I am teaching ENGL 358 this fall which is on the books as the English Renaissance course. I believe that I always used the term “early modern” to describe my are of specialization, though I was aware that it was a synonym for Renaissance. In a chapter titled Renaissance/Early Modern Studies for the MLA-published volume Redrawing the Boundaries (written over 20 years ago), Leah Marcus explains the theoretical stakes in choosing the period’s name.
What manner of beast is early modern studies? The scholarly area here characterized under that rubric covers a terrain that is, despite some differences, quite similar to what is often still termed Renaissance studies. The new, or supplementary nomenclanture “early modern” is far more than a mere relabeling, however. To explore the implications of the terminological shift is to encounter an important set of conceptual reconfigurations by which scholars in the are of Renaissance/early modern studies are remapping the field itself. We are moving away from interpreting the period as a time of re-naissance, cultural rebirth, the reawakening of an earlier era conceived of as (in some sense) classic; we are coming to view the period more in terms of elements repeated thereafter, those features of the age that appear to us precursors of our own twentieth century, the modern, the postmodern. (41)
Marcus is clearly on team Early Modern. EM brings with it a focus on interdisciplinarity; effects more than origins; “low” as well as “high” culture; more complicated views of authors, gender, and identity as a whole; and a progressive political focus that examines the fall-out of the period’s colonialism. Marcus admits in the essay’s final paragraph that the new EM studies may be shaping up as just as rigid as its Renaissance forebearer, but its seems that to look at the period the lens of the title Early Modern is to both literally and figuratively look forward. Renaissance is old hat.
On the first day of class we will compare Marcus’s paragraph with a description from a common core lesson plan, a unit from a 12th Grade curriculum, that identifies the period as the Renaissance.
Students consider Renaissance writers’ interest in ancient Greek and Latin literature and myth; their preoccupation with human concerns and life on earth; their aesthetic principles of harmony, balance, and divine proportion; and exceptions to all of these. This leads to a discussion of how literary forms themselves reflect religious, philosophical, and aesthetic principles. As students compare the works of the Renaissance with those of the Middle Ages, they will recognize the overlap and continuity of these periods. In addition, they consider how the outstanding works of the era transcend their time and continue to inspire readers and writers. The English Renaissance of the seventeenth century includes additional works by William Shakespeare. In their essays, students may analyze the ideas, principles, and form of a literary work; discuss how a work bears attributes of both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; discuss convergences of Renaissance literature and arts; or pursue a related topic of interest.
Common Core. Common Core Curriculum Maps in English Language Arts, Grades 9-12 (1).
The description tries to have it both ways. On the one, the period finds its aesthetic ideals in a bygone period. On the other, there is serious continuity between the Renaissance and Medieval periods. This belied by the description’s other focus: the way that “literary forms themselves reflect religious…principles.” An unexplored discontinuity here is the Reformation, a gigantic rift in the Christian church and something not necessarily predicted by the “cultural” rebirth that began in staunchly Catholic Italy.
So where does that leave our discussion?
It seems neither “Renaissance” nor “Early Modern” make room for the indelible effect religion had on the period’s literature. The former title emphasizes resuscitated classical art on behalf of humanism. The latter title emphasizes “constructed identity” and fragmentation that seems a hallmark of post-Enlightenment rationalism. Both try to pull an end-around Christianity. Yet, the period’s most famous poems–The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost–were religious, and the search for a purer religion seems to have had as much effect on the period’s art as did the search for a bygone classical aesthetics or the advent of something not yet Enlightened.
I’ll return to this topic. It’s a crucial one in thinking through the period.