Oral History: Paul F. Grendler

Narrator: Paul F. Grendler
Interviewer: John Tortorice
Date: 22 January 2022
Transcribed: Maddy McGlone, Paul Grendler
Format: Audio
Total Length: 1 hour, 38 minutes


Paul F. Grendler biography:

Paul F. Grendler was born on May 24, 1936, in Armstrong, Iowa, population 700. He graduated from the public high school in Greene, Iowa, a metropolis of 1,300, in 1953. He studied at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Oberlin College. He received a bachelor of arts degree with a major in history from Oberlin College in 1959. Grendler enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in 1959 to study with George L. Mosse, and was in residence from 1959 to 1962. He obtained his M. A. in sixteenth-century French history in 1962. In the summer of 1960 he hitchhiked around Europe and decided to study Italian history. Grendler spent the academic year 1962-1963 researching his dissertation in Italy, thanks to a Fulbright fellowship. He was a lecturer of history at the University of Pittsburgh in 1963-1964, and received his Ph. D. in July 1964, under the direction of Mosse. In the fall of 1964 he began to teach at the University of Toronto, where he taught Italian Renaissance and modern European history until 1998 when he became professor emeritus. He directed six dissertations and his former students teach in Canada, the United States, and Italy. They honored him with a Festschrift in 2008.

Grendler is the author of twelve books and 145 articles and editor of four works. The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press, 1540-1605 (1977) received the Marraro Prize of the American Catholic Historical Association and was translated into Italian. Schooling in Renaissance Italy (1989) received the Marraro Prize of the American Historical Association and was also translated into Italian. The Universities of the Italian Renaissance (2002) won the Marraro Prize of the American Historical Association. The European Renaissance in American Life (2006) is a light-hearted survey of the role of the Renaissance in popular culture. The University of Mantua, the Gonzaga, and the Jesuits 1584-1630 (2009) describes how the duke of Mantua and the Jesuits created a civic-Jesuit university. The Jesuits and Italian Universities 1548-1773 (2017) received the 2018 Marraro Prize of the American Catholic Historical Association. In 2019 Grendler published Jesuit Schools and Universities in Europe 1548-1773, a short survey of Jesuit education throughout Europe. Humanism, Universities, and Jesuit Education in Late Renaissance Italy (2022) consists of twenty articles published between 2006 and 2019 and one new article.

Paul F. Grendler was editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of the Renaissance (6 volumes, 1999), which won the Dartmouth Medal of the American Library Association as the best reference work of the year, plus the Roland H. Bainton Prize. Grendler was also editor-in-chief of Renaissance: An Encyclopedia for Students (4 volumes, 2004) intended for grades 9 and 10. Grendler has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Villa I Tatti (The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence), the Woodrow Wilson International Center, The Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada, and other organizations.

Grendler has been president of the Renaissance Society of America, which awarded him its Paul Oskar Kristeller Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, the Society for Italian Historical Studies, which awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, and the American Catholic Historical Association. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2002. In 2014 he received the Premio Internazionale Galileo Galilei, awarded annually to a non-Italian who has made a major contribution to scholarship about Italy in her or his career. In 2018 he was awarded the George H. Ganss, S.J., Award for his contributions to the field of Jesuit Studies. Professor Grendler now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he continues to do research and play golf badly.


Tortorice: Well, I guess we’re in business. So. Well, today is January 12th, 2022. I’m John Tortorice, director emeritus of the Mosse program at UW Madison, and I’m delighted and honored to welcome Paul F. Grendler professor emeritus of history at the University of Toronto, to the Mosse oral history project. Professor Grendler received his doctorate in history in 1964 under the direction of George L. Mosse. Thank you so much, Paul, if I may, for agreeing to do this.

Grendler: I’m happy to do it. It brings back memories.

Tortorice: Great, so we’ll start at the beginning. When and where were you born?

Grendler: I was born on May 24, 1936. It’s a while ago, in a little town called Armstrong, Iowa, population 700, and my ancestors were really very modest. My grandparents on my father’s side came from Silesia, which is now part of Poland, sometime between 1880 and 1890. My grandparents on my mother’s side came from Luxembourg sometime between 1890 and 1900. I don’t really know the dates. My parents were really, were not very wealthy. They were really blue collar, etc. One interesting thing about both my parents. They both taught one-room country schools in counties in northern Iowa as adults. My father did it from 1924 until 1942, that’s 18 years, and my mother did it from 1926 to 1935. Neither ever had the opportunity to go to university. But you could do this sort of teaching if you had an extension course, which was a few weeks of training in the summer, and then they sort of turned you loose. My father stopped doing this in 1942 because it simply no longer supported a family. He just didn’t earn enough. They married in 1935 and by 1942 they had two sons and a third child on the way. So he became a school custodian, which meant that he was in charge of cleaning the school and running the boiler. You had to have a boiler license to do that, you know, these gigantic furnaces that burned coal to produce steam to heat the building and all that sort of thing.


I grew up in a whole bunch of small towns. The smallest had 150 people, the largest had a magnificent total of three thousand people. I graduated from high school in Greene, Iowa, which has three e’s in it, in the northern part of the state, not too far from the Minnesota border. It had a population of 1,300 and now has a population of about 1,000. I got my high school diploma in 1953. I started college at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. Why Loras College? Well, two reasons, first because it was Catholic and my parents were Catholic. Second they offered a competitive examination in which the reward was free tuition. And so one spring morning I went down to Waterloo, a bigger town, and along with about fifty other students wrote an exam for about three hours. And the same thing happened in a half dozen other places in northern Iowa and I assume southern Wisconsin and so forth. And I was very fortunate in that I was one of the six winners, which meant free tuition. Now free tuition was only, tuition was only three hundred dollars, but it still meant a great deal to my parents. I should explain that even when I was in high school it was always a given that I and my two brothers would go to college. I mean, they [my parents] didn’t have the opportunity, but they were determined that we would. So in addition to going to high school I also had jobs before and after school and later on so did my two younger brothers. I started college at Loras in the fall of 1953. My parents very sensibly thought I should study to become a certified public accountant because I was very good at math. I didn’t want to do that. All I really wanted to do is to play the piano and I also played the trombone. So I became a music major. And that seemed to go fairly well. Then my piano teacher and I thought that I needed to broaden my horizons and go to a conservatory of music. And so I did, I played a tape. I played a Beethoven piano sonata and applied to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. And to my surprise, they accepted me. So I left Loras College in 1956 and began studying at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in the fall of 1956.


One of the great things about conservatories is you meet all sorts of very, very good musicians, young musicians, playing all sorts of music, and you learn very quickly how good you are not. I realized I really wasn’t that good. I didn’t have a good ear. That is, I didn’t have perfect pitch. I didn’t have particularly good relative pitch either. I realized that my career would be as a high school music teacher, which is a very honorable profession, but I didn’t think it was for me. I’m not sure I would have been very good at dealing with a bunch of teenagers, leading them in a chorus or band. So, I transferred to Oberlin College. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. It was either history or English. I’d always had an interest in history. When I was in Greene, Iowa, in high school, the public library got one by one the six volumes of Winston Churchill’s history of the Second World War and I read them as they came out. Whole books, even the appendices. I enjoyed it. So I always had an interest in history. So I opted for history.

Then in my senior year at Oberlin, George Kren—he, by the way, is the first of the three Georges I’m going to talk about. George Kren (1926-2000) was there on a one-year appointment while he was finishing his dissertation to substitute for somebody who was on leave and I took three courses with him. One was a survey of European history in the 19th and 20th centuries. Another one was a seminar on historiography, which I enjoyed. And the third was a reading course in which I did, I wrote a paper on the clerical fascist regime of Austria in the 1920s and 1930s. You know that George Kren came from Austria, I’m sure. And that he and his sister and later the rest of the family escaped in 1938 and then came to the United States, etc. You probably know all this.

I’m going to say one other thing about Oberlin before I talk about applying to graduate school. I continued to have jobs all the way through my undergraduate years. My last two years. I was a waiter at the Oberlin Inn. Now, they hired about sixteen to twenty students to be their waiters, waiters and waitresses, men and women. This was part of the operation of the restaurant. What we got were tips. And of course, we pooled the tips. And every year they elected, that is the waiters themselves elected co-head waiters. We had to have two, because there always had to be two because the [student] schedules were so complex. And for my senior year, they elected me co-head waiter at the Oberlin Inn. I know this sounds crazy, but I’m really proud of that. I mean I’ve been president of three scholarly organizations, but I think the one that meant the most was being elected co-head waiter. In addition to waiting tables, my job was to do the scheduling, which was sometimes complex.


The other thing about Oberlin, I’m going to mention, is even though George Kren was really a historian of modern Europe, modern Germany, to be particular, I developed an interest in the Reformation in my last year or so at Oberlin. This was because at that time there was a Protestant, I’ve forgotten the denomination, graduate school of theology on campus with a few graduate students in theology. And they had had their own library, and it was a quiet place to study. So I went over there to study and the main reading room, the main room really, there were a whole lot of standard works on the Protestant Reformation. And I started reading them and found them interesting. So I really wanted to study something having to do with the Protestant Reformation. The other thing about my preparation is this: I knew I needed more language preparation. I had two years of Latin at Loras and one year of French at Oberlin. So in the summer of 1959, when I graduated, I stayed at Oberlin for the summer. I worked full-time at the Oberlin Inn that summer and I took an intense course in German, three hours in the morning plus homework and all that sort of thing. So that was really my preparation for going to Wisconsin.

Now Kren recommended that I go to Wisconsin to study with George Mosse. I had no idea who George Mosse was and I wasn’t bright enough to look up his works at that time. But George Kren strongly recommended that I go there. I applied to four or five different places. And I think I was turned down by one and accepted by two or three others. And I was accepted by Wisconsin and above all they gave me a non-resident tuition remission, which meant that I didn’t have to pay non-resident tuition. And tuition as a state resident, which they made me into, it really was almost nothing. I was very grateful for that and I’m very grateful that Mosse accepted me. I sometimes wonder why. I had a very mixed record to put it mildly. But I assume it was George Kren’s letter and maybe the Oberlin undergraduate training that got me in. Anyway, I got there.


So I arrived at Madison in the fall of 1959. Mosse did not do a seminar in the fall semester. So I signed up for Henry Hill’s (1907-1990) seminar and it was on the French Revolution. You know that Mosse and Hill were great friends.

Tortorice: Yes.

Grendler: And I also took Hill’s course on French history of some sort as well, and that worked out very well. There were some very good historians who did French history in his seminar, they were all very competent. They never, none of them ever became famous. My introduction to Mosse was in the first of his four semester [lecture] sequence. What did he call it? I think he called it the Cultural History of Western Europe or something like that.

Tortorice: That’s correct. Yes, the first one I think was 1500, Europe 1500 to 1600, something like that, yes, it was on the 16th century.

Grendler: Yes. The first one was on the 16th century. Which was what I wanted to study and they were exciting lectures. He talked about Calvin, he talked about Luther, he talked about popular piety. He talked about the Baroque synthesis, all of which was really exciting and very interesting. And he was also really up-to-date. I remember some time in that first semester he mentioned the Annales school of French historians. Now, this is 1959 and I’m not sure that many historians in North America knew what the Annales people were like, but he knew them. And another small story. At one point he said something about Luther that I just didn’t believe. He said Luther said this, or was influenced by the late German mystics or something like that. That was totally new to me and I said, can this be right? Does he really know what he’s talking about? So at noon when the lecture was over, instead of getting lunch, I dashed over to Memorial Library and looked up the sources, in translation of course. And I discovered, yeah, he had read the sources. And yes, you could read Luther in this fashion. So after that, I didn’t skip lunch. I took his word for it.


Tortorice: So what was Madison like when you arrived there, what was the reputation of the history department?

Grendler: Oh, I think it was, I believed it was, one of the three or four best history departments in North America. One of the reasons why I’m surprised they accepted me. They had some pretty famous people. You can just think of it. Well, the Americanists were very famous. I’m going to jump ahead a bit. Well, I’ll come back to this when we talk about 1967-68. I’ll talk to you then about what Bill O’Neill (1935-2016) had to say about the department. But, yes, it was a very well-known department and the graduate students that I knew were eager, willing, feisty, whatever term you want to use. There were also the people of Studies on the Left. I didn’t know them very well personally, but I knew they were there and they gave a kind of left-wing excitement to the campus. I mean, you could get into arguments. Well, we might call them discussions, we might call them arguments, in the Rathskeller on Marxism, on what America should do, the Cold War, anything you wanted to. And so I found it very, very stimulating. I roomed with a couple of other, at one point three other, graduate students. We sort of had a whole floor of an old house on, I think it was Johnson Street. I think that entire area was later transformed into university buildings, but at that time there were a number of rooming houses. And one year, I lived with someone who was studying French history with Hill, and two political scientists. So we had very good discussions. So it was really quite exciting, at least it was to me. And could I go on to the first seminar? The first seminar I had with Mosse?

Tortorice: Yes. Yes. Yes, I think talking a bit about what he what he was like in those seminars and the broad range of students. What kind of what kind of teacher was he?

Grendler: This was the second semester of my first year there. And it was a dissertation seminar. That is, he had some people who were writing chapters on their dissertation and he’d try to get them pushed through. So it had a very mixed group of students. Sy Drescher was finishing, writing chapters on [Alexis] de Tocqueville. And Sterling Fishman was doing his thesis on the Munich revolution of 1919. And Margaret Donovan was writing on [Nicolai] Berdyaev. They were pretty formidable people actually for a beginning graduate student. And the new people, newcomers, included Bob Soucy. He already had a master’s degree, I think from Kansas, but he was just starting at Wisconsin and you know, he went on to write several books on French fascism in the 1930s. And, um, let me see, I think Stanley Grossman was there. Those are the names that I remember. Eugene McGee was there. I don’t think he ever finished. I’m not sure he ever started, ever studied with Mosse, but he was in the seminar. And so the papers were on practically anything you can imagine. The discussion just flew back and forth, whether it was the Munich Revolution, or Marxist humanism, Tocqueville, and then maybe something on the 16th century. It was very exciting. And to be honest I was just trying to keep up. And Mosse, this was in his home, of course, and he served beer. There was someone there who really wasn’t very eagerly drinking beer. And I think Mosse said drink up, it’s very nourishing, drink your beer or something like that.

Mosse sort of sat back in a big chair with his pipe and he would usually choose another student to begin the discussion. We had to submit our papers in advance. So everyone had a chance to read the papers in advance. You came primed to discuss the paper and primed to find fault with it. That was the spirit of it, the idea was that you presented a paper which tried to say something new. And then the other members of the seminar would question you and pick apart whatever was missing or that didn’t seem right to them. So you had to defend your paper. Mosse would choose somebody to start the discussions. It was usually somebody whom he figured knew something about the topic or maybe just chose at random, I don’t know. And away we would go. It was very stimulating. You learned to defend yourself. You learned to defend your paper. And I think that was very excellent training. I don’t know if it would work for everybody. He said something like this in his memoir. But it worked for the people that I knew and the people that were in the seminar because I think most of us were fairly self-driven. We wanted to impress, of course. In my case. I knew I had to do well and also get A’s if I were to continue in graduate school because I didn’t have any money. So that was the way it was.

Oh. Early on, we knew that as graduate students, not only his students, but others knew that he was concentrating his attention on the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, even though he was very well-equipped and very learned on the sixteenth century Reformation and all that sort of thing. We knew at that time that he had really switched his research interests. And you could tell because topics in the nineteenth and twentieth century seemed to really excite him a bit more than talking about the Reformation. I don’t know, does this help to answer your question?


Tortorice: Yes. Well during your time there, Paul. I know that The Culture of Western Europe was published, that textbook.

Grendler: Yes, published in 1961 right after he finished, in my case, the four semesters. And so it must have occurred after the four semesters. Because the book was not available in the second semester of my second year there, because it was all new to us. And when The Culture of Western Europe came out, naturally I read it, and the curious sort of thing, I was a bit disappointed because the lectures, hearing the lecturers, was really more exciting than reading them. I don’t know. I realize that’s a common reaction. But that was my feeling and they were perfectly good. They were good in print but it was really more fun to hear and more exciting to hear them and see the interaction.

Tortorice: Well, he was a great teacher as you, well know, he was very, very challenging and and he made you participate and kept your interest. I think he, education was entertainment to some extent.

Grendler: Absolutely. Another reason that we knew that his interests had switched occurred in my second year there. This would be 1960-1961. His article in the Journal of the History of Ideas entitled “The Mystical Origins of National Socialism.” Now, I had to look up the title, but I remembered reading it when I was there. It came out in the Journal of the History of Ideas. In fact, I first learned of it because there was a big box of the offprints in his office. You realize at that time TAs didn’t have their own offices. So they used Mosse’s, I used Mosse’s office later as a TA in the second year, which I’ll talk about next. And I saw the articles there and the offprints and I took one for myself, and read it. So we knew that his interest, his research really had shifted into the nineteenth and especially the twentiethcentury. And if I remember correctly, the early Journal of the History of Ideas article was a first go at some of the material that occurred in The Crisis of German Ideology, which appeared a few years later. You can probably check this. That’s what I remember.


Tortorice: So in your field, the culture of Europe in the Sixteenth Century wasn’t published until a little later but he had written of course on the Reformation, Luther. So it, he did have a lot of resonance with the work that you ended up doing.

Grendler: Oh, sure. And Mosse and [Helmut] Koenigsberger (1918-2014), Europe in the Sixteenth Century on the Reformation was a very good textbook. I never used it in my courses because it never quite fit because I mostly taught Renaissance and that’s really a book on the Reformation. But it’s a good text, and he did that little survey called The Reformation as well. I don’t know if I read that, Mosse and Koenigsberger came out later. I don’t know if I read the Reformation text at that time or not.

Can I jump ahead to the summer of 1960? I started my master’s thesis that first year. The only language I could really handle was French. I went to Memorial Library to the rare book room. Mosse may have encouraged this, probably did, and they had a good collection of French historical pamphlets, French pamphlets of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century that dealt with views about the French wars of religion. This was from around the 1570s to about the 1630s, they had good collection of them and I started reading in them and I came up with a master’s thesis topic, which was on Pierre Charron his dates were 1541 to 1603. He was a French Neo-stoic and politique a particular slant on the French wars of religion and was at the same time a Neo-stoic philosopher. And I started studying him, and that was to be my master’s thesis. I did my first paper on Charron in Mosse’s seminar in the second semester.

Another thing about Mosse as a seminar director, sorry I’m going back and forth a bit. He really got after us. He would ask in the seminar: have you passed this test? Have you passed your German exam, etc. etc. At that time, everybody in European history had to pass a French exam and a German exam. Being very bold and foolish when I first arrived in September of 1959, I tried both exams and I failed both of the exams. So I took a German course in addition to my other courses I took German courses the first semester and the second semester to improve my German. And when he asked around in the second semester have you passed your German exam, I was happy to say, yes in January of 1960 I passed my German exam. Maybe that helped, I don’t know. And I passed the French exam the following fall. I really tried to get those out of the way.


Now, back to the summer of 1960, instead of being a good boy and finishing my MA thesis, I had enough money, barely enough, to buy a very cheap airline ticket, that enabled me to fly I think from Chicago to Paris. And I bought a youth hostel pass. And so I spent the summer of 1960 hitchhiking around Europe, France, Spain, Germany and, above all, Italy. Oh, I even got to Yugoslavia and Italy. And I really loved Italy. I arrived in Turin. I hitchhiked from Paris on a truck. And I loved it. Then I hitchhiked all the way down to Rome, Florence, back up to Venice etcetera. It was just so exciting because you would simply walk down the streets and the history is all around you. And you know Italian. And I knew that I really wanted to study the Italian Renaissance. I just had immediate empathy for it; I suppose that’s the right term.

A couple of other things about being in Europe that summer. At that time. Berlin was not yet divided by the wall. This is 1960. However, there was East Germany and West Germany. In order to get to Berlin while hitchhiking I had to find a ride with somebody at the Bavarian border with East Germany who was driving all the way to Berlin, because you couldn’t get off the autobahn. And so I found somebody willing to take me there. And so I hitchhiked to Berlin. And at that time you could go back and forth between East and West Berlin. No law. You could not go to Potsdam; that was outside the city limits. You needed special permission, which was apparently very difficult to get. But there were students from East Berlin there, and I remember one evening sitting outdoors with some American students and some students from East Berlin. The street was named Stalin Alee. [It is now named Karl Marx Strasse.] I’ll say it was one of those big streets in which the East German government had put up large apartment buildings for the workers in a sort of—I don’t know what you call it—brutalist modern style. We were sitting outside arguing the merits of east and west and all that sort of thing in what was pretty bad German and not perfect English. I was trying to make the point that the West was freer and the East German students said, oh, no, no, we’re totally free etc. In order to make my point. I raised my voice and started to say “Ulbricht ist ein Narr,” which is “Ulbricht [the leader of the East German state] is a fool,” and they asked me to be quiet. So I made my point. That’s the sort of thing we did as students. It seems kind of foolish now. But it was interesting. It was exciting.


Okay, I go back to Madison for the second year. I finished my master’s thesis. I also became Mosse’s teaching assistant for the Western Civ course. And at the very first meeting, I think, there were about four of us who were TAs were there. He looked at me and said, you are the administrative assistant, and I said, yes, Professor Mosse. I had no idea what the administrative assistant was. All I knew was that it meant one less quiz section [to teach], which was fine. I learned that what it meant is you dealt with the nuts and bolts of the matters. That is, one of the TAs has a terrible room, so it was my job to find him a better room, and all sorts of things like that, such as a student wanted to transfer from one section to another. And it was interesting. Of course I was a TA, which meant that I attended the lectures and did my quiz sections as well.

One story from that period which you might find amusing. And this occurred in January 1961 at the end of the first semester. At that time the academic year was different from what it now is. The first semester didn’t end until about two or three weeks into January. And the final exam was usually about the third week in January, give or take. And the exam schedule was announced in early January, right after the students came back. Mosse told me – I was going to hold office hours the next day using his office – that you’re going to have a parade of students who are going to come up with every possible excuse not to do the exam at the required time. And he said don’t give any excuses, don’t accept any excuse, they all have to do it at the same time. I said, yes, Professor Mosse. I didn’t know what he was talking about.

So I arrived the next day. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was using Mosse’s office, and there was a long line down the hallway around the corner, etc. in Bascom of students lined up to talk to me, to ask if they could postpone the exam. What was going on was there seemed to be a culture, especially on Langdon Street in the fraternities and sororities, that if you could skip the regularly scheduled exam and take the makeup exam, you’d have a better chance of doing well, because you would have a good idea what the exam was. I don’t think that was true. But I think that was the culture. Anyway, I heard every excuse you could imagine. The student who came in and said, I can’t come to the exam. Why not? Because my grandmother’s going to die, and I say, well that’s two weeks from now, how do you know your grandma’s going to die on the day of the exam? I just know she’s going to die. I said, no, you can’t do it.


I was there for about 45 minutes hearing all these excuses and getting kind of short tempered. And a young woman came in. She says, I can’t make the exam on January 20th, and I said, why not? And she said because I have an invitation to the inaugural ball. Remember this is January 1961. And I said, prove it. She reached into her purse and drew out a big white envelope that said The White House on the outside. I opened it and it said, President-elect and Mrs. Kennedy had the honor of inviting Jane Smith, or whatever her name was, to the inaugural ball at such and such a hotel, at such and such a time, etc. She really did have an invitation to the inaugural ball. I talked to her, it appeared that her father had worked for the Kennedy campaign in Wisconsin. And as a reward she and her family were able to go to Washington for the inaugural celebrations. Well, Mosse said don’t accept any excuses, but I realized this was not something that a TA should decide. So I said I’d talk to Professor Mosse and we’ll see about this. So the next day I did, I explained the circumstances. He laughed and said let her go. It has a coda. One of my jobs was to proctor the final exam, the makeup exam, because even when you say no to all the people who want an extension, there always are in the middle of January in Madison a couple of people who catch pneumonia, and that sort of thing. So my job was to proctor the handful of students who didn’t make the exam including this young woman. After it was over I asked her how was the inaugural ball and she just lit up. It was obviously the most exciting thing that ever happened in her young life. So that was kind of fun. That was kind of interesting.

Tortorice: So you then were what, the only student, really doctoral student working in specifically, in Italian history at that time?

Grendler: I was the only one in the entire department working on Italian history.

Tortorice: And the topic of your thesis was Anton Francesco Doni (1513-1574), the critic. Did you choose that or was that George?


Grendler: Oh, that was the third George. That was Giorgio Spini (1916-2006).

Tortorice: Oh, yes, Giorgio Spini.

Grendler: Yes now, my third year there, 1961-62, Mosse was on leave. And Giorgio Spini substituted for him the first semester. Giorgio Spini was a very unusual man. Absolutely brilliant historian, well known, famous in Italy. And he spoke excellent English. Why? He told me, Spini did, that his father was an Anglophile. And so his father insisted that Giorgio and his siblings learn English when they grew up instead of French, which was the normal language that was taught in the Liceo. Italian schools didn’t really teach much English at all. In the Liceo you learned Italian, Latin etc., and if you did a foreign language, you did, usually, French. Or during the fascist era in which he grew up when he went to high school maybe they would learn German. I don’t know. Spini was a very unusual guy. He was a socialist and that’s not unusual, a committed socialist. And he was also a Waldensian. Now who are Waldensians? It’s a Protestant group whose roots go back to the Middle Ages. I know that’s complicated and I will not explain it. But he is a Protestant living in Italy, a very Catholic country. If you like, most religions in Italy at the time were either Catholicism or Marxism. Well, he was a Marxist. But he was not a Catholic, he was a Waldensian. And he was an absolutely great historian. He wrote books on the sixteenth century and the seventeenth century and the nineteenth century, all were about Italy. He wrote a book about Puritan thought in North America. The title of the book was – I’m giving it to you in English rather than Italian—The Autobiography of a Young America. It was a study of Puritan thought, especially Puritan historical thought in the seventeenth century up to about 1776 and thereabouts. He was absolutely fascinated with Puritan thought. That should ring a bell with you. You remember The Holy Pretense?

Tortorice: Yes.

Grendler: I don’t know how Mosse and Spini got together, but they knew each other. I don’t know how or why, but one of the reasons was that Spini appreciated and understood Mosse’s The Holy Pretense (1957) and I think that’s how they got together and Spini praised the book, actually. I’ll add one other thing to this before, getting on to Spini as a teacher, because it’s kind of interesting. He wrote the book on colonial America, the Puritans and all that, in Italian. It was never translated into English. But there was a rave review of it in the American Historical Review. I found out this later and eventually I met Winton Solberg who was a Colonial American historian at the University of Illinois. [He was] probably the only American historian of the colonial period who read Italian and he did the review in the American Historical Review of Spini’s book. He said it was a superb book. So that’s probably how Spini and Mosse got together.


He substituted for Mosse, and he was a very brilliant lecturer and I was his assistant as well. Why? Because I was the only [graduate] student in the department who knew anything about Italy, I think. I graded papers for Spini. I looked up references for him because he was doing a textbook on Modern Europe in Italian. I checked references for him. I would mail things, going to the post office. But my most important job was to help steer him through the maze of a North American university, I’d meet him in the morning at his office after he’d been at home for a couple of days and his mailbox would be full of pieces of paper, and he would say, Paul what do I do with this? And so we’d go through the pieces of paper and I explained this one came from the dean, but you can throw it away, or this one is an invitation to speak from a student group. And I explained what the student group was, and that sort of thing. And he was very grateful and he really did want to talk to students and he met with a fair number of groups and so forth. He even wrote a little book after his year in Madison in Italian called America in 1962. Which had some interesting things to say. And it sort of hinted at the restlessness of young people from 1962 or thereabouts. Anyway, Spini gave me the thesis topic on Anton Francesco Doni (1513-1574).

I should explain that when I came back from Italy after the summer hitchhiking around Europe that in addition to my graduate studies and teaching assistantship, I also started beginning Italian courses. And I took Italian course that summer, that fall, I did about three and a half or four years of Italian at Madison in my last years there. I knew I had to improve my Italian. The seminar paper I did for Spini was my first crack at trying to understand Anton Francesco Doni, and he was very charitable in my work. What else would you like to know?


Tortorice: Well before we move on from Spini, I once, he said once that when he was in Madison, he recalled the fierce winds and the huge steaks but yes.

Grendler: Oh, I want to say a couple of other things about Spini which might interest you. Gian Napoleone Orsini (1903-1976) taught in Madison in the Comparative Literature Department, I think it was, and I had a course with him on the Italian Renaissance. I’m talking about Renaissance Literature. And again, he was very generous with me and my [future] wife Marcella, because we were just sort of beginning, at least I was just beginning in Italian. Spini and Orsini got together. They were both from Italy, Orsini was older. He left after the Second World War because he was totally disgusted with the Italian scene in some fashion or other, and he was very distinguished. He wrote a big book on Benedetto Croce and he wrote a number of other books. And what I learned indirectly from both Orsini and Spini at one time or another is that they were both in the opposition to Fascism. Not the armed opposition, carrying guns, etc., but in the opposition behind the scenes, in the late 1930s and in the 1940s. Except they didn’t know each other at the time and they did different things. I mean, Orsini was a courier carrying messages back and forth from Rome to Milan. Somehow he had a reason to go back and forth. And Spini was in Florence. But they did not know each other at the time. They talked about their experiences. Except of course, both of them told me that they disagreed in politics, Italian politics. Spini was on the left, he was a socialist. And Orsini, I think, was a bit more conservative. So they didn’t agree in politics, but they did agree on a lot of other things. So, it must have been kind of interesting for them to get together.

Tortorice: Yes, so you received your doctorate in 1964, who was on your committee, besides Professor George Mosse?


Grendler: George Mosse, Gaines Post (1902-1987). Now Gaines Post was the medievalist there at the time, a distinguished scholar in medieval law studies. He was tasked with giving a course on the Italian Renaissance except he really didn’t agree that the Italian Renaissance ever existed. He was very much a student of Charles Homer Haskins (1870-1937), I mean he really was. Haskins wrote a infamous or famous book—take your choice—that said the real Renaissance was in the twelvth century and he wrote very disparagingly about the Italian Renaissance. He said it never really existed, it just repeated what they did in the twelvth century, and all that sort of stuff. Gaines Post was really in that school. So he had to give a course on the Italian Renaissance, which I took, and frankly he was a terrible lecturer; he didn’t really believe in the topic. So he was on the dissertation committee. There was somebody I think from the philosophy department.

By the way, I did a minor, not in history, but in philosophy, which meant the history of philosophy and I did four courses on philosophy. I did a course on medieval philosophy under Julius Weinberg (1908-1971) who was well known, of course; on nineteenth century philosophers, in which we read Marx, and the others and Schopenhauer, a course on Hegel, and I took a fourth course, I forgot what it was. Anyway, I had the bright idea that since I’m specializing in the Italian Renaissance that I’d love to do a reading course in Renaissance philosophy. So I gathered together the texts which I wanted to read, and I went to Professor Weinberg and said, I’d like to do a course in Renaissance philosophy as a reading course with you. I knew he should know this material, and he said, no, you have to get permission from the chair of the department. I eventually figured out that this was a device to avoid reading courses. That’s what I figured out. Anyway, I went to the chair and presented my request and the books I wanted to read in Renaissance philosophy, and he just sneered at the idea. He said there was no philosophy in the Renaissance. That was a fairly common idea. The idea was that philosophy jumped from the late Middle Ages to Descartes, so there was no real philosophy in the Middle Ages—I’m sorry—in the Renaissance, and he denied my request. So instead, I think I took a course on Hegel, which was kind of fun. But still, I got my revenge, if you like, years later, when I contributed to the Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (1989), a very good volume, which proved I think beyond doubt that there was philosophy in the Renaissance. It was 800 pages on Renaissance philosophy.


So that’s just a sideline. The point of all this was the Renaissance wasn’t a very big topic in North America. Medieval history did very well, but Renaissance really was something new. The people that created the Italian Renaissance studies in North America were the great German Jewish refugee scholars. Mosse was one kind of refugee scholar, but he really wasn’t interested in the Renaissance. But the people who created the field were Hans Baron (1900-1988), who never really held a long-term position in American academic life, because he had serious hearing problems, an illness which caused a loss of hearing, and used a hearing aid, he had problems. But he was a wonderful scholar and everybody read his books. He wrote a very famous book called The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance in 1955. And he was at the Newberry Library. He also did seminars here and there and so on. I actually met him. Then there was Paul Oskar Kristeller (1905-1999) at Columbia University who again came from Germany via Italy and was a very distinguished historian of Renaissance philosophy. There was Felix Gilbert (1905-1991) who did a book on Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Francesco Giucciardini (1483-1540) and he was at Bryn Mawr and eventually the Institute of Adanced Studies. It was people like Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) in art history, people like this, who created the field.

And I also used to ask a trick question of my students when I did my third- and fourth-year [junior and senior] undergraduate course at Toronto on the Italian Renaissance. Which two political figures inadvertently created the field or had a huge influence on Italian Renaissance studies in North America? It’s a trick question. The answers are of course Adolf Hitler and William Fulbright, because the Fulbright Act enabled people like me and many others of my generation to go to Italy to study, to write our dissertations. Anyway, that’s probably enough about that.


Tortorice: That’s fascinating.

Grendler: It is, I met Kristeller and Baron and Gilbert as well in the course of my career mostly after I finished my studies at Wisconsin. They were influential on me and everybody else because I read their books, I was influenced by what they thought. They read, you know, the first substantial article I sent to what is now called Renaissance Quarterly, Kristeller read it and said it was okay. They were influential and they were very generous to young scholars. Sorry. Go ahead.

Tortorice: Did you make use of the Newberry Library? When you were doing your research?

Grendler: Oh, yeah. I went there for my research, for my master’s thesis. And later, in 1964, the summer after my first year of teaching at Pittsburgh, I got a fellowship, a short-term grant really, to spend the summer at the Newberry Library, it was the summer of 1964 before I went off to the University of Toronto. And that’s when I met Hans Baron. Because I think he was on the committee and helped me get the fellowship. But yes, oh yes, I did use the Newberry Library. I used it frequently over the years because their collection in my field is really superb.

Tortorice: So that, is there anything else you want to say about the Madison years prior to getting your first job?

Grendler: Yeah, I will say one thing. This is not, it speaks very well of Mosse, and the way we looked at him and the care that he took for his students. I met my future wife, Marcella McCann, in the Calvinism seminar of Mosse. And I got the Fulbright [Fellowship] probably because Spini and Mosse wrote letters on my behalf. Now Marcella did her first two years of study at Madison, where she got her master’s degree, funded by the Woodrow Wilson fellowships. And she was promised a teaching assistantship when she would come back. Now we got married in the summer of 1962. And I had the Fulbright and we went off to Italy in September of 1962. We spent the year 1962-63 in Italy where I researched my dissertation on Anton Francesco Doni and Marcella was there as well. And she helped me at times. We both wanted to come back to Madison for the year 1963-64, me to finish writing my dissertation, and Marcella for her third year of residence. And the department offered me a teaching assistantship, but they wouldn’t give Marcella a teaching assistantship. The reason was because we were married, we were supposed to live together on one teaching assistantship, which, by the way, didn’t pay very much. And I’d already borrowed money so the two of us could go to Italy for my Fulbright year, I think about a thousand dollars. I don’t know what the Fulbright paid, but it was enough for one person but not enough for two. We had developed the very bad habit of eating three meals a day. So I wrote to Mosse from Italy saying basically, help. I explained the situation and said, can you give me some help? Can you get me a job for the first year while I finish my dissertation?


He came through and I got my teaching job without my dissertation, a job as lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh. He really was very thoughtful. He never said anything about the policy, as I understood it anyway, in the department of history, but he went out of his way to help one of his students get a job at the University of Pittsburgh for one year. I think the fact that Samuel Hays (1921-2017) who was then the chair at Pittsburgh, who Mosse knew from Iowa, was the chair at Pittsburgh, and Sy Drescher was teaching at Pittsburgh, probably helped as well. So Mosse was very, very helpful. As graduate students our nickname for people like him was “a good provider.” He was known as a graduate director who worked his tail off to help his students get jobs.

Tortorice: He really did, you know, something he really appreciated. You know, he once told me that he’d basically stopped taking graduate students in 1972 because he couldn’t do what he did for you and so many others that is, he couldn’t place them. And he felt that to put students through such a rigorous, rigorous, education and not have something at the end for them to really. So he stopped in 72. He took a few more after that, but it was a very different time in the sixties in the humanities, wasn’t it?


Grendler: I mean, I don’t want to put it in loose terms, but practically everybody who got a Ph. D. got a job at that time. And that sounds wonderful. I mean it wasn’t that we were so great. We weren’t, but there were so many positions because universities were still expanding. This was true in Canada as well, I’ll talk about that a bit later, I’ll go on to 1967-68, if you like.

Tortorice: Sure. Yes, that would be great.

Grendler: That was my last year at Wisconsin. And that was a very different year. After I’d been at Toronto for three years I applied for a fellowship to The Institute for Research in the Humanities at Madison. I was in the process of turning my thesis into a book and I thought that would be a good place to do it. And so I got the fellowship and I was at the Institute for Research in the Humanities in the academic year 1967-68. That was a pretty exciting year to use an understatement; that was when the demonstrations against the Vietnam War really got started, and the demonstrations against Dow Chemical. You know that the building to which the Dow Chemical people came was very close to the Old Observatory so we saw the students going there. And also the Old Observator was also on the route that students took to the Ag building where Harvey Goldberg was lecturing. So I saw the students going, from my study I saw all the students going back and forth to Harvey Goldberg’s lectures. It was a very exciting year, partly because of the student demonstrations, partly because of the people who were at the Institute at that time. And this really speaks to the quality of humanities departments at Wisconsin at that time.

The prominent members of the Institute were Kenneth Setton (1914-1995) who was the director, who was a very distinguished medievalist. He later went on to the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. And then there was Friedrich or Fritz Solmsen (1904-1989) who was a famous classicist, again someone who had come from Germany, and Emmett Bennett was there, again a classicist. He was one of the people who deciphered Linear B that was the ancient Mycenaean script. It was so complicated. I think he also worked in the Second World War unlocking the Japanese code, even though he didn’t know any Japanese. And Germaine Brée (1907-2001) in French was there as well. They didn’t all show up every day, but Solmsen and Bennett and Setton were there every day. And we would have bag lunches together. I was alone that year because Marcella my wife was then in Florence, Italy, researching her dissertation. I actually flew there for a long Christmas break and came back and so forth. But anyway, it was fun. It was really rubbing elbows with or languages with some pretty distinguished people. For example, at one point, Setton, who prided himself on being a good linguist, started speaking Latin at our bag lunches, and he’d go around asking people questions in Latin. This was easy for Solmsen and Bennett to respond. It was not easy for me and the couple of young scholars from the University of Wisconsin who had years off at the Institute. But we tried to keep up with them and I managed to stammer out some Latin. I decided I needed to do something about this. So I immediately enrolled in a correspondence course in Cicero to try to keep up with those guys.


The other exciting thing was, of course, were the demonstrations. At that time I had a friend in the department of history Bill O’Neill, William L. O’Neill (1935-2016), who later went on to Rutgers and became a pretty distinguished historian of twentieth-century American history. Bill was a friend because we shared an office at Pittsburgh in 1963-64 and now he was at Madison in the Department of History. He got his degree at Berkeley in 1963 and, of course, the student demonstrations began at Berkeley before they came to Madison and other campuses. And Bill would sort of fill me in on what had happened at Berkeley, and predict what was going to happen next at Madison. I remember there was one very climactic meeting of the entire faculty after the Dow Chemical demonstrations, in which the entire faculty met to discuss what to do. And I think it had to do with what policies the administration should follow and it was a kind of referendum on the dean, I don’t remember all the details. I just remember that the whole faculty was there. I think we met in one of those big auditoriums and Bill said, why don’t you come along? So I did, even though I wasn’t a member of the faculty. Mosse spoke and other people spoke. It really sort of was mesmerizing to understand how these distinguished scholars, Mosse and the others, understood what was going on. Mosse understood very well. He spoke and said you can’t deny that this is because of the war; it isn’t going to end unless the war ends, or something to that effect.

Bill O’Neill also said something else that struck me at the time. You know, he was a member of the department. I wasn’t a member of the department, although I was invited to the department lunches, which met periodically for the whole department. But then the untenured would leave, and that’s when I left. What Bill said was at that time there were three leaders of the department of history, Merrill Jensen (1905-1980), Merle Curti (1897-1996), and Mosse. Bill basically said if those three agreed on a policy, usually the department would do it. That’s all I can really tell you about how the department operated at that time.


Tortorice: That’s fascinating. So you, well, let’s move on to your career. You’ve spent, you spent most of your career teaching at Toronto. When did you get that job?

Grendler: The summer of 1964, while I was at Pittsburgh, I was applying for other positions because the Pittsburgh position was only one year. I knew that, I was substituting for somebody who was on leave. And I was fortunate and I got the position at Toronto. Oh that reminds me. I defended my dissertation on a July day in 1964 that was scheduled in advance. It was the day after Goldwater gave his famous speech at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco saying, what was his first statement? Can you help me?

Tortorice: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

Grendler: Right, right. Anyway, I’d been up practically all night watching the convention and so had everybody else on my committee. And I’m pretty sure that probably helped me in my defense because there were a couple of cracks that had more to do with Goldwater and current times than the sixteenth century. So I think we were all a bit hungover, if you don’t mind the expression. But anyway, I passed.

Now the University of Toronto. Toronto was undergoing a vast expansion. Before the 1960s it was a relatively small university, that taught Canadian history, maybe one or two courses in American history, English history, of course, and medieval history. But they decided to expand. This was under a conservative government, which realized it was necessary for the good of Ontario, for the economy, for the students, for everybody. So they’re in the midst of a vast expansion. Up to that point all the professors in the department had either gotten their degrees from the University of Toronto or from Oxford or one or two had gotten their degrees from Harvard. But the pipeline from Oxford had dried up and there weren’t enough Harvardians to go around. So they had to get people from the United States from places like Wisconsin and Berkeley and Ohio State and so forth. My predecessor [in Italian Renaissance history] was an English scholar who went back to England after a year or two at Toronto, and decided to stay in England. So, they needed an Italian Renaissance historian. I applied for the job, and I got the position. And what I basically did was teach in the Toronto equivalent of the Western Civ course, I lectured on the period 1500 to the present, something like that. I taught an upper level team-taught course on early modern Europe from 1400-1815, and I did a course on the Italian Renaissance, and frequently I did a course of my own choosing. For example, I did a course on the history of censorship, which was an outgrowth of a book that I did. That was a fun course. That was for what we called third- and fourth-year students; in an American university, those were juniors and seniors. And, of course, I did a graduate seminar and took students in the Italian Renaissance.


It was a very good department and I had some very good friends in it. It was a very large department at that time. The largest part was Canadian history of course, a small American history department, and a very large European history starting with the Middle Ages onwards. And there was a good friend of mine, a colleague, who did Spanish history, and another colleague who really was supposed to be a French historian but also did Portuguese history and was fluent in Portuguese. We used to get together and discuss things like what was going on in Italy. You know that this was a period of all sorts of things, demonstrations and outbreaks and the red brigades and so forth in Italy in the 1970s. And it was a period in which Spain almost reverted to fascism in 1975. And there was Portugal. So we discussed these events, we had sort of a little cabal. It was also a period in which the University of Toronto Press, or rather, the people doing Renaissance studies mostly outside the history department, embarked on something called “The Collected Works of Erasmus.” It is a gigantic enterprise, which has now published something like seventy-five volumes of Erasmus’ works in English translation, and I was part of that. So it was a very exciting period.

My graduate course was in Italian Renaissance studies. And the idea is that they hired all those young people, many from the United States, in order to make Toronto a really important graduate center in history for the country of Canada. I had six students who finished their degrees in Italian Renaissance history under my direction. At one point four of them taught Italian Renaissance history in English Canadian universities. One of them eventually took my position when I took early retirement in 1998. And I had a couple of American students and one of them now teaches in John Carroll University, and the other was an American Jesuit who now teaches in the Jesuit university called the Gregorian University in Rome. He is also the vice rector there. One of the reasons is that he’s very good at languages. He speaks English, fluent Italian, and fluent Spanish, which is ideal for the kind of studies he does. They all ended up being publishing scholars, some much more than others. This is really the product of their determination and their intelligence and their hard work. But I tried to help and I learned from Mosse, basically, that once a good student comes up with the dissertation topic, you help, but you get out of their way and then you try to help find them jobs. That I learned from Mosse and, as I said, it had more to do with them than with me. But they managed to do it. It got very difficult later on and I used to have a speech that I would tell students when they came to me and said, I want to study Italian Renaissance history at the graduate level. I would say to them, yes, that’s fine, that’s wonderful, do it if that’s what you really want to do for the next four or five years more than anything else in your life. But don’t count on any job in the academic world afterwards because it’s just terrible. If you still want to do it, okay. But know what you’re getting into. And a couple of them did get into it, and did find jobs although it was difficult. So, I greatly understand what Mosse did.


Tortorice: I think it now, it’s very difficult as you know, it’s really unfortunate. Well, let’s get on to your research interests and what you’ve published in and the kind of larger questions that you explored in your research, over your lifetime.

Grendler: Well. My first book was really an expansion of my dissertation. My dissertation was on Anton Francesco Doni. The book was called Critics of the Italian World 1530-1560 (1969) and involved three authors, Doni, Ortensio Lando, and Nicolò Franco, all of whom were sort of critics of the Italian world of the sixteenth century. They didn’t like humanism. They criticized Catholicism at the time. They didn’t like the social structure. And it turned out they wrote book after book in the vernacular, in Italian, rather than in Latin, which appealed to a popular audience. In a way, I learned a bit from Mosse. Remember in his earlier years he was fascinated by the study of second-rate intellectuals because they really tell you what the people are thinking about or following etc. In a way Doni, Lando, and Franco were the equivalent of the kind of second-rate intellectuals in Germany that were part of Mosse’s studies. And so I studied them and wrote a book on them. The reaction was kind of curious. The American reviewers didn’t know what I was doing. They didn’t really understand what I was doing, because these people weren’t important literary figures. So the Italian literature people didn’t understand it. And the people in history said why study these guys? The Italian reviewers understood perfectly well what I was doing and it became a pioneering work. Now there’s a whole industry thanks to the internet and so forth. There are now critical editions of all the works that I scrambled to find copies of in the libraries, and sometimes they would buy a copy of a sixteenth century-edition. That was the first book.

The second book was a study of, the title is, let’s see if I can remember it, The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press 1540 to 1605 (1977) I was absolutely fascinated with the vernacular press, I wanted to learn more about it. So I started working in the Venetian archive because this was the most important publisher of books in Italy. It was about the biggest publisher in Europe, with the exception of Paris, in the sixteenth century. So I start looking in the archive for references, documents about the press and how they chose authors, and what the relationships with them were. I didn’t find much. But I did stumble onto the archive of the Roman Inquisition in Venice, the records were there in Venice, rather than in Rome. And I found them absolutely fascinating. No one had really begun to study these records before. So I wrote a book on the Inquisition. My question was, how effective was the Inquisition, I’m sorry, the Index, the Inquisition was really the enforcement agent for the Index of Prohibited Books. It really was on the Index and the Inquisition. My question was, how effective was it in practice? Did it keep out Lutheran books? Did it wall off Italy from scholarship and learning that was Protestant-oriented? Or was Protestant oriented but didn’t really have much to do with religion, from the rest of Europe? And my conclusions were that it was a very mixed bag. Sometimes the index and the inquisition were effective. They did stop a lot of Protestant books from entering Italy. But it was never totally effective, I mean, this was Italy after all. And at the same time, it did not block off Italy from learning about developments in medicine and law and biology and everything else. Italian professors did get books that were written by Protestants in northern Europe, they did get them into Italy. So it was really a case study of how in practice the Index and Inquisition worked. And here this is really part of what I have tried to do my entire life as a scholar.


Again there’s some connection with Mosse. What I have tried to do is to start with a question. Why did this happen? Now, what usually happens is I start with a very bad, general question, but as I get into the research, I start to come up with better questions. I come up with more refined questions that get more into the details. The other thing I try to do is, I try to go to the original sources, whether they’re printed sources or archival sources, as soon as possible. I don’t spend a lot of time reading the secondary literature in advance. I do a little bit of it, but I try to get into the original sources as soon as I can. So I’ll start with a fresh eye, with a fresh mind. I won’t be influenced too much by whatever is in the secondary literature. And then when I know my way around and begin to formulate hypotheses, then I’ll go back to read the secondary literature. I usually do it in a hurry, because I now know what I’m looking for and what isn’t very useful to me. So I gradually find my thesis or my argument. And when this happens, I keep looking for evidence. And when I find more evidence that seems to fit my hypothesis I know I’m on the right track. If I find evidence that’s archival or printed, or by someone that was written at the time, and it doesn’t fit, I have to go back and adjust my hypothesis or maybe discard it. Eventually I get to the point where I’m pretty sure of what I know. Then I have to write it up in a way that everyone else can understand. There is some of Mosse in what I do. I think Mosse also approached scholarship in terms of questions. You know his work better than I do. You can probably correct me if I’m wrong on this. Mosse also had a great sense of curiosity and imagination. Mine doesn’t begin to compare with his but I try to have some curiosity and some imagination. Nothing, nothing compared to his. But I think that also matters.

Ah. My second book. The English language audience, scholars from America, Canada and England, liked it very much; the Italians hated it. Why? Because at that time—it appeared in 1977—Italian scholarship was very much dominated by Marxism and anti-clericalism. And there was very much the idea that the Counter-Reformation really shut down Italy. It walled-off Italy from becoming modern, that it really shut down Italy. [The Counter-Reformation] was the cause of all of Italy’s ailments in the modern world ever since. Now there’s some truth to that, but it’s vastly exaggerated. So they disliked my book because it didn’t prove that thesis; in fact, it sort of said the opposite, but it was a very mixed bag, I’m happy to say. When I did the book on the Venetian press, I wanted to use the Inquisition archives in Rome but they were closed. So I went to Rome and I sort of asked around in the Vatican library and the Vatican archive and so forth. And of course they weren’t open to scholars. What I was told was you had to get a cardinal to help you get access, who can intervene for you. Well, unfortunately, I didn’t know any cardinals. I still don’t know any cardinals. So I didn’t do it. Eventually under Pope John Paul II, not my favorite pope, but he did open up the archive of the Roman Inquisition, which has a new name and it has been rushed by scholars. Now all sorts of books have appeared as a result of the new scholarship now that the Roman Inquisition archives are open. I’m happy to say that while not everybody agrees with my book of 1977, a lot of the scholars, Italians and others, say I had some things right, that it [the Inquisition and Index] did end up being a kind of a bureaucratic exercise that it wasn’t totally effective, and that there were exceptions to them.


Anyway, third book. This came about, as a result of the schooling that our son had in years 1970-72. I had two years off with fellowships, including the American Council of Learned Societies fellowship and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada fellowship and I spent them in Florence at Villa I Tatti, which is the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. Now at that time Peter, our son, was aged five, and he spent two years in an Italian school doing Prima and Seconda, first and second elementary school years in an Italian school. So his Italian at that time was very good, and my wife’s Italian was very good, better than mine. Anyway when I looked at his notebooks and when he told me about what the school was like, I realized that Italian schooling was different from North American schooling. I came up with the idea, what was schooling like in the Renaissance? This was a new idea, because while we knew a lot about the theory of education from [Renaissance] humanistic pedagogical treatises, we didn’t really know anything about what went on in the classroom. We didn’t even know how many classes there were, and who the teachers were? Was there public, free education? We knew nothing of this. So I started looking for that sort of information, and I’ll spare you the details. By that time, I was a really thorough archival historian and I started in Venice and worked in some of the archives. I started to find information. I put together a big fat book of about 500 pages which tries to explain all this. The title was Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning 1300 to 1600. And it tried to answer those questions. I was able to answer some questions, who the teachers were, how many boys went to school, the difference in boys’ and girls’ schooling, what they learned in school, what textbooks they studied, all that sort of thing. And that book was a success. It was published in 1989 and was translated into Italian. It won a prize and I’m happy to say is still in print, in real print. Now many years later it has sold over 4,000 copies which is, you know, pretty good these days and it’s still in print. It’s probably my best-known book.


The next book, leaving aside collections of articles, was about Italian Renaissance universities. I think the title is The Universities of the Italian Renaissance. That started in a curious way. It appeared in 2002. It started in a curious way. I mentioned Paul Oskar Kristeller, one of the great German Jewish refugee scholars, who came in North America and taught at Columbia University. Kristeller had the idea of writing a book on Italian Renaissance universities, very early in his career, as early as the 1940s. He was never able to get around to doing it. He finally persuaded one of his students to do the book instead. His name was Charles Schmidt (1933-1986) who was a very good friend of mine, Charles and I met in Italy in 1962-63, when we were both Fulbrighters. He later became a very distinguished scholar of Italian Renaissance universities and Italian Renaissance philosophy and so forth. He taught most of his career in England. Kristeller persuaded Charles to write the book. And Charles had already done some studies on Renaissance universities and the teaching of science in them. In the last letter that Charles wrote to me came from London where he was teaching at the Warburg Institute of the University of London. He said I’m going to start the book on the universities now.

This was April 1986. But first I have to go off to the University of Padua and give some lectures. He went there, and he collapsed and died, probably of a heart attack. He was only 53. It was a great loss to me, I mourned him. Okay, time went on. This was April 1986. And suddenly in the middle of July 1986 one night I got a telephone call from Kristeller. He never telephoned me again. He never telephoned me before. I don’t know if you knew Kristeller, I won’t try to imitate him, but he still had a strong German accent and he was a very forceful man. He started off by saying “you must write this book on Italian Renaissance universities.” I said, huh? What are you talking about? He said it is a very important book. Charles died, you know the field. You should do it. I only promised to consider it. I was really quite taken aback. But the more I looked at it, the more I thought, why not? It is an important topic, yes, never been done before, that was true. And also I can rescue Italian Renaissance universities from the medievalists. Most of the history of universities dealt with medieval universities, especially northern universities, such as Paris. But Italian universities were different. I knew that already. They were very different, although the medievalists kept trying to fit them, in so far at they paid attention to Italian Renaissance universities at all, into the northern Paris model. Which I didn’t think worked. So I agreed to do the book partly in memory of Charles Schmidt. And I finally finished it in 1999. And I dedicated it to Kristeller and Charles Schmidt because Kristeller had also died in 1999. It appeared in 2002 and it’s still in print, still doing well. It’s a big fat book. It’s never been translated into Italian partly because it’s probably too big. I think that is the book which I’m second best known for. If I can mention one other thing I will, then I won’t mention the other books.


Tortorice: Okay.

Grendler: That’s the Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. The idea came from Scribner’s reference books, which no longer exists. I’m sorry to say they’ve been gobbled up by one of the conglomerates. Scribner’s reference books produced the Dictionary of the Middle Ages in 15 volumes I think, wonderful work, in the 1970s and they did the Dictionary of Scientific Biography in 16 volumes, which is still a standard work. They came up with the idea of doing an encyclopedia of the Renaissance in the 1990s. They obviously needed help. So they went to the Renaissance Society of America (RSA) and asked for them to co-sponsor it, and they asked the RSA board to recommend some Renaissance scholars who might be editor in chief. And so, the Renaissance Society of America, of which I’d been a former president, recommended me and two other scholars, very distinguished individuals. At various times they met individually with the people from Scribner’s. I did it one time and we had a good meeting in the airport at New York. Time passed and I thought the project was shelved. I forgot about it. Then suddenly they came back in 1995 and said, we’re going to do the Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, we’d like you to be the editor-in-chief. And I gulped. And the RSA will be the co-sponsor, and it will also make some money for the RSA and we always needed money. So I agreed to do it. And it turned out to be a fascinating experience. I worked with some very professional people with Scribner’s, including one of them, Stephen Wagley, who was the managing editor, who became a very good friend. And my job was to select a very good editorial board, which I did, people from English literature to economics to what have you. I did do one innovation from previous encyclopedias. I insisted on somebody [as an editor] from Jewish studies in the Renaissance because they were very important. And I knew that field a little bit.

So I got together a very good board of about 10 or 12 people and we started working and we put together a table of contents and got people to contribute. We ended up with something like six hundred and forty authors and about 1,150 articles. They were strictly limited. I mean the longest article was about ten thousand words and the smallest was about five hundred words. We tried to cover everything beginning with [Francesco] Petrarch going up through [John] Milton basically. The chronological period varied a bit because you have to make adjustments according to the country, when it is Italy or Germany, or whatever, and the American university curriculum. If you’re in English literature, the Renaissance goes up to Milton. If you’re in French literature, it really stops at the early seventeenth century, in Italy you stop about 1600 as well. So you have to make those adjustments. We wanted it to be useful to students, to the general public, and to scholars who are looking for important, useful, beginning information on a topic that is not theirs. That is, the scholar of French literature, can go to the Encyclopedia of the Renaissance to get a good introductory article on Machiavelli, for example, or vice versa. I think we achieved success in the end; we produced six volumes. We had some scares about scholars who didn’t come through, we had to get last-minute replacements, and so forth.

But it came out at the end of 1999, my copy arrived on Christmas Eve of 1999. It was a great commercial and critical success. It has sold well over 7,000 complete sets and I don’t know how many individual volumes. It now sells for over a thousand dollars. And the reviews were excellent. And it won a couple of prizes including the big one which is the Dartmouth Medal as the best encyclopedia of the year in any field, plus the Roland Bainton Prize. And as I said, I got to work with some wonderful scholars. I’m really proud of that. It was an adventure. It was an experience and it [the Encyclopedia of the Renaissance] really summarized the development and flourishing of Italian Renaissance studies in the United States, that started in the 1950s with the great Jewish emigre scholars.

Tortorice: Well, I’m going to have to take a look at that those volumes when I’m next at the university libraries in Madison. I assume they’re not online…


Grendler: They’re not online. I wish they were. But what happened after Scribner’s was bought by a conglomerate, which was bought by another conglomerate, and everything was cut into pieces and resold. I think I know who owns the copyright now, but it’s never appeared online. And I think I know why. We had a lot of illustrations in those six volumes. And you had to get permissions and pay money for every single permission, for every single illustration. But it was only for the printed volumes. If you’re going to put it online and you want it to be illustrated, I think it has to be illustrated, I believe you have to go back to the firms from which we got the permissions and pay them again. To be very crass about it, they would also have to come back to me because they have to renegotiate the contract with me. And probably with RSA. I think the reason why it hasn’t been put online is that the current owners of the copyright haven’t figured out how they can make money on it. That’s what I think, Now you can’t get any information. I tried a couple of times. I don’t really know what’s happening. I wish it could be online. That’s all I can tell you.

Tortorice: It’s a very difficult, onerous process to try to track down all of those permissions. And yes, I could see where that would…

Grendler: Well, the publisher, whoever it is now owns the rights of the individual articles because when you write for an encyclopedia article, it’s called, there’s a particular term for it which is [work for hire] What it means is you assign your rights as author to the publisher. Now, you don’t do that when you publish a monograph normally, with a university press. But that’s what commercial presses do, which means they can do with it whatever they want to. But the contract also says, they have to come back to me. They have to come back to RSA, and of course they would have to pay to get permission to use the same illustrations. That’s what I think the holdup is, I don’t know this for certain.

Tortorice: Well, the whole publishing industry has changed so radically, it’s unbelievable.

Grendler: Oh, has it ever.

Tortorice: I think we’re coming up to the end of our time here. We are running out of tape. But is there anything else you’d like to say before we end?

Grendler: Well, I’d like to say this, I don’t do the kind of history Mosse did, but he certainly has had an influence on me. I wouldn’t be the historian I now am if it were not for him.

Tortorice: Well, thank you so much. Professor Grendler. That was extraordinary. Please stay on. I’m going to stop the recording now, but please stay.

01:38:52                     End of Interview Session

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