Medieval and Renaissance Center, New York University, April 4–5, 2019
Secrecy and Openness in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
David Nirenberg (University of Chicago)
Paula Findlen (Stanford University)
The medieval and Renaissance world was replete with secrets. Among them were mysteries of faith, the arcana of the state, the closely guarded trade secrets of guilds, the occult qualities of the natural world, or the so-called “secrets of women.” These and other forms of arcane knowledge were a source of both fascination and fear. Indeed, the desire for revelation and discovery was accompanied—and held in check—by warnings against curiosity and divulgation. State and Church went to great lengths to define and guard forbidden knowledge; practitioners of secret sciences often considered secrecy an ethical duty or even a ‘gift of god.’ Shrouded in a rhetoric of concealment and sometimes ‘written between the lines,’ the secrets of former times can be difficult for scholars to unlock. But at the same time this body of arcane knowledge from the past opens up rich opportunities to reflect on the dialectic of secrecy and openness—and how the notion of good knowledge as secret knowledge has been challenged and transformed over time.