Writing and Wonder: Books, Memory, and Imagination in Early Modern Europe (seminar)

For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a spring 2008 semester seminar.

In the age of the Wunderkammer, writing itself appeared miraculous: “What, then, is more wondrous?” asked a scholar in 1617. The assumption that cultural continuity depends entirely on writing was commonplace, yet infinitely stimulating to the literate imagination. As scholars consolidated philological study and systematically formed great libraries for patrons and institutions, they sifted ancient and medieval literature for heroic narratives about the origin of writing, the invention of arts and sciences, semi-divine authors, magical books, vast libraries, titanic struggles between writing and erasure, memory and oblivion, civilization and savagery. The appeal of this lore was greatest between 1200 and the “Age of Wonder” and had declined steeply by 1800, after scholarly triage redefined many literary wonders as either counterfeits or nonexistent “imaginary” books. Modern and postmodern disciplines of the book and writing—paleography, library science, the material history of the book—emerged as this process discredited antiquarian fantasies. But works like the Attempt at an Introduction to Historia Litteraria Antediluviana, that is, A History of Scholars and Scholarship Before the Flood (1709) are significant for interpreting scholarship, historical counterfeit, fiction, parody, and visual arts in the early modern period. Case studies may include late medieval encyclopedists, Quattrocento humanists, Renaissance compilers (Polydore Vergil, Ravisius Textor, et al.), canonical authors such as Rabelais, Montaigne, Tasso, Cervantes, Milton, Vico, and Voltaire, and other topics that arise from participants’ research.

Director: Walter Stephens is the Charles S. Singleton Professor of Italian Studies at The Johns Hopkins University. He is author of Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief (2002) and co-editor of Discourses of Authority in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1989) among other publications. He is currently working on early modern counterfeit and the mythology of books and writing.