‘Converted to a cat’

Petrarch's mummified cat

The most famous apocyrphal cat of the Renaissance?**
Petrarch’s mummified cat at Casa del Petrarca.

In honour of World Cat Day, I did a quick search on the fabulous Early English Books Online to see if cats were ever described as agents of conversion, in the same way as were their enemies (or at least their sometime prey) fish. Continue reading

‘Go your ways for an Apostata’: the converting Courtesan

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van Honthorst, Smiling Girl, a Courtesan, Holding an Obscene Image, 1625

I’m really delighted to have been given the chance to contribute to the Dutch Courtesan project, an all-singing, all-dancing (and all-acting) web resource that has accompanied and informed a brilliant recent production of the play here at the University of York.

My interest in the play was piqued by one peculiar phrase, in which the title character declares: ‘Mine body must turn Turk for twopence’. Intrigued by this glimpse of an Islamic conversion, I began to explore the connections between religion and inconstancy that underpin this difficult, but intensely rewarding, drama. To find out more about my conclusions, read my article on the Dutch Courtesan project website.

Picture of a reading table?

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A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about Bess of Hardwick’s reading. What I didn’t mention there was the description of the table on which Bess kept her books. According to the 1601 inventory of Hardwick, Bess’s books sat in her bedchamber, next to an hourglass and a mirror. Whilst it’s tempting to imagine these as the early modern version of an alarm clock and a looking-glass, for Bess they almost certainly had a more serious purpose. Continue reading

A book that converted…

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As part of the work of putting together the ‘Virtue and Vice’ exhibition, I got to return to a question that has fascinated me for a long time: women’s reading in the early modern period. Though moralists fulminated against the perils of women’s reading, and warned that it was likely to lead to all sorts of venereal vices, there is good evidence to show that women read widely, and that they enjoyed devotional and religious literature alongside a wide range of fictions, poetry, and other writings. Continue reading

Holiday Tattoos: Wearing the Mark of Jerusalem

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While it was traditional for medieval and early modern pilgrims to acquire pilgrim badges commemorating their journeys — individuals who completed the journey to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, for example, would wear the mark of St. James in the form of a clam shell — travellers to Jerusalem occasionally acquired more permanent mementos of their journey to the Holy Land.

Edward Terry, Chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, Lord Ambassadour to the great Moghul, describes a traveler getting a tattoo in Jerusalem in ‘A Voyage to East-India’, published in 1655:

At Jerusalem this our Traveller had made upon the Wrists of his left Arm the Arms of Jerusalem, a Cross Crossed, or Crosslets; and on the Wrist of his right, a single Cross made like that our Blessed Saviour suffered on; and on the sides of the stem or tree of that Cross these words written, Via, Veritas, Vita· some of the letters being put on the one side of that stem or tree, and some of them on the other; and at the foot of that Cross three Nails, to signifie those which fastned our Saviour unto it: All these impressions were made by sharp Needles bound together, that pierced onely the skin, and then a black Powder put into the Places so pierced, which became presently indelible Characters, to continue with him so long as his flesh should be covered with skin: And they were done upon his Arms so artificially, as if they had been drawn by some accurate Pencil upon Parchment. This poor man would pride himself very much in the beholding of those Characters, and seeing them would often speak those words of St. Paul written to the Galatians, Gal. 6. 17. (though far besides the Apostles meaning) I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.

Continue reading

An Alpine Turncoat

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Or, ‘exit, assassinated by a bear…’

The alpine region of the Grisons (the modern Swiss canton of Graubünden) was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a region of supreme strategic importance, a key passage of through the mountains between Italy and Northern and Central Europe. It formed a part of the Spanish Road, the caravan that led between the fortress-city of Milan and the Low Countries, where from 1572 until 1648, with a handful of interruptions, the armies of Spain were engaged in war with the Dutch Republic. For this entire period, the Valtelline pass was the main route for troops and provisions from Iberia to the North, since most of the alternatives, whether overland or by sea, were blocked by enemy troops and ships. Continue reading

‘This chocolatical confection…’

A world of chocolate: Sophie's map included tea, coffee, chocolate, and sugar to remind us that these 'new world' products transformed the habits of old Europe.

A world of chocolate: Sophie’s map included tea, coffee, chocolate, and sugar to remind us that these ‘new world’ products transformed the habits of old Europe.

What better way to mark the first of our public lecture series, ‘Cultural Encounters: Travel, Religion, and Identity in the Early Modern World’, than with a chocolate map of the world, prepared for us by Sophie Jewett of the wonderful York Cocoa House? We’re hugely grateful to Sophie not only for her chocolate cartography, but for serving up delicious drinks made in accordance with two early modern recipes — one for hot chocolate, dating from 1644, and one, from 1710, for a pretty potent chocolate wine.

But why chocolate (as though that’s ever a real question…)? Continue reading

Two Pilgrims

Saint James the Pilgrim by Juan de Juanes. Oil on board, from the church of the Convent of Corona de Jesús de los Religiosos Recoletos de San Francisco, Valencia. Museum of Santiago and the Pilgrimages, Santiago de Compostela.

The medieval ideal of a Christian life — that of a traveller who existed in the world without becoming a part of it, a viator or pilgrim whose thoughts and actions were constantly directed towards the afterlife — remained an essential part of the theological and cultural heritage of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was one of many archetypes used to characterize or narrate the spiritual progress of converts. Continue reading

Fingers and Mirrors: Caravaggio and the Conversion of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance Rome

Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, c. 1598. Detroit Institute of Arts, 73.268.

When the Conversion Narratives team went to Fort Worth, Texas for the Sixteenth-Century Studies conference in October last year, we were lucky enough to catch an incredible exhibition, ‘Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome’ at the magnificent Kimbell Art Museum. We particularly enjoyed the chance to spend some time face-to-face with Caravaggio’s potent image of Martha and Mary Magdalene, often called ‘The Conversion of Mary Magdalene’.

The image, which is usually housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts, where you can zoom in to see much of the fine detail of the painting, depicts an earnest Martha persuading a lavishly-dressed Mary of her sins. For Roman viewers, the scene would have gained a particular frisson from their knowledge that the sitter who portrayed Mary was a well-known courtesan, Fillide Melandroni (Martha may have been another courtesan, Anna Bianchini) — so that the dynamic of the painting is frustrated by the non-conversion of the real-life counterpart to this ambiguously pious figure. Continue reading

Cultural Encounters: Jesus and Jerusalem in the Mughal Court

Mughal Painting from the Royal Court, c. 1600

Searching the V&A catalogue, I stumbled across this fabulous image. It is a characteristically refined and naturalistic painting done by an unknown artist at the Mughal royal court, probably between 1600 and 1610. The Mughal Empire stretched across most of present-day India and Pakistan, where it consolidated the presence of Islam, and spread Muslim (and particularly Persian) arts and culture into South Asia. Continue reading