Curiosity, exploration, amazement, knowledge. These are some of the words that describe our Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program. Take for instance the Genoese-born Christopher Columbus’s curious observation in his First Voyage Letter (1493): “I have found no monsters…, except in an island ‘Quaris,’ which is the second at the coming into the Indies, and which is inhabited by a people who are regarded in all the islands as very fierce and who eat human flesh.”
Where do Columbus’s ideas and expectations of finding monsters in the ‘New World’ come from? In short, they derive from the two major traditions that have shaped Western thought: Greco-Roman Antiquity and Christianity. But Columbus’s expectation of finding at the edges of the known world what the Greeks called anthropophagi or ‘cannibals,’ also engages with debates on what it meant to be human, in relation to the non-European ‘Other.’ That question was not entirely new in Columbus’s time. But it took on a new urgency as the world Europeans knew was expanding during the Age of Exploration (see world map, 1537).
Columbus’s mention of imagined anthropophagi in the Caribbean serves as a good reference point from which to explore and learn about the little over a millennium separating the early days of the Medieval Period (ca. 500 C.E.) and the waning of the Renaissance—circa 1650. But the Columbus reference is no doubt selective; Euro- and male-centric even. Women have contributed also to the cultures and histories of Europe, as have Islamic and Jewish peoples, Africans, Scandinavians, Native Americans, and Asians.
The Medieval and Renaissance histories and stories are multiple and disparate; they are sure to elicit amazement and enrich our knowledge of the present. Be curious—explore Medieval and Renaissance worlds in MARS courses, through art, architecture, music, literature, and history.
Prof. Felipe Ruan
Director, Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies