The turn to religion?

In a 2004 article in the journal Criticism, titled ‘The turn to religion in early modern English studies’, Arthur Marotti and Ken Jackson declared that something new was afoot in their discipline. ‘Religion’, they noted, was ‘once again at the center in interpretations of early modern culture’. Marotti and Jackson acknowledged that many students of the English Renaissance had previously tried to comprehend the complex and numerous belief systems of the period, not least since the faith of the most famous writer of his age — William Shakespeare — has long been the subject of intense debate.

For Marotti and Jackson, though, most earlier studies used religion as context rather than as a subject for study in its own right. Throughout the glory years of the movement known as ‘new historicism’, they suggest, those literary critics who did take account of religion insisted that religious practices and statements of belief were essentially political. Marotti and Jackson instead challenge their readers to approach early modern religion not as a symptom of personal or state politics but as an everyday practice and ongoing experience for every member of the population.

It is crucial, Marotti and Jackson contend, to understand religion not just as politics, but as ‘a deep psychological and emotional experience, a core moral commitment, a personally and socially crucial way of transvaluing human experience and desire, a reality both within and beyond the phenomenal world’. In other words, the study of religion must take seriously questions of religious feeling, bodily and emotional experience, spirituality and ethics. What we can achieve by doing this, Jackson and Marotti argue, is an understanding of just how ‘alien’ early modern culture was at times: instead of making Renaissance religious feeling look like contemporary politics, we have to push ourselves to think differently about faith and community, bodies and minds.

As a team, we want to think more about Marotti and Jackson’s stress on difference, and to take seriously statements and experiences that may seem both bizarre and unlikely — if not impossible — to the modern eye (even if we still allow ourselves to appreciate their humour!). We’ll be trying to think about what conversion smelt, felt, and looked like, its psychological effects, and its importance as a way of being in and experiencing the world. As historians and critics, taking religion seriously doesn’t prevent us from recognising the moments when politics and faith collide, when social concerns and pressures trump devotion, or how belief is structured within particular communities. But it may help us to think more carefully about religion as lived practice and felt experience, in ways that are highly pertinent today.

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