The Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies (CRS) works with an international consortium of universities to serve scholars in the fields of late medieval, Renaissance, and early modern studies. Like our current times, these periods of history were well-known for technological innovation, global power shifts, and devastating pandemics.
In the face of COVID-19, the center quickly adapted its programming to virtual platforms and created brand-new initiatives to give scholars extra support. Here, we’ll introduce you to four aspects of the CRS team’s work, from adaptation to innovation, and the unexpected opportunities they’ve created.
I. Improvise, Adapt, Overcome: Conferences Go Virtual
The center held its long-planned conference, “Music, Theory, and their Sources,” in June. The event would have hosted 30 participants had it been held in-person as originally planned, but instead drew a virtual crowd of 255 scholars on Zoom.
CRS Director Lia Markey and her team are thrilled.
“Sessions were lively with numerous questions, and the final keynote beautifully married the issue of theory and practice with a close look at an early source,” Markey reports. “The highlight for me was David Douglass’s (Newberry Consort) performance and talk that opened the conference, where he provided a history of violin playing in the early modern period, even demonstrating different ways of holding the instrument and playing a bit of early music on camera.”
Thanks to the success of the June conference, CRS professional development seminars are now in full-swing online. September will feature a workshop on how to engage the general public with premodern topics, and October will see both another conference, this one on “Food and the Book: 1300-1800,” and a symposium on speech as protest in the early modern world. All of these events will be held virtually with some activities pre-recorded, such as collection presentations, and others presented live, such as talks including live Q&A.
II. New Initiative: The CRS Virtual Reading Group
Launched in March and hosted every other week on Zoom through June, the CRS Virtual Reading Group tapped experts from the CRS consortium to lead multidisciplinary discussions on the history of the book. Scholars have been eager to take part. “It’s not just that people are attending, but that people are also writing and calling us afterwards, wanting to get involved,” explains CRS Assistant Director Chris Fletcher.
The Virtual Reading Group gives scholars space to engage in rigorous discussion and build community across boundaries physical, political, and medical. So far, participants have joined from five continents and every meeting has reached capacity.
“I know that this is no small task and it is rather uncharted territory,” one participant wrote, “so I want to say that you are doing brilliantly! Looking forward to future sessions.”
III. New Initiative: The CRS Premodern Writing Support Network
The CRS Premodern Writing Support Network is another born-virtual initiative, launched in April. According to CRS Program Manager Becky Fall, “We saw that people were struggling with writing, and we wanted to meet that need.” Within ninety minutes of the program’s launch, registration surpassed the center’s goal.
The network helps scholars structure their writing time and set realistic goals. For some, that means submitting a full book manuscript. For others, it means finding twenty minutes to brainstorm while wrangling kids during quarantine.
“I did an oral history over the phone and found some secondary sources online that I didn’t think I would get,” one member reported during a weekly check-in. “I managed to do three writing sessions this week… I credit our virtual coffee klatch with encouraging me and moving me forward, even though it is just baby steps.”
In addition to the weekly coffee klatch, the program organized weekly check-ins with accountability partners and affinity groups to build community among scholars facing similar challenges. Scholars of Color, Parents and Caregivers, and Early Career Researchers are just a few of the affinity groups established so far.
The CRS team is currently looking to expand program offerings to include virtual colloquia, writing workshops, and more. They hope to reopen network registration later this year.
IV. “Learning from Premodern Plagues”
Although CRS primarily serves consortium-affiliated scholars at the graduate level and above, the team has embraced this moment of virtual engagement to create broadly accessible programming.
“Learning from Premodern Plagues” is a series of three- to five-minute videos that use objects from the sixth through eighteenth centuries to tell stories of particular moments in plague history. It’s an ideal format for use in classrooms, virtual and physical, and is available via YouTube. Over 4,700 viewers have already tuned in.
Watch episode one, The Perils of Reopening: The Plague in Marseille, 588 CE, to learn about a lockdown lifted too soon, or watch episode two, Plague Broadsides: Or, How a Dog Save 17th-Century Rome, for confirmation that dogs are, in fact, man’s best friend. Episode three, Disease, Inequality and Resilience in Sixteenth-Century Mexico, explores the resonances of the huey cocoliztli (the great pestilence) epidemic that swept through Mexico in 1576. The most recent episode, Surviving the Black Death, explores the impact of the Black Death on people’s daily lives.
The support of donors like you allows us to create and provide resources like these to scholars free-of-charge. Thank you for being the Newberry’s partner in building this thriving community of scholars.
This story is part of the Newberry’s Donor Digest, Summer 2020. In this newsletter the Newberry shares with its donors exciting stories of the success and innovation made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.