Inverting the Pyramid: Notes on the Renaissance Society of America Meeting (26-28 March, Berlin)

by guest contributor Brooke S. Palmieri

To begin with, of the 903 total events held at the Renaissance Society of America meeting in Berlin, I was able to attend 10. But the historian has ways of interpreting such a huge pyramid of information that seems to miraculously balance on a single, tiny point: let’s call it microhistory.

There has already been excellent consideration about whether such a large, daunting conference is useful: “To my mind, the basic question with RSA 2015 is whether it has become so large that is has lost its identity as a conference” (David Rundle; @DrDavidRundle, 5 April 2015).

Yet the sheer size of the RSA generates a unique gravitational pull attracting senior academics and graduate students alike. Even browsing the hefty conference programme becomes an exercise of intellect. As much a map of the wider field of scholarship as the bibliomancer’s companion, one traces past and augurs future directions and deviations in Renaissance scholarship. Negotiating the RSA itself requires more decision-making, broad thinking, and unclogging the pores otherwise connecting various disciplines concerned with the same people, places, and things. If the History of Ideas has always been fit to run among diverse disciplines (anthropology, art history, literary theory) and sub-disciplines  (political, economic, religious history, history of the book), the RSA unites an ideal variety of scholarship and methodologies to move through in real time. It also allows us to turn some of our methodologies for looking at the past back upon themselves.

Many freedoms can be exercised here. Sometimes it’s worth attending panels outside of your direct line of research (“Queer Protestantism”) and eavesdropping on the Portuguese paleography expert sitting next to you. Sometimes social media is a useful tool to record and expand upon the format of the conference (via @onslies). Sometimes it is appropriate to speak up at the conference itself, as a group of early career researchers did to address the lack of gender diversity in the plenary line up (RSA’s response). More frequently, it’s just a matter of going to panels and watching scholarly lines bend and extend exponentially into patterns and shapes. And sometimes, you just have to return to the programme over a cup of coffee. What remains best about all of these strategies at the RSA is necessarily adopting the same identity at least once: that of a student.

That said, here are three lessons from a small corner of the RSA conference:

  1. Birthday parties are important

There were at least two important birthdays celebrated at the conference this year: Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre turned 30, and Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine’s “Studied for Action: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy” turned 25.

In its birthday panel, Davis’s exemplar of failed self-fashioning complemented the analysis of literary texts. This suited Davis’s reflection on her own work, as she elaborated: “If I have a theme, it’s double vision.” That is, Martin Guerre recreates a world in which “body-switching is totally reasonable, a fantasy people enjoy imagining” while still insisting that the touch and body of a man can be totally “unmistakable” to his loved ones and, by virtue of their recognition, unique. The court relied upon both while prosecuting Arnaud du Tilh for his impersonation of Guerre. The uses of fantasy and reality within the testimonies leading to du Tilh’s execution grant Davis’s work importance for literary studies (as regards the body-switching tales of the Heptameron, for instance) and literary genre (blending comedy and tragedy in its publication).

But literary studies also enrich the world of Martin Guerre: one in which literature and popular fictions contribute in real terms to the overall spectrum of belief first yielding such a double vision.. Not only is Davis’s work a model that invites collaboration between the disciplines of history and literary studies, but it also proves that anything less than a combined effort does not do justice to the stories buried in juridical archives. Identity, however constructed, remains as elusive as ever. Only collaborative or combinatory approaches can begin to pin it down.

The call to action, and collaboration, also marked Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton’s return to Gabriel Harvey’s heavily annotated copy of Livy.

Livy, Romanae historiae principis, decades tres, cum dimidia [. . .] Basel: Johannes Herwagen, 1555 Princeton University, Rare Books (EX) PA6452.A2

Livy, Romanae historiae principis, decades tres, cum dimidia [. . .] (Basel: Johannes Herwagen, 1555); Princeton University, Rare Books (EX) PA6452.A2

Yet here they discouraged the audience from maintaining Harvey as a model, or simply writing essays of “How X read Y.” Can one science or system ever really be derived from reading or from marginalia? Probably not. Yet it doesn’t matter as “you cannot recover history from the margins of books” to start: as per Jardine, “you need much more than that.” To take “Gabriel Harvey” forward requires instead a further step back, a basic rethinking about the way scholars approach sources.

How would Grafton and Jardine write that essay today? Twenty-five years ago, it required months of travelling to libraries to get a sense of Harvey’s surviving library. Grafton noted that a scholar in California who had only seen a small portion of Harvey’s books accused him of forgery, so different was his use of Livy from other volumes in his library. Today, the digital reassembly of libraries solves this exact problem. The concept of the fragmentary—which has much more theoretical weight on the shape of our scholarship than we tend to notice—is not quite as fragmented as it once was. And so twenty-five years later, Gabriel Harvey forms the bedrock of the Archaeology of Reading, a joint endeavour of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at UCL, Johns Hopkins University, and Princeton University. The overall aim of the project is to allow historians to interact with materials on a larger scale than before across participating special collections libraries, as well as to encourage us to think rigorously about the standards and descriptive practices by which we catalogue, digitize, and preserve printed books with manuscript additions.

  1. Processes shape content in all kinds of ways

The work of early career researchers complemented Grafton and Jardine’s roundtable discussion: not so much by writing treatments of “How X read Y”, but by generally working to link the process by which their contemporaries compiled our sources with the ways in which they are used over time. As Jennifer Bishop said in the standing-room only panel on Recordkeeping, “There is no strictly documentary source,” something also true for the feats of compilation described by her co-panelists. My own presentation and co-presenters worked in this vein to emphasize the passionate agendas behind documentary sources, as well as the high degree of knowledge and knowledge-sharing implicit in converting a book from leather, paper and wood to a published work. Before writing document-driven history from documents, it is worth considering their own history, which in turn requires respecting the complexity of those that worked to compile and preserve them. We must question everything that survives.

  1. Boundaries are as necessary as they are necessary to question

Such interrogations should finally extend to our own ways of categorizing history. For example: the RSA itself is changing in terms of the category of ‘Renaissance’. The RSA website identifies itself as a learned society concerned with the period of 1300-1600. The conference programme extends the end time to 1650. My own presentation did not stray before 1653, and there was not a single presentation I saw that did not include at least some 17th century content, especially Restoration, while some strayed in hushed tones into the 18th. Where does Renaissance end? Is permanent rebirthing the new permanent revolution? What does it mean that our boundaries of silently expanding? Perhaps the best way of thinking about the elasticity of time came from a literary scholar commenting on 17th century eschatology. In Margreta de Grazia’s presentation, revisiting Frank Kermode’s gorgeous Sense of an Ending reveals an impulse in Shakespeare’s dramas (as in John Foxe’s apocalyptic comedy Christus Triumphans) to constantly postpone and push the ending further and further into the future—even offstage into the future. De Grazia drew from a broadsheet that might be familiar to readers of Grafton and Rosenberg’s Cartographies of Time: the colossus of Universal History informed by the Book of Daniel:

Lorenz Faust, Anatomia Statuæ Danielis. Kurtze und eigentliche erklerung der grossen Bildnis des Propheten Danielis, darin ein historischer ausszug der vier Monarchien (Lepizig: Johann Steinman, 1586

Lorenz Faust, Anatomia Statuæ Danielis. Kurtze und eigentliche erklerung der grossen Bildnis des Propheten Danielis, darin ein historischer ausszug der vier Monarchien (Leipzig: Johann Steinman, 1586)

De Grazia observed that when the work was printed in 1585, contemporary Europe inscribed itself on the toes of the giant, leaving only a toenail’s width from the end of time. Understanding early modern attitudes toward past, present, and future offer a challenge to the way we circumscribe the boundaries of our own research: they are the ultimate actor’s categories for the historian. But they also throw into question the ways in which our own perception of time is subject to change. It’s clearly begun to shift at the RSA, in my limited experience. So since the RSA already excels at bringing together such a diverse range of scholars, the next big leap may be seriously discussing its own sense of an ending.

Brooke S. Palmieri is a PhD student in history at the Centre for Lives and Letters (CELL), where her research and teaching is dedicated to unearthing the radical potential of  print and manuscript cultures. Her dissertation focuses on the reading, writing, archiving and publishing habits of Quaker communities in London, and their expansion across the Atlantic in the second half of the 17th century. You can find her on Twitter at @bspalmieri.

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