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About the Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies

Sasmars aims to promote scholarly interest and research in Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Southern Africa and further afield. Its biennial conferences provide a forum for academics and senior students to present their work in congenial surroundings. The Society's journal, The Southern African Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, is a peer-reviewed publication which is accredited for South African research subsidy purposes. The SASMARS Newsletter has grown beyond our wildest expectations and has attracted the attention of scholars from all over the world. As a result, our 20th biennial conference in 2010 attracted the largest group of international delegates ever and served to forge important links between international scholars and their Southern African counterparts.

It has become a tradition to invite the keynote speakers at our conferences to become Corresponding Fellows of the Society and we are proud to acknowledge the following in that capacity:

Professors Jerry Brotton, Gordon Campbell, Sheila Delany, Roberta Frank, Helen Fulton, Alexandra Johnston, Susannah Monta, Edward Muir, Chris Wickham, and Henry Woudhuysen.

The latest addition to this list is Professor Carolyn Dinshaw, who was the keynote speaker at the 23nd biennial conference held at Mont Fleur in August 2016.


Number 2, 2012

Two beloved and respected members of the society passed away recently and this edition of the newsletter is dedicated to their memory.

Professor J. E. (Johnny) van der Westhuizen

Tribute delivered by Leonie Viljoen at the Golden Jubilee celebration of the English Academy, Cape Town, 15 June 2012
As the De Beers Professor of English Language and Literature, he mesmerised his students with Chaucer, impressed with his vast knowledge of the English language, and was an ardent West Indies cricket fan.
Brian Lee, a friend, classmate and colleague, remembers that when Johnny graduated cum laude there was a stir in the graduation hall when the audience realized a man with an Afrikaans name had earned a distinction in English; when they saw he belonged to an ethnic group then only sparsely represented at a university whose intake the government was doing its best to restrict,  applause was rapturous. John went on to take his MA, and then went to London where he produced an edition of a medieval work by John Lydgate.  In 1981 he became De Beers Professor of English Language at UCT. He also spent a semester in America with his late wife Doreen, where he taught a seminar on Icelandic at  Penn State university.
At the 1973 Saga conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, people were surprised to meet an Old Icelandic expert from the southern tip of Africa.  With typical humour, he described himself as “a sunburnt Scandinavian”!  The opposite happened to me in 2002 when an Icelandic scholar – admittedly after imbibing liberally of the Icelandic brennivin or 'Black Death' –wanted to know why I wasn’t black!
John van der Westhuizen seen here in 1995
with Leonie Viljoen and
her daughters Elma, Jacqui and Leonie

Jónas Kristjánsson of the University of Iceland remembers John and his late wife Doreen from that same conference. On the home journey after a visit to one the spectacular Icelandic waterfalls, they sang We shall overcome in the bus, to which Johnny replied: I know you are singing this for me.  This was in response to the South African political situation and the couple’s concerns for the future of their son. Johnny also delivered a ‘thundering’ lecture in Edinburgh that year and obviously left a lasting impression. Later, when I mentioned him as my supervisor to academics in Cambridge and Iceland, they immediately regarded me with new respect.
Former student Rustum Kozain recalls his first encounter with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1986: ‘There was a hush as the professor walked into the room. He hung the mic round his neck. ‘He threw his head back and, with eyes closed almost in ecstasy, proceeded to recite the opening passages of The Pardoner’s Tale. ‘” In Flaundres whilom was a compaignye /Of yonge folk, that haunteden folye,...Thurgh which they doon the devel sacrifise...”’ Johnny then pointed at a student: ‘Isn’t that what you do at the Pig and Whistle every night?’ he asked, chuckling like a jackal as he implied a line of interest between late-20th century student life and the putatively alien subject matter of Chaucer. Kozain continues: ‘...for me – and there’s no other way of registering my astonishment – he was “coloured”. This was my first encounter with a senior, full-time black academic... who was as eccentric as any of the (white) professors depicted in film, spouting passionately  about an arcane topic, like The Canterbury Tales.’
Everyone who knew him, either as a teacher, colleague or both, e.g. Peter Titlestad, Rosemary Gray, Victor Houliston, to name but a few, remembers him with fondness and respect as a wonderful and remarkable man and a fine teacher.
Former colleagues Nigel Bakker, Dr Pater Anderson and  Professor Kelwyn Sole  recounted their memories of him in an obituary in the Cape Times:  he lectured with his eyes closed and they hung on his every word; he was rightly revered and remained a continuing influence in so many lives.
Professor Sole recalls that John was also a bridge builder; someone who disdained factions, and did everything he could to listen to and respond to his colleagues, no matter what their viewpoints were. He never indulged in corridor politics and put out several fires in his time as head of department, ‘with a grace and soft-spokenness which was striking.’ 
Johnny opened the world of the old Icelandic sagas to me. Together we poured over medieval manuscripts, battled with the linguistic intricacies of Old English and Old Icelandic and enjoyed the laconic humour of the sagas.   Later, he gave me unstinting support as I prepared an edition of an Old Icelandic medieval manuscript for my PhD thesis.I remember him with fondness and deep gratitude and admiration. He represented the finest ideals of the Old Icelandic Family sagas of which he was such an avid student and inspiring teacher, and I quote his own words here, taken from his inaugural lecture: ‘moderation, statemanship ... conciliation, and... the desirability of collective responsibility and social harmony.’ 

Arlene Oseman
Tribute by Professor Michael Titlestad on the occasion of Arlene Oseman’s memorial service
28 May 2012, Trinity Catholic Church, University of the Witwatersrand 
I would like to begin by offering the condolences of the Department, School and University to Arlene’s mother, Bernadette, and her brothers, Colin and Jason, to her extended family and friends, and to Victor, her friend, mentor and husband, and to Rebecca.
I am here, in addition to counting myself among Arlene and Victor’s friends, as the representative of the community which meant so much to Arlene.
I met her 10 years ago when I joined the English Department. It soon became evident to me that she was, by definition and nature, a teacher. She felt passionately about her subject and her students. She mulled over the best ways of conveying her knowledge and enthusiasm, agonised over what she thought were failures, and was delighted by her successes.
Arlene took everything to heart. One could not hope for a more engaged colleague. Her passionate commitment – her refusal to be cynical or to accept anything with which she disagreed – inevitably led Arlene into difficulties and disappointments.
Perhaps her formidable intelligence, her generosity, wit and dedication were at the root of both her strengths and difficulties. To live mindfully, to question our world and ourselves at every step of the way burdens a life. For those who combine passion and intelligence, that burden can prove too great.
I have had a unique opportunity in the last week. I taught a few sessions to three of Arlene’s classes. For all the deep collegiality evident in the Department in the last weeks, we generally have little sense of how each of us inhabits the daily reality of teaching.
I saw in Arlene’s classes – in their respect for her, the sense of their loss and the ways they reflected what she had taught them – what it means to leave a trace of oneself in the world. It made vivid for me sea of traces Arlene, in all of those thousands of interactions that made up her teaching and academic life, has left behind.
The currents in that sea are imperceptible in the complexity of their depth and direction. Yet they have flowed and do flow across countless lives, and they will continue to do so beyond anything we can imagine. This was Arlene’s life’s work, and it was boundless.
The Department will not be the same at all without Arlene and we will miss her, and think of her every day from now on.
The last play that Arlene taught was Shakespeare’s The Tempest.   I would like to conclude with lines from Prospero. 
These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Conference News

‘Mortality and Imagination: The Life of the Dead in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance’
The 21st Biennial Conference of the Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies will be held at Mont Fleur, Stellenbosch, South Africa, on 30 August-2 September 2012.
We are proud that Helen Fulton, BA (Sydney), Dip. Celt (Oxon.), Ph.D. (Sydney) will be the keynote speaker at the conference.

For information about the conference venue and a list of participants, please go to the Conference website.

Professor Michael Bratchel, previous president of SASMARS, writes as follows:
After forty-one years at Wits, most of them as a member of SASMARS, the prospect of retirement is both alluring and disconcerting. Conscious that the opportunity would never recur, I took research leave (albeit only due for a half sabbatical) in the second semester 2011. July and August were spent in Cambridge. Cambridge has changed so much since my undergraduate and postgraduate years in the 1960s that I often find return visits to Downing as disorientating as the prospect of retirement. In the event Cambridge, during the long vacation, was quite charming. Dr David Pratt, an historian of late Anglo-Saxon England, is now Director of Studies at Downing (a college rather more noted in my time for its modernists). The University Library, in stark contrast to the vicissitudes and horrors that we face locally, was reassuringly familiar. The weeks in Cambridge were as profitable as they were pleasurable. I was able to do a great deal of secondary reading in preparation for a study on office-holding in the Italian countryside. I was even able to do some preliminary work on a paper on death for Stellenbosch 2012. The latter was soon overtaken by the demands of the major project; I was greatly relieved to learn on returning to South Africa that SASMARS already had a full programme for its forthcoming conference.
Lucca, Italy
From September till January I returned to my usual research base in the archives of Lucca. A prosopographical study of the 407 Lucchese citizens who held political office in the communities subject to Lucca in the seventy years after the restoration of the republic in 1430 promises to shed new light on the nature of office-holding in the city-states of Renaissance Italy and will contribute to my continuing work on the controls exercised by the hegemonic city over its surrounding countryside. On this occasion the time spent in Italy was relatively short (barely four months), but I was able to compile a full list of all the vicars and notaries appointed from Lucca between 1430 and 1501, and have collected biographical details (some rather more extensive than others) on all of the four hundred individuals in whom I am interested. This data is currently being processed. It is already clear what sort of men were likely to be chosen for - and were likely to accept - political office in the countryside; that some individuals made a career out of such offices; what sort of excuses might be proffered in order to escape service away from the delights of the city; and that there was a pronounced resistance to deployment in certain areas (predictably those more distant, most mountainous, and most troublesome). There is a rich empirical and theoretical literature on office-holding in Mediterranean Europe. The massive notarial, court, and genealogical sources of fifteenth-century Lucca offer exciting possibilities for testing hypotheses. And the regular syndication of officials (the judicial examination of officials at the end of their term of office for corruption, extortion, and legal irregularities) provides fresh material for a study of rural/urban relationships (filling a gap identified in some of the reviews of my last book). As I write the allures of escaping undergraduate teaching for uninterrupted productivity begin to assume precedence over the inevitable fears and misgivings.
The ceiling of the 11th- and 12th-century Battistero San Giovanni.
In the meantime there is one more academic year to negotiate. It is hard to contemplate that, after this year, there will be no more first-year modules in European medieval history; no more third-year, Honours, and Masters courses in the history of medieval and Renaissance Italy. The end of an era, and one that has distinguished Wits from all other History Departments in the country. When I arrived in South Africa in 1972 there was an ambition that the Wits History Department should excel internationally primarily in African and Southern African studies, but also through recognized specialists in medieval and modern European history, in the history of the Americas and of Asia. The range of expertise has been at the core of the History Department's promotional literature for decades. Now, whenever first-year students engage me on courses in third-year and beyond, I have to tell them that there will be no future courses (with me). It is very sad. I find consolation in the interest and commitment of this year's undergraduates, and in the determination of an Honours student who is presently battling with fifteenth-century handwriting and fifteenth-century Latin to produce her Honours dissertation on appeals for the remission of judicial sentence presented by a range of hopeful petitioners to the General Council of Lucca.
Next year Susan and I will be leaving South Africa. Our preoccupations are already turning to plans for a rural retreat in the Mendip Hills in the south-west of England. Where better can I engage in the writing from which I have been distracted over the past forty-one years? We wish the Society well, and hope that at least some Departments of English Studies will be able to keep medieval and Renaissance studies alive at Southern African universities. Perhaps some future SASMARS conference will suggest to us a return visit to the country where I have spent the whole of my academic career.

M.E. Bratchel   
Department of History
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Michael has been a stalwart of SASMARS for many years and we wish him and Susan a happy and productive retirement and hope to see them back for a return visit in the not-too-distant future.

‘Staging Shakespeare’: The Shakespeare Society’s 8th Triennial Conference
Report by Laurence Wright
Subtitled ‘Direction, design, reception’, this conference explored the inter-disciplinary potential of Shakespeare studies by drawing theatre practitioners and performance critics into closer dialogue with academic Shakespeareans. The three-day event, which took place in Grahamstown (2-5 July) during the National Arts Festival, succeeded in stimulating a wide range of concerns and some fresh insights. Most of those attending agreed that it had been an enjoyable conference, creating new cross-disciplinary perceptions and unusual approaches. The performance emphasis was reflected in the participation of scholars who were also actors, directors and designers; in the widespread use of photographs, film and production videos to illustrate elements of interpretation, design and staging; and in the inclusion of a final panel session on reviewing and criticism in South African publications.
A high point of the conference was the  plenary presentation by Dame Janet Suzman, who abandoned her text to speak extempore about her relation to the inwardness of Cleopatra’s character, even though its representation of conscious interiority was a distinctly sparse affair in relation to the complex inner reflection bestowed on some of Shakespeare’s male characters. Dame Janet was distinctly acerbic about the relative poverty of meaty roles for females in the theatrical repertoire. Shakespeare still offers the best roles: why have female writers not obliterated this cultural poverty in subsequent eras? – this was the underlying puzzle.  
A second plenary speaker, Robert Gordon, Professor of Drama and Director of the Pinter Centre for Research in Performance and Creative Writing at Goldsmith’s College, described the evolution of contemporary Shakespearean performance and production in London, from the pre-Thatcherite consensus which supported deeply-meditated ensemble performance by sponsored companies (typified by the RSC under Trevor Nunn), to the star system which emerged after 1989. He noted that both dispensations had produced remarkable productions, but the rationale underwriting Shakespeare was very different on today’s London stage. The shift could be described as one moving away from Shakespeare as the icon of British (not English) ‘high culture’ to a vehicle for celebrity culture, where a star who was not necessarily a Shakespearean stage actor could sell a production on his or her star status, not necessarily to the detriment of theatre.
The conference attracted participants from Australia, China, India, Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as from southern Africa. Many more who had offered papers found themselves frustrated by funding constraints – a symptom of the times. But the intent of the conference was achieved, in that participants found themselves exploring Shakespeare in a hall replete with insights emanating from very different disciplines and concerns, offering the richness of being able to overhear issues debated from a much fuller range of perspectives than Shakespeare conferences commonly achieve. 

Pier Paolo Frassinelli writes:
Pier Paolo Frassinelli, Roberta Mullini,
Manfred Pfister

After three most enjoyable months spent as a visiting researcher at the University of Pisa, on 14 and 15 June 2012 I had the pleasure of participating in IASEMS 2012, the conference of the Italian Association of Shakespeare and Early Modern Studies, at which I gave a talk titled “Many in One: Shakespeare, Language and Translation”
Carla Dente and Stephen Orgel

The conference was two days of collegial debate both on the scholarly topics presented by the papers – see link below – and on issues to do with what these days gets euphemistically called “rationalization” of the humanities. 

All's Well That Ends Well, Compagnia teatrale
 Botanical Gardens, Pisa
Among the many highlights of the conference was an energetic and funny performance of Tutto è bene quel che finisce bene [All’s Well That Ends Well] by the “Compagnia teatrale Salamander” in the idyllic setting of the Botanical Gardens in Pisa, as well as the keynote lecture by Professor Stephen Orgel, entitled “Secret Arts and Public Spectacles: The Parameters of Elizabethan Magic”, which reminded us once again of the power of magic represented in early modern English drama. 
The conference programme can be viewed here; for a call for papers for a special issue of the Journal of Early Modern Studies, click here

Sheila Delany, one of our corresponding fellows, writes that her new book, Anti-saints, has just been published (2012) by the University of Alberta Press. It extends her work in medieval hagiography into the period of the French Revolution, translating for the first time the Nouvelle légende dorée  (1790) of Sylvain Maréchal. Like Osbern Bokenham’s legendary this is an all-female collection, but unlike Bokenham, Maréchal was an ardent atheist and revolutionary who used this arch-medieval genre to satirize the genre and the Catholic Church that produced it.

Two new websites devoted 
to Renaissance authors

The English Department of the University of California at Berkeley has just completed two websites devoted to Renaissance authors: one on Shakespeare performance at and the other directed to equally dynamic approaches to the works of John Milton, at  

Before final revision of both sites the Department welcomes comment on the approaches, content, accuracy, structure, accessibility and usefulness of these two sites, as well as suggestions for their future development. Responses can be forwarded via the sites, or directly to the project director: Professor of English Emeritus Hugh Richmond at
(Submitted by Hugh M. Richmond, UCB)

Francis Tobienne has been granted the following opportunities:

Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida

A Dalí Research Fellowship at the prestigious Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida; working on a monograph project entitled: Dalí's Medievalism: la Brujeria de las Mujeres ("Enchantment of Female Ontology"). Also, his book: The Position of Magic in Selected Medieval Spanish Texts (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008) has been slated for a second edition, forthcoming. 
He continues his teaching, researching and writing at University of South Florida--St. Petersburg as a Purdue Doctoral Fellow with such interesting classes as: Medieval Travel Theory; Pop Culture: Monster Theory, Literature/Film & Occult as well as British Literature to 1616.

The Medieval Electronic Scholarly Alliance (MESA) is a federated international community of scholars, projects, institutions, and organizations engaged in digital scholarship within the field of medieval studies. MESA seeks both to provide a community for those engaged in digital medieval studies and to meet emerging needs of this community, including making recommendations on technological and scholarly standards for electronic scholarship, the aggregation of data, and the ability to discover and repurpose this data.

We are very pleased to announce that, following a one-year planning grant, the Mellon Foundation has awarded the Medieval Electronic Scholarly Alliance (MESA) a three-year implementation grant. Read more:

Press Release from NCSU: