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Ad Urbe Recondita: The Reception of the Roman Classics in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The 2nd Annual Marco Undergraduate Conference, held on Friday March 30th, was a tremendous success. This year’s coordinator, senior and Classicist Tyler Denton, did an excellent job putting together panels by  young scholars in Medieval and Renaissance studies. Jenny Bledsoe, last year’s coordinator, visited and I enjoyed catching up with her over lunch as well as getting to know some of the panelists. It’s always lovely to be a part of the Marco team and to see individual members succeed in their endeavors. Thanks to Tyler, Jenny’s brainchild will serve as a diverse forum for young scholars for many years to come. The keynote this year, “Medieval Alexanders, Unstable Cities, Unstable Selves,” was given by Dr. Christopher Baswell of Columbia University and Barnard College, and the panels (Late Antiquity and Early Christianity; Art and Architecture; Shakespeare; Epic from Homer to Milton; Practice and Performance; and Intersections of Science and Literature) featured undergraduates visiting our campus from nearby universities like UNC Chapel Hill, Duke, NC State, and the University of South Carolina.

As an advanced graduate student and teacher, it is always a pleasure to revisit texts through the eyes of my students and younger scholars. These kids (and I say kids, because as a somewhat non-traditional student I’m a good fifteen years older than most of them) are remarkable both in their insight and their enthusiasm. For many of these students, this was their first academic conference experience, and therefore such a valuable one. I remember the Undergraduate Research Symposium that I attended as an undergrad at the University of South Florida, presenting, as did many of these panelists, my senior thesis work. It was both a nerve-wracking experience and an exciting one – particularly in the question and answer sessions in which I was able to freely discuss my passion for the work I was doing.

As I’m always thinking about epic and the epic project, about allegory, about subjectivity (Shock! Can we still talk about this?) and about the reception of the classics during the renaissance, I particularly enjoyed moderating the panel on epic. As one of the speakers canceled, we had quite a bit of extra time for discussion, but even that was not enough and we continued as we walked to lunch. Joseph Weidenboerner was the first panelist, and his paper “Hangers-on in Heroes’ Armour: Defining the Divide between Homeric and Celtic Clan Epics,” argued that the lesser known Irish and German epics, and the Celtic clan epics in particular are distinctly different than their Homeric predecessors. He located this difference in the epic hero. The clan epics, Joseph argues, are concerned with self-aggrandizing and self-elevation – what is at stake is pride and honor, but in the sense of the individual. It appears that in these clan epics the hero is more of a subject than the Homeric hero, even though as a subject he is a servant of the community. Joseph wants us to view these clan epics outside of the context of the Homeric epic, as they are unique to the cultural moment from which they arise. The idea of glory in the clan epics is that they become paradigms of codes of honor for successive generations to live by – they are less “poetic” (not sure what is meant by this) than the Homeric epics and more about the longevity and history of the tribe. The clan epics are more interested in human beings for their own humanity.

This argument raised a number of questions for me. Epic, as a genre, is defined as a collective narrative and as such, the individual is somewhat lost. It appears that what Joseph is trying to say is that the “poetic” aspect of the Homeric epic is metaphysical, and by metaphysical he means of man rather than of the gods. For me, I wonder where is the line drawn is between history and poetry (or perhaps we could say myth / fiction)? There seems to be no particular boundary in classical texts, yet one of the most famous of the renaissance epics, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, is fraught with historical specificity (thinking of Book V and Lord Gray in Ireland), and it is an incomplete epic. Is poetry no longer a fitting mode for history as it becomes more real with the onset of early modernity? Where do we locate the subject (in particular, the poet) in narratives of nationhood? It seems an important project.

Sam Gleason followed  with his paper “Shadows of Love and Empire”: An Examination of the Word “Ombra” in Dante’s Divine Comedy.” His was a fascinating study of the slipperiness of the word for shade or shadow. A shade in the Inferno, as Durling translates it, can be defined as the soul of an individual in hell. Sam’s work is more concerned, however, with the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, in which “Ombra” comes to mean something like “shadow” rather than shade. In these texts, the shadow and the body are indivisible, and the importance of the shadow is to draw attention to the incarnation of Christ. A shadow, in this context, is a kind of remembrance of the body.

This has implications of the simultaneous definition of Christ as both human and divine, for to be “overshadowed” by God is to be protected and loved. The mystery of the incarnation is linked with the idea of the overshadowing of God in Luke. As the angel appears to Mary, he tells her she will be overshadowed by god.

Some fascinating work here by young scholars, from which I hope, in the future, to hear much more.