The New College Conference on Medieval & Renaissance Studies returned to campus in March with the 20th edition of the biennial program founded in 1978.
MedRen, as it’s often called on campus, is known as one of the premier venues for people working in Italian medieval and Renaissance studies – broadly, European and Mediterranean history, literature, art, and religion from the fourth to the 17th centuries.
This year’s event brought more than 250 attendees and scholars to New College, from Columbia, Berkeley, Georgetown, Stanford, even the Harvard Business School, and from as far as the United Kingdom, Italy and Turkey.
The conference featured 45 sessions over three days, with titles including “Networks in Medieval Europe,” “Renaissance Commerce & Commodities,” “Such stuff as dreams are made on: Shakespeare’s Royal Road,” “Art of the Italian Renaissance,” and “Sexual & Celestial Bodies in the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.”
The conference also featured two plenary addresses, “Mondino’s Assistant: Imagining the Female Anatomist in Medieval Italy,” from Paula Findlen, chair of the department of history at Stanford University, and “Performative Reading & the Medieval Book,” from Claire Sponsler, Carpenter professor of English at University of Iowa.
The Medieval and Renassance Studies is still vital now. A thousand years or so later, Nova Myhill, associate professor of English at New College and conference co-chair, says and it teaches students how to “form a sympathetic reading of a culture which is not like your own.”
“If they can figure out the terms of that difference, where they can understand what’s happening, and respect what that view looks like, and recognize that even though it has very little in common with the way they see the world, it is a viable, complex way to see the world – that’s the core of the liberal arts education,” she says.
MedRen also drew many New College students, among them Andrew Schlag. The fourth-year English AOC also attended the 19th MedRen conference in 2014, and it influenced him: “I’m now partly thesising on Renaissance poet and playwright Ben Jonson,” he said.
Schlag took a break from writing his thesis to attend the opening day of the conference, and shared his thoughts:
I arrived near the end of Thursday’s activities. Before the session I watched mostly academics mill about. Many of them seemed good friends, which is one of the things I’ve always found appealing about academia: the friendships formed out of shared esoteric obsessions. As a student, it’s interesting to see the real people behind their articles, and at different stages in their careers.
One of the men in scholarly attire said that the sign of a successful conference is one’s difficulty in choosing which panel to attend. I was split between “English Social Networks” and “Theatrical Subjects & Objects.” I ended up in the latter session, left to imagine for myself what gossip might have been like in medieval London.
Three papers were presented in “Theatrical Subjects & Objects,” my favorite being University of Michigan professor Theresa Tinkle’s paper on the Bible as a prop in Protestant morality plays. Professors of drama are typically theatrically inclined, and watching them perform is one of the pleasures of attending these events.
I had never heard of the playwrights Tinkle covered. Yet, she was an informative and witty guide. Basically, Reformist playwrights were very anxious about idolatry and distancing themselves from Catholic drama. The Bible as a prop becomes a clear sign of Protestant faith, but, Tinkle argues, the message the plays deliver about the circulation of the Bible to the laity is highly ambiguous and conflicted. The plays explore the gap between reading (or merely holding) and correct understanding. Tinkle shows how interesting and complicated that gap can be when the Bible stands in for the absolute clarity of the staged Christ of Catholic morality plays.
Undergraduates should feel the gap between our understanding and the understanding of a Ph.D. Still, the New College Conference on Medieval & Renaissance Studies is as beneficial a resource for us as it is for the presenters.