About us

Founded in 1975, Medieval and Renaissance Studies is one of Wellesley’s oldest interdepartmental programs.

Our community consists of student majors and minors, professional staff, and faculty across more than a dozen departments and centers on campus, all united by a commitment to understanding the medieval and Renaissance world from the fourth century through the seventeenth century.

The program’s traditional strengths have included medieval and Renaissance English and Italian literature, art, and culture, as well as the history of the early printed book in Europe. The college’s reputation for excellence in the study of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) in particular coincides with the words on the open book inscribed in the shield within the college’s seal: incipit vita nova (“Here begins a new life”), from the prologue of Dante’s Vita nuova (c. 1294).

These traditional strengths have been complemented in recent decades by new ones. Among the many focuses of our community’s research and teaching is the cultural diversity and interconnectedness of the medieval and Renaissance world across geographic, religious, cultural, and various other putative boundaries. Such boundaries tended to be projected retrospectively by later observers onto a more complex reality. Many of our courses examine patterns of co-existence and networks of communication across them, ranging far beyond Europe, over documents, ideas, texts, music, art, and other artifacts that were produced in, and circulated within and among, South and East Asia, the Americas, and the Mediterranean and Atlantic worlds. Other themes of our newer courses include witchcraft, the history of mental health, and representations of race in medieval literature.

Conviviality and collaboration have always been hallmarks of our community. Since the program’s founding, faculty and professional staff, including curators in the college’s libraries and the Davis Museum, have routinely taught together, contributed lectures and demonstrations to each other’s classes, read and discussed each other's scholarship, and collaborated on the planning of exhibits and other public events. Members and friends of the program — faculty, staff, students, and alumnae — have traditionally gathered in a private home for a potluck dinner at the end of each semester. In the early years, these dinners were hosted by professor of history and founding director Eugene Cox. They were then hosted by professors of art Lilian Armstrong and Peter Fergusson.

Another hallmark of the community has long been its members’ grateful inheritance, painstaking development, and intensive use of an extraordinary constellation of resources on campus, built up since the late nineteenth century. In their richness and abundance, they set Wellesley College apart from many other colleges and universities, offering unusually immersive experiences of medieval and Renaissance visual and material cultures, music, and theater:

The collections of the Davis Museum include, among other outstanding examples of medieval and Renaissance material culture, diverse and extensive holdings of early modern works on paper. In recent years, the program has benefited enormously from the work of specialists in medieval and Renaissance art on the Davis’s curatorial staff. The museum’s frequent exhibits related to the Renaissance and Middle Ages have focused on, among other subjects, Martin Luther and the German Reformations; illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays; depictions of nature by Rembrandt and other artists of the Dutch Golden Age; monumental prints of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; and ancient mythological and historical motifs in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish prints.

Wellesley’s Special Collections, on the fourth floor of Clapp Library, contain outstanding collections of manuscripts, incunabula, and other early printed books. Highlights include the Plimpton Collection of Italian literature from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century; the Durant Collection, presented to the college in 1875 by its founders Pauline and Henry Fowle Durant; the English Poetry Collection; and extensive holdings in the histories of science, technology, medicine, philosophy, overseas imperialism, and many other subjects. Recent acquisitions include an extraordinarily rare, late sixteenth-century Spanish broadside (shown here) indicating remedies for plague. The extensive use of these collections in the program’s courses and in student and faculty research is supported by the Book Studies Initiative, which brings together faculty from across the college for discussion and demonstrations of methods for teaching with physical texts.

Students, faculty, and staff interested in Renaissance book production can practice nearly every stage themselves, from paper- and print-making in dedicated facilities within Pendleton West, to handpress printing, binding, and repair in the Book Arts Lab and Conservation Studio in Clapp Library — all under the guidance of curators, professional printers and artists, and conservators. All these facilities feature routinely in the program’s courses.

Elements of the college landscape support the program's teaching in various ways. The college’s greenhouses and gardens, together with the Claflin Bakery, have served students learning about Renaissance food, while the college's landscape and buildings — many of them constructed in an early twentieth-century neoclassical or neogothic style — have featured in courses on medieval and Renaissance architecture and gardens.

The campus also provides a variety of opportunities to hear and perform early music. The Collegium Musicum welcomes students, faculty, staff, and community members to perform Western medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music on early instruments with instruction by specialists in period performance. Wellesley’s collection of early instruments includes violas da gamba, recorders and Baroque flutes, a clavichord, a virginal, a dulcian, a lute, and many others. It also includes the Houghton Chapel’s visually and sonically beautiful organ, an extraordinary instrument and one of the jewels of the Wellesley campus, built in 1981 by Charles Brenton Fisk (1925-1983) in the style of northern German organs of the seventeenth century. It is played by members of the Wellesley Organ Club and features regularly in public concerts.

The heart of the college’s Renaissance theater community is the Shakespeare Society, founded in 1877 by Henry Durant. For over a century, its home has been Shakespeare House, built in 1899 in the style of a Tudor cottage. Normally, members perform a Shakespeare play each semester. Renaissance drama, including Shakespeare's plays, is also performed at other venues on campus by student and professional actors, including visiting troupes such as the Actors from the London Stage.

Nor are the extensive resources enjoyed by members of the program limited to the Wellesley College campus. The opportunities afforded by cultural institutions in the Boston area are too numerous to list. They include museums, libraries, institutions for the study of the book arts, musical and theatrical ensembles, and a plethora of universities and other academic institutions hosting lectures, workshops, and performances. Many members of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program, including students in our courses, frequently attend or participate in the activities of these institutions.