Proseminar in Medieval & Renaissance Studies

Title: "Materials, Matter, and Materiality in the Middle Ages" Course Description: The theme of the seminar, materiality, is concerned with the tangible stuff of medieval lives, with those materials -animal parts, vegetable fibers, metal, stones, clay, wood, that were used and processed into finished objects -comestibles, clothing, homes and monuments, artifacts and ornaments, images and the media of written and visual communication. As they emerged from raw materials, things affected social relations and cultural perception, enabling action and provoking reaction. We will consider, for example, the effects of pageantry, with its elaborate display of culinary, heraldic, and sartorial splendor, in asserting and maintaining chivalric claims to dominance. We will examine recent archeological findings to understand the ways accessories to clothing enabled peasants to resist and re-fashion the identities imposed upon them by medieval elites. Objects, thus, shaped history, yet historians tend to write history based upon texts. Avoiding such an exclusive dependency requires methodological reflection. Stimulated by the work of social scientists such as Jane Bennett, Alfred Gell, Tim Ingold, Carl Knappett, Bruno Latour, Dan Miller, and Bjrnar Olsen, lively debates are currently taking place about the theory, goals, and relevance of material culture studies, and we will develop our own perspectives on the issues at stake. Assessing the participation, meaning, and agency of things in pre-modern lives forces one to question boundaries so as to gain a newer historical perspective on such relationships as those between humans and animals (and nature), humans and technology, body and soul, images and memory, the animate and the inanimate. Our exploration of the connections between human and non-human environments will consider the appropriation of animal skins in the production of writing; the extension of human personhood via the use of animal power, tools, weapons, images, and memory aids; human involvement with a living landscape of holy trees, sacred groves and springs, and powerful stars; attitudes toward idols and automata; the perception of art as vibrant matter. Though modern theory inspires present-day archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and art historians to seek agency in a network of social and material relationships, medieval intellectuals were dubious about belief in the power of matter. In fact, for many, the materiality of the human body was suspicious, as was knowledge that depended upon the mediation of the senses. Such ‘carnal’ knowledge was ascribed to minorities (Jews) and alleged dissenters (magi, witches). Materiality in the Middle Ages was a philosophical topic fraught with ambivalence, imbued with a potential for violence.

An introduction to the primary materials, reference works, journals, and research methodologies that pertain to the field of Medieval and Renaissance Studies together with an introduction to its sub-disciplines, including religion, psychology and philosophy, secular art and literature, architecture, historiography, economics and trade, science, translation studies, and the history of the book. The course is team taught.






Fall 2022

Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak
R: 9:30 AM - 12:15 PM KJCC 717