I find my students are much more engaged as scholars if they can connect the material to their own lives.

Kat Lecky

Even though people in Renaissance times couldn't use smartphones to find a highly recommended tavern or a cure for indigestion, information was more available than you might have thought. In addition to hawking affordable books of poems and plays, peddlers sold directions to popular attractions and remedies for ailments in the form of pocket-sized maps and medical manuals for a penny or two on the streets of England, says Professor Kat Lecky, English, who investigates how ordinary people seized the power to shape England's culture, literature and politics during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The thriving business of cheap print was essential to the development of this common authority. "We think of Renaissance maps as these massive, beautiful, expensive pieces that only a few people could afford, but really the maps that were very much in circulation were tiny pocket maps helping common people get around," Lecky says. "Pocket medical manuals would tell midwives how to help women give birth, how to heal warts or even how to save people from the brink of death."

The poets and dramatists of the day, such as Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton, drew inspiration from these portable publications when writing, she explains. "All these authors were from middle-class origins, raised by traveling salesmen, teachers or bookkeepers. They used the manuals to articulate visions of the national community that had very little to do with the powers of the Crown. Renaissance literature is really approachable from that perspective," says Lecky, who has received research grants from organizations such as the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies.

By making the material relatable, Lecky helps her classes break down the popular perception that associates the English Renaissance with an extremely elite society controlled by small group of nobility."I find my students are much more engaged as scholars if they can connect the material to their own lives," she says. "They benefit from the recognition that these poets and writers were thinking through many of the same issues of exclusion or class disparity in much the same way we do today."

Posted Oct. 7, 2015