A Postmodern Renaissance?

By Starn, Randolph | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

A Postmodern Renaissance?


Starn, Randolph, Renaissance Quarterly


In one of the first articles ever published in Renaissance News, Josephine Waters Bennett wrote about the expanding boundaries of Renaissance Studies. (1) The Dartmouth College Library had taken on the News in 1948 after its peripatetic career as the newsletter of The Committee on Renaissance Studies, founded under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1941. The early issues reported on bibliography, translations, editions, library resources, conferences, scholarly projects, and news from Europe. The 1947 Progress of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, compiled by S. Harrison Thomson at the University of Colorado, had listed 910 North American scholars and taken the count as a welcome sign of recovery after the war. Renaissance News editorialized about mistakes in the Renaissance listings: the medievalists, as usual, had slighted the Renaissance. "We welcome Professor Thomson's gifts but with something of the wry smile of stepchildren. For the Renaissance remains, in the Progress, something of the afterthought it was when it was added in 1940.... Evidently the crowding in of renaissance scholars has swamped the boat." (2)

We are still swamped in our own boat. The Society has long since gone from the twenty slim pages of the first issue of Renaissance News (1948-66) through the hefty Renaissance Studies (1954-74) and the amalgamated Renaissance Quarterly (1967-) and on to digits and pixels; from scores of members it has grown to thousands, from early meetings with one or two sessions this Annual Meeting boasts a burgeoning program and registration fees to match. Regional Renaissance associations, Renaissance teaching programs, and international affiliates are represented here; the book exhibit tables offer hundreds of books and journals. Meanwhile, the public Renaissance is booming to the mingled satisfaction and alarm of the academic Renaissance. The hotel we are meeting in belongs to the "Renaissance" chain, with branches in Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Amsterdam, and Las Vegas. Renaissance is a brand, label, and logo: it's in the movies and mystery thrillers with a Renaissance hook (The Da Vinci Code is just the scum on the froth). We have Renaissance television documentaries and docudramas with talking heads, who, fortunately for them, have tenure. We have Renaissance Faires and Reenactments, Living Last Suppers, Renaissance Weekend Conferences, and neocon think tanks where Machiavelli rules. Shakespeare, from "Schlockspeare" to scholarly studies and crossover books written for a seemingly insatiable public, is a multinational consortium. (3)

John Addington Symonds must have had it right when he proclaimed the Renaissance "the most marvelous period the world has ever known." (4) Not least because it has been pronounced dead so often. Not counting the medievalists' longstanding professional disdain, its passing had the solemn authority of William Bouwsma's American Historical Association Presidential Address in 1978. As if to confirm the bad news, in 1996 the scholarly quarterly Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies became the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Just last year Monty Python's Terry Jones gave the Renaissance a pop burial. While allowing that the Renaissance had never done him any harm personally, he said he was sick and tired of people putting on airs about it and wished it good riddance. (5)

We can deny such exaggerated rumors, as Mark Twain did of his own demise not far from this spot. For one thing, they are partly the wages of success. As old and new hands at these meetings know, the big tent of Renaissance Studies that brings us together is also an arena of difference, indifference, and sometimes outright hostility. It is also a big target, inviting potshots from the specialized fields or subfields that have proliferated within the horror vacui of academic professionalization. Then too, with the comfortable spread of advancing middle age in Renaissance Studies, we should expect age-appropriate anxieties and complaints. …

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