Guest post: a conference report

Many thanks to Lizzie Swann, a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York, who has allowed us to post this report on our recent conference on ‘Conversion Narratives in the Early Modern World’. Sadly, Lizzie was’t able to attend every one of our parallel sessions(!),and we hope to publish one or two additional accounts over the next weeks.

Conference Report

Lizzie Swann, University of York

The three-day Conversion Narratives in the Early Modern World conference, held at the University of York between 9 – 11 June, brought together scholars from a variety of disciplines to present and discuss recent research on religious conversion in the early modern period. Within this brief, a diverse range of interests was represented: papers traversed continents from the Americas to Europe to Africa to Asia, and reached chronologically from the late medieval period to the early eighteenth century.

Much of the emphasis throughout the conference was on the nature of conversion as a historical phenomenon, although a number of papers did also address the role of language (and its material instantiations) in effecting, mediating, sustaining and accounting for conversion experiences. As the panel title suggests, the three papers on the panel ‘Communicating Conversion’, chaired by Bill Sherman, were united in their concern with the verbal and textual articulation of conversion. The panel opened with Kathleen Lynch’s paper ‘Spiritual Experience: Testing the Cultural Limits of Method’. Focusing on the collection Spirituall Experiences of Sundry Beleevers (London, 1653), Lynch commented on the way that an anonymous ‘T. A.’ Moves fluidly between the citation of scriptural precept and its applicability to his own experience. Lynch highlighted the paradox that whilst the text gives very little information about who T. A. is, it nonetheless consistently deploys his experience ‘as an authorizing principle’. This tension between T. A.’s anonymity and the text’s portrayal of his intimate spiritual experience is nonetheless revealed as a persuasive strategy: what Lynch called the ‘curious anonymity’ of his very personal story gives it a widely ‘universalizing reach’. Lynch began her paper by suggesting that accounts of conversion experiences might be understood as ‘vehicles for subjectification’; she went on to elaborate on and modify this assertion, challenging the historically-specific notion that interiority is the fount of selfhood. Stressing the importance of the testimony or witness of fellow church members in validating a conversion (and the role of the reader as ‘virtual witness’ to a textual account of conversion) Lynch suggested that the kind of ‘subjectification’ achieved by conversion was as much public as private. She concluded with a discussion of the formulaic ‘tears of repentance’ trope, emphasising its role as a key physiological sign of conversion but simultaneously stressing the performativity of affective experience.

Christopher Wild’s wide-ranging paper, the second in this session, introduced us to some remarkable sources and offered a persuasive account of their uses, beginning with an account of Augustinian and Pauline models of conversion before moving on to their impact on and applicability to the forms of reading encouraged by early modern emblem books. Wild questioned the role of exemplarity in effecting conversion, arguing that true conversion cannot only be a ‘horizontal’ process of (social or collective) imitation, but must also involve an element of ‘vertical’ (and private, subjectively experienced) inspiration. A substantial number of conversions, Wild noted, take place ‘on the road’, in times of physical as well as spiritual transit. Such conversions, he went on, are often mediated by the mobile technology of the codex (in contrast to the less portable scroll). Making reference to Book 8 of Augustine’s Confessions, Wild stressed the codex’s facilitation of discontinuous and fragmented reading. The ‘media technology’ of the codex, he argued, goes some way towards solving the dichotomy he identified previously between conversion experienced as collective and conversion experienced individually: discontinuous reading decontextualises and isolates (scriptural) passages and extracts, allowing them to take on a newly personal, private meaning. Wild then turned his attention to early modern emblem books, particularly Jan David’s fascinating Veridicus Christianus and George Withers’ A Collection of Emblemes Ancient and Moderne (1635).  Veridicus Christianus, he showed, includes a kind of ‘machine’ for generating random passages for reading, as a movable circle printed with numbers could be spun to specify a section to read. It would, perhaps, have been interesting to hear more on these fascinating sources; particularly, it might have been interesting to hear Wild draw out some differences between the Jesuit Veridicus Christianus and the Protestant Emblemes Ancient and Moderne. However, time was tight, and Wild concluded by stressing that conversion is not necessarily instantaneous but can be a long process, effected and sustained in part by such texts as the Veridicus Christianus.

Wild quoted Socrates’ definition of philosophy as ‘the art of turning around’ in support of his argument, and the final paper on this panel – conference co-organiser Abi Shinn’s ‘Turner’s craft: Conversion and the art of rhetoric’ – demonstrated the same to be true of conversion. Beginning with an epigram from John Heywood which compares converts to ‘turners’ (i.e. craftsmen), Shinn’s paper stressed throughout the early modern notion of conversion as ‘craft’ – in both the positive sense of material skill and the pejorative sense of insincere dissimulation. One of Shinn’s opening questions, namely, is the source of the impulse to ‘turn’ internal, or external?, usefully highlighted the strangeness of Heywood’s epigram, which accords the convert a weird kind of industrious creative agency. In the epigram, the convert is not turned by an external force but actively engages in the productive act of ‘turnying’. The craftiness of conversion, Shinn showed, extends to the role of language, particularly rhetorically skilful language. A trope, she reminded us, is also (etymologically) a turn, and just as the poet crafts or ‘turns’ the raw material of words into (for instance) a sonnet or villanelle, conversion (re)forms the soul, ‘turning’ it into something new. Furthermore, rhetorical skill or craftiness is not understood exclusively as a property of the converter, but also as belonging to the convert, as new faith increases his or her eloquence. One who has been ‘turned’ has (in turn) learned to ‘turn’ language (again, we are reminded of Heywood’s emphasis on the productivity of the ‘turner’). Shinn’s interesting paper remained attentive throughout to the textual specificities of the accounts of converts and convertors which she discussed: she noted, for instance, the way in which The Recantation of Thomas Clarke uses tropes to condemn the pernicious Catholic practice of using tropes. (A question from the audience subsequently allowed her to expand on the scripturally inflected nature of Clarke’s language.) Shinn’s paper also made explicit the ways that the contrived, premeditated dimensions of rhetoric can reveal the public dimension of apparently private accounts of faith.

Shinn also served as chair of the panel ‘Letters and Lifewriting: Persuasion and Exemplarity’, and herself did an exemplary job of pointing to some of the underlying correspondences between three apparently quite disparate papers, including their interest in the persuasive uses of poetics. For me personally, Hannah Crawforth’s deft and subtle interpretation of Robert Southwell’s ‘Epistle to his Father’ was the standout paper – although all were thought-provoking. Crawforth’s emphasis was on conversion as ‘regeneration’ in quite a literal sense: spiritual renewal, but also the re-creation of generational relationships. Crawforth drew our attention to a 1632 volume which brings together Southwell’s Epistle and Sir Walter Raleigh’s letter to his son, pointing out that whilst both are examples of advice or conduct literature, the second is deeply conventional whilst the first (in which the son advises the father, rather than vice versa) is deeply subversive. Locating the volume in the context of the intergenerational conflict produced by the Reformation(s), Crawforth demonstrated how Southwell’s desire to ‘re-generate’  his father by converting him frequently played out through his extensive exploitation of etymological puns and connections between words. Her virtuosic analysis of the subtleties of Southwell’s wordplay – particularly the connections between ‘genre’, ‘generation’ and ‘kind’ – never disconnected for her wider argument, which concluded by arguing for the (re)generative capacity of Southwell’s language, with its constantly multiplying meanings, itself.

Olivier Tonneau’s paper on ‘Conversion in theory and practice’ was also stimulating. Pascal, Tonneau commented, believed that God’s plan for humanity is only intelligible if we understand His grace not as a single entity but as a series of moments, events, phenomena and ‘motions’. Tonneau’s approach to Pascal’s sometimes baffling theology itself took a similar approach, leading the audience deftly through the twists and turns of Pascal’s thoughts on predestination. In particular, Tonneau insisted that Pascal interpreted temporal suffering as a sign of God’s love, and even election. The Christian path to salvation mirrors Christ’s passion and rebirth, and a ‘dark night of the soul’ is a necessary precondition of eventual redemption.

The last session of the day was plenary speaker Professor Irene Fosi’s ‘Conversion and Autobiography: Telling tales before the Roman inquisition’. Fosi’s paper painted a vivid picture of Rome under the inquisition, where the line between quietly licensed non-conformism and outright heresy was drawn not only, as we might expect, by theological dispute but by gossip and scandal. Fosi valuably drew out the ‘ephemeral’ boundaries between different confessional identities: boundaries that were frequently drawn by self-representation and by one’s neighbours’ perceptions rather than by theological or doctrinal affiliations. In a conference devoted to the transformation of religious affiliations, this question arose a number of times: just how stable or distinct are confessional identities to begin with? Glyn Parry, for instance, in his paper ‘John Dee’s suppressed and publicized conversions’, questioned the precision of those dichotomizing labels ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’, pointing out their insufficiency to distinguish between the myriad and subtle varieties of post-Reformation faith. (In particular, Parry’s paper reminded us of the continued influence of magical and other folk beliefs on the religious thinking of many early modern men and women.) The question session to Fosi’s paper was lively. A passing comment by Professor Fosi to the effect that conversion could function (especially, perhaps for women?), as a way to effect separation from a disagreeable spouse or uncongenial parents, provided much food for thought. It certainly reminded me of Jessica in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, escaping her father Shylock by eloping with Lorenzo and converting to her new husband’s Christian faith. Fosi’s suggestion that estrangement from one’s relatives might be a desirable rather than an unfortunate outcome of conversion highlighted the complex mix of personal motivations which might lie behind public declarations of faith.

The relation between marriage and conversion was a concern of Lieke Stelling’s paper ‘ ‘Thy very essence is mutability’: conversion, change and constancy in early modern drama’, given on the second day of the conference. Stelling’s paper began with a focus on definitions. Stelling helpfully established a distinction which seemed to come up, often implicitly, in a number of papers: namely, that between what Stelling called ‘interfaith conversion’ (i.e. conversion between different religions) and ‘spiritual conversion’ (i.e. the intensification of a pre-existing faith). (It might have been interesting to hear more about where Stelling would place various kinds of denominational conversion in this scheme.) To settle the even more basic issue of whether a spiritual experience should be understood as any sort of conversion, Stelling went on, she was content to be led by her texts: if a play referred to a conversion, Stelling took the designation (as it were) on faith. Stelling’s text-led approach to conversion in drama brought out some clear gender dimensions: between 1558-1642, she claimed, staged representations of male conversions always ended in violence and death (whether that death was understood as martyrdom or just punishment). The only ‘positive’ conversions, on the other hand, were those in which a non-Christian woman converts to her husband’s Christian faith on the occasion of their marriage. To a certain extent, Stelling argued, such portrayals presented marriage and conversion as rhetorically interchangeable. Death and marriage thus emerge as (gendered) emblems of stability and irreversibility: they ‘fix’ the conversion, assuaging anxieties about the possibility of reversion to the original faith. Stelling also made the point that studying plays, rather than (auto)biographical accounts of conversions, places conversion more firmly in its social contexts, more frequently portraying reactions and responses to the convert and well as her or her subjective experience. Stelling made use of some very interesting material (particularly The Sophister, a university play which includes ‘Conversion’ as a stock character, specifically a vice), although I think she could perhaps have pushed some of her suggestive conclusions a little further. What does it mean for conceptions of conversion to conflate it so antithetically with both death and marriage, for instance?

Laura Branch’s paper, ‘Constancy as Conversion’, given at the second session, on ‘Women and Conversion’, offered a good example of what Lieke Stelling had called ‘spiritual conversion’. For Rose Throckmorton, conversion took the form of a strong intensification of her Protestant faith (a form which, Branch commented, valued outward action in the community as well as inner experience). Whilst neither she or anyone else in her family died for their faith, Throckmorton characterised herself and her husband as ‘living martyrs’: for her, martyrdom was not a fearful fate but a spiritual condition. Throckmorton was not shy of presenting herself as, in Branch’s words, ‘a godly exemplar worthy of reverence’, and Branch’s paper interestingly elaborated on the ways in which her descendents responded to and reverenced her memory. Throckmorton’s narrative presents forgetfulness as a sin and memory as a holy task, and her children and grandchildren treated the manuscript itself as a kind of textual relic, kept in the family bible to be read alongside scripture. Branch’s attention to the material, as well as the hermeneutic, afterlife of Throckmorton’s narrative offered an excellent example of how a reception history can illuminate the substantive concerns of a particular text.

On the same panel, Gemma Simmonds’ paper ‘Virgin to Virago: Mary Ward (1585-1645)’ provided a measure of light relief without compromising on scholarly insight. The title set the tone: the paper told the story of a remarkable woman whose spiritual conversion from meek recusancy to overt, noisy protestations of faith was as much a personal as a religious transformation. Simmonds’ occasional conflation of female subjection (ideals internalised by Ward from her youth) and religious oppression, and correspondingly her conception of Ward’s spiritual journey as an emancipation both from the norms of gender and from Protestant persecution, might be seen as potentially problematic. Simmonds’ story-telling, however, was compelling: she did not merely describe but also interpreted and gave narrative form to Ward’s life. Her account of moments such as Ward’s first word (‘Jesus’), for instance, suggested that this had been a moment of divine inspiration (i.e. ‘Jesus literally gave her a voice’) as well as ‘normal’ youthful piety, and pointed to the instance’s prefiguration of Ward’s later growth towards vocal defence of the Catholic faith, and of women’s active role in it.

Whilst the trajectory of Mary Ward’s life testified to the sincerity of her spiritual conversion, other women and men might be persuaded to convert, or at least appear to convert, for less noble ends. Pecuniary greed was one of these, as Chloe Preedy showed in her paper ‘ ‘Souls for Sale’: Marketing faith in Marlowe’s drama’. Chloe gave a thorough account of the historical context of Marlowe’s extensive use of financial language to describe spiritual change, from the importance of Henry VIII’s profligacy as a motivation for the dissolution of the monasteries, to the financial rewards of enforcing recusancy fines in the seventeenth century. Her discussion of Faustus’s belief that the soul can be sold like a chattel valuably brought out the ambivalence or indeterminacy of Faustus’ pecuniary language – on the one hand, his sense of the market price of the soul is a marker of theological ignorance, but on the other it merely reflects use of the language or contract and exchange in legitimate sacramental ceremonies, including the baptism ritual.

In the same panel, Laurence Publicover’s paperThe theatricality of transgression in early modern ‘Conversion’ drama’ emphasised the role of material culture – particularly changes in clothing, or ‘costume’ – in manifesting and advertising conversion. On the third day of the conference, the material contexts for, and the felt, embodied experience of, conversion, came even more to the fore. Jenny Hillman’s paper ‘On the road to Damascus: the conversion of Anne de Gonzague in seventeenth-century Paris’ presented a compelling argument against the critical presumption that de Gonzague’s conversion was retarded by her participation in a life of frivolous entertainments and luxurious objects. In contrast, Hillman demonstrated that vacillations in the intensity and nature of de Gonzague’s faith were intimately tied to the world of things, as de Gonzague placed a strong emphasis on, for instance, the empirical testing of the authenticity of holy relics.

As Hillman emphasized, de Gonzague relied heavily on the evidence of her bodily senses – particularly sight – to validate religious artefacts. The panel ‘Bodies, Places and Spaces’ also worked to bring some of the corporeal dimensions of conversion to light. Jane Crawshaw’s paper, ‘Cleansing the body, cleansing the soul: the Counter-Reformation Plague Hospital as a space of conversion’, highlighted the ways in which pious Venetians saw the illness of others as an opportunity for their conversion. The lazaretto, or plague hospitals, in particular served as places of proselytization, as the patient – hovering between life and death – was encouraged to interpret his or her bodily experience of suffering as a form of abjection, containing lessons about charity and humility.

Whilst the geographical focus was very different, Helen Smith’s paper ‘ ‘Medicinable to many soules’: conversion and cure in early modern Britain’ shared some of the concerns of Crawshaw’s research. Whilst Crawshaw focused largely on practical intersections of illness and conversion as a historical phenomenon in (or more accurately, just outside) early modern Venice, Smith explored the ways in which illness, cure and conversion were associated figuratively in the literature of early modern England. Conversion, Smith showed, was frequently described as recovery from a disease, whilst those who encouraged it were presented as healers. Such metaphors of sickness and healing were widespread – they crossed, and sometimes blurred, denominational boundaries. At the same time, they problematize a dualistic approach to spirituality and physicality – Smith pointed out that the metaphor’s insistence on the similitude of bodily and spiritual sickness, for instance, might, on occasion, slide into a conflation of the two. Whilst much of the conference focused satisfyingly on the political or ideological dimensions of transformations of faith, Smith’s paper was refreshingly attentive to the felt experience of conversion. Drawing on the work of Michael Jackson (‘the sociologist, not the popstar’) she concluded by drawing some wider conclusions about the ways in which scholars might formulate the relation between metaphor and reality. The medical rhetoric employed by those concerned with conversion, she argued, should not be understood as a ‘vehicle’ for the expression of a higher spiritual reality, but as itself embodying a simultaneously physical and spiritual experience.

In the day two panel ‘Conversion and the Tudor Reformations’, Mike Rodman Jones’ paper on ‘Conversion, Polemic and Autobiography’ made a gently persuasive case for a new understanding of polemic. Polemic, he argued, is adversarial, but not always belligerently or self-assuredly so; it can also work more quietly, through negotiation and a willingness to admit (corrected) uncertainty or error. The Conversion Narratives conference as a whole seemed to bear this assertion out, both fostering both healthy debate and facilitating the recognition of points of shared interest and consensus.


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