Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted between 1490 and 1510
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted between 1490 and 1510

The Birth of the Modern

In a series of essays, Reed's Humanities 211/212 faculty offer a glimpse into an unforgettable course.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | March 23, 2022

Starting in the 13th century, Europe witnessed the convergence and collision of profound historical forces that lead to an era of crisis and upheaval that would change the world forever. 

For better and for worse, the books we read, the cities we inhabit, the gods we worship, the virtues we proclaim, the wars we fight, the roles we play, the stories we tell, the ideas we hold, the power systems we perpetuate and against which we struggle were all indelibly stamped by these strange times and places. 

In this issue of Reed Magazine, we decided to dive into the remarkable two-semester course known as Humanities 211/212, The Birth of the Modern. We have three main reasons for doing so.

First, the syllabus is crammed with unforgettable material. From Dante’s Inferno to Sofonisba Anguissola’s The Chess Game, from the philosophy of Ibn Tufayl to the skepticism of René Descartes, from the map of Texúpa to the sketches of Galileo, the course presents some of the most dazzling intellectual and artistic accomplishments of the millennium.

Second, the course examines this remarkable era through a powerful multidisciplinary approach. This is not only a history course. Students grapple with great works of literature, monumental works of art, and profound ideas in philosophy. They also learn to consider these works in their historical context, which makes it possible to grasp both their meaning and their influence on later generations. 

Finally, the United States—and indeed much of the world—is confronted by a crisis of confidence. The coronavirus pandemic, climate change, structural racism, economic inequality, and political violence—together these issues challenge the fundamental assumptions on which our society is constructed. People sometimes describe this situation as without historical precedent. But the fact is that many societies have confronted calamity. By understanding their problems, looking at their responses, and assessing their outcomes, we may find new perspectives on our own predicament. 

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Gendered Dialogues

Hum 211/212 reframes the Renaissance through the study of women.

Cultural Encounters

Looking beyond East-meets-West, students in Hum 211/212 set out to understand how early modern cultures changed one another.

Autonomy and Authority

Revolutions in early modern technology and scientific thought animated discussions about power—Hum 211/212 explores how.

Varieties of Human Experience

Throughout Reed’s Humanities Program, a distinctive multidisciplinary approach prevails.

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Humanities 211/212 Faculty

​​Michael P. Breen is professor of history and humanities and editor-in-chief of H-France (www.h-france.net). A historian of early modern Europe, he has published Law, City, and King: Legal Culture, Municipal Politics, and State Formation in Early Modern Dijon (2007), as well as numerous articles on early modern legal, social, and cultural history.

“Hum 211/212 is a joy to teach. Examining these incredibly rich and complex materials with students never ceases to teach me something new. The course provides a wonderful introduction to a fascinating period while also prompting us to think about questions and problems of vital importance in the present.”

Michael Faletra is professor of English and humanities at Reed, where he teaches and writes about the literatures of the Middle Ages. He is the author of Wales and the Medieval Colonial Imagination, translator and editor of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, and cotranslator of Until She Beckons: Poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym. 

“I see it as my central vocation at Reed to explore alongside my students the vibrant imaginative worlds of medieval and early modern writers, artists, and thinkers. The Birth of the Modern enables us to take the ‘long view’ and to consider deeply how nothing we take for granted about our modern secular world—our technologies or philosophies, our political structures, our attitudes toward art or religion or ourselves—is inevitable.”

Dana E. Katz is Joshua C. Taylor Professor of Art History and Humanities at Reed. Her research explores representations of religious difference in early modern European art. She is the author of The Jew in the Art of the Italian Renaissance (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) and The Jewish Ghetto and the Visual Imagination of Early Modern Venice (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Her current book project, “Materials of Islam in Premodern Europe,” studies the material effect of Christian and Muslim encounters.

“Teaching Hum 211/212 has been one of the great pleasures of my teaching career. I profit from my Reed students, who read the primary sources, as well as the modern theoretical texts, treated in class with care to ignite dynamic classroom discussions. I also benefit immensely from collaborating with my Reed colleagues. They have motivated me to think between and through disciplinary boundaries and to draw from the disparate approaches of cognate disciplines in analyzing early modernity. My colleagues have delivered lectures in the course that reaffirm my scholarly commitment to and pedagogical interest in interdisciplinarity. Such methodological richness, analyzed through the lens of the Reed classroom, has pushed my own scholarship in new directions.”

Lucía Martínez Valdivia is associate professor of English and humanities at Reed, where she teaches courses on early modern poetry, poetics, and aesthetic and phenomenological theory. She has published extensively on early modern English poetic form, music, and verse history, and is at work on a book about reading and audiation, or the mind’s ear. For 2021–22, she is an external faculty fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

“I adore teaching in Hum 211/212. The syllabuses include some of my favorite texts, works of art, and even composers, and it’s an incredible privilege to introduce students to them. I get a chance to dwell at length in my areas of expertise, lecturing on texts like The Book of the Courtier, with its influential thoughts on politics and personal style, or on the music of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, in which I lead the class in singing examples. We have time to read and think slowly and carefully, which has fostered some incredible and even revelatory discussions and papers. I also love the context and insights provided by my colleagues in their lectures, which help expand my view beyond early modern England to the bigger European picture.”


Tags: Academics, Courses We’d Love To Take