Cowboys, Conferences and Conversion: ‘Conversion Narratives’ in 2011

We’ve given a glimpse of our wordpress site stats in the previous post, but this seems as good a point as any to take a breath and think about the progress of the Conversion Narratives project. The project officially started at the beginning of September 2010, with a half-million pound grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. We set up our desk in the University of York’s beautiful Humanities Research Centre, got some help in establishing our website, and penned our first blog post on the 21st of September. Our two researchers, Abigail Shinn and Peter Mazur spent a couple of months getting to grips with the wider field before diving into the archives and libraries to pursue their own research — on conversion narratives in early modern England and early modern Italy respectively.

The blog reveals some of our earliest discussions, when we focussed our attention on two narratives which are equally exemplary, albeit in very different ways: Augustine’s Confessions and The Italian Convert. In a sense these two texts, one an ancient model read and imitated across Europe, the other a best-selling and dramatic tale of a contemporary event, summarise many of our concerns: to understand the importance of narrative models and story-telling to everyday experience, to discover how texts were spread, and where and by whom they were read, and to trace the complex journeys of converts, converters, and their stories across Europe and beyond.

At the beginning of the year, news that British Anglicans were converting to Catholicism in protest at the ordination of women bishops offered a timely reminder that the debates of the English Reformations remain a hot topic today, while the death of Osama Bin Laden in May marked the end of one chapter (or at least the turning of a page) in the ongoing story of religious and political tension that has defined the early twenty-first century. The Islamophobia of some commentators is disturbing, and once again reinforces the point that a fuller understanding of the history and narratives of religious change and spiritual identity is crucial to interpreting current tensions and popular ideas about religious belief and radicalism.

In the spring, we got ourselves on to twitter, giving us the chance to puff our posts, but also to try and share some stories from the news and some wonderful blog posts and ideas from a whole range of writers and thinkers. Helen was lucky enough to holiday in Provence, where she kept her research interests fresh by gazing upon (but not climbing!) Mont Ventoux, and meditating on Petrarch’s epic climb towards revelation. Simon travelled to less refreshing climes, but was still able to both enjoy and critique the popular British Museum exhibition ‘Treasures of Heaven’.

This summer was a busy one for the Conversion Narratives team. We hosted our highly successful conference on Conversion Narratives in the Early Modern World, which helped to place our work within a global context, and to think much more broadly about the ethics and effects of early modern evangelism and missionary activity. Selected papers from the conference will form the foundation for a special issue of the Journal of Early Modern History, due for publication in 2013.

We also braved the heat and the summer crowds to lead thirty-eight people on a walking tour of York, highlighting some of the dramatic stories of religious change that have shaped our own city, and sponsored a session on the Bible and Conversion at the King James Bible Conference that marked the four-hundredth anniversary of the Authorized Version. By September, Abi and Peter had drafted the first sections of their forthcoming books, which we read and discussed as a research group — a real perk of collaborative projects in what can be a lonely profession.

The joys of collaboration were brought home to us by the arrival of Lieke Stelling, who joined us in York for three months, and was generous in sharing her work both on paper and in a stimulating presentation to the Cabinet of Curiosities research group. Though Lieke has returned to Leiden, we are looking forward to keeping in touch, and to celebrating the arrival of her edited collection (with Todd Richardson and Harald Hendrix), The Turn of the Soul: Representations of Religious Conversion in Early Modern Art and Literature, which will be published by Brill this month. We very much hope that Lieke will have the chance to come back and see us again, and that these few months, which have flown by, have marked the start of an enduring friendship as well as a fruitful collaboration.

October brought some very sad news with the untimely death of Professor Jane Moody, Director of the Humanities Research Centre. Jane was an irreplaceable fund of enthusiasm and support, whether she was offering incisive (and astonishingly speedy) feedback as Helen and Simon worked for month after month to draft and re-draft the funding application, providing Abi with extra furniture to help her ‘nest’ in the HRC, or pushing us to develop some innovative and exciting ideas for public engagement. Her drive and wisdom continue to inform our activities, and to inspire us to work hard to be better scholars and better people.

Jane would surely have approved of the heady mix of Caravaggios, cowboys, and conversion which marked our trip to the Sixteenth-Century Studies Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. Simon spoke as part of a round-table plenary session on sacred space, whilst Peter joined Emanuele Colombo and Robert Maryks for a stimulating session on ‘The Anxieties of Conversion in Counter-Reformation Italy’. Helen and Abi joined forces with Dennis Britton for a panel on ‘Tales of Turning: Conversion Narratives in Early Modern England’, and all four of us enjoyed a lively and varied programme of papers and lectures. Thankfully we were also able to squeeze in time to visit the amazing Caravaggio exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum, to wonder at the breathtaking architecture (and very good lunches!) at the Museum of Modern Art, and — of course — to visit the Historic Stockyards and dance the two-step at Pearl’s Dancehall and Saloon. We also got the chance to interview Craig Harline about his recent — and very successful — book, Conversions.

In November, we had our first meeting with students from BSix College in North London. Helen and Abi enjoyed the students’ acting abilities in some shortened versions of Shakespeare’s Othello, and used them to launch a  lively discussion about the politics of religion, race, and conversion in the play. In December, Helen wrapped up the year with a paper on medicine and conversion, delivered at the University of Leeds, whilst Simon squeezed in an end-of-term trip to Pisa for a stimulating workshop on Conversion and Space.

There’s lots more to come next year: events on ‘Music, Space, and Sociability’, Food and Conversion, and on ‘Jerusalems Old and New’; a conference on Gender and Conversion; more work with students from BSix; and plenty more blogging, including some new fishy tales. We’ll be showcasing the project at the Renaissance Society of America conference (a full-day of Conversion Narratives panels, generously hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library), and at the Society for Renaissance Studies conference, closer to home in Manchester. Watch this space too for details of public events and lectures, and some exciting news about an exhibition.

In the meantime, a very happy new year to everyone who reads this blog. Thanks for your interest in our work — and let us know if there’s anything you want us to cover or if you have ideas for posts on conversions, belief, and their social and political importance, whether in the distant past or the modern world.

We are keen to hear your views on what we post here. Questions and comments are very welcome. And if there's something you think we should write about, leave a comment or send us an email (

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