In spite of the pandemic, King’s 2021 Conference of the Early Modern went ahead online on January 22 and 23. Over twenty people––including current students, alumni, and faculty––took part, forming an audience that stretched all the way from Canada’s West Coast to Ireland. The conference, hosted and organized by the Early Modern Studies Society (EMSS), was the ninth annual colloquium and the first to be held virtually.
Current EMSS co-presidents Bronwyn Turnquist and Sophie Lawall said that the event was moved online primarily for safety reasons, but also so they could host guest lecturers from outside of Halifax. “The conference is a really important part of what we do,” said Sophie. “So we didn’t want to cancel it. However, we had to make some changes to its structure.” The EMSS decided that some traditional conference elements, such as the dinner on the final night, couldn’t be transitioned online. “We had to focus on what we could do,” said Bronwyn. “And on what aspects we could make happen and those we had to cut.” While this was understandably challenging for the organizers, everyone agreed that the event was a success. “This was the first ever online conference hosted by the EMSS––and by any student society at King’s––and we’re really pleased with the turnout and audience engagement,” said Sophie. Both co-presidents also noted the exceptional work by student presenters to adapt their papers to the virtual format.
The proceedings kicked off on Friday night, with a keynote lecture by Dr. Karen Detlefsen, a professor of philosophy and education at the University of Pennsylvania and the founding director of Penn’s Project for Philosophy for the Young––an initiative that promotes philosophical education for middle- and high-school students. Dr. Detlefsen’s lecture, “Translation as Original Philosophy? Emilie du Châtelet on Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees,” interrogated areas that haunt many students in the Early Modern Studies Program. Is translation an artistic innovation, or a merely mechanical act? Was the commercial growth of the luxury industry in the 18th century reflective of human vice or virtue? Dr. Detlefsen argued that through Du Châtelet’s translation of––and, notably, corrections to––Bernard Mandeville’s notorious The Fable of the Bees, she articulated her own commentary on the debates of her day. The audience’s interest was palpable, and the lecture was followed by a lively question and answer period, during which attendees debated the distinction between “pity” and “benevolence.”
The conference continued on Saturday, January 23, and included three student panels and another guest lecturer, Dr. Lindsay Reid, BA(Hons)’03, a lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Dr. Reid––who graduated from King’s in 2003 with a combined Honours in Early Modern Studies and Classics––delivered the alumni lecture on “Shakespeare’s Ovid and the Spectre of the Medieval.” The lecture, which included excerpts from her recently published book, examined Ovid’s influence on Shakespeare’s plays. Dr. Reid spoke of her interest in this area, which began at King’s when she read Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the first time in a class with Dr. Peter O’Brien. Indeed, in the subsequent question period, she mentioned how special it was to return to King’s––even virtually––and present her research to the professors who first sparked her passion for it.
The conference was also significant for the students who had the opportunity to share their writing with the community, and included three panels organized by theme. The first panel focused on art history and highlighted the challenge of depicting the female body through analyses of the allegory of Fortune and Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Both panelists spoke to the prevalence of women’s bodies being seen as vessels, and to the use of the visual arts to illuminate philosophy. The panel that followed tackled the weighty subject of ethics––both on a personal and collective level––through papers that examined the role of conscience in Shakespeare’s Henriad and Spinoza’s account of right action. The final group of students explored the topic of female authorship in the works of Louise Labé, Jane Sharp, and Sarah Jinner. Spanning poetry, midwifery, and astrology, the panelists spoke to the challenges experienced by women who wrote in the Early Modern period, and the ways in which they fought to carve out space for themselves and for their sex.
While the 9th Annual Conference of the Early Modern heralded an unexpected first for the program, both co-presidents are hopeful next year’s event will be at least partially in person. “It’ll be the 10th anniversary of the conference,” said Bronwyn, “So we want it to be special. But we’re confident now that––no matter what––we can host everyone well online.” In the meantime, the EMSS will be enjoying a much-needed rest before turning their attention to this year’s edition of the student journal, Babel.
Image: “Bacchus and Ariadne,” Titian, 1520-3. Collection of the National Gallery, London. Photo by Jean Louis Mazieres.