Statement on the Value of Renaissance and Premodern Studies

May 30, 2024
By News Updates

The UK’s Higher Education sector has made an alarming number of redundancy announcements in recent months and years. Taking place against a backdrop of negative and erroneous publicity about the value of the arts and humanities, these redundancies have disproportionately affected scholars in premodern studies. Redundancies are presented as a solution to the financial challenges that the sector undoubtedly faces, but they do not address the complex and long-term structural problems in our education funding. Such redundancies can only lead to an impoverishment of our engagement with the histories that make us and continue to influence our lives, as well as a worsening of working conditions for those scholars who contribute to this knowledge. Universities that have implemented compulsory redundancies fail in their commitment to the advancement of knowledge and critical thinking, which may lead them to suffer irreparable reputational damage and a worsening of the financial challenges they seek to mitigate. We note the recent British Academy Manifesto and previous statement by Professor Julia Black, President of the British Academy, regarding the urgent need to review how government engages with universities. We welcome this reaffirmation of the value of the arts and humanities, which are, as Professor Black writes, ‘critical to a thriving liberal democracy’. We would add that thriving liberal democracies need chronological depth as well as disciplinary breadth.

An institution which commits to understanding society avoids shrinking the parameters of historical understanding that shape our conception of the present, the familiar, and the immediate. We believe students from all backgrounds should have the opportunity to widen their knowledge and to participate in critical reflection on premodern studies, having access to the alternative perspectives and thought, and the contingencies and possibilities they hold. We note with concern that recent university job-cuts have particularly affected those universities that traditionally serve underprivileged communities, thus limiting opportunity for those students and communities who would benefit most from higher education. Working age graduates have higher employment rates than non-graduates and, in 2022, earned on average £11,500 a year over non-graduates; higher education thus serves a vital role in creating opportunity, especially for those from underprivileged backgrounds, not least those students located in deprived regions, where the HE sector’s estimated contribution of at least £116 billion to the UK economy plays a vital role. We should broaden rather than shrink horizons, both disciplinary and chronologically, in these institutions as part of our commitment to an inclusive citizenship.

Where we start our story shapes what we see. Reducing our chronological scope to the modern period risks creating a shared assumption that the world as it was in 1800 was normal and normative. Rather, the premodern world held possibilities and imagined futures: the physical and metaphysical systems that were actively built and contested then continue to inform the world in the present. Cutting the premodern from curricula does the opposite of decolonising, despite claims to the contrary. In 2021, for example, the University of Leicester made redundant all the medievalists and some early modernists in its English department and claimed that these cuts would enable the institution to decolonise the curriculum, prioritising modules on race, ethnicity, sexuality, diversity, and employability. A similar pattern has followed at other institutions across the UK and beyond. Such claims fail to take into account the importance of this period for the forging of empire and ideas of race, as shown by revealing projects such as Renaissance Skin, TIDE, Medicine and the Making of Race, RaceB4Race, Medieval and Early Modern Orients and MACMORRIS. We strongly support the need for students and scholars to think critically and deeply about the ongoing influence of these formative early models as part of a diverse curriculum.

The arts and humanities are central to a thriving democracy and our society needs a critical, thoroughly researched and open understanding of the premodern to combat prejudice and misinformation. Nowhere is this more visible than in the misappropriation of Old Norse symbolism and ‘Conquistadores’ by the extreme right: the premodern is part of our mental landscape, and a deep understanding of our past is vital to challenging extremism. Separate from this, there is a broader appetite for genuinely critical study among the general public. For example, projects such as the building of the Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, which has had a major societal benefit and been at the centre of a regeneration and education programme in one of the most deprived boroughs in England, would not have happened without the research of scholars who study the early modern period. Work such as The John Blanke Project shows how scholarship on the premodern enriches our understanding of the diversity of human experience in the past and influences culture and creative practice in the present.

The world pre-1800 continues to speak to the public imagination and is vital to the arts and cultural sector. Scholarship and research in premodern studies features regularly in the mainstream media: radio and television programmes dedicated to topics such as the fourteenth-century plague, European witch trials, and the Norman Conquest, newspaper articles highlighting new discoveries such as John Milton’s notes on Shakespeare and film adaptations of premodern works such as The Green Knight (2021), all attest to ongoing public interest. Historical novels such as Hilary Mantel’s double-Booker-prize-winning Wolf Hall trilogy, which has already been adapted into major screen and stage productions, and significant exhibitions such as Mary Queen of Scots and the Book of Hours and the National Portrait Gallery touring exhibition, The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics attest to how vital premodern studies are to the arts and cultural sector – an industry that contributed £126 billion to the UK economy and employed 2.4 million people in 2022. The arts and cultural sector also influences economic growth in other industries, such as tourism, as illustrated by the Game of Thrones effect, where, between 2011 and 2019, this hugely popular work of fantasy fiction that drew from premodern history and culture attracted an additional 150,000 overnight visitors each year to film locations in Northern Ireland. The public’s interests and society’s needs are unpredictable; who could have foreseen in 2019 that the research of colleagues specialising in the history of the plague could offer hints for controlling disease three hundred and fifty years’ later?  All we can do is ensure our knowledge base remains as deep as it is broad in recognition of the richness of our society and the fickleness of its future.

The arts and humanities in all their rich and expansive variety enable the creative impulses that underpin all human invention and achievement. They also provide the skills in creativity, innovation and critical thinking required in assessing information – skills that are particularly vital at a time when AI and disinformation are pervasive. Collectively, the arts, humanities, and sciences enrich all our lives. We write, as representatives of the main academic organisation in Britain and Ireland dedicated to the study of the Renaissance, to object to the cuts in UKHE and to challenge the wisdom of the arguments used to justify them. We maintain the importance and value of premodern studies not only to academia but to society more broadly. We affirm the significance of premodern studies to any understanding of the principles of equality, social justice and inclusion, and uphold the necessity of teaching critical approaches to premodern studies at UK universities in the interests of creating a stronger, more inclusive, and better-educated society.

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