Conversion Narratives – So What?

Our project, Conversion Narratives in Early Modern Europe, officially came to an end on 31st August 2013, though events, publications and ideas are still emerging, and carrying us forward in new and exciting directions. Here, project co-director, Simon Ditchfield, reflects on the three years of the Conversion Narratives project.The end of the fully-funded period of the project (though keep an eye on our website for forthcoming events and publications), seems a suitable moment to take stock and address the project’s wider significance. What follows is not an attempt to itemise precisely what we know now but didn’t before. (For that, see our current and forthcoming publicatoins, beginning with the introduction, by Peter Mazur and Abigail Shinn, to the Special Issue of the Journal of Early Modern History for a taster). Rather, I would like to offer some short reflections on how a fuller understanding of this theme can enrich the wider field of religious and cultural history in (not only) the early modern period. To that end, I will take three concepts where our project has, I believe, made a substantive contribution.

Belief – ever since historians of religion started to take notice of the fact that they had interests in common with anthropologists, they began to dare to know not only what religious belief has consisted of in doctrinal terms but also how it ‘worked’ for members of a particular faith community on a day-to-day basis. In other words, how did religion function as a verb (i.e. as a set of practices and habits) rather than simply as a noun (a set of doctrinal tenets to sign up to)?

This shift in approach has seriously problematized the epistemological priority of interiority; in other words, of the notion that it is somehow possible to get ‘behind’ what people did to find out what they ‘really’ believed. The study of conversion narratives – whether they have been constructed retrospectively by biographers/hagiographers, by the authors of (autobiographical) spiritual diaries, by artists (including needle-workers) or by the leading questions of inquisitors – has taken this further. Wittgenstein famously declared that: ‘it is not possible to obey a rule ‘privately’; otherwise thinking that one was obeying a rule would be the same as obeying it’ (Philosophical Investigations, section 202). With this in mind, we see that accounts of conversion are not only necessarily narratives – constructed and interpreted by people in time and space – but also necessarily social, even when they only exist in a ‘private’ form.

Confessionalisation – by identifying the common, structural parallels to be found between the Catholic and Protestant reformations and, in particular, the degree to which they both contributed to the transformation of frequently unruly communities of (Christian) believers into increasingly obedient, rival confessions of belief, this paradigm has immeasurably enriched our understanding of socio-political change in early modern Europe and its colonies. However, the top-down, hegemonic ‘colonisation’ of the religious imagination emphasised by those who have done most to advance the idea of confessionalisation has tended to underplay the continued importance of bottom-up pressures as well as the far from clear or clean boundaries which existed between confessions.

Conversion narratives we studied demonstrated the astonishing degree to which individuals could slip between confessional communities, negotiate and renegotiate for themselves new identities. Indeed, such is the fragmentary nature of much of the evidence that it is almost certain that a number of cases in which individuals who appear in the archival record in different places and under different names were, in fact, one and the same person.

Globalisation – the greater sensitivity shown by recent writers and researchers to the trans-national links between cultures and faiths in the pre-modern period has been perhaps one of the most exciting and important developments in recent years. The study of conversion narratives during the 150 years or so after 1550 has proved to be an excellent way of taking this further.

Not only did they evoke, by turns, exotic and terrifying stereotypes about the Confessional Other: whether it be Protestant/Catholic heretics or Muslim infidels, but when read patiently, against the grain, conversion narratives could and did reveal as much about their authors as about those they were purportedly describing.

Moreover, conversion narratives possessed a material dimension. In Virtue & Vice, the exhibition curated by the project co-director, Helen Smith (with its accompanying phone app) showed how objects on display in Hardwick Hall, an Elizabethan prodigy house in the Derbyshire countryside now looked after by the National Trust, could (and should) be connected to the wider world, as far afield as Moorish Spain, Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Persia; embracing media as diverse as embroidered cushions, carpets, appliqué and painted hangings, wood inlay and lustre ware.

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