In a series of essays, the professors at Reed’s Humanities 211/212 offer insight into an unforgettable course.

By Chris Lydgate ’90
March 23, 2022

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

For better or for worse, the books we read, the cities we live in, the gods we worship, the virtues we proclaim, the wars we fight, the roles we play, the stories we tell, the ideas we have, the systems of power we perpetuate and fight against are all indelibly marked 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 this.

First of all, the program is jam-packed with unforgettable material. From Dante’s Hell at Sofonisba Anguissola The chess gamefrom 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 achievements of the millennium.

Second, the course examines this remarkable era through a powerful multidisciplinary approach. It’s not just a history lesson. 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 allows them to grasp both their meaning and their influence on future generations.

Finally, the United States – and indeed much of the world – is facing 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 built. People sometimes describe this situation as unprecedented in history. But the fact is that many societies have faced calamities. By understanding their problems, examining their responses, and evaluating their results, we can find new insights into our own predicament.

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

Beyond the encounter between East and West, Hum 211/212 students sought to understand how early modern cultures modified each other.

Revolutions in modern technology and scientific thought have enlivened discussions of power – Hum 211/212 explores how.

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

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Faculty of Humanities 211/212

Michael P. Breen is a professor of history and human sciences and editor-in-chief of H-France ( A historian of modern Europe, he published Law, city and king: legal culture, municipal politics and state formation in modern Dijon (2007), as well as numerous articles on the legal, social and cultural history of modern times.

“Hum 211/212 is a joy to teach. Examining these incredibly rich and complex materials with students keeps teaching me something new. The course offers a wonderful introduction to a fascinating time while challenging us to reflect on vitally important questions and issues in the present.

Michel Faletra is Professor of English and Humanities at Reed, where he teaches and writes on medieval literatures. He is the author of Wales and the Medieval Colonial Imaginationtranslator and editor of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Brittanyand co-translator of Until She Called: Poems by Dafydd ap Gwilym.

“I consider my primary calling at Reed to be exploring alongside my students the dynamic imaginative worlds of medieval and modern writers, artists and thinkers. The Birth of the Modern allows us to take a “long view” and deeply consider how nothing we take for granted in our modern secular world – our technologies or our philosophies, our political structures, our attitudes towards art or religion or ourselves – is inevitable.”

Dana E. Katz is the Joshua C. Taylor Professor of Art History and Humanities at Reed. Her research explores representations of religious difference in modern European art. She is the author of The Jew in Italian Renaissance Art (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) and The Jewish Ghetto and the Visual Imagination of Modern Venice (Cambridge University Press, 2017). His 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 take advantage of my Reed students, who read primary sources, as well as modern theoretical texts, carefully treated in class to ignite dynamic discussions in class. I also benefit immensely from working with my Reed colleagues. They have motivated me to think between and across disciplinary boundaries and to draw on disparate approaches from related disciplines to analyze early modernity. My colleagues gave lectures in the course which reaffirmed my scientific commitment and my pedagogical interest in interdisciplinarity. Such methodological richness, analyzed through the prism of the Reed class, pushed my own research in new directions.

Lucia Martinez Valdivia is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Reed, where she teaches courses in modern poetry, poetics, and aesthetic and phenomenological theory. She has published extensively on modern English poetic form, music and verse history, and is working on a book on reading and hearing, or the mind’s ear. For 2021-2022, she is an external faculty member at the Stanford Humanities Center.

“I love teaching in Hum 211/212. The programs include some of my favorite texts, works of art and even composers, and it is an incredible privilege to present them to the students. I have the opportunity to dwell at length on my areas of expertise, giving lectures on texts such as The Courtier’s Book, with its influential reflections on politics and personal style, or on Reformation and Counter-Reformation music, in which I lead the class in singing examples. We have time to read and think slowly and carefully, which has sparked some amazing and even eye-opening discussions and articles. I also enjoy the context and insights provided by my colleagues in their lectures, which help me broaden my view beyond modern England to the wider European picture.

Tags: Academics, Courses we would like to take