Victorian Universities' Medieval and Renaissance Seminar

Santa Maria Novella, Florence (Photograph: Andrew Stephenson)
Santa Maria Novella, Florence
(Photograph: Andrew Stephenson)

Convenor Professor Charles Zika, School of Historical Studies

This is an interdisciplinary seminar group which meets on an occasional basis to hear papers by visiting and local academics and also organises day and half-day seminars. It originated in 1969 as the Victorian Universities’ Joint Seminar in Medieval and Early Modern European History, a group of historians from Melbourne, Monash and Latrobe, with Ian Robertson as its convenor. In 1970 it changed its name to Victorian Universities’ Medieval and Renaissance Seminar. It subsequently became interdisciplinary, drew on an audience from outside as well as from within the universities, and its convenors rotated among the three universities.

For further details and to be added to the email list, email the convenor, Charles Zika.

Previous seminars for 2008

Tuesday 28 October - Dr Susan Marti

The Virgin's Bare Breast: Gender Roles in the Imagery of the Afterworld

In the late medieval religious mentality of Northern Europe, the Virgin played an important role in the process of salvation and redemption. Her help and her intercession provided protection against a severe God. Mary, acting as a mother of piety, faces God the Father, or Christ as the king of justice. Such “division of labor” reveals a dualistic conception of law and mercy in late medieval Christian thought, combined with gender-related connotations. From a theological viewpoint, Christ alone provides redemption and salvation; the Virgin always acts as mediator, without any agency of her own. Texts and images intended mostly for lay people and female religious, however, tend to enhance the Virgin’s power. My contribution analyzes German and Flemish images from the 14th to the 16th c. and concentrates on the subtle differences in the depictions of Mary and her partly naked body depending on different cultural and social functions of these images and on the status of their viewer.

Dr. Susan Marti is Curator at the Historical Museum, Bern (Switzerland) and has been responsible for curating various exhibitions including most recently “Duke Charles the Bold (1433-1477): Art, war and courtly culture” which will travel to Bruges and Vienna in 2009. She has also published extensively on various aspects of gender in late-medieval art. Her most recent publications are ‘Sisters in the Margins? Scribes and Illuminators in the Scriptorium of Paradies near Soest: An Introduction’in Jeffrey F. Hamburger (ed.), Leaves from Paradise: The Cult of John at the Dominican Convent of Paradies bei Soest (Cambridge, 2008) and Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Susan Marti (eds.), Crown and Veil: Female Monasticism in the Middle Ages, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

We shall be going to dinner after the seminar. If you would like to attend, please email or phone Megan Cassidy-Welch on 8344 5977 or

Wednesday 3 September - Professor Albrecht Classen

Widowhood and Women's Position in Late-Medieval Society

Although misogyny exerted a strong influence throughout the entire Middle Ages, when it came to widowhood the situation seems to have been very different. Many late-medieval poets addressed this issue and presented amazing images of powerful, highly intelligent and also emotional, altogether very impressive female figures. This talk will use an interdisciplinary approach, drawing from English, French, German and Italian examples.

Dr. Albrecht Classen is a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of German Studies, University of Arizona. He is the author of numerous books, over 400 articles and more than 1500 reviews on medieval and early modern culture, literature and history. His most recent monographs are The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process (New York: Palgrave, 2007) and The Power of a Woman's Voice in Medieval and Early Modern Literature (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2007).

Previous seminars for 2007

Professor Emeritus Peter Matheson

Coarse Talk about the Sublime: Vernacular Rhetoric in the Popular Reformation

The humanist, reformist and utopian programmes of early sixteenth-century Europe triggered the revival of classical languages, an efflorescence of vernacular languages, as well as some remarkable reflection on the nature of rhetoric, translation and ‘universal language’. Erasmus, More, Luther, Calvin - the usual suspects - were not the sole players in this development. The topsy-turvy, ‘upside down world’ of radicals such as Thomas Müntzer is also mirrored in the stretch and strain of the ambitious and consciously anti-aesthetic rhetoric of the early popular Reformation.

Peter Matheson, a Research Associate of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, Otago University, was Principal of Theological Hall, Ormond College, as well as Principal Fellow of the Department of History, before his retirement in 2004. He is the author of more than a dozen monographs and editions, as well as numerous articles. These include The Collected Works of Thomas Müntzer (1988, 1993); The Rhetoric of the Reformation (1997, 2004); The Imaginative World of the Reformation (2000, 2002); (ed) A People’s History of Christianity, vol. 5, Reformation Christianity (2006).

Tuesday 29 May 2007 - Deanna Shemek

Deanna Shemek (Professor of Italian & Comparative Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz) is a well-known researcher on Italian Renaissance Ferrara and Mantua. Her books include Ladies Errant: Wayward Women and Social Order in Early Modern Italy (Duke University Press, 1998) and (edited with Dennis Looney) Phaethon's Children: The Este Court and Its Culture in Early Modern Ferrara (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 2005).

What sort of document or monument is constituted by the familiar letter when it not only is clearly false but goes so far as to thematize and display its own deceptiveness? What sort of 'given image' (to echo Jacques Le Goff) do openly mendacious letters aim to impose on discerning readers, and how do they carry out this aim? My paper will suggest a partial response to these questions by examining two types of deceitful letters contrived by perhaps the most prolific female letter writer of the Italian Renaissance, Isabella d'Este, marchesa of Mantua (1474-1539). Counterfeit letters in several instances played a critical role in Isabella's management of politically threatening circumstances. For readers today, they furnish evidence not only of the marchesa's discursive dexterity, but also of her sophisticated and ironic understanding of the 'truth value' ascribed to written communications. Moreover, Isabella's manipulation of perception through the careful orchestration of false letter writing even went so far on some occasions as to become a game, a comic theater where her power over her subjects, over the perception of the truth, and over human emotions could be staged purely as spectacle.

Tuesday 6 March 2007 - Elizabeth Kent

Narratives of Male Violence From Evidence of Male Witchcraft: Suffolk, 1625

Dr Elizabeth Kent completed her PhD on Male Witchcraft in Essex and New England in 2003. Her most recent publication is 'Masculinity and Male Witches in Old and New England, 1593-1680,' History Workshop Journal, 60 (2005), 69-92. This paper relates to the book for which she has a contract with Brepols and is preparing for publication in 2008: Male Witchcraft in the English Atlantic World.

Liza writes of her paper:

This paper draws attention to the rather  rudimentary historiographical discussion regarding masculine perpetrators of violent crime, despite their ubiquity in early modern English legal sources. It  suggests two things: firstly, that a cultural history of masculine perpetration of crime is essential to understanding the actual and ideological centrality of  violence in gender identity formation in early modern England; and secondly,  that this has significant implications for accounts of masculinity in early  modern English communities.

Previous seminars for 2006

Tuesday 23 May 2006 - Brian Levack

The Murder of Janet Cornfoot: Witchcraft and the Law in Early Modern Scotland

Brian Levack is John E. Green Regents Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. His publications include: The Civil Lawyers in England 1603-1641: A Political Study (1973); The Formation of the British State: England, Scotland and the Union 1603-1707 (1987); Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1999); The West: Encounters and Transformations (2004); (ed.) The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2004); (ed.) The Jacobean Union: Six Tracts of 1604 (1985); and author of the very successful The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (1995), soon to appear in a third revised edition.

Brian writes of his paper:
This fascinating case that involves the lynching of Janet Cornfoot at Pittenweem in 1705 started with the prosecution of seven witches for causing the demonic possession of a teenage boy. The trial and the lynching throw a great deal of light on the way in which Scottish witchcraft cases were handled by both local elites and the central government.

Wednesday 17 May 2006 - Elizabeth Kent

Turning Off the Witch: Anne Bodenham

Dr Elizabeth Kent completed her PhD on Male Witchcraft in Essex and New England in 2003. Her most recent publication is "Masculinity and Male Witches in Old and New England, 1593-1680." History Workshop Journal 2005, (60): 69-92. As well as a number of articles, she is now preparing a book manuscript for publication, provisionally entitled Male Witchcraft in the English Atlantic World. Liza is the International Services Officer in English Language and International Services at the University of New England.

Liza writes of her paper:

Anne Bodenham was hanged in Salisbury in 1653, accused of witchcraft and poisoning. In many ways Anne Bodenham, an elderly woman who made her living from finding lost goods and foretelling the future, seems a typical early modern English witch. However, in the pamphlet account of her trial, the witness against her described how Anne employed the magical methodologies of learned natural magic, definitely not typical village witchcraft. In addition, Anne Bodenham claimed to have learnt her art from Dr John Lambe, the 'wizard' employed by the ill-fated George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Accordingly, Anne Bodenham donned spectacles and read invocations from books to summon spirits, at other times she took up pen and ink to write charms on paper. In this presentation I want to examine the ramifications of the reading, writing female witch for our understanding of women, witchcraft and the forms of gendered power in early modern England.