A Chronicle of the New England Renaissance Conference [1]

by Christopher Carlsmith, Meghan Chapman, and Derek Winslow

Rev. 8/22/13

Founded in the spring of 1939, the New England Renaissance Conference (NERC) is the oldest scholarly association in the U.S. dedicated to the study of the Renaissance. Given NERC’s lack of institutional structure—it has no constitution, no membership fees, no secretary, no fixed location and virtually no archive—it is remarkable that it has survived nearly seventy-five years. Despite such limitations, the NERC has played a significant role in promoting and disseminating scholarship about the Renaissance, and its history is one that deserves closer scrutiny.[2] The NERC has professional “siblings” in the form of other professional societies founded later (e.g., the South-Central Renaissance Society (founded c. 1951), the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Conference (founded 1956), or the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association (founded 1968). The NERC also enjoys a long-standing relationship with the Renaissance Society of America, founded in 1954 and today the leading organization in the world for the study of the Renaissance. Contrary to popular myth, the NERC was not the parent organization of the RSA, even if the NERC’s origins pre-date those of the RSA. While there may have been a bit of overlap in the identity of early members, the two organizations were independent of each other from the very beginning.[3]

The origins of NERC can be traced to 1937, when the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) convened a conference of scholars interested in establishing a more formal association centered around the Renaissance. Leicester Bradner of Brown University was at the heart of this correspondence, and he would remain the leader of the NERC for decades to come. Bradner and his colleagues rejected the idea of a new national society modeled upon the Medieval Academy of America, recommending instead a larger, more informal committee.[4] In 1938 the ACLS created a five-member Committee on Renaissance Studies, which would mutate into various forms (and with various names) until it ultimately morphed into the RSA in 1954.

In the spring of 1939, Bradner worked closely with scholars at Yale, Harvard, and Brown, and with the ACLS Committee, to found the NERC as a regional organization dedicated to promoting the study of the Renaissance. To the best of our knowledge, no founding documents exist to illuminate the motivations, or even the identities, of these earliest members. From the beginning, NERC eschewed most of the trappings of bureaucracy: it charged no membership fee, it published no journal, it maintained no minutes, and it had no formal officers. Its sole goal appears to have been the organization of an annual conference, so that members could share their most recent research with each other. Particularly in recent decades, this commitment to academic minimalism stands in contrast to the impressive achievements of other Renaissance societies, which have established peer-reviewed journals, regular newsletters, and attractive websites.

Bradner and his colleague Harcourt Brown of the French Department organized NERC’s first conference at Brown University in April 1940. The speakers were Harcourt Brown on science, William G. Constable on Art, Wallace Ferguson on history, and Paul Oskar Kristeller on letters. One could hardly ask for a more impressive roster of scholars for an inaugural conference! We know that Kristeller’s contribution, “The Study of the Philosophies of the Renaissance,” appeared in print in the Journal of the History of Ideas the following year.[5] Sadly no extant program exists for this event, so we do not know the format of the conference, nor can we guess at the number or identity of other attendees.

The second meeting of the NERC was at Connecticut College in 1941, while the third was at Yale in 1942. Harvard hosted the fourth meeting in 1943, and in 1944 the conference returned to Brown. The 1943 program specifies that the conference, held at Harvard’s Houghton Library, “is designed to bring together workers in varied disciplines in the period of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries”.[6] A group dinner at the Harvard Faculty Club on Friday evening was followed by two talks: Theodore Spencer of Harvard on “Shakespeare and Intellectual History”, and Howard Mumford Jones of Harvard on the topic “American Origins and the Renaissance.” Accommodation was offered at the Hotel Statler in Boston for the princely sum of $4.40 per person (the conference organizers noted parenthetically “Sorry, that is the best we could do.”) Saturday morning witnessed another pair of talks: Harry T. Levin of Harvard spoke on “Jonson’s Metempsychosis” while book collector and investor Imre de Vegh of Washington, D.C. described the career of the sixteenth-century Hungarian humanist and book collector Johannes Sambucus. Following the morning talks, the entire group adjourned to a buffet luncheon at a private house on Garden Street, and then reconvened at Houghton Library in mid-afternoon for a concert of Renaissance music given by Erwin Bodky and musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

We have no record of the conferences held in the immediate post-war period from 1945-1948, nor do we have extant copies of the program again until 1954 when the annual meeting convened at Wellesley College in mid-November.[7] Three of the five speakers were from Harvard, including art historian Millard Meiss and literary scholar Herbert Dieckmann, as well as Latin professor Dorothy Robathan of Wellesley who spoke about  “Renaissance Reactions to a Literary Forgery of the Thirteenth Century.” An exhibition of various editions of English Renaissance poetry in the college library, and a chamber music concert in the evening, provided entertainment for the conference attendees.

In 1955 the conference moved to nearby Tufts University under the direction of Harold Blanchard. The program was similar, featuring three talks on Friday afternoon followed by cocktails, an exhibition of Renaissance paintings, a group dinner at the faculty club, and a theatre performance. An undergraduate theatre group called Pen, Paint, and Pretzels offered a “Jacobean comedy burlesque” in three acts. This play, first performed at the private theater in Blackfriars [London] by the Children of the Queen’s Revels sometime between 1607 and 1610, was described in the playbill as “a pastiche of current popular romantic plays and fiction…[that] also pokes fun at the playgoing tastes and manners of London’s rising merchant class.” The conference struck a more serious note on Saturday morning with a talk by Paul Oskar Kristeller about apocryphal sources of Renaissance Platonism, and a report from Myron Gilmore (who would assume the presidency of NERC in 1959) on the Sept. 1955 meeting of the International Congress of Historical Sciences and on the proposal to create an edition of the Medici correspondence in Florence (the eventual Medici Archive Project).

The 1956 conference moved west to Amherst College for a mid-October meeting. The focus remained on the traditional fields of Italian history and art, as well as English literature, with talks by Leona Gabel (Smith College), Raymond de Roover (Boston College), Frederick Lane (Johns Hopkins), Leicester Bradner (Brown), and Caesar Barber (Amherst College). The Amherst Glee Club offered a brief program of Renaissance choral music. Connecticut College hosted the 1957 conference in New London, with a program that turned toward religion and humanism: Richard Douglas (Amherst College) spoke about the Christian humanist Jacopo Sadoleto and Wilhelm Pauck of the Union Theological Seminary presented his findings about Martin Luther’s biblical exegesis. The Palestrina Society of Connecticut College sang the “Quareamus cum pastoribus’ Mass by Cristobal Morales after an evening visit to view Renaissance drawings in the college’s own collection.[8]

Dartmouth College hosted the NERC for second time in 1958 with an interdisciplinary panel of medieval and Renaissance topics. Vernon Hall Jr. of Dartmouth opened the Friday session with an exhibition of Renaissance medals, followed by a lecture on Trecento music by his colleague Royal MacDonald and then a talk on “The Genesis of ‘Barococo’, a German Style” by S Lane Faison Jr. (Williams College). The following morning witnessed another contribution from Paul Kristeller, this time on Renaissance Manuscripts in Eastern Europe, and a talk by Stephen Gilman (Harvard) about the metamorphosis of medieval death imagery in the Coplas of fifteenth-century Spaniard Jorge Manrique.

We know from Edward Cranz’s history of the NERC that Leicester Bradner remained the tireless organizer of the organization from 1939-1959, and that he organized a twentieth-anniversary conference at Brown in 1959 featuring the original four speakers from the 1940 conference. At this commemoration of two decades of NERC, all four scholars—Harcourt Brown, William Constable, Paul Kristeller, Wallace Ferguson—spoke on the theme of “Progress in Renaissance Scholarship in the Last Twenty Years”.  The 1959 conference was a watershed in several ways. NERC had survived two decades and was now flanked by both the RSA and other regional Renaissance societies.  This conference marked the last time that Leicester Bradner would be at the helm of NERC. In terms of archival records, the 1960s saw the beginning of printed programs and the slow decline of the typescript conference program.

[part 2: 1959-1969]

[1] This account is intended to provide a narrative summary of the history of NERC in chronological fashion, from 1939 to present. It is based in part upon the conference programs in the NERC Archive Project, which were digitized in October 2012 and are available elsewhere on the NERC website. Corrections and suggestions are eagerly welcomed by the authors; please contact Christopher_Carlsmith@uml.edu.

[2] An analytical history of the NERC written by Christopher Carlsmith, based upon presidential correspondence, conference programs, and other material in the NERC Archive, is currently under review for publication.

[3] F. Edward Cranz, “Fifty years of the New England Renaissance Conference.” Renaissance Quarterly 42/4 (Winter 1989): 749-759. This point was made emphatically by Paul Oskar Kristeller in repeated correspondence to Cranz in the late 1980s.

[4] Cranz, 751, summarizes the early history of NERC in an amusing and discursive manner but with minimal documentation.

[5] Paul O. Kristeller and John H. Randall, Jr. “The Study of the Philosophies of the Renaissance,” Journal of the History of Ideas 2 (1941): 449-496, as cited in Philosophy and Humanism: Renaissance Essays in Honor of Paul Oskar Kristeller, ed. Edward P. Mahoney (Leiden: Brill, 1976), 547.

[6] New England Renaissance Conference Archive, Box 1, 1943 program. The choice of the word “workers” here is an interesting one, rather than “scholars” or “researchers.”

[7] Oddly, Smith College hosted the NERC in October 1954, for which we have no documentation, followed by Wellesley one month later in November 1954.

[8] A thorough summary of the 1957 meeting was recorded in Renaissance News 10/4 (Winter 1957): 223-4, available at <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2858071&gt;.

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