Scientists, Artists and Lawyers 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, bargained and explored the world around them with the same enthusiasm and sophistication as today.  The questions and the ideas that moved them continue to drive art, commerce and science.  This cluster introduces students to the roots of these disciplines, exploring 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 historical, medical, scientific, legal, business, cultural and art historical materials, we engage in an interdisciplinary exploration that looks at women’s and men’s lived experience.  Our Focus program wants to find out how the building blocks of societies were quarried from everyday roles that people played.  Thus, we look especially at how jurists and lawyers, engineers, doctors and scientists, artists, craftspeople, tradespeople, merchants, architects, warriors, governors, intellectuals, rulers – and husbands and wives, children and neighbors – functioned within the legal and economic boundaries of their society, responded to artistic endeavors and physical challenges, and accepted or were mystified by scientific advances.  Approaching our study in this way makes marginal roles and groups as interesting as central ones, for they helped to define each other.

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.  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 participate in dramatic or musical performances.  We also spend a long 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. 


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

Thomas Robisheaux, Professor of History

This course explores the making of modern science and medicine at the time of the “Scientific Revolution.” It begins with an examination of the concept of “revolutions” in science and medicine, the historical significance of Renaissance approaches to nature and technology, and whether “revolution” adequately describes the changes of this period. We then look for answers to this question through close study of the works of four Renaissance natural philosophers and physicians: Leonardo da Vinci, Paracelsus, Galileo and Maria Sibylla Merian. Readings include Renaissance notebooks, correspondence, excerpts from published treaties, trial records, drawings, and paintings. This course has been designated as an Archives Alive Course, which immerses students in original materials housed in the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library and makes research in and with these materials a central feature of the course. For more information about Archives Alive Courses, see:

Medieval and Renaissance 227FS / Art History 190FS: Art in Renaissance Venice (ALP, CZ, CCI, R)

Kristin Huffman, Lecturing Fellow of Art & Art History/Visual Studies

The course presents an expansive picture of the art and society of Renaissance Venice. Residents, both individually and collectively, fashioned an image of the city as unprecedented and exceptional through art and architecture.  Venice was indeed unique— a city built on water— and sponsors commissioned works of art as a way to promote the city as unparalleled in beauty, splendor, and glory. The thriving economy and possibility for work attracted some of the most important artists practicing at the time, including Titian, Veronese, and Jacopo Sansovino. While advancing the city’s claims, these artists quickly learned how to capitalize on visual language for self-promotion and career advancement; patrons did too. The class considers a range of artistic patronage, a spectrum of artistic commissions, and a number of the most celebrated Renaissance artists.

Medieval and Renaissance 190FS/ History 190FS —Trials, Ordeals and Arbitrations of the Middle Ages (CCI, W, CZ)

Jehangir Malegam, Associate Professor of History

In this course, we study medieval society and culture through a close examination of important legal "trials," some of which actually took place and others that are the product of medieval authors' imaginations. These trials offer insights into understandings of right and wrong, the way people saw the world, and the way they hoped it would be.  The trials include jousting, cursing rituals, penances, Inquisitions, and even canonization procedures for prospective saints.  Our records - stories, contracts, poems, complaints - all show how medieval people strategized, negotiated, made friends and enemies, and changed their identities to suit circumstances.   We will discover how, despite its apparent strangeness, medieval legal culture produced many of the paradigms for modern litigation and law. 




Faculty Director

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