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Renaissance and Early Modern Communities in a Transatlantic Perspective

Thanks to a generous grant from The Andrew Mellon Foundation, Warwick’s Centre for the Study of the Renaissance and the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies are able to offer a new collaborative programme of activities in Renaissance and Early Modern Studies for both student and faculty participants. Following the success of the initial collaboration on “Spaces of the Past”, the new programme aims to consider the formation and impact of networks and groupings which directed Early Modern life (from c. 1400 to c. 1720) in three different areas of research (see below or follow the links).

General rationale

In the present day, Western society puts a strong emphasis on the individual and values the accomplishment of the ‘self-made’ man or woman. In the Renaissance and Early Modern period, however, an individual’s achievement and identity were much more strongly defined by the ‘embeddedness’ (to use Nathalie Zemon Davis’ term) of that individual within his/her peer group and a given social context, often leading to shared living conditions, shared values, a shared language or discourse. Thus, much research has been undertaken, on the one hand, into the ways in which individuals asserted their own identity against such a background. (Stephen Greenblatt’s study of Renaissance self-fashioning has been particularly influential in this respect.) On the other hand, research into the social conditions and defining characteristics of particular groups, such as the nobility, female writers, or – more recently – the poor, has also quickened. Yet behind such investigations also lurks the danger of sweeping generalisations: clearly, dominant ideas and preconceptions of what it was to be noble, a female writer, a pauper, or indeed a Protestant or a Jew in the Renaissance/Early Modern period were channelled through, and coloured by, localised circumstances.

Early Modern Jewish identity, for example, has thus offered a very fertile field of enquiry, with studies of the living conditions of Hebrew communities in Renaissance Venice, Cremona, or Rome; of the diasporic existence of the Iberian Jewish population; of the imagined presence of a threatening Jewish faction in Renaissance France; or of the ways in which German Hebrew communities remembered and fashioned their past. Others have connected communal identities to spaces and the built environment – churches, convents and monasteries, taverns, libraries, schools, or indeed stock exchanges and workshops – which not only served as the physical locations and meeting places for the communities they served, but also easily took on a symbolic dimension. Thus Henry Phillips, who specialises in the history of Early Modern France, divided his illuminating study of the involvement of the church in a variety of cultural domains into the spaces of belief, representation, education, dissension, ideas, discussion, belief, unbelief, and the word, and he associated such phenomena as schooling and science with particular social groups. Indeed, to quote a later example, Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall’s 1987 study of the family in nineteenth-century middle-class England (Family Fortunes) has demonstrated how the analysis of a social unit from multiple perspectives can provide a very useful, illuminating historical lens. From a different but not wholly unrelated angle, recent research into Early Modern nationhood and the emerging American nations has shown how overseas emigrant communities (which were initially defined by their close ties with the motherland) forged, and often fought for, new national identities and new communal values of their own, begging the question of how the initial quasi-umbilical relations between the Old World and the New World were ruptured, repaired, renegotiated and reinterpreted. As is evident from this last example, it transpires that communities may transcend localised space and even time. We have also already mentioned the Early Modern Jewish Diaspora. A further example, where the perception of a community remains as real as its definition is nebulous, is the notion of the so-called ‘protestant international’; another, that of the ‘Republic of Letters’, the transnational scholarly community (a ‘community of interest’) which ignored, in theory at least, the norms and distinctions of society and religion at large.

It is evident, then, that notions of ‘community’ and ‘community identity’, which were previously very much the domain of the social and political sciences, have become part and parcel of the terminology operated by Renaissance and Early Modern specialists, whether their investigations are broadly socio-economic or micro-historical in nature, or indeed artistic, literary, bibliographical, or theological. Above all, in recent years, there have been concerted efforts to encourage theoretical reflections in the field – witness the contribution to the multi-authored collection Defining Community in Early Modern Europe, edited by American historians Michael J. Halvorson and Karen E. Spierling, by Warwick historian Steve Hindle (on ‘Beating the Bounds of the Parish: Order, Memory, and Identity in the English Local Community, c. 1500–1700’) which is just one illustration of how this reflection takes place among scholars on both sides of the Atlantic.

Advanced doctoral and early postdoctoral researchers working on the Renaissance and Early Modern periods will therefore inevitably find themselves confronted with this protean notion of ‘community’: they may well be investigating particular social units or groups or they may wish to explore the relevance of approaches based on cohesiveness and collectivity for their own research or specialist teaching. On the other hand, despite the many recent advances in the field, many questions and areas remain unexplored or offer scope for further investigation.

It is with these considerations in mind that the current project seeks to explore the concept and import of ‘communities’ in three different research areas:

Whilst the organisers are mindful of maintaining a focused, largely humanistic approach for each theme, the multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary character of the previous Mellon-funded programme "The Spaces of the Past" remains a key feature. Most importantly, each strand will, from its own particular angle, address a broad set of underlying research questions:

  • What were the foci around which communities emerged?

  • To what extent were these communities defined by concrete, physical or environmental factors? Or to what extent could communities develop on the basis of commonalities that transcend geographical, civic, social, religious, even temporal boundaries?

  • How did communities determine inclusion and exclusion?

  • How did different groups or groupings interact?

  • How did communities loose their cohesion or what led them to dissolve, whether abruptly or gradually? What, in other words, influenced their continuity or transformation?

Each year of activities involved two short workshops and one residential summer school, which were held at Warwick, Warwick’s facility at the Palazzo Pesaro-Papafava, in Venice, and The Newberry Library. Each year’s activities were followed by two eight-week Visiting Fellowships; these offered the opportunity to two (or more) of the selected Workshop Participants to build on the contacts and research collaborations established in the course of the previous year.


Ingrid De Smet

Mellon-Newberry Project Coordinator