Science and the Humanities in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

  • MedRen Student practicing Archery
    MedRen Student practicing Archery
  • 1st Dinner Seminar
    1st Dinner Seminar
  • Male Student in Armor
    Male Student in Armor
  • Female Student in Amor
    Female Student in Amor
  • Students at National Gallery of Art
    Students at National Gallery of Art
  • Students looking at Rare Books
    Students looking at Rare Books


The men and women of the Middle Ages and Renaissance designed, theorized, and explored the world around them with the same enthusiasm and sophistication as today.  The questions and the ideas that moved them still shape our understanding of the relationships and tensions between science and literature, philosophy and theology, and rhetoric and mathematics.  This cluster introduces students to the roots of our contemporary views about disciplinary and professional boundaries and connections. We will do so by exploring in detail the lives of the professional classes who shaped Europe while providing essential background for the study of the modern world.

Ranging across the formative periods of Western culture from late ancient to early modern eras, and examining literary, mathematical, historical, scientific, philosophical, cultural and art historical materials, we engage in an interdisciplinary exploration that looks at women’s and men’s lived experience. The courses in these clusters will introduce you to both scientific and artistic works, to historical documents and imaginative interpretations of the cultural and philosophical questions that shaped the worldview of Medieval and Renaissance people. We will explore how the boundaries between C. P. Snow’s “two cultures”—the scientific and the humanistic—are not results of a logical necessity, but they arise from, and challenge, the ideals, intellectual conflicts, and practical limitations of the pre-modern period.

Our modern world builds upon the past, literally and metaphorically, as it makes the technological and social advances that push us into the future.  In much the same way, the men and women of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance shaped their present – whether real or ideal – by endlessly reinterpreting, revising, recombining, and innovating upon traditions, ideologies, values, and social structures that they had inherited from their forebears, or that they had acquired through contact with other cultures.

Weekly IDC dinners and meetings serve as a base for program faculty and students to interact socially, to create intellectual touchstones relevant to all three courses, and to learn about the medieval and early modern periods from different perspectives not touched on in class.  Circumstances permitting, a variety of field trips in connection with the weekly dinners allow us to visit museums, to enjoy the richness of special library collections and architectural sites, to learn how to dance, joust, and eat as Medieval and Renaissance people did, and to enjoy dramatic or musical performances.  Plans may also include a weekend in Washington, D.C. to explore national treasures—such as the National Gallery, the Folger Shakespeare Library and Theatre, among others—that show us how the legacies of Medieval and Renaissance societies continue to shape our public culture right into the present day.


History 190FS/Medieval and Renaissance 190FS: Engineers, Doctors and Scientists in the Renaissance (CZ, STS, W)

Tom Robisheaux

Thomas Robisheaux, Fred W. Shaffer Professor of History

This course explores themes in Renaissance design and engineering, science and medicine at the time of the Scientific Revolution.  An “ArchivesAlive!” course that meets in the Rubenstein Library, class readings and assignments feature reading and research in original printed volumes, pamphlets and broadsides from the Renaissance.   Our course materials are ones that created new public spheres of knowledge and debate in the blended disciplines of design, architecture, engineering and art, medicine and alchemy, astronomy and physics, and natural history and ecology.  We study the principles of design developed by Leonardo da Vinci for his works of engineering, painting, sculpture and architecture.   We then explore  the revolution in modern medicine and chemistry brought about by the Swiss physician, Paracelsus, the “modern founder of pharmaceutical medicine.”  Through close observation of nature, Paracelsus developed revolutionary understandings of medicine, including the use of chemicals in medical therapies, the making of medicines from plants, and tapping the magical influences of the stars.  We then turn our attention to the revolution in physics and astronomy with Galileo Galilei and the controversy of the Copernican system.  Is the historical Galileo the same champion of science as the Galileo of modern legend?  In the final segment, the course explores the role of women in science through the life and work of Maria Sibylla Merian.   A naturalist and artist, Merian was captivated with the problem of metamorphosis in insects.   Her ambitious explorations of the flora and fauna in a Dutch colony in South America opened up an entirely new scientific field of investigation (ecology) and fascinated readers of work throughout Europe.  Weekly work in original printed editions from the Renaissance in this ArchivesAlive! course shows students how original historical research is one of the most exciting fields of learning in the social sciences and humanities today

Medieval and Renaissance Studies 190FS / English 190FS: The Poetry of Math and the Mathematics of Language in the Renaissance (ALP, EI, STS)

Astrid Giugni

Astrid Giugni, Lecturer of English

The 17th century poet John Milton visited Galileo in Italy and wrote about the telescope in his great epic, Paradise Lost. The mathematician and author John Wilkins hoped to discover a universal language that would work across all cultures as he studied “secret writings,” the science, or art, of cryptography. This course asks you—what is the relationship between math, science, and the arts? Renaissance mathematicians theorized the probability of winning games of chance, analyzed ciphers to understand covert military operations, fought duels over the solution of algebraic equations, and discovered imaginary numbers. Their discoveries, in turn, sparked the imagination of other scientists, artists, travelers, as well as of political theorists and writers—but does measuring and quantifying the world spark or suppress the imagination? Is mathematical discovery essential for a sense of wonder at the universe or does it destroy the poetry of the unknown? And how different is science from magic and alchemy?

This class explores how Renaissance men and women interpreted the new discoveries in algebra, geometry, cryptography, and probability. We will begin by reading, in translation, some of the original mathematical works that broke new ground in these fields and learn how to work with pre-modern mathematical conventions. The main concern of the course will be with how these discoveries influenced thinkers as different as Galileo Galilei, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, and William Shakespeare as they wrote about politics, religion, and literature.

No mathematical prerequisites assumed.

Medieval and Renaissance Studies 190FS / Italian 190FS: Dante’s Moon (ALP, CZ, R)

Martin Eisner

Martin Eisner, Professor of Romance Studies

At the beginning of Paradiso, Dante tells his readers to go back if they are not prepared to follow his explanation of the universe—and some have given up, as Samuel Beckett dramatizes in his story, “Dante and the Lobster.”   Several readers, however, have pushed on to discover in Dante’s poetry inspiration for new fields of inquiry.   Reading Dante’s discussion of the moon, Machiavelli’s formulates the foundation of political science in The Prince, Galileo finds a model for his arguments about the cosmos, and Vico perceives a justification for the modern humanities.   Investigating how Dante’s description of the moon has informed the emergence of the disciplines of social science, natural science, and the humanities, this course also considers what new ideas might yet emerge from Dante’s Paradiso, such as the vindication of women’s right to teach that he models in the figure of Beatrice.   By examining how readers such as Machiavelli, Galileo and Vico responded to Dante’s work, you will gain a better understanding of the historical contingency of modern disciplines that emerged in Italy in the early modern period—and how those techniques radiated across the world in subsequent centuries.  

Faculty Director

Thomas Robisheaux
Thomas Robisheaux
  • Fred W. Shaffer Professor of History
202 Carr Bldg
Campus Box: 
BOX 90719
(919)684 5979, (919)684 3014