This past weekend, the UNC-King’s College London collaboration on medieval and early modern studies had its fifth annual meeting with the theme “Old and New Humanism(s).” Dr. David Baker and Dr. Marsha Collins of UNC’s Department of English and Comparative Literature provided faculty guidance for the two-day graduate-student conference, which included keynote speeches by Dr. Whitney Trettien (UNC-Chapel Hill) and Dr. Lucy Munro (King’s College London).
Following the first panels, participants gathered at Wilson Library on Friday afternoon to view an exhibition of materials from the Rare Book Collection and the Health Sciences Library. Mary Learner and Michael Clark, UNC graduate students and co-organizers of the conference, curated a display that complemented the weekend’s theme, which considered medieval and early modern humanism as a movement to recover the classical past and as an exploration of what it means to be human, with reference to humanist inquiry and the role of the humanities today. The selection of texts was designed to showcase the library’s strong holdings of early printing, including the RBC’s Estienne Imprint Collection, as well as to provide exempla of humanism in manuscript and print.
Thirteen items were on view, organized around three essential components of humanism: classical literature, language learning, and scientific inquiry, particularly anatomy. The first focus, classical and literary texts, included books that use scholarly commentary to facilitate readers’ encounters with literature. For instance, a manuscript of Donatus’ commentary on the Aeneid (1465) was near a printed text of the epic from 1492, which included verses surrounded by the commentary of four writers (including Donatus). Guests could compare how a classical literary text and its scholarly apparatus were presented in manuscript and in print, and this promoted discussion about reading literature in the period.
The second focus of the exhibition was the significance of translation and the use of both Latin and the vernacular in humanistic discourse. The display included printed grammars, alphabets, and dictionaries, in a variety of languages such as Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French. A Wycliffite Bible (1425), one of about 235 that survive today, was on display as an example of the manuscript translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into Middle English.
The majority of sixteenth-century language texts in the exhibition were printed by the Estienne family, scholar-printers who edited multilingual texts and dictionaries for specific professions, such as law or medicine.
Finally, the third section included medical texts that emphasized the role of illustration and innovation in the early modern investigation of the human body. Among the anatomy books was a first edition of De humani corporis fabrica libri septem by Andreas Vesalius (1543) that has a number of illustrations colored by hand. These can be viewed online in a new electronic resource: [http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/vesalius/id/147]
The side-by-side comparison of woodcut illustrations in Vesalius’s and Charles Estienne’s anatomies with engravings in Bartolomeo Eustachi’s editions allowed viewers to see variations in details as rendered by different print technologies. Eustachi’s Opuscula anatomica also contrasted in its use of grids around illustrations, to provide coordinates for locating specific anatomical features.
Of course, the lines between the three categories are by no means absolute in humanist study, which emerged from conversations about the materials. Classical poetry and grammars were integral to language learning, and print increasingly made medical and literary knowledge available in the vernacular. And both dictionaries and anatomies relied upon classical authorities. The overlap between these categories served as a reminder of the variety within humanist interests and of the multiple interpretations of humanism, and the selection facilitated an energetic discussion about these topics. The rare books on display are just a few of the many medieval and early modern texts that scholars may consult at UNC to understand better the explorations of being human in the period.
Mary Learner is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC. Her research focuses on early modern literature, book history, and digital humanities. She also serves as a Project Assistant for the William Blake Archive.