The Total Library: Aspirations for Complete Knowledge in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

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Virtual conference organized by Barnard College, Columbia University.

According to Borges, “The fancy or the imagination or the utopia of the Total Library has certain characteristics that are easily confused with virtues.” This one-day conference will explore the aspiration for complete knowledge in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, an aspiration expressed in atlases, herbals, encyclopedias that were meant to mirror and maybe tame the diversity of the earth by including in their pages everything. Whether virtuous or problematic, the fantasy of the complete mastery of knowledge created utopias of learning. In our current moment when the value of knowledge is under question, we invite scholars of multiple disciplines (art history, history, literary studies, religion, history of science) to raise questions about the technologies, social structures, and modes of thought that shape what knowledge means at a given moment.

Elias Muhanna (Brown University) “The Accidental Encyclopedia”

Martin Eisner (Duke University) “Boccaccio’s Trees: The Character of an Index”

Adam Rzepka (Montclair State University) “John Willis’s Art of Memory and the Theater of Everyday Life”

Eleonora Pistis (Columbia University) “Four Walls, One World, and ‘Infinite Variety’: The Architecture of Knowledge”

Ann Blair (Harvard University) “Renaissance encyclopedias and the tension between brevity and copiousness”

Iris Montero (Brown University) “Pliny in Tlatelolco: Natural History Between Two Worlds”

Alexander Peña (Yale University) “Treading Knowledge into the Dust: Medieval Arabic-Latin Translation and the Precarity of the Historical Past”

Kevin Windhauser (Columbia University) “Who Burned Alexandria? Edward Pococke’s Specimen Historiae Arabum and the Orientalizing of the Total Library”

M. A. Mujeeb Khan (University of Utah) “The Comprehensive and the Essential: Complete Medicine in Medieval Islamicate and Japanese Encyclopedism”

Fan Wang (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) “‘The Blessed Land of Lang Huan’: The Rewards and Frustrations of the Encyclopedic Library in Early Modern China”

Sean O’Neil (New York University) “Renaissance Shorthand as Humanist ‘Method’”

Luis Rodríguez-Rincón (Haverford College) “Natural History and the Pagan Gods in the Secret Philosophy of Juan Pérez de Moya”

Saturday December 5, 2020, 9am–6:30pm EST


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