Early Modern Circle

Pinturicchio, Libreria Piccolomini, Duomo, Sienna
(Photograph: Andrew Stephenson)

The Early Modern Circle is an interdisciplinary seminar open to interested students, academics and researchers.  The Circle meets on the third Monday of the month, during semester, at 6:15.  Unless noted otherwise, meetings will be conducted in the William Macmahon Ball Theatre, Old Arts.


Catherine Kovesi

Jenny Spinks

Matthew Champion

To be added to the mailing list, please email Andrew Stephenson.

Programme for 2023

20 March

Ines Jahudka,  University of Melbourne

Plague, Homicide and Statistics: London's "Searchers of the Dead", 1590–1830

For almost 250 years, causes of death in London parishes were determined by local laywomen.  Named “The Searchers of the Dead”, these women were initially created as part of governmental attempts to contain sixteenth-century plague outbreaks.  They were charged with examining victim’s bodies for signs of the contagion and reporting their findings to parochial authorities.  However, it was not long before parishioners were calling the women to examine any dead body and determine a cause of death.

Several historians have examined the Searchers as a social authority.  However, given their role in determining a cause of death, can homicide trial records reveal more about the Searchers’ role in legal medicine and the judicial system?  How did they interact with their community, with medical practitioners and with the legal institution itself?  Finally, how did their role reflect wider cultural movements such as the professionalisation and commodification of medicine?

Ines Jahudka is a second-year PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Fellow at the University of Melbourne.  She was the 2021 recipient of the Hansen Scholarship in History, as well as the Felix Raab award for her undergraduate essay on European musical tone and globalisation.  Her doctoral research expands upon her honours thesis and explores the influence of laypeople in medico-legal decision-making processes following sudden or suspicious deaths in eighteenth-century England.  Ines seeks to place the logistics of the post-mortem decision-making process within social and cultural understandings of death, medicine and justice.

17 April

Dr Gerhard Wiesenfeldt, University of Melbourne

Canal Boats in a Very Dutch Space: The Life World of Christiaan Huygens and the Relativity of Motion

Christiaan Huygens’ treatise De motu corporum ex percussione (On the Motion of Colliding Bodies, 1705) is widely considered to be a key work in the development of the classical principle of relativity, the idea that physical laws are independent of the system of reference used to describe motion. Central to Huygens’ approach was a thought experiment contrasting two observers involved in the same experiment, one moving on a boat, the other standing on an embankment.

This talk will relate Huygens’ research to Dutch canal boat travel. Since the middle of the seventeenth century the trekvaart system had provided a reliable means of passenger transportation. Within a few decades, this system displayed core elements of modern mass travel associated with the expansion of the railroad. The central argument of this talk is that the experience of space in the canal boat travel corresponded with Huygens abstract conceptualisation of space in his work on the relativity of motion. In turn, the trekvaart system was embedded in a much older tradition of water management and reconstruction of space in the Low Countries.

Gerhard Wiesenfeldt is a lecturer for History of Science in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. He has worked extensively on the history of physical sciences in the Dutch Republic as well as on the role of experimental sciences at early modern universities. His main research project is focussed on tracing the interrelation between practical mathematics and academic philosophy at the University of Leiden from 1600-1800. One aspect of this focus leads to a study of the epistemological role of family networks in early modern academia.

15 May

Jorgina Català, University of Melbourne

Concealed from the Eyes of the Banquet’s Guests: The Hidden Officers of the Mouth in the Household of Ercole II d'Este

Zoom meeting: Contact Catherine Kovesi c.kovesi@unimelb.edu.au for the link.

This paper is drawn from a comprehensive study of an unexplored aspect of the court of Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (1534–1559), that is, the roles, duties, and organisation of employees known collectively as the “officers of the mouth”; officials devoted to food-related professions inside the Duke’s household. This talk will analyse the contribution these officers made to the efficiency and economic growth of the Duke’s court. Traveling from food markets, wholesalers, and specialist suppliers to the court’s food pantries, credenze and kitchens, the internal structure and characteristics of the "officers of the mouth" will be unfold.

In this way, the contribution of the officers of the mouth to the greatest administrative and economic efficiency that occurred under Ercole will be analysed. The seminar will argue that the ways these officials managed supplies, mastered the art of storing and preserving foodstuffs, and adhered to cleaning and hygiene regimes played a key role in making Ercole II’s court an exemplary one, and contributed to showcasing the duke’s authority over his courtiers and other Italian and international court.

Jorgina Català Jarque submitted her Phd thesis in 2023 at the University of Melbourne. She was the recipient in 2018 of the Richard Gunter Bursaries, the Alma Hansen Scholarship and the Giuseppina
Patiti Tahiri Scholarship, which allowed her to travel to France and Italy to undertake her research. Focused on Food History in the Italian Renaissance, her thesis investigated the roles, duties, activities,
and management of the ‘officers of the mouth’ in the household of Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, (r. 1534-1559). Her work illustrates for the first time the internal logistics of this ducal household while
also revealing understudied administrative structures of a mid-sixteenth-century Italian court.

21 August

Dr Ruby Lowe, University of California, Berkeley

The Speech Without Doors: John Milton and the Tradition of Print Oratory

In seventeenth-century England, parliamentary speeches flowed out the doors of the House of Commons
providing the public with virtual access to closed parliamentary debates. Not only were MPs' speeches
widely distributed in print form, but during the flood of print publications in 1640s London, non-office bearers began to publish speeches addressed to Parliament. This paper will outline how John Milton incorporated the popular English practice of publishing parliamentary speeches with the long Humanist and Classical traditions of circulating speeches in written form. The print oratory of the 1640s intervened in the most important debates of the period regarding censorship, religion, and popular sovereignty, and provided a new model of political communication for England.

Ruby Lowe is a postdoctoral fellow at The University of California Berkeley and writes about canonical English literature and popular print culture in the seventeenth-century Atlantic world. She is currently completing her first monograph on Milton and “print oratory", and researching a new project on Andrew Marvell, cheap print and public politics of imperialism in the seventeenth-century Atlantic.

18 September

6.15 Arts West North Wing, Fifth Floor, Room 553

Dr Miles Pattenden, Australian Catholic University

Growth and Erasure of the Papal Beard, 1500–1700

The growth and then erasure of a papal beard in the years from 1510 to 1700 is one of the more curious phenomena in the history of the early modern papacy. First Julius II, then Clement VII, and every pope subsequent to him cultivated facial hair. Yet Clement XI abandoned the beard, and no pope has worn one since. This paper sets Julius’ and the two Clements’ decisions in context, exploring why a fashion for beards persisted for so long in papal Rome, and how it intersected contemporary understandings of masculinity, religiosity, individuality, and canon law.

Miles Pattenden is Senior Research Fellow in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the Australian Catholic University. He is author of Pius IV and the Fall of the Carafa (Oxford, 2013) and Electing the Pope in Early Modern Italy (Oxford, 2017).

16 October

Professor Véronique Duché, University of Melbourne

How to Produce a Critical Edition of a Sixteenth-Century Novel in the Digital Era

Previous Papers