Medieval and Renaissance Studies

Academic Program Introduction

Students explore European and Mediterranean civilizations in all their richness and diversity, from the fourth through the 17th centuries. Founded in 1975, the program encompasses literature, art, music, religion, philosophy, and history. Our students have the freedom to range across these disciplines while developing at least one area of special competence.

Topics of our courses include global communication networks, colonial empires, witchcraft, the history of mental health, food and gardens, religious conflict and coexistence, the history of printed books and reading, and literary representations of race, among many others. Our reputation for excellence in the study of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) coincides with the words from his Vita nuova inscribed within the College’s seal: Incipit vita nova (“Here begins a new life”).

An extraordinary constellation of resources on the Wellesley campus, built up since the late 19th century, offers students immersive experiences of medieval and Renaissance art and artifacts, music, and theater.

Our faculty is a large, intellectually vibrant, warm-hearted, egalitarian, and harmonious community. We welcome each other, our families, our alums, and our majors and minors to a potluck dinner once each semester.

Learning goals

  • Show familiarity with foundational works and events of this period.

  • Explain both the unity and diversity of European and Mediterranean cultures during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

  • Identify and examine major shifts within the fields of history, religion, philosophy, art, music, and literature.

  • Achieve deep understanding in at least one area of specialization.

Programs of Study

Medieval and Renaissance studies major and minor

Students engage with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance through a multidisciplinary approach, integrating coursework from a variety of subject areas.

Course Highlights

  • This course introduces students to the visual cultures of the Mediterranean in the centuries of the Crusades. It approaches the distinct local, religious, and imperial visual cultures of the Mediterranean as interlocking units within a larger regional system. Focusing on the mobile networks of patrons, merchants, objects, and artisans that connected centers of artistic and architectural production, it covers a geographical territory that includes Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, Anatolia, and the Italian Peninsula. Readings emphasize the theoretical frameworks of hybridity, appropriation, hegemony, and exoticism through which Medieval Mediterranean art and architecture have been understood. Discussions will highlight the significant connections that existed among the Western Medieval, Byzantine, and Islamic worlds.
  • This course examines life in medieval Europe c. 750-1250 in all its manifestations: political, religious, social, cultural, and economic.  Topics to be studied include the political life of France, Germany, and Italy, economic structures and their transformations, monks and monastic culture, the growth of papal power, the crusading movement, intellectual life and theological debates, heresy and religious minorities, love and sex, and the varied roles of women in medieval life.  Students will learn to analyze and interpret primary sources from the period, as well as to evaluate critically historiographical debates related to medieval history.

Places and spaces

  • Two students admire a tapestry in the Davis museum.

    Davis Museum. The collections of the Davis Museum contain outstanding examples of medieval and Renaissance material culture, including an abundance of early modern works on paper. Exhibits frequently relate to the Renaissance or the Middle Ages. Since our program’s founding, faculty and professional staff, including curators in the Davis Museum and the College’s libraries, have routinely taught together, contributed lectures and demonstrations to each other’s classes, read and discussed each other’s scholarship, and collaborated on the planning of exhibits and other public events.

  • Students line a table examining old books from special collections.

    Special Collections. Wellesley's Special Collections contain superb rare books and manuscripts, including numerous incunabula and early editions. Highlights include the Plimpton Collection of Italian literature; the Rare Books Collection donated by the College’s founders; the English Poetry Collection; and extensive holdings in the histories of science, technology, medicine, philosophy, overseas imperialism, and many other subjects. Recent acquisitions include an extraordinarily rare, late 16th-century Spanish broadside indicating remedies for plague. The extensive use of these collections in our courses and in student and faculty research is supported by the Book Studies initiative.

  • A student tends to plants in the edible ecosystem garden.

    Campus landscape and architecture. The College’s greenhouses and gardens, the Claflin Bakery, buildings, and landscape feature in courses on medieval and Renaissance gardens and architecture.

Research highlights

  • Professor Claire Fontijn works at her office.

    To accompany Professor Claire Fontijn’s article on 17th-century vocal music by Barbara Strozzi and Antonia Bembo, a student research assistant transcribed musical examples from manuscript sources using the Sibelius software package. The article is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

  • Professor Hélène Bilis points at a screen in a classroom.

    In Professor Hélène Bilis’ 2021 class “'Long Live the Queen!' Women, Royalty, and Power in Literature of the Ancien Régime," students collaboratively researched terms used in Madeleine de Scudéry’s allegorical map “Carte de Tendre” to understand how 17th-century notions of friendship, sociability, and love differ from present understandings.

  • Blue geometric book cover with title, "Medieval Muslim Mirrors for Princes."

    In her book Medieval Muslim Mirrors for Princes: An Anthology of Arabic, Persian and Turkish Political Advice (Cambridge University Press, 2023), Professor Louise Marlow presents translations presents translations of texts from the Islamic Early Middle Period (roughly the 10th to 12th centuries CE). The authors offer advice on political legitimacy, rulers’ responsibilities and limits on their power, the duty of subjects to obey, social stability, allowable uses of force, functions of government, and the status and rights of diverse social groups.


  • Book Arts

    Students, faculty, and staff interested in Renaissance book production can practice nearly every stage themselves, from paper- and print-making in dedicated facilities within Pendleton West, to handpress printing, binding, and repair in the Book Arts Lab and Conservation Studio in Clapp Library, all under the guidance of curators, professional printers and artists, and conservators.

  • Music

    The Collegium Musicum welcomes students, faculty, and staff to perform Western medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music on early instruments from Wellesley’s collection, including violas da gamba, recorders and Baroque flutes, a clavichord, a virginal, a dulcian, a lute, and many others. The Houghton Chapel’s magnificent organ was built in 1981 by Charles Brenton Fisk in the style of North German organs of the 17th century. Wellesley Organ Club features regularly in public concerts.

  • Drama

    The heart of Wellesley College’s Renaissance theater community is Shakespeare Society, housed in Shakespeare House, built in 1899 in the style of a Tudor cottage. Normally, members perform a Shakespeare play each semester. Students and professional actors also perform Renaissance drama at other venues on campus.

  • Eugene L. Cox Fellowship

    Honoring the professor of history, founding director of our program, and longtime host of our traditional potluck dinners, the fellowship is awarded to a senior or recent graduate planning to conduct graduate study in medieval or Renaissance history and culture.

Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program

Founders Hall
106 Central Street
Wellesley, MA 02481
Simon Grote
Program Director