The dangers of coffee, early modern style…

Sign commemorating London's first coffee house

In 1652, London’s first coffee house opened its doors. Historians have celebrated the vibrant coffee-house culture of the early modern period, and have argued that coffee houses offered a venue which made possible new kinds of political debate and participation in a developing public sphere. A slightly different companion story is, however, suggested in the nickname the first coffee house quickly gained amongst the local community: the Turk’s Head. Continue reading

Fishy Tales part III: Fishing for Souls

This fantastic oil painting by the Dutch artist Adriaen van de Venne was produced in 1614. Van de Venne was inspired by the story from Matthew 4:19 in which Jesus passes two fishermen, Simon (called Peter) and Andrew, at work and tells them ‘Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’ In the painting Protestant clergymen compete with Catholic priests to haul souls from the river – their respective congregations fill the opposing banks, clearly depicting the competing sides in the European Reformation. ‘Fishing for Souls’ is on display in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Constantine and Ezanus: Converting Kings and Empires

The story of the conversion of the Roman Empire under the emperor Constantine is a well-known foundation narrative for the Western church. Constantine famously saw a vision of a cross bearing the words Hoc Signo Vinces (by this sign you will conquer) before going into battle against the rebel Maxentius. Constantine would sign the Edict of Milan in 313 AD proclaiming religious toleration in the Empire, and thus ensuring that Christians could worship freely. The process of Constantine’s conversion is now accepted as more gradual than the tale of his vision on the battlefield would suggest; his mother Helen was a Christian, but Constantine did not officially declare his adherence to the faith until he was in his forties.

There is an interesting African parallel to this story of a conversion of a king: one which would bring about the rise of the Ethiopian church, now one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. Continue reading

Petrarch on Mont Ventoux: where holiday snaps and research collide

Photograph of Mont VentouxThis is a photograph (taken by Helen!) of Mont Ventoux in Provence. It was the site of one of the most influential literary conversions in early modern Europe: that of the Tuscan poet Francesco Petrarca (known in English as Petrarch), whose poems in his native tongue were admired and imitated throughout Europe. In April 1366, along with his brother and two servants, Petrarch climbed the mountain — not a mean feat, since it stands at more than 6000 feet tall. In a letter to his friend and confessor, the Augustinian monk Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro, he claimed that he was driven by a desire to admire the view: ‘My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer’. Yet the letter, re-telling the event with the benefit of hindsight, makes it clear that this was a trip concerning religion as much as rambling. Continue reading