertwined with those political morals was the piety and religious devotion: an essential dimension of Northernness. Having to meet the challenge of living in a demanding environment, Northerners could not afford to neglect their religious duties – they honoured God in a plain, but truly-heartfelt worship as well as in a virtuous conduct of life.

[13] Hence, ‘Northernness’ was applied to a set of human qualities emerging from the exposure to a demanding, but nevertheless extraordinarily-elevated, nature. In the context of humanistic discourse, the said qualities appear to be the core elements of a ‘civility’, devoid of all ostensible representation, but manifest in acting and behaving. Such a notion of Northernness ties in with critical discourses of aristocracy of virtue and of decadency, yet the texts hint at the preeminence of the Northern way of life, compared to the decadence in – if not in the ‘south’, yet at least in the moderate regions.

[14] Since Olaus Magnus and his brother sought to inspire Catholic Europe, i.e. Italy, they could not elaborate too much on these aspects of aemulatio, but had to keep highlighting the imitatio: the equality of the culture of the Northern – in his case Swedish – people despite their exclusion from classical antiquity. Magnus’ historiographical successors in seventeenth-century Sweden, had no difficulties in focussing on this aspect and give it a religious meaning [6], but his more moderate concept of ‘Northernness’ can be observed in his description of the Laplanders. They very much appeared as the wild, barbarous North where civility was still lacking. Writing the History of the Northern people, and sketching a map of the Northern regions, has therefore to be considered as an attempt by Magnus to encode his native culture within the European community of values and civility, offering Northernness as a beneficial, rejuvenating and nourishing part of it.

[15] The Swedish example of actively promoting a positive notion of Northernness had been perceived as the most far-reaching one. Yet, it was part of a much more comprehensive development in the societies beyond the Alps, who in one way or another felt the need to respond to Italian vilification.[7] It shaped the dispute about Tacitus’ Germania and influenced the writings of Albert Krantz, David Chyträus or later Philipp Clüver on the cultural history of Germanic tribes.[8] But it was also a crucial part in Dutch writings about their Batavian history, trying to historicise their political independence and cultural superiority over a decadent and tyrannous Spain. Thomas Brochard has recently pointed to the internal differentiations in the British Isles between English civility and Irish or Scottish savagery.[9] Like the ‘North’, ‘Northernness’ was not a given, fixed attribution but was a relative concept within the European arena of political and cultural competition – and as such could be used in various ways. How much it was indeed a fluid concept of self- or other-ascription can be seen in the fact that such notions of ‘Northernness’ were not only to found in regions of a certain latitude, but also of certain altitude, as descriptions of Alpine people show.[10]

[16] To draw some conclusions from these reflections on the constructing processes and contexts of ‘Northernness’ in Renaissance historiography, it seems necessary to scrutinise their meaning for our own academic understanding of the ‘North’ and ‘Northernness’ as descriptive and analytical patterns.

[17] Notions of the ‘North’ as well as ‘Northernness’ are the results of complex and more-or-less subtle negotiating processes in Renaissance Europe, when the insertion of newly rediscovered source material altered the way of thinking about Europe as a culturally and historically diverse and complex ensemble. In integrating a positively connotated ‘North’ into an emerging and changing concept of Europe, it served as a line of gradation within internal disputes of hierarchy. These Renaissance discourses formed the base for enlightened thoughts of climate and culture as well as romantic and racial concepts of the ‘North’ and ‘Northernness’ in the nineteenth and twentieth century.[11] All of them referred to it in order to think, mark, and express difference, and quite often in a manner calculated to demonstrate fundamental cultural superiority or inferiority. These contexts should be kept in mind when we discuss concepts of the ‘Northern renaissance’, in which this underlying struggle of cultural meaning exist on a different level.

Philipps University Marburg, September 2015

About the author

Inken Schmidt-Voges teaches Early Modern European History as an Interim Professor at the Philipps-Universität Marburg. In her PhD-thesis she had worked on Swedish gothicism as historical self-image and its political use. Her research interests centre more broadly on political communication from judicial rhetorics in domestic conflicts up to printing strategies in international relations. She is managing a DFG-founded project on ‘Media Constructions of Peace in Europe, 1710-1721’ at the University of Osnabrück and currently developing a book-length project about the intertwining of domestic economy, politics and diplomacy in the cross-cultural networks of Northern Europe in the sixteenth century.

End Notes

[1] Hirschi, Caspar. Wettkampf der Nationen: Konstruktionen einer deutschen Ehrgemeinschaft an der Wende vom Mittelalter zur Neuzeit, Göttingen: Wallstein-Verlag 2005.

[2] Käppel, Lutz. “Bilder des Nordens im frühen antiken Griechenland” in Ultima Thule. Bilder des Nordens von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, ed. Annelore Braunschmidt-Engel et al., Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2001, p. 11-28; Molina Moreno, Francisco. “Bilder des heiligen Nordens in Antike, Patristik und Mittelalter” in Ultima Thule. Bilder des Nordens von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, ed. Annelore Braunschmidt-Engel et al., Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2001, p. 29-46.

[3] Adamus of Bremen. The History of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, transl. Francis J. Tschan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, chap. 4,21. For a discussion of medieval notions of the North see Scior, Volker.

[4] Hadfield, Andrew. “The Idea of North” in Journal of the Northern Renaissance 1 (2009).

[5] Magnus, Olaus. Carta marina et descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum ac mirabilium rerum in eis contentarum diligentissime eleborata, Venedig 1539; Magnus, Olaus. Ain Kvrze Avslegung Vnd Verklerung der neuuen Mappen von den alten Gœttenreich vnd andern Nordlenden sampt mit den uunderlichen dingen in land und uasser darinnen begriffen biss her also klerlich nieintuuelt geschriben, Venedig 1539; Magnus, Johannes. Historia de regibus Gothorum Sveonumque, Rom 1544; Magnus, Olaus. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, Rom 1557.

[6] Inken Schmidt-Voges, De antiqua claritate et clara antiquitate Gothorum: Gotizismus als Identitätsmodell im frühneuzeitlichen Schweden, Frankfurt: Peter Lang 2004, chap. 8.

[7] Münkler, Herfried. Nationenbildung. Die Nationalisierung Europas im Diskurs humanistischer Intellektueller: Italien und Deutschland, Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1998.

[8] See for example Krebs, Christopher. A most dangerous book: Tacitus’ Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, New York: Norton, 2011.

[9] A recent discussion with regard to Scotland see Brochard, Thomas. “The Integration of the Elite and Wider Communities of the Northern Highlands, 1500-1700: Evidence from Visual Culture” in Northern Scotland 6 (2015), p. 1-23.

[10] See for example: Mathieu, Jon. Die Alpen! Les Alpes! Zur europäischen Wahrnehmungsgeschichte seit der Renaissance, Bern: Peter Lang, 2011.

[11] Hormuth, Dennis / Sach, Maike (eds.). Norden und Nördlichkeit. Darstellungen vom Eigenen und Fremden, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2010; Fülberth, Andreas (ed.). Nördlichkeit – Romantik – Erhabenheit: Apperzeptionen der Nord/Süd-Differenz 1750-2000, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2007.

Exile in that Infinity: Giordano Bruno

Ed Simon

“If you had found planets circling one of the fixed stars, there among Bruno’s infinities I had already prepared my prison shackles, that is, my exile in that Infinity.”
– Letter from Johannes Kepler to Galileo Galilei, 1610

“I hardly ever read a book without wanting to give it a good censoring.”
– Robert Cardinal Bellarmine SJ, 1598

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, c. 1600

Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno (1889)

Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno (1889)

[1]  According to the Italian, the English were just as unimpressed with him as he was with them. On an Ash Wednesday in 1583 they sat in this dark-wood panelled dining room, tapestries keeping out the chill of late winter even as the cold couldn’t help but enter through the leaded window with its multicoloured glass diamonds. The Italian’s thin, stubbly black beard, his olive complexion and his shaggy dark hair that had grown out from his tonsure distinguished him from the gathering of fair skinned courtiers who had invited him to supper. Giordano Bruno, of Nola, born in the shadow of Vesuvius and raised on the peaches and lemons which grew in her fertile soil, and whose intellectual training was in Naples’ monasteries and chaotic streets, was very far from home here in damp, dark London. Chief among the English was Fulke Greville, author of arguably the first biography in English, who was perhaps dressed in his imposing ruffled Elizabethan collar and the rich satins and velvets of the aristocratic class. Greville was close friends with Sir Philip Sidney, who admired Bruno and who the Nolan dedicated a book to. Yet despite his affection for noble Sidney, for the cosmopolitan Bruno, who true to the humanist maxim had made wherever he happened to be residing at that moment his home, still found the English to be “disrespectful, uncivil, rough, rustic, savage and badly brought up.” While he disparaged their uncouth table manners and their inability to clean themselves before and after they ate, the Englishmen found Bruno to be obtuse and pretentious, answering his declarations about Copernicanism with snotty rejoinders quoted from Erasmus. And yet, in Bruno’s fictionalized dialogue Ash Wednesday Supper, which recounts the dinner, and which appropriated the form and structure of Plato’s Symposium and married it to the vulgar, obscene, practical and endlessly creative Neapolitan dialect of his youth, Bruno expressed some of the most sublime metaphysical speculation of the sixteenth century. It is as if Pulcinella, the clown of commedia dell’arte, was suddenly able to declare with utmost sophistication and beauty the infinite nature of the universe.

[2]  Almost exactly seventeen years later and also on an Ash Wednesday, the short former monk would find himself naked, chained to a bundle of cut faggots, with one spike pierced through both his cheeks and another one finishing a cross through his lips. Here, in the Campo de Fiori – the Roman “Field of Flowers” – he had finally returned to his homeland and faced Michelangelo’s massive and still unfinished dome as he was immolated. For what was the Nolan philosopher burned? He was executed because the Church feared what was printed in his dozens of books, spoken through his lectures at the top universities of Europe from Padua to Oxford, and scratched in the very margins of his personal library, composed as it was with the infernal syllabus that is the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. For several months in 1593 he was imprisoned by the relatively liberal Venetian Inquisition – the Doge always eager to keep his independence from the Pope – and then possibly tortured for the next seven in the dungeons of the Tor di Nona by the Roman Inquisition (for which no records survive, lost in the Napoleonic conquests). Bruno was made a martyr for his beliefs – but it remains difficult to classify those beliefs. Witnesses for the prosecution (and there was only a prosecution) claimed that he abjured Christianity, that in his earliest days as a friar in Naples he denied the Trinity, stripped his monastic cell of all but a crucifix (reminding his superiors of those iconoclasts beyond the Alps), that he defended the fourth-century heretic Arius, that he had consorted with and attended services amongst the Lutherans and Calvinists in the great schismatic capitals, that he had bragged about trying to start his own Rosicrucian religion, and that there were already cells amongst the swayable people of Switzerland and Germany who were attracted to Bruno’s hermetic faith with its blend of Christianity and the occult, his mythology as familiar with Thoth and Apollo as it was with Christ. A man who had been imprisoned with Bruno in Venice was brought forth as a witness to the many blasphemies in word and heresies in thought which the Nolan had supposedly uttered as he awaited trial. The prisoner – a cleric himself – claimed that Bruno denied that “bread transmutes into flesh” and “that he is an enemy to the Mass, that no religion pleases him” and that he claimed “that Christ was a wretch…. [and] that Christ….. was a magician.” This witness stated that while awaiting his trial Bruno often ironically compared himself to Christ, and claimed that the Son of God was no better than any of the prisoners, for even Christ wished to resist his execution during that human moment at Gethsemane. Sometimes the blasphemy was less sophisticated than that – sometimes in rage and frustration the philosopher would scream at God the Father “I despise you, fucked cuckhold, done and undone!” But Bruno also said more sublime things that for all their beauty enraged the Church no less, for he believed that “the world is eternal and that there are infinite worlds.”

[3]  Like Erasmus, whose books he had hid in his monastic cell when he was young, he made no single town his home, but rather the whole of a rapidly disintegrating Christendom was his study. From a provincial settlement some thirty miles from Naples – which at the time ranked among one of the largest cities in the world – he would travel to, write in, and teach at universities in Paris, Venice, London, Geneva, Oxford, Prague, Wittenberg, Venice and Padua. He would meet the crowned heads of Europe: Henri III of France, humbled by the violence of the massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Day, when the Seine was bloodied by the martyred Huguenots; Elizabeth of England, who for some time seemed to offer the promise of toleration to persecuted Bruno but whose via media was more Machiavellian strategy than intellectual position; and Rudolf II of Prague, with his court filled with not just jesters and magicians, but astronomers and artists, and always with that regent’s aching desire to pierce that shadow veil between the world as it seems and the world as it is. On these journeys, over the course of a short life of only a bit more than a decade of writing, he had printed dozens of arguments, dialogues, plays, pamphlets, poems and even instruction manuals with exotic titles such as The Song of Circe, The Candlemaker, Ash Wednesday Supper, and On the Limitless and Numberless. In his writing, his lectures, and his private tutoring (to among others Henri III) he argued for a strikingly original interpretation of the universe. And what was this vision? For Bruno reality did not end at the conclusion of the nine crystalline spheres of the Ptolemaic world: it extended indefinitely into pure infinity, and was aged on a scale of eternity and not the prosaic few millennia that organized Christianity believed in. That in this immeasurable universe there are other suns, with other planets, which have their own inhabitants. That our reality is structured by atoms, and that we are unified in our compositional substance, and that as God is somewhere, God is everywhere. In On the Immense he writes “Now, if you please, ask me: Where is place, space, vacuum, time, body? In the universe. Where is the universe? In every place, space, time, body. Is there anything outside the universe? No. Why? Because there is no place nor space nor motion nor body.”

[4]  It would be easy to read this as a scientific world view (and it often still is read this way), but it would be a mistake. Bruno was conversant in the emerging new science, but Bruno was not a scientist. His was not an empirical world – at least not exactly. For Bruno it was the manipulation of numbers and symbols, memory and word, which generated knowledge of the cosmos. It is true that he embraced Copernicus’ heliocentrism, but not necessarily because it simplified complex calculations involving epicycle upon epicycle or because it explained the retrograde motion of Mars, but rather because in restoring the sun to the center of the solar system it gave due reference to Apollo. “Sun, who alone bathes all things in light” as Bruno said in his Apollonian hymn, his Copernicanism justified more by a type of Neo-Paganism than by the telescope. Kepler, for his witchy associations, or Tycho Brahe even with his astrological ones, and certainly Galileo (who sometimes seems so modern that he may be a refugee from the future), all began to speak in the language of science. Bruno was a hermeticist: however, his unseen forces were not things like gravity but substances of a more occult sort. Bruno’s laboratory was not Brahe’s Danish island observatory espying the supernova of 1572, but rather the libraries of Italian occultism. He was the embodiment of the mystical, otherworldly, transcendent perspective of men from the previous century like Giovani Pico della Mirandola or Marsilio Ficino, or even Plethon who still worshiped the gods of old, and who attended that Medici-funded Florentine conclave in 1438 which was the closest the Catholic Church ever came to suturing that amputation from the Greek east. None of this is to disparage the Nolan – far from it. It is merely to explain that his was not a modern heresy, but rather a golden thread of a heresy which stretched back to the beginning. Bruno was thinking of that thrice-great Hermes, who the Egyptians believed was baboon-faced Thoth, who first invented writing, and who the Christian kabbalists of Florence and Prague believed had even taught Moses in his youth, when he wrote that “Egypt is the image of heaven, and to state it more clearly, the colony of all things that are governed and exercised in heaven.” In believing that the reality could be infinite, and that time could be eternal, Bruno did not justify his beliefs by science, yet he still may have been right. And regardless, his vision remains beautiful. And he tried to spread that vision throughout that disunited continent. Giordano Bruno’s career is a story of cities – Naples, Geneva, Paris, London, Prague, Venice, Rome.

[5]  It was Naples that gave the Nolan his tongue. The dedication to his Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast reads “Giordano speaks the common language, he names names freely…. He calls bread bread, wine wine, a head a head, a foot a foot, and other parts by their proper name.” Neapolitan is a frank, no-bullshit dialect, which trades freely in wit, insult, obscenity and casual blasphemy. At Oxford they laughed at him when he lectured because his accent was so thick, and even in Venice fellow Italians had trouble understanding what he was saying. But it was in that low dialect that he was able to express that which was highest. He would learn not to fear authority in Naples, whether among his own Dominicans, or later among the Calvinists of Geneva who would excommunicate him from a faith which wasn’t even his, or among the fearsome and brilliant new Jesuits. He once quipped that Naples was a paradise inhabited by devils, and indeed life was not always at a premium in a city that existed under the threat of continual volcanic annihilation (and which still does). This was the dirty but also the beautiful city, where that fellow heretic, the utopian Thomas Campanella would dream of his City of the Sun and of an Age of Spirit which would commence in 1600, and where half a century after Bruno’s death the fishmonger Masaniello would expel the Iberians in Europe’s first modern revolution. In Florence there was magic practiced in the institutes of the Medici, and the hermetic corpus and the Sibylline oracles were consulted as Plato’s Academy was reopened. But Naples was a different city, full of not just philosophers and monks, but pick-pockets, prostitutes, and murderers. Where Pico della Mirandola consulted the writings of Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the young Nolan would have seen magic of a more practical manner – the buttara la fava of men forecasting the future by throwing beans, of women scrying oil floating on water. Here, in Naples, the Renaissance was maybe not always the high-class affair it would be in Florence, but it was a crowded, dynamic, confusing, and violent one. It is only appropriate that in the heat-blanched fields of the Mezzogiorno that a man like Bruno could turn his eyes to that celestial orb and see infinities of light. And yet the Church did not take to Bruno’s philosophical improvements upon Catholicism, and so they expelled him from the community of the faithful, and he exiled himself from Italy.

[6]  It was Geneva that gave him division. The Inquisition would make great purpose out of Bruno’s attending of Calvinist services in that Swiss city, but the philosopher had always maintained that he was simply following local custom. It was an unusual town for him to migrate to. Though Italian Protestants had been crossing the mountains now for two generations to find amnesty here in Beza’s theocracy, it was not a place conducive to the temperament of a scholar like Bruno. Surely he knew the cautionary tale of the Spaniard and possible marrano Miguel Servetus. Some decades before Bruno, that unfortunate had come to Geneva fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition only to find himself the first heretic ever condemned and executed by a Protestant regime. Some say that his incineration was a sort of perverse favor that the Catholic Church had asked of their Calvinist enemies. That earlier heretic, whose life and fate so mirrors that of Bruno’s, was guilty of Socinianism, of denying the Trinity, something which Bruno had flirted with since he was a teenager. Servetus’ prosecutor was John Calvin, who had failed at everything he had ever tried – be it the Parisian legal trade, or a career as a rakish, humanist dandy penning homoerotic poetry. And so, since he had failed at everything to that point, he decided to move to Switzerland and redefine God. And some half-century before Bruno’s arrival, Calvin had looked at Servetus and with those cold eyes with their cold gospel he sentenced the Spaniard to a burning flame. The only reason Servetus’ work survives is because a sole copy not consigned to the bonfire of the vanities was maintained by that old scholar himself, whose name was once Jean Chauvin, and who ironically couldn’t part with the Spaniard’s book. When the Nolan arrived Geneva was still a city dictated by Calvin’s interpretation of biblical law, and for Bruno with his exultation of human freedom the dark theology of double predestination was as psychologically restrictive as the town’s puritanism was socially. The Calvinists excommunicated the Italian for the second time in his life: once an exile from the faith of his fathers, he was now an exile from those that had rebelled against the same fathers Bruno had.

[7]  It was Paris that gave him memory. Henri III had invited Bruno to be his personal tutor, to explain to him the Ars Magna, the art of memory, which he travelled the continent teaching at universities. Bruno had been inspired by the medieval Catalan Ramon Llull, a thirteenth-century Franciscan who invented a complex calculus of intellectual interconnectedness, finding parallels between disparate phenomena and ideas to generate new concepts. Llull’s method of intellectual computation involved a simple yet ingenious mechanism – paper wheels turning within wheels marked with a complex set of symbols representing various forms and thoughts, with different categories lining up and generating new concepts, and intricate tree-like diagrams that he used to create a type of spiritual physics, hoping to generate the doctrine of Christianity through calculation and pure reason and thus to demonstrate to Jews and Muslims the intellectual superiority of the Catholic Church. The Muslims of North Africa were less than impressed with his theological calculating machine, and ended up stoning him to death. But from his Ars Magna came the earliest articulation of what could be thought of as a computer, and Bruno’s inspiration for his own great art, a complex mnemonic system for improving one’s memory. Inspired by how Llull’s rotating circles within circles made connections between different phenomena, Bruno invented a method of combining various divergent concepts so as to better commit to memory tremendous amounts of information and text. Drawing not just from Llull, but from classical rhetorical theory as well, Bruno developed a system whereby ideas and words were metaphorically associated with elements of actual physical buildings, and in recalling the details of their architecture one could almost magically bring forth the memorized works in question. It was a system of memorization by divide and conquer, texts broken down into their smallest elements, and then perhaps arbitrarily wed to some element of a place so that when the student mentally returns to said building they only need to imagine themselves walking throughout to recall all of the stored information. Brought to Paris by the king, Bruno may have taken a concrete space such as Notre Dame Cathedral to explain to Henri how a given text, say something from Bruno’s long-dead yet respected sparring partner Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, could be memorized as effortlessly as the ancient druidic bards were once able to recall their epics. A few sentences may be associated with one stained glass pane, a whole chapter with the window, a book with the side of the nave, the conclusion with the altar. Bruno converted text into space, and made calling forth whole books as simple as visiting a place in your imagination. With all the enthusiasm of some sort of back-woods confidence man, Bruno advertised his amazing skills by writing “This art required much less work, industry, and practice than all the others you might read about, so that within three or four months it offers an easier, more certain method for those who choose it than those who follow other methods will attain in three of four years.” But for Bruno this was no parlour trick, this was, as it was for Llull, the very physics of thought, the means by which the great code of reality could be interpreted.

[8]  It was London which gave him debate. That northern city was cold, and was unlike Apollo’s hazy land of the midday sun which had birthed the Nolan. It may have been a few decades since the Thames had frozen over and it was possible to walk from Fleet Street to Southbank without crossing at the city’s only bridge, but that early March Ash Wednesday when he dined with Greville there would have still been the unfamiliar chill which marked this planet’s last mini-ice age. For Bruno, London seemed encased in cold, though in other ways it was not dissimilar to Naples – it had the same mélange of cut-throats and cut-purses – a canting underclass with a colourful vocabulary who crowded the just opening theatres across the river from London, as well as her brothels and her bear-baiting pits. Ruling over that island was Spenser’s Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth. She was the monarch of a small island at the very western edge of the world, speaking a honking, guttural, monosyllabic branch of West Germanic, and like Bruno’s fellow countrymen under constant threat of attack by the seemingly omnipotent Spanish with their treasures of Aztec and Incan gold. And despite these seeming limitations, Elizabeth had apparently created a very Golden Age, her courtiers had taken the fourteen-line parsimony of the sonnet (so amenable to the easy rhymes of the Romance languages) and hammered earthy English into something that would perfect that form. The theatres south of London began to stage dramas by Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson which conveyed a type of interiority no literature had achieved before, and the difficult reformations she inherited from her sister, her brother, and her father made this Protestant island a surprisingly fertile field for all manner of creative thought. Here Bruno met and immensely admired the great Sir Phillip Sidney. They shared a name – Giordano was his confirmation name, his birth name was Filippo. And both Sidney and Bruno were named for the same Philip, ironically the one who sat on the Hapsburg throne at El Escorial. Many of Bruno’s teachers at the monastery of San Domenico Maggiore died in the Neapolitan revolt against Spanish rule; Sidney would be felled by a bullet at Zutphen as he aided the Dutch in their war of independence against Spain. There were other connections between them, Bruno and Sidney were like two divergent categories on concentric wheels of Llull’s apparatus rotated onto one another. How could Bruno not appreciate the aristocratic courtier-poet, whose magnificent sonnet cycle took that most astronomical of titles, Astrophel and Stella? But on the whole Bruno did not enjoy the English – their island cold, their people unappreciative. It is possible that he, like other continental refugees, could have found a home among the British. Despite the growing Puritan faction within the Church, Hooker’s burgeoning live-and-let-live latitudinarianism was at least for some a matter of genuine Anglican policy. But Bruno, who always loved the sun, could not abide this kingdom of short winter days, and he began his way back southward. Some believe however that before his departure he was recruited as an espionage agent by Sir Francis Walshingham, the reptilian head of the Privy Council. Knowing how he remained unwelcome by the inquisitions of many of the city-states of Italy, Bruno cheekily and ultimately appropriately took the codename “Faggot”, after the bundle of sticks that heretics were burnt alive on.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf II (1590-1)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf II (1590-1)

[9]  It was Prague that gave him magic. Here the eccentric Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II forged a strange and occult kingdom, very different from the Counter-Reformation police state that his cousin Philip ruled over in Spain. Rudolf, who some saw as mad, was obsessed with oddity, aberration, and the spectacular. Here he assembled collections of Wunderkammer filled with ancient artifacts, exotic taxidermy, shells, minerals, and curiosities collected from around the world. Rudolf fancied himself a type of Prospero, and true to his desire to be both king and wizard he had summoned the greatest scientific and magical minds to Prague in an era in which the demarcation between those two spheres of knowledge was less clear than it is today. This claustrophobic capital of winding cobbled streets snaking over the Bohemian hills and of mist falling on the red-tiled roofs of its small stone houses was for a time the most occult city in all of Europe. Here, in the shadow of its gothic cathedrals and synagogues were gathered at a time not just Bruno, but also the astronomers Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the English-court astrologer and communicant with angels John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelly, and the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo with his fantastic paintings of men composed of books, fruits, and mechanical devices. It was in sixteenth-century Prague that the great kabbalist Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel had taken mud from the Vlatava and fashioned a golem, using incantations to imbue this pile of dust with life, taking motes of adamah and making his own Adam. The creature was to protect the Jews of the Prague ghetto, and was controlled by the inscribing and erasure of a single Aleph on his forehead, that primordial letter being the simple difference between the words for “truth” and “death.” Supposedly the remains of Yoselle the Golem are still entombed in the attic of the Prague synagogue. Less evidence remains of that other necromancer, the historical Johann Faust, who though he mostly resided in that capital of division that was Wittenberg, spent some time in Prague decades before Bruno would be a resident.

[10]  It was Venice that gave him prison. Returning to Italy should have never been considered an option by the Nolan, and yet years living among the descendants of Goths in the lands of cold winters, warm beer, and bland food had convinced him to return to Italy. Still, that most Serene Republic of Venezia was not necessarily an inappropriate place for Bruno to take up residence, even if it was on that Catholic peninsula. It was a transitional place, between east and west, buffeted by the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish, and the Ottomans. The Venetians had grown rich on massive trade, opening up the orient centuries before, and in the marketplaces of the Piazza San Marco there were artefacts from the Levant, spices from India, textiles from central Asia and cloth from China all being haggled over. The canals of that wedding-cake city were traveled by not just Catholics, but Protestants, the Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims. Venice was nominally Catholic, but her true faith was trade, and in the ecumenical spirit of capitalism the Other was mostly welcome within her watery byways. Despite the worst intentions of the papacy, Venice remained the capital of southern European publishing, now rivalled only by Frankfurt, and the city honoured the long dead printer Aldo Manuzio who saw accessible books as a birthright for all scholars. Venice had an independent and liberal spirit, and she had buffered herself against the political machinations of Rome as affectively as the dams which kept the city from sinking. The Venetian Inquisition was more to pay lip-service to Rome, being comparatively forgiving. And the doges, always careful to never acquiesce too much to any foreign power, either sultan or pope, ordained their own bishops without intercession from the Vatican (which is why many Hussite heretics received the collar in Venice). But Venice’s fortunes were falling – the defeat of the Armada off the coast of England began to move the centre of sea-faring commerce from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic– and the memory of her spectacular vanquishing of the Turks at Lepanto was beginning to fade into history. The doge needed the support of the Papal States as the Spanish began to hem him in, and so Bruno was arrested by the Venetian Inquisition. And in the course of his deposition, shadow diplomacy secured the Nolan’s extradition from Venice to Rome.

[11]  And it was Rome that gave him death. In a lifetime of traversing many rivers – the Seine, Danube, the Thames – he now faced the Tiber. Giordano – Jordan. He was obsessed with waterways almost as much as he was with the sun, but unlike in the conclusion of his poem The Heroic Frenzies he would not find baptism at this Jordan. Instead he found Robert Cardinal Bellarmine. Bruno’s career intersected with virtually every important intellect of the late sixteenth century, and while many of them were geniuses and were his equals, perhaps no piercing intellect understood him and took him as seriously as Bellarmine did. He was the first Jesuit cardinal, made so by Pope Clementine VIII, and often when he explained why he joined the Society of Jesus he said it was because it precluded the possibility of his ascending higher office since before him Jesuits had been barred from being made princes of the Church. But for all his stated humility, he was also a dogged and zealous enforcer of orthodoxy who fully lived the Ignatian zeal to affirm that black is white if the Church so decrees it. But Bellarmine also belied the old and naïve slur that the zealous are always stupid, for in the cardinal Bruno ironically may have found the first equal who truly absorbed and understood his system and what precisely was so dangerous about it. There were scores of heretics not just in Rome and Italy, but throughout Europe. Men and women were routinely brought in by the inquisitions, and overwhelmingly acquitted and released. Eccentric aberrations in proper theology were in some ways tolerated, punished just enough so that everybody would remember who was actually allowed to write doctrine. But Bruno was a different matter: here was a well-travelled and well-connected man who preached a strange gospel of pantheism and apocatastasis, who denied all miracles so as to enshrine the world itself as the only miracle, who saw organized faith as superstition and her clerics as ignorant asses. Using the analytical prowess that to this day has rightly earned the Jesuits their reputation as the intellectual vanguard of the Church, Bellarmine encapsulated the Nolan’s philosophy into eight positions untenable to Catholic orthodoxy, which Bruno was asked to repudiate. By the conclusion of the trial, after six years of imprisonment, and possibly torture with devices that had names like the strappado (which wrenched your limbs from your sockets as you were hoisted upon a pulley) and the Judas Chair (in which one was partially impaled upon one’s anus), Bruno refused to recant and couldn’t explain away the seeming heresy, and so his execution was ordered in that Roman field of flowers on an Ash Wednesday, in that jubilee year of 1600. According to one witness the philosopher told Bellarmine and the Inquisition that “Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam”, that is, that he thought that they feared delivering the execution sentence more than he feared hearing it. If Bellarmine was troubled by this seeming curse from the Neapolitan magician, we do not have a record for it. And yet sixteen years later, perhaps haunted by the memory of the little monk being burnt alive in that Roman square, the once fearsome inquisitor would be uncharacteristically charitable when presented with another heretic, the astronomer Galileo, whom the cardinal spared from the auto da fé.

Ettore Ferrari, (1889)

Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno (1889)

[12]  The question is still unanswered: what was Bruno a martyr for? It’s been cliché for centuries that he was the original sacrifice for the new science, a scapegoat delivered by the hands of a backward and superstitious church. But none of it is as easy as that, for, as I have said, Bruno was no scientist. And his own biography denies that he had a personal opposition to the very church which would ultimately condemn him; after his excommunication Bruno attended Mass every week (and when in non-Catholic countries attended the services of those lands), while faithfully and respectfully abstaining from the Eucharist, in accordance with the terms of his expulsion from the Church. Several times in his life he tried to have the bill of excommunication reversed, pleading with confessors that he be readmitted, but with these cases only able to be nullified by a bishop or the pope. In 1889 a group of Italian free-thinkers emboldened by the anti-clericalism of Garibaldi’s Risorgimento commissioned the sculptor Ettore Ferrari to place a statue of the Nolan in the Campo de Fiori as a monument to early science and secularism. In his hooded cowl, which the historical Bruno had not actually worn for years, and which made him look like a character from one of Mathew Lewis’ gothic novels, Bruno seemed to face accusingly in the direction of the Vatican. At least that’s how his directional stance has usually been interpreted. Who is to say that the look on his face isn’t one of longing?

[13]  It is an inconvenient fact that while Bruno was certainly a heretic in his era, he’d remain one today as well, albeit one not sacrificed in a public square. In the sixteenth century he perhaps naively and unintentionally existed outside the strictures of normative Christianity. But today his strange world-view and his esoteric epistemology would mark him as separate from the prevailing intelligentsia’s positivist orthodoxy. Despite modern declarations that canonize Giordano Bruno as a martyr for science, he was not. There was not yet a “science,” not even a word for it. The Renaissance is a foreign and confusing nation. Its laws are different from ours; its rules are different from ours; its thoughts and dreams are different from ours. They speak not just a different language, but the very definitions of words are different. Bruno lived in a twilight world, not quite antiquity and not quite modernity. He was not against it, but he was not a martyr for science. He was a martyr for something else. In his own words, his belief was that there was a “harmony with all nature, and… a general philanthropy by which we love even our enemies, lest we become like brutes and barbarians, and are transformed into his image who makes his sun rise over good and bad, and pours out a rain of grace upon the just and the unjust.” Perhaps he was a martyr for a faith that is not yet ready to be born? But in the end, he was a martyr for something. And maybe that, in its own way, is enough.

Lehigh University, November 2015


Note: A shorter version of this essay is concurrently being published under the title Featured Heretic: Giordano Bruno by ExCommunicated, the newsletter of the International Society for Heresy Studies (www.heresystudies.org).

Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.