Skip to main content Skip to navigation

A Short History of the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance

A Short History of the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, University of Warwick. Michael Mallett and Ronnie Mulryne (September 2001)

A NOTE (August, 2018)

With the benefit of what is now a long involvement with the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, I’ve added to the original text of A Short History a few names, often from the English department, to show how in the afterglow of George Hunter’s inspirational development of an English curriculum, his ideals continued to influence the teaching of Renaissance topics within a widely-generous, cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural and humane intellectual environment – even where, as in most cases, no formal link existed between English Department teachers and the Centre. Professor Michael Mallett, my co-author, saw the Centre from the perspective of a senior scholar in the History department whence, as our document explains, much of the Centre’s initial energy and productivity flowed. I hope my small additions will help to provide a more inclusive view of the remarkable contribution Warwick has made to the study of Renaissance topics since the inception of the University in the 1960s. I have added nothing about the progress of the Centre since my own retirement in 2004. Others are better placed than I to take that on and many of these developments can be seen on the Centre's current website.

Ronnie Mulryne

The Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at Warwick represents the current form of a set of interests and convictions which stretches back almost to the foundation of the University. Everything we do today stems from the early appointments made by the first vice-chancellor to the fledgling university established with others in the 1960s. Jack (later Lord) Butterworth maintained that the most important role of a vice-chancellor is to appoint senior staff, and then provide them with the means to get on with the job. Today's academic leaders, harassed by the demands of a management culture ever more securely rooted both within and outside the university, may well envy the (at least apparent) freedom of those early appointments. In any case, those of us concerned with Renaissance studies can be grateful to Butterworth and his advisers for appointing so outstanding, and indeed numerous, a set of Renaissance teachers in the heady days when the policies and outlook of the university, and of the faculty of Arts in particular, were being formed.

Perhaps the most significant early appointment, from this point of view, was that of John (later Sir John) Hale. Hale came to Warwick from Jesus College Oxford in 1964 as the University's founding Professor of History. His arrival coincided with the coming together of a remarkable coterie of Renaissance scholars who gave a distinctive slant to the development of the Arts faculty. These included G. K. (George) Hunter, the founding professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies, whose construction of an English syllabus, still apparent in at least shadowy form to this day, stressed the study of genre and the cross-cultural location of English within the European tradition. His pioneering English and European Literature degree, sadly undermined by the largely monoglot experience of today's sixth-formers, provided a stimulating environment for the study of Renaissance literature. Hunter's later distinguished career at Yale, as well as Warwick, positioned him as one of the leading Renaissance scholars anywhere, with a powerful and sometimes fierce commitment to scholarship of a European, not merely an Anglophone, cast. There were others. Donald Charlton, professor of French, while not a Renaissance scholar, harboured a passionate belief in cultural history and interdisciplinarity, and greatly influenced the Faculty in adopting an outlook hospitable to these values. Nicholas Mann, also of the French department, promoted the same goals in a Renaissance context, and has gone on to play a distinguished scholarly role in Renaissance Studies as Director of the Warburg Institute. Judy Rawson of the Department of Italian, wife of Professor Claude Rawson of English, who numbered the Renaissance among his myriad interests, provided the essential Italian-literature and Italian-language scholarship for Renaissance work, as well as contributing her own fine responses to Renaissance culture. In the area of British history, Professor J. J. (Jack) Scarisbrick published studies of international significance, drawing on Renaissance scholarship with a particular emphasis on politics and Reformation that was by no means restricted to England. Looking back, one is tempted to speak of an era of gods among the common people who came after. No doubt that is to sentimentalise the past, but the effects for Warwick Renaissance Studies are palpable.

Hale's significant preoccupations as a scholar and teacher included a number which have continued to influence the thinking of Renaissance colleagues at Warwick. Hale considered that the study of British History and Culture should be closely integrated into a broader European framework. He took the view that ideas, attitudes, beliefs and perceptions matter as much to genuine historical study as institutions and events. At a practical level, he entertained a deep belief in the importance of travel and study abroad, for undergraduate as well as postgraduate students -- a rather unique perspective in the mid-1960s. He contended that history should where possible be studied in its physical context, making use not only of libraries and archives, but taking in a knowledge of the terrain, of maps, and of art galleries and museums. This last preoccupation led to the institution of the Venice programme for history (and history of art) undergraduates, a programme comprising a one-term residence in Venice for final-year undergraduates, and associated post-graduates, which still forms part of the Warwick degree. This was later extended, under the European Union’s ERASMUS/ SOCRATES programme, to students of the M.A. in Culture of the European Renaissance (Centre for the Study of the Renaissance) allowing first-term graduate students, after appropriate preparation, to study for a term in residence with the University of Venice, Ca’ Foscari, or with the Sorbonne in Paris. Hale became the driving force behind the establishment of the Graduate School of Renaissance Studies, which provided an interdisciplinary MA and a framework for PhD work, and was the precursor of the present Centre for the Study of the Renaissance.

It would be tedious to relate the multiple changes of degree structure and teaching methods which have accompanied the evolution of the Centre. The most notable of these has been the development of an MA in English and European Renaissance Drama, directed by Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shewring of, respectively, the English and Theatre Studies departments to sit alongside the MA in Renaissance Studies, and the subsequent amalgamation of both degrees, when candidates for Renaissance Studies were few in number, into the present MA in Culture of the European Renaissance. This last development, perhaps unsurprisingly, takes us back to many of Hale's interests, with its aim of introducing students from a wide variety of disciplines to the broad sweep of the Renaissance in Europe, and with British developments situated within, and seen against, that more inclusive background. Students of this new programme have the opportunity, as noted, to study for up to ten weeks, with the assistance of the European Union's ERASMUS/SOCRATES initiative, at the Sorbonne or the University of Venice, a feature of which Hale would surely have approved. Equally, French and Italian students come to the Centre for the whole of the Spring term each year. The culture of influence in university departments runs in mysterious ways. The apparent conservatism of the Warwick Centre cloaks a great deal of cutting-edge research and teaching, yet the values instilled and upheld by the founding fathers continue to pervade what we do and how we do it.

The Centre has continued to be blessed by the presence of scholars of distinction. Professor Michael Mallett, whose involvement with the Centre and its precursor goes back almost to its inception, has maintained and strengthened the Centre's connection with the history and culture of Renaissance Italy, especially the social culture of Venice. His prosopographical study of Italian elites has helped to form one of the major emphases of the Centre's research programmes. A researcher in the Centre assisting Professor Mallett was Dr Stella Fletcher. Another teacher for the Centre, Dr Humfrey Butters has also made a distinguished contribution to this area, especially by editing the Lettere of Lorenzo de' Medici. The first graduate of the Centre in its earliest days, Dr Martin Lowry, now teaches for the Centre as an internationally acknowledged scholar of print culture and the dissemination of learning. Professor Julian Gardner, though his research interests in the visual arts in Rome lie a little earlier than much of our teaching and research, nevertheless provides for art history the scholarly interest in Italian culture of which Hale made so much. Until recently, art history has also been taught by Dr Paul Hills, the notable scholar of Venetian painting. Art history of the Italian Renaissance is now taught by Dr Sharon Fermor. In British history, we are fortunate to have Professor Bernard Capp, Dr Peter Marshall and Dr Steve Hindle, leading scholars of sixteenth and seventeenth century British social and religious history -- on each of whom the mantle of Scarisbrick rests lightly. Dr Penny Roberts, a graduate of the Centre who is now a permanent lecturer in the history department, teaches in the area of the French Renaissance and Dr Luca Mola in the Italian renaissance. Drs Ingrid de Smet and Kathy Hampton, of the French department, maintain the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural interests of which Donald Charlton was so notable a champion. Dr Simon Gilson keeps us in touch with early Italian literature, especially Dante, as Judy Rawson once did. Dr. Jenny Mecziems of English continues Claude Rawson’s distinguished work as journal editor, notably as Editor of the Modern Language Review and the Yearbook of English Studies, thus keeping us abreast of contemporary scholarship, including of course on Renaissance topics. Henry Cohn has memorably taught the Northern Renaissance for our M.A. courses and Noemi Messora has ensured that our students maintain and improve their Italian language skills.

Two notable recent appointments to the English Department are Professor Kevin Sharpe, the well-known cultural historian of the seventeenth century, and Dr Elizabeth Clarke, leader of the Perdita project dealing with women's writing in manuscript in the early seventeenth century. Professor Ronnie Mulryne of English and Dr Margaret Shewring of Theatre Studies are responsible for work on Renaissance theatre, interpreting that brief in the spirit of George Hunter's insistence on editorial and scholarly standards, and on the internationalism of theatre practice. In this connection, Professor Mulryne has undertaken much editorial work as General Editor of the multi-volume Revels Plays editions of Elizabethan and Jacobean texts, centred at Warwick (Methuen and Manchester University Press), first with the distinguished Renaissance Theatre scholar Clifford Leech (Durham) and then other colleagues including the equally distinguished David Bevington (Chicago). Editors have numbered George Hunter among them. He has also served as founder editor of the Shakespeare’s Plays in Performance series, with Margaret Shewring as associate editor. These activities have branched out into a thriving European Festival Studies 1450-1700 series (Ashgate, Routledge, Brepols) with Margaret M. McGowan (Sussex) and Marie-Claude Canova-Green (Goldsmiths, London) as co-general editors with Mulryne and Shewring – a project once more in keeping with Hunter’s wish to locate British history and theatre within a broadly conceived and explored pan-European context.

Development of the Centre and its Research

The history of the Centre over the years between Hale's initiating impulse and the present has been one of considerable endeavour, as members of the Centre have maintained their teaching and research interests, often on top of, and sometimes at odds with, their responsibilities to their home departments – a position increasingly difficult to maintain given the mounting pressures on university teachers as a result of increasingly unfavourable staff/student ratios. Several colleagues have led the Centre at different times: Ronnie Mulryne, Judy Rawson, Margaret Shewring. Ronnie Mulryne is now directing a Centre whose work and personnel have changed quite radically over the last two years, principally as a result of research money becoming available through the national Arts and Humanities Research Board. First, the Centre was successful in attracting AHRB support for the Europa Triuinphans research project on Festival culture. The award brought with it as Research Fellow Dr Elizabeth Goldring, a Yale graduate whose knowledge of literature and the visual arts has been invaluable, along with administrative ability and sheer hard work, in advancing the project. Then came the AHRB competition for Research Centres, a project led by Ronnie Mulryne, Michael Mallett, Julian Gardner and Margaret Shewring, where we were fortunate in being one of the ten chosen Centres, out of a field of 145. This success led to the appointment of Dr Christine Shaw as Senior Research Fellow, a highly productive scholar of Renaissance Italy long associated with the Italian Elites programme, together with Dr Jonathan Davies, who had held a research Fellowship at Leeds and published on Florentine and Tuscan universities, and Dr Fabrizio Nevola, a scholar of the visual arts and architecture in Italy and especially Siena, We were also able to appoint Dr Sarah Ross, an Oxford Ph.D working on women's writing in manuscript. After making a huge contribution to the John Nichols project in a very short space of time, Sarah had to return to her home in New Zealand for personal reasons. We have appointed in her place Dr Jayne Archer, whose Cambridge Ph.D. dealt with women and alchemy in early modern England. Dr Sarah Knight has served the Centre with distinction as a Research Fellow and collaborator. The third success came in the AHRB Resource Enhancement competition, where we were able to attract one of twenty awards, out of over 200 entrants, in this case for the digitisation of festival books in the collections of the British Library, with Ronnie Mulryne as Principal Investigator in collaboration with Margaret Shewring and colleagues employed by the British Library. Dr Sarah Cusk, with degrees from Cambridge and Columbia, and Dr Alexander Samson, with degrees from Leeds, Sussex and London, have been appointed as one-year Research Fellows. Other colleagues have contributed in notable ways to research and teaching of Renaissance culture. Jennifer Lorch (Italian), in addition to her publications on modern Italian theatre, kept before us Judy Rawson’s enlivening interests in all aspects of early Italian culture and specialized in teaching and writing about commedia erudite and Machiavelli. Chris Nash (English) has focused on cross-currents between English and Italian cultures, in a manner in keeping with Hunter’s aims for language- learning as an illuminating adjunct to humane study. Peter Mack (English), subsequently director of the Warburg Institute, with his exceptional knowledge of and writing on medieval and Renaissance Rhetoric provided many undergraduate and graduate students with a wide perspective on the place of Renaissance studies within Early Modern European culture. Paul Merchant (English), poet and translator as well as scholarly editor, has proved a wonderful source of knowledge on all areas of Renaissance and other early history and theatre. Gloria Cigman, a medievalist, continues to intrigue undergraduate students especially by her enthusiastic insights into literature of the time of Geoffrey Chaucer and after. Other colleagues’ names appear elsewhere in this document. Throughout these years the Centre has continued to develop links with other leading Renaissance Centres in Europe, not only in Venice and at the Sorbonne – where almost-annual lecturing and publishing visits by Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shewring have built close relations with Professor Marie-Thérèse Jones-Davies and the Société Internationale de Recherches Interdisciplinaires sur la Renaissance – but also, more informally, with the Centre d’Etudes Supérieure de la Renaissance at the  University of Tours through talks and visits.

The statisticians tell us that, on the face of it, the odds against our being successful in all three competitions stand at more than 500-1. This represents a gratifying boost to the Centre's self-esteem, but the main effect has been the transformation of our research base, with an influx of seven research fellows now working with us, five of them on our major research projects. The expansion has brought with it problems of accommodation, and the total funding of £1.7m from the AHRB and the University of Warwick is proving, for diverse reasons, inadequate to the research programmes on which we are embarked. Yet it would be foolish to carp. The shade of John Hale, we like to think, would approve the expanded Centre, its values, and the contribution we are making to interdisciplinary teaching and research in the Renaissance period. The Centre is now a highly active resource for everyone working in the field, with a strong programme of research projects, publications, conferences, visiting speakers, postgraduate degrees and much else.