History of the Society for Emblem Studies

The Society owes its genesis to a series of largely serendipitous meetings of individual scholars which took place at the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, in the 1980s. Peter Daly (McGill, Montreal) and Pedro Campa (Tennessee at Chattanooga) had collaborated in establishing a presence for emblem research at the Congress, bringing together scholars who were working in what then seemed to be a comparatively neglected field. Among these was Daniel Russell (Pittsburg) who was already negociating with AMS Press, New York, the launch of a new journal, Emblematica, of which he became the founding editor, and in 1986 Michael Bath (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow) confirmed that the largest discrete collection of emblem books known to scholars was the Stirling Maxwell Collection in the library of Glasgow University, where he joined Professor Daly in organising a conference on “The European Emblem” in 1987.

What was planned as a modest one-day colloquium attracted so much interest, however, that it grew into a three-day event, with 60 papers in parallel sessions, confirming Professor Daly’s awareness that this neglected field of research had a wide circle of students and practitioners in a variety of languages and disciplines who were keen to communicate their findings, sharing ideas and collaborating in its wider development on both sides of the Atlantic. The Society was thus established with two different North American and European Branches and a Constitution which anticipated trienniel conferences alternating between the two continents. The first of the Society’s Newsletters  was issued to members in 1987, appearing twice yearly thereafter and edited for 20 years by Alison Adams at the University of Glasgow.

It proved more difficult than we anticipated to find locations for  the Society’s major conference on alternating sides of the Atlantic, however, and the ten successive triennial conferences held since then suggest the range of locations and institutions in which emblem studies are now being pursued – successor conferences were held again in Glasgow in 1990; in Pittsburgh 1993; Leuven 1996; Munich 1999; La Coruña 2002; Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 2005; Winchester College, England, 2008; Glasgow for the third time in 2011; and Kiel in Germany, 2014. Lasting over three days with 100 or more papers in parallel sessions, these meetings have brought together students and scholars with a wide range of interests and expertise, fostering the exchange of ideas, collaborative research and a variety of related academic initiatives and enterprises.

The Society has continued to organise special sessions annually on Emblem Literature at the Medieval Studies Congress in Kalamazoo, where it all started, as well as runnning its own sessions each year at meetings of the Renaissance Society of America. Among the many one-off conferences we have also sponsored or been associated with were the Symposium “Andrea Alciati and the Emblem Tradition” honoring Virginia Callahan at Princeton in 1988; “The Index of Emblematic Art” at McGill the same year; “Emblem Books and the Telling Image” at Minneapolis 1989; “Renaissance and Baroque Symbol Theory” at Tennessee, Chattanooga, in 1992; “Anglo-Dutch Trade in Emblems” at Leiden in 1993; “Architecture and the Emblem” in Montreal, 1994; “Ages of Life and Learning” in Minneapolis 1905; “Emblem Studies: State of the Art” in Wroclaw, Poland, 1995; “Shakespeare and Iconology” at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, 1996; “Emblems and Alchemy” in Glasgow, 1998; “European Iconography East and West” in Szeged, Hungary, 1998; Association of Art Historians Conference on “Body and Soul” in Edinburgh, 2000; “Emblem Digitisation Project” in Glasgow 2001; “The Dutch Emblem” in Glasgow, 2003; “Digital Modeling of Texts and Images” at the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, 2003; “Iconocrazia: immagini e potere nel Rinascimento europeo” in Bari, 2008. Reports on more recent events and meetings can be found in the Society’s Newsletter, which went online in 2009 and can be accessed on this website.

The sheer number and variety of these openings for the presentation of original research may suggest the extraordinary flowering of emblem studies since we started, enabling an equally remarkable growth of publication outlets, not only in the journal Emblematica which, although not the “official” journal of the Society (you don’t, alas, get a free copy with your subscription…), is indebted to the proceedings of these colloquia for much of the blind double peer-reviewed research that has filled its 400+ pages for more than 20 years. Dedicated series for the publication of emblem studies have also been launched by a number of different publishers, all of which have drawn on research initiated or presented at these various conferences. AMS Press launched its Studies in the Emblem series in 1988 with more than 20 volumes now in print; Glasgow Emblem Studies (edited in Glasgow and now distributed by Droz in Geneva) has reached volume 17; Brepols has also reached double figures with its Imago Figurata Series published in Turnhout, Belgium. Major monographs have also appeared in increasing numbers from nearly all the major academic publishing houses. The growth of emblem studies in the past 30 years has, we may say, been exponential, and the modest initiative which began in 1986 in Kalamazoo has undoubtedly been the catalyst for this explosion.

The Society’s role in encouraging and enabling wider collaboration in the changing media of scholarly communication also deserves recognition. The digitisation of scholarly source materials has inescapable implications for any discipline such as emblem studies, where research invariably requires access to rare, fragile and often inaccessible source materials (emblem books). Facsimile editions of these were already available in various publishers’ series, several of which are ongoing, before the formation of our learned society for their study. But a number of different initiatives for the digitisation of emblem books also began in the eighties and nineties which, uncoordinated and sporadic as they were, were likely to result in duplication or omission of important parts of the corpus, and different levels of searchability and search procedures. The Society has played a key role in accessing, influencing and coordinating these digitisation projects in recent years, with our erstwhile Chair, Mara Wade, instrumental in developing the Open Emblem Portal at Illinois, which has won major NEH funding to develop an online gateway which will access a growing number of these sites. It is the fundamental complexity of emblems in their polyglot linguistics, symbolic organisation, and combination of word-and-image that makes them challenging for most of the established digital processing and search engines, and it is largely a result of initiatives taken by members of the Society that major emblem digitisation programs at such places as Illinois, Glasgow, Wolfenbuttel, Duke University, Utrecht, and the Getty Library now share compatible programs for the digitisation and indexing of emblem books.

As the Newsletter itself went digital in 2009, wider opportunities for online communication of news, views, research opportunities and discussion forums have opened up. The Newsletter has always included occasional articles containing original research, but the fact that, in its printed form, it was circulated only to paid-up members made the indexing, citation and wider scholarly access to such articles somewhat problematic. Open online access now solves that problem. Online readers accessing the Newsletter may also be pleased to discover that emblems are no longer all monochrome, and those of us who have always been fascinated by the influence of emblems on the visual and applied arts more widely are now delighted that we can offer illustrations in full color to our editor and readers.

Until the early years of this century the Society was managed by an executive committee comprised largely of early pioneers, with Michael Bath as Chair and Alison Adams editing the Newsletter; distinguished art historian William Heckscher remained our honorary President until his death in 1999. As we moved into a new century a generation of younger scholars brought new blood and new insights into our field, so that the opportunity to identify a new team of executive officers was grasped, with Mara Wade (Illinois) elected Chair in 2008, Sabine Moedersheim (Wisconsin) as Newsletter editor, and Elizabeth Black (Old Dominion, Virginia) replacing and relieving Stephen Rawles of the onerous duties of Treasurer and Membership Secretary which Stephen had shouldered for many years. It was in 2000 that the Society agreed to unite its two hitherto distinct branches, recognising that emblem studies was flourishing in more than two continents and that our membership had long included scholars from Asia, Australasia and Latin America. Indeed few of our activities had ever been specific or confined to Europe or North America separately. The election of new officers in 2014 confirmed the international strength of the Society and its potential to develop new initiatives. 

Prof. Michael Bath
(President of the Society for Emblem Studies)