Small class sizes and lots of personal interaction with faculty who are experts in the field are hallmarks of New College’s Medieval and Renaissance Studies AOC, which features a wide variety of courses. We focus on the critical period in Western history between the end of antiquity and the birth of modernity.
Situated between the end of antiquity and the birth of modernity, the medieval and Renaissance period is one of the most significant in Western history. This critical period marks a time of vast and exciting transformations that saw the creation of many of the institutions and habits upon which our modern world and worldview rest.
From the writings of St. Augustine, St. Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Chaucer, Milton, Spenser and Malory to explorations of Renaissance and Reformation Europe, troubadour love poems and the historical implications of the Black Death, New College’s Medieval and Renaissance Studies AOC offers the breadth and depth you would expect from one of the country’s leading liberal arts colleges. Thanks to our growing program in Chinese Language and Culture, you have the opportunity to expand your study of the period to Asia as well as Europe.
The exciting transformations of the Middle Ages and Renaissance sparked the creation of many of the institutions and habits upon which our world and worldview rest. Study of the period provides students with the valuable perspective on the contemporary world that can best be acquired at a distance.
In some cases, students pursue their interests in the medieval and Renaissance periods in concentrations such as Literature or History. The interdisciplinary approach of the Medieval & Renaissance Studies AOC, however, recognizes that the modern division into academic disciplines does not always adequately reflect European culture during the period, when theology might be argued in verse, or in painting, and when history, literature and religion were inextricably entwined.
You will also enjoy small classes and plenty of individualized attention and mentoring from our faculty, all of whom are experts in their fields and who hold PhDs from such leading graduate institutions as Oxford, Princeton, Yale and UCLA. In fact, our faculty within Medieval and Renaissance Studies is so strong that one faculty member was recently awarded a Mellon Foundation Post-Doctoral Rome Prize while another earned an Excellence in Teaching Award from the American Philological Society.
A Program Rich in History
Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the importance and rich history of our Medieval and Renaissance Studies program than the Biennial New College Conference on Medieval & Renaissance Studies. First held in 1978, the conference covers all aspects of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Spread over three days in March on even-numbered years, the conference typically features more than 130 presenters and more than 300-350 attending scholars from throughout the United States, Europe and other parts of the world. Encompassing European and Mediterranean history, literature, art, and religion from the fourth to the 17th centuries, the conference’s broad historical and disciplinary scope makes it particularly hospitable to interdisciplinary work, and it is internationally recognized as one of the preeminent venues for researchers working in Italian medieval and Renaissance studies. Students are able to attend the conference and its sessions for free.
Many of our alumni have gone on to prestigious graduate schools such as University of Oxford, UNC at Chapel Hill and NYU. They are studying everything from Viking legal codes to manuscript digitization and more.
Students in our Medieval & Renaissance Studies AOC are encouraged to seek both a broad historical and cultural knowledge of the period as a whole and knowledge in depth of some important segments of it by taking appropriate courses and tutorials. To ensure breadth, students must take at least one Medieval/Renaissance class in each of the following areas:
At least three classes or tutorials should be in one of these four areas in order to provide the student with a disciplinary “base.” Students should also take at least two courses in related fields such as classical antiquity, early Judaism and Christianity, Byzantium, classical Islam or the 17th century, as well as at least three semesters of a foreign language. Normally, this will be Latin, but for some programs, at the sponsor’s discretion, another language might be substituted. As with all AOCs at New College, a senior thesis is required.
Here’s a list of recent course offerings in Medieval & Renaissance Studies:
Chaucer: Imaginary Persons and Narrative Form
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales has been considered an important precursor to the modern novel both because of its focus on citizens rather than royalty or members of the nobility, and the potential to read the participants in the Canterbury pilgrimage as specific persons with individual psychologies. While this particular interpretive strategy was largely rejected by critics by the mid-twentieth century in favor of an understanding of the Tales in the context of character types and estates satire, its persistence suggests the complex relationship between the individual and the community, the particular and the general, and the process by which authors endow imaginary persons with the illusion of selfhood and subjectivity. Chaucer’s works invite consideration of how historical circumstances and generic conventions might affect how we imagine character, from the absent and idealized lady and her almost catatonic knight in The Book of the Duchess to the startlingly vital Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, to the complex and ambiguous lovers in Troilus and Criseyde. The prominence of Chaucer’s narrators further complicates the intersection of imaginary people and literary convention. The course will cover works from Chaucer’s entire career with a focus on his experiments with personation and personhood, narration and narrators, and the relation between medieval theories of genre and their particular executions. All texts will be taught in the original Middle English (which is much easier than it looks).
The Gothic Cathedral
The Gothic cathedral has been the focus of some of the most interesting recent scholarship in art history. In this course we will read and discuss some of the classic texts dealing with these monuments, and we will also explore some of the newer ways of interpreting them, ranging from social history to studies on engineering and technology. We will begin with background material from the Early Middle Ages (consideration of representative Early Christian and Romanesque sites, particularly monastic and pilgrimage churches). The emphasis will then be on the development of the Gothic style in France, including the Early Gothic sites (St.-Denis, Laon, Noyon, and Notre-Dame in Paris), as well as the major cathedrals of the High Gothic: Chartres, Bourges, Reims, and Amiens. We will also investigate the Gothic outside of France (England, Germany, Italy, Spain), as well as (time permitting) aspects of the Gothic revival in the nineteenth century. Consideration will be given to architecture, sculpture, and stained glass.
The History of Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
This survey course introduces students to the history of European music during the Middle Ages and Renaissance (the period c. 600–c. 1600). It will examine not only the different types of music produced in this period, but also the historical, institutional and personal contexts in which that music was produced. Topics to be studied include Gregorian chant, medieval drama, the secular music of the Troubadours on the theme of courtly love, the development of music notation and theory, the beginnings of polyphony, choral music, the effects of the Reformation upon European music and the place of music in Medieval and Renaissance society. No prior musical training is required. The course will offer students the opportunity to explore an area of cultural history that was of central importance to the lives of Medieval and Renaissance societies.
Imagining and Reimagining Early England
An enthusiastic reviewer of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a twentieth-century adaptation of Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century Morte D’Arthur, described it as “A glorious dream of the Middle Ages as they never were but should have been.” What “should” the middle ages have been, in the dreams of its writers and the writers (and filmmakers) of subsequentages? How was medieval England imagined and reimagined? What do modern versions of medieval texts tell us about the ages that produced them? This course will introduce a selection of English literature written before 1500 (to be read in modern English translations) and then examine nineteenth and twentieth-century adaptations of this material. Texts and issues fall into three basic units: 1) The relationship between the human and the divine in medieval poetry, personal narrative, and drama, and the uses of the idea of affective piety and medieval Catholicism in contemporary drama. 2) Building knights and nations in narratives of King Arthur and Camelot–the medieval texts include Crétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Thomas Malory, and several anonymous writers including the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; modern adaptations include Tennyson (Idylls of the King), Lerner and Lowe (Camelot), and Monty Python (and the Holy Grail), 3) Exclusion and community in Beowulf and John Gardner’s Grendel, which retells the story from the monster’s point of view.
This survey course introduces students to the formation of European civilization between the years c. 700 and c. 1350. It deals in particular with the history of western continental Europe, focusing on political and institutional developments, ecclesiastical and social history, the history of political thought and intellectual history. The course will trace how ideas, communities, and institutions in these various areas evolved and affected each another. Topics to be covered include the Carolingian Empire, feudalism, the crusading movement, the papacy, medieval government and the beginnings of democracy, medieval urban culture, heresy and intellectual life. Special emphasis will be placed on the study of primary sources—chronicles, charters, diplomas, law codes, lives and so forth—in order to illuminate the history of the period.
Medieval Philosophy and Religious Thought
The period from 200 c.e. to 1400 c.e. has often been described as the Age of Faith. And such figures as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas had important things to say about the nature of God, the relationships of human beings to God, and the nature of faith. They also discussed the nature of reality, analyzed language and its various uses, and offered a variety of theories about the nature of ethics. Their views became the foundation on which later philosophers and theologians constructed their systems. While we will pay special attention to the thought of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, we will also be concerned with the influential views of such thinkers as Boethius, Scotus Eriugena, Abelard, and Duns Scotus.
This course will explore two of the most ambitious works in English literature: Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Written less than a century apart, these poems attempt to do for England what their authors understood Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad and Virgil’s Aeneid to have done for classical Greece and imperial Rome: to both demonstrate and epitomize the glorious history and worthy aspirations of the civilizations that they came to represent in the popular mind. Given England’s relative political and, many would argue, cultural insignificance in early modern Europe, to write an English national epic was an act of unmitigated gall, and astonishing hope for the significance of both the nation to its world and its writers to the nation. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is an enormously complex moral and political allegory borrowing the forms of both classical epic and medieval romance, in which knights representing holiness, temperance, and chastity, among others, do battle with enchanters, sorceresses, and monsters representing greed, deception, and the Catholic church. The preface claims that the poem’s purpose is “to fashion a gentle manor noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” We will examine Spenser’s investigation of the forces that shape England and the English gentleman, and his work’s attempts to become one of them, and then move on to Milton’s Paradise Lost , which, less optimistically, seeks to find “fit audience, though few.” Milton’s epic on the fall of humanity into original sin is a product of both his conscious effort to model himself on the poetic career of Virgil, the great poet of Augustan Rome, and his intense involvement with the political and religious controversies of his day. His attempt to write the English national epic never explicitly mentions England, and explicitly expects a hostile reception in its native country. The character who most closely resembles the epic hero of Homer or Virgil is Satan. We will explore these and other paradoxes of Milton’s Christian epic. Our most important tool for investigation will be close readings of the text, but we will also pay attention to contemporary political, religious, and poetic theories and the course will involve some secondary criticism.
The Renaissance is one of the most hotly debated subjects in all of modern scholarship: what was it? how should we define it?—even, did it happen? This seminar will take an interdisciplinary approach to the history of Italy between 1350 and 1550, looking not only at intellectual trends traditionally identified as “Renaissance”—such as humanism, individualism, and classicism—but also how they reflected and affected contemporary politics and society during an especially turbulent time on the Italian peninsula, which included recurring plagues, religious upheaval, and almost constant war. The course will consider a broad variety of primary sources, from statutes and censuses to art, music, philosophy, and drama — keeping always in mind the arguments of historians across the ages about their meaning and significance for the development of Western civilization, and the usefulness of categories and periodization for the understanding of the past.
Renaissance and Reformation Europe
This survey will cover the tumultuous age in European history between the Black Death and the end of the Thirty Years’ War (AD 1350-1650). Students will be introduced to key cultural, socio-political, and economic developments of the early modern period, including but not limited to: the Italian Renaissance, exploration and the opening of global trade, the Reformation, and the scientific revolution. We will also re-evaluate traditional interpretations of this period’s pivotal role in European history: historians have long recognized the significance of innovations such as three-point perspective, the printing press, the nation-state, and proto-industrialism, but we will also consider to what extent such changes affected everyday people. Did peasants and women have a Renaissance? Was this really “progress” and/or the “birth of the modern world”?
Twelfth Century Renaissance
The ‘twelfth-century renaissance’ is the name given by scholars to a momentous intellectual movement that witnessed startling new developments in the history of Western thought. This intellectual renaissance saw the rise in importance of cathedral schools, renewed interest in classical Greek and Roman literature, the use of that literature in the service of theology and the development of scholasticism. Yet, although many embraced these new ideas enthusiastically, others railed against the intellectual excesses of those who sought to know everything and to understand even the workings of God Himself. The period is thus also characterized by lively debates about the utility and purpose of education. This seminar will study the twelfth-century renaissance by focusing on the history of the movement as well as on the important new works written at the time. Each week different primary sources will be read in English translation, not only in order to study the ideas of their authors, but also the context and development of those ideas. The seminar will cover thought in disciplines such as logic, grammar, rhetoric, music, history, politics, astronomy and theology—in short, the school curriculum of the middle ages. It will also introduce students to the exciting currents of modern scholarship about the twelfth-century renaissance and encourage them to see established orthodoxies with well-informed and critical eyes. This course will give students the ability to work in great detail on their writing and oral presentation skills. It will be of particular interest to students in Medieval and Renaissance studies, history, art history, philosophy and religion.
The World of Saint Francis
This intermediate course will take an interdisciplinary approach to the study of Saint Francis of Assisi. Aiming for a broad understanding of the saint’s life and legacy, we will combine questions of theology with those of medieval art, politics, and economic life in an attempt to fathom the paradoxes of medieval Italian life: specifically, how did the rampant commercialism and gaudy competitiveness of the Italian cities produce the late medieval world’s greatest advocate of simplicity, poverty, and nature? How did such a person end up with perhaps the most expensive and elaborate church in medieval Italy as his sepulcher? We will consider not only Francis’ life and teachings but also his broader influence on late medieval European society, with its controversial and divisive “Franciscan question.”
For detailed requirements, check out our General Catalog.
For a complete list of courses, click here.
Michelle DiPietro is an English teacher at academia Sprach- und Lernzentrum in Switzerland. She earned her bachelor’s degree from New College and her master’s degree in medieval studies from the University of Oxford. She is working on a contribution to a forthcoming academic volume on medievalism and modern digital gaming, and is a CELTA-certified English language teacher. At New College she served as co-editor of GOUIE literary magazine and the New College AcademicJournal. She has also taught SAT preparedness to high school students and gave presentations on the academic writing process at conferences in the U.S. and Ireland. She founded the Galway, Ireland, chapter of National Novel Writing Month in 2009 and led weekly motivational writing groups for the marathon writing event. She has experience with special collections and rare books libraries, archives and museum collections. Michelle is a wonderful example of the breadth of opportunities offered at New College and the incredible achievements our students accomplish while working closely with faculty.
New College is proud of our many gradautes in Medieval & Renaissance Studies. Here is a look at what some of them are up to these days:
Sample of Graduate Schools Attended by NCF Students in Medieval & Renaissance Studies
Each academic experience builds toward your senior thesis project. It’s required for graduation, and our students tell us that while it’s demanding, it’s also one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives. Here are some thesis projects in Medieval & Renaissance Studies:
“Rex Perpetuus Norwegiae: Lingship and Conversion in Eleventh-Century Norway” by Danielle Fasig
“Romanization and Reform: Liturgy as a Mechanism of Change in Leon-Castile in the Eleventh and Early Twelfth Centuries” by Crawford J. Bennett, Jr.
“For the Love of the Gods: The Rhetoric and Reality of Religious Authority in Late Antiquity” by Christopher Koel Blexrud
“Bohemond and The Byzantines: The Political Career of Bohemond of Taranto, 1096-1108” by Kate Weber
“Imagining Heaven and Earth: Cosmology and the Irish Tradition in Saltair Na Rann” by Michelle DiPietro
“Jordanes’ Getica: Groundwork for a New Translation” by Danielle Reid
“Reconsidering Humanism: The Life and Works of Poggio Bracciolini” by Stefanie Simoniello
“Imagery of Adam and Eve from Early Christian Art through the Reformation: The Purpose and Justification of Religious Art throughout the Middle Ages” by Gail Walton
“Joan of Arc and Medieval Traditions of Combative Women: Martyrs, Secular Heroines, and Crusaders” by Colleen Beck
“The Development of Irish Monasticism in the Fifth and Sixth Century” by Diana Gordic
“Eye Imagery in the Poetry of John Donne” by Cindy Ann Hill
“The Redemption of the Magdalene: An Erotic Approach to God” by Vicki Marie Petrick
“The Tournament in History, in Literature, and as a Social Ritual” by William Tyler Bevington, Jr.
“Conquest and Rule of Valencia by El Cid and Jaime I” by Margareta S. Knauff
“Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan: Three Medieval Views of Women” by Rebecca Shepardson
“Parzival and the Grail” by Michael G. Christy
“St. Foy of Conques: A Study of the Cult of a Saint in Medieval France” by Michelle Ippolito
“Love and War in Medieval Spain: Muslim and Christian Modes of Perception in the Courtley Tradition” by Ramon Mujica
“The Celts: A Cultural Study” by William Abe Rosenberg
“The Medieval English View of Death” by Elizabeth Joyce Rubin
“The Thomistic Idea of Law: A Study of the Interaction of Philosophy and History in the Thirteenth Century” by Ruth Dreessen
“Two Medieval Women: The Transformation of Courtesy from an Aristocratic Ideal in the Courts of Eleanor of Aquitaine to a Social Ethic in the Poetry of Christine de Pisan” by Alyson R. Haley
“Erasmus’ Relationship with Late Medieval Culture” by Diane Scaro
The Jane Bancroft Cook Library at New College is home to a broad assortment of books, scholarly journals, national and international databases, and other print and electronic media related to Medieval and Renaissance Studies and is available to students throughout the year. Of particular interest to medieval and Renaissance scholars, in recent years the library has received a number of manuscript leaves dating from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, including a sixteenth-century manuscript prayer book, thanks to the generosity of Lawrence Schoenberg and Barbara Brizdle of Longboat Key, Florida.
New College Medieval & Renaissance Studies students have free access to the Ringing Museum of Art, which is located next door to campus. The museum offers 21 galleries of European paintings as well as Cypriot antiquities and Asian, American and contemporary art. It also features an extensive collection of pre-modern European art and has recently hosted exhibits on Veronese, Rubens and other artists of the medieval and Renaissance periods.
The Biennial New College Conference on Medieval & Renaissance Studies draws top scholars in history, literature, art history, philosophy and other fields from across the U.S. and throughout the world. Students have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with the scholars and attend the conference presentations.
You might also be interested in…
Anemoi (“The Winds”) is New College’s journal of pre-modern studies. Students participate as editors, reviewers and contributors with content covering the classical, medieval and early modern periods.