When we were planning this project, we decided that we would host two conferences, one on ‘Conversion Narratives in the Early Modern World’, and a second on ‘Conversion and Gender’. Our first conference will take place in June. Its aim is to bring together scholars from all over the world who are working on questions of conversion, both to create and reinforce networks between people with similar research interests, and to make sure that we are taking account of a genuinely global context in our own studies. The job of organising a conference can be a tricky one — we’ve been booking rooms, buying plane tickets, and scrutinising menus — and there can be problems along the way. The immensely popular York Races take place every year, but the timetable isn’t published until the end of the previous year, so we had already confirmed our dates by the time we found out that York will be full of people in suits and hats, enjoying the races but also booking up masses of city centre accommodation.
One of the trickiest parts, though, is organising the schedule. We really had no idea how much our project would strike a scholarly nerve, but became increasingly excited as our deadline for proposals approached, and the volume of abstracts began to swell. In the end, we had more than a hundred offers of papers, on an immensely rich range of topics, from conversions in the Chinese Imperial Court to the story of a Prince of Fez who became a Jesuit. It was hard to turn down any papers, but even by moving to parallel sessions (running two sets of papers at the same time) we simply couldn’t fit all of them into three days. In the end, we had to be absolutely ruthless: however interesting a paper was, if it didn’t hew strictly to our theme, we couldn’t accept it.
The job of putting the papers into a sensible schedule was mind-boggling: like a very complex jigsaw puzzle in which all the pieces could fit together in numerous different ways. Even with a well-defined conference topic, we found it difficult to craft panels of three or four papers which will speak to each other and open up exciting connections between scholars and in the minds of the audience. Some people may suspect we haven’t been altogether successful on occasion, but we’ll rely on our experience of other conferences where we’ve found that, now and again, the panel that looks the most coherent can work less well than anticipated, whilst, through a series of happy accidents, some apparently incompatible papers can create vibrant synergies and spark some lively conversation. We certainly hope that the draft schedule, now on our website, gives a good sense of the dazzling array of scholars and research projects who will meet in York this June.