Reflections on SRS2018

August 25, 2018
By Marcus Nevitt, Tom Rutter, James Shaw, Cathy Shrank

Over 230 delegates from all over the world gathered at the University of Sheffield between 3-5 July 2018 for the Society’s eighth biennial conference, some travelling from as far afield as South Korea and Australia, as well as Canada and the USA. The final programme comprised 192 papers delivered over sixty-seven panels, one round-table, four plenary lectures, and two workshops: one allowing delegates the opportunity to trial the AHRC-funded ‘Linguistic DNA’ database; the other, a session on ‘Getting Published’, run by Matthew Frost (Manchester UP), Rebecca Guest (Taylor and Francis), and Tom Rutter (editorial board, Shakespeare). Audience members left the latter with invaluable information about what journals and publishers are looking for; free books (given as prizes in the MUP quiz); and thought-provoking statistics about the ongoing popularity of the printed text in the digital age. Disciplines from the full range of Renaissance studies were represented at the conference: art history, architectural history, literature and language (from various European traditions), music, philosophy, digital humanities, and history of various stripes, from social and economic to cultural history. The topics addressed by papers ranged geographically – from the New World to the Ottoman empire – and chronologically, from the fifteenth to the early eighteenth century: a long, and global, vision of the Renaissance. Plenary lectures were given by Professor Lyndal Roper (Oxford), Professor Feisal Mohamed (CUNY), Professor Emma Smith (Oxford), and Professor Stephen Campbell (Johns Hopkins).

Professor Roper, whose talk was also the annual SRS lecture, spoke on ‘Portraits of Luther: Then and Now’. In this, she demonstrated the significance of Luther’s visual image to the spread of his ideas, and in particular, the importance of his long-term collaboration with the painter and print-maker Lucas Cranach, Luther’s near neighbour in Wittenberg. Professor Roper traced how Luther’s image moved through various phases: steely-eyed monk, bearded outlaw, increasingly jowly scholar and married man (in a series of double portraits with his wife, Katharina von Bora, before her image was displaced by Luther’s pairing with his fellow-Reformer Philip Melancthon), and – finally – by his corpse. Many of these images were crudely executed, but they travelled widely.The lecture culminated with a postscript on portrayals of Luther, five hundred years after the publication of his Ninety-Five Theses: contemporary images which variously depicted Luther as a fist, or as radio chat-show host, flanked by a Cranach-inspired Adam and Eve.

Professor Mohamed’s plenary – ‘Sovereignty Disembodied: Hobbes and Lord Saye’ – took up a question that has figured prominently in debates on early modern political philosophy: the nature and impact of the ‘mechanization of the state’, or the extent to which sovereign power was expressed in ways unattached to the personal authority of the monarch. As two case studies in this phenomenon, he explored the Court of Wards and Liveries and the corporation. Both of these played a significant role in the disparate careers of Thomas Hobbes and William Fiennes, Lord Saye and Seale. In Hobbes’ thought, Professor Mohamed argued, we see a strong impulse to address the perceived absence of feudal dependence on the sovereign, and to adapt political philosophy to a society where obligation often came via contract and corporate association. With his involvement in Providence Island Company, Lord Saye and Seale forged the working relationships vital to Puritan opposition to the king in the Long Parliament. He was also for a time Master of the Court of Wards and Liveries, though defied Charles I’s order to move the court to Oxford. In his career we see Hobbes’ worst fears realized: that disembodied authority could dilute a sense of obligation to the sovereign, with open resistance not far behind.

Professor Smith’s lecture, entitled ‘Whose Renaissance?’, elegantly and provocatively combined historicist scholarship with an urgent emphasis on current priorities. On the one hand, she surveyed the origins of Renaissance Studies as a discipline, highlighting the homophobia expressed by nineteenth-century scholars in response to the work of Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds. The route to academic respectability for those working in our field evidently required the purging of Renaissance Studies of its queer associations. At the same time, however, Professor Smith’s lecture surveyed the present state of academia, post-USS strike and with the TEF impending. It considered the implications of treating scholarship as a vocation, both for academics and for students, and posed difficult questions about what scholars value (and expect students to value) in what they do. This was a deservedly well-received plenary that challenged and informed in equal measure.

Professor Campbell’s plenary, ‘Andrea Mantegna: Painting as Object and as Meta-Object’, was sponsored by the Renaissance Society of America. In it, Professor Campbell treated the conference to a dazzling display of renaissance colour and scholarly critique. Art historians have long regarded Mantegna’s work as pedantic, antiquarian and rule-bound. Ignoring the principles of good composition, his paintings are crowded with a gothic profusion of obscure details. His figures, stiff ‘lapidary men’, are like statues, lacking animation, lost in a cabinet of antique fragments. Yet Mantegna’s paint – like smoke – expresses the interchangeable nature of all matter. The ‘thing-like’ quality of his painting connects to contemporary atomistic ideas, circulating in the poetry of Lucretius, and pessimistic views of the human condition. It is for this reason that his ‘triumphs’ leave a bitter taste, for the passing of all things, where only the divine is stable.

The conference hashtag, #SRS2018, was buzzing: testimony to the rich variety of papers on offer, but also due to the excitement caused by the conference bags, featuring the truly splendid tabby cat from Edward Topsell’s Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (1607), an image reproduced courtesy of the University’s Special Collections (cue many cat-related puns). The sale of ‘variant’ cat bags—complete with typo—raised money for a prize to be awarded for the best paper delivered at the conference by a postgraduate student or Early Career Researcher: the results are to be announced in the early autumn. Many thanks to all those who donated to this fund. The conference organising committee – Tom Leng, Marcus Nevitt, James Shaw, Tom Rutter, Cathy Shrank, and Rachel Stenner, as well as James Cook (before his appointment to a lectureship at the University of Edinburgh) – would also like to thank everyone who helped to make the conference such a success. This includes colleagues in Sheffield (in Special Collections, print and design services, finance, accommodation, catering, portering, and their own departments of English and History) who provided essential practical support; members of the SRS Council for their advice, encouragement, and financial backing; Wiley-Blackwell for sponsoring the first night’s reception at Sheffield’s Winter Gardens; Liz Goodwin, Jamie Graves, Amy Jackson, Cora James, Elena Johnson, and Helen Newsome, who ran the registration desk so efficiently; everyone who volunteered to chair sessions; and, above all, the delegates, for their papers and for creating a supportive environment for intellectual exchange, through contributing to discussions during Q&As and more informally over coffees, lunches, dinners, and drinks. Oh, and thanks also to Gareth Southgate and the England football team, whose World Cup success on the first night – particularly as it involved penalties – was as unexpected as the unbroken sunshine of a nationwide heatwave.

The next SRS conference will take place at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, on 7-9 July, 2020.The Eighth Biennial Conference of the Society for Renaissance Studies took place at the University of Sheffield from 3-5 July 2018. The conference organising committee was comprised of Dr Tom Leng, Dr Marcus Nevitt, Dr James Shaw, Dr Tom Rutter, Prof. Cathy Shrank, and Dr Rachel Stenner (University of Sheffield), as well as Dr James Cook (University of Edinburgh). The SRS conference representative from 2016-18, to whom especial thanks are given, was Prof. Cathy Shrank.