Director’s Annual Letter, Fall 2021

Published: September 20, 2021

Over the past year and a half of the continuing biggest upheaval – racial, social, political, health – that we have known in our lifetimes, it was essential to continue looking for an answer to the question I asked a year ago: where and what is the center to the Center? In response, our faculty, graduate students, associates and affiliates, and friends of the Center found ways to come together as a community, to recenter, steady and reposition ourselves. Every two weeks, we met in CMRS-specific events: Works-in-Progress Happy Hours, New Book Salons, the CMRS Faculty-Graduate Student Reading Group. You joined us for center-defining events and talks, such as “1521: Making the World While Breaking the World”; “Slavery’s Archive in the Premodern World,” “Signs of Sex: Comparative Semiotics of Virginity in the Greco-Roman, Jewish and Christian Worlds.” You read our webpages and watched our podcast series and YouTube channel in unprecedented numbers. We discussed the lessons and uses of the past in this uncertain present and the perspectives for CMRS, one of the oldest UC Research Centers, in an unknown future. Ultimately, as a collective of scholars of the past, we have chosen boldly both the past and the future. Together, faced with the globality of our shared crises, when the center was burst open and the ground pulled from under us, we found the axis to the globe.

In 2021-2022, in the 59th year of its existence, the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies will become CMRS Center for Early Global Studies (CMRS-CEGS).

Institutionally, CMRS-CEGS reflects and represents UCLA’s diverse faculty and graduate student body across a great variety of disciplines covering the breadth of the globe in the time periods under the Center’s purview from the 3rd to the 17th century CE. In disciplinary terms, our fields have undergone major changes in the last two decades, reflected in transdisciplinary methodologies, interdisciplinary curricula, digital innovation and exchange, and scholarly collaboration, that allow for comparative study of unconnected premodern and early worlds and of connected early modern worlds across the globe. Socially, moving away from traditionally European-identified fields of medieval and Renaissance studies toward the coverage of the globe in a manner that is inclusive and methodologically sound is in line with UCLA’s strategic goals of social justice, its Rising to the Challenge initiative and commitment to become a Hispanic-Serving Institution by 2025.

Our updated name reflects the desire to keep the former acronym of CMRS in honor of the Center’s 58-year-long history of late antique, medieval and Renaissance studies. In order to counteract the varying periodizations across the globe, which do not fit neatly along the European lines of division of ancient and medieval and where parts of the world outside of Europe often do not know a Renaissance, the best term that accommodates the periods under the Center’s purview from the 3rd through the 17th century CE is “early.” Most importantly, the term “early” circumvents the problem of always centering the earlier time periods in relation to “modernity” (as in “premodern”) and thus avoids the pitfalls of teleology, of working on the presumption of progress from the past to the present. Finally, it is important to note that the striking formula of “early global studies” points to the study of unconnected and weakly connected worlds before the global era and globalization. In that sense, CMRS Center for Early Global Studies – by its size, by the excellence of its faculty and their research – champions a new understanding of “global studies.” That is, it promotes the “studies” of the “early global.” And CMRS-CEGS does so early on in the academic game of trends, pioneering a novel institutional paradigm and institutionalizing a scholarly model, which no comparable major research center or program has done in North America.

CMRS-CEGS is thus uniquely positioned to take a leading role in reconfiguring the face of North American early and premodern studies. With its five research axes plan, CMRS-CEGS has adopted a “global” model that responds to the challenge of regional world systems, that is, the plurality of premodern and early worlds. CMRS-CEGS studies a multi-centered world in which methodology and comparison connect distinct areas of the globe. This collaborative platform allows faculty studying various parts of the globe over almost 1500 years to exchange effectively from within their fields or work together innovatively across them. This approach provides the Center with an inclusive and innovative model of combined disciplinarity and transdisciplinarity. Connected methodologies also enable transspatial (non-contiguous) and transperiodic (non-continuous) study of the early worlds. In our definition of connected methodologies and epistemologies, “early global” is a paradigm and a method of research deployed in order to gain the experience of the time periods under our purview as total social phenomena but also providing scholarly disciplines with an inclusive model. Indeed, “early global, early inclusive” can well be one of CMRS-CEGS’s mottos.

In a historical twist, as is oft the case, the present imitates the gestures of the past. Lynn White Jr. argued for the establishment of CMRS in 1963 because “during the past two decades medieval and Renaissance studies have both greatly broadened and at times tended to converge. These movements of scholarship have opened up new questions which require a degree of collaboration among experts with very diverse competencies such as could scarcely have been envisaged a generation ago.” CMRS-CEGS’s plans for the future align with his original assessment that “the Middle Ages are no longer an intelligible unit if defined simply as the phase of Occidental culture extending from the victory of Christianity to the overseas expansion of western Europe,” a conception that he believed impacted equally the understanding of the Renaissance and of Antiquity in the world. “Functionally the old division between medieval and Renaissance scholarship has lost much of its significance. They are now a unified field of investigation. The new view of the Middle Ages and Renaissance has likewise expanded understanding of the implications of classical studies.”

CMRS-CEGS sustains and extends the creative and visionary course charted by Lynn White Jr. Beginning with Academic Year 2021-2022, we will administer the Graduate Certificate in Global Medieval Studies that is housed in UCLA’s Department of Comparative Literature. The required CMRS/LAMAR methodology course will be “Digital/Medieval: Resistant Archives” (Engl 257). Two CMRS Research Seminars will support the Graduate Certificate “Eros in Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Early Christian Worlds” in Winter 2022, and “Persian Literature in Interdisciplinary Context” in Spring 2022. We will offer innovative programming on Dante in dialogue with East Asian Buddhism; the future of medieval studies of Europe; book collections in the premodern world; and renew our collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum with a conference on the Getty Pentateuch. Thanks to our leadership in the Humanities Division, all our events in 306/314 Royce will have the capacity to be hybrid starting this Fall, simultaneously presented both on campus in person and remotely, and fully interactive with the remote audience. In an ongoing partnership with the Medieval and Early Modern Student Association (MEMSA), we are co-sponsoring the Race Reading Group for faculty and students. We will maintain our increased levels of support for graduate students through the CMRS Dissertation Research Fellowship; three supplemental recruitment fellowships to attract the most qualified candidates to UCLA’s graduate programs; and summer funding. Finally, this fall, we are launching a Junior Faculty Book Manuscript Workshop series, in partnership with the Dean of Humanities and faculty members’ home departments. We are grateful for the past contributions of our supporters and hope that you will continue to support CMRS-CEGS. I invite you to join us in this next phase of CMRS’s existence and do so with the conviction that it is “better to be early than late”!

Wishing you a productive and healthy academic year,
Zrinka Stahuljak, CMRS-CEGS Director