Reflections of an Intern: Greetings!

Hello! My name’s Hannah, and I have been the “intern” for the Conversion Narratives project for about six weeks. I’ll be posting to the blog every so often in order to offer up my reflections on aspects of the project, plus any thoughts and tidbits that might be of interest here.

I became involved with Conversion Narratives as part of a placement opportunity offered by York’s M.A. in Public History. Specifically, my role is to assist in the creation of an exhibition, called Virtue & Vice, to be held at Hardwick Hall from March 25th 2013 (though I am always on hand for various other tasks, such as decimating chocolate maps!). The primary aim of the exhibition is to re-examine Hardwick’s fantastic collection in order to place the Hall and its builder, Bess of Hardwick, within the context of the huge cultural shifts underway during the course of the early modern period.

For the past few weeks the issue foremost in my mind has been how the exhibition and app will balance academic research with the interests of both Hardwick and the public. One of its key aims, I think, is to surprise people. When visitors come to the Hall, on its lonely hillside outside Chesterfield, the last thing they expect to find are connections to significant religious, economic and cultural changes occuring not only across early modern England, but also across the world. So far, as can be seen elsewhere on this blog, the research for Conversion Narratives has had a global outlook. Conveying this sense of international change in a fairly isolated, localised setting is a challenge, but also an exciting opportunity to impact upon visitors’ perceptions of the Hall and the age in which Bess of Hardwick lived.

When drafting texts for the exhibition panels and the app, the impulse is to share everything you know! Yet, there are practical considerations. How will the text look on a panel? Will it draw the eye after walking through the rest of the house? What interests visitors most, and what do they dislike? We learned, for example, that although generally, visitors to Hardwick don’t like dates within exhibition texts, they do love a good timeline! The text must be punchy and keep the focus of the exhibition on Hardwick’s story, yet it must have a new perspective.

These few brief thoughts are an introduction to the reflections I’ll be posting here over the next few weeks as the exhibition takes shape. Watch this space for musings on matters such as how Hilary Mantel influenced our document choices, breaking down the “Hardwick barrier” and what makes a really good app!

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. Continue reading

Conversion – problems of definition

During the ‘Conversion Narratives in the Early Modern World’ conference it became apparent that there was no stable, fixed definition of conversion being employed by the delegates. Rather, there were a series of differing forms of conversion being discussed, from conversion as a change of faith to conversion as a political manoeuvre. The range of definitions is testament to the sheer complexity of religious experience during a period of extreme and protracted spiritual conflict and change. Below we have briefly put together a few of the forms of conversion raised – please feel free to let us know if you think of any others.

  • Conversion as a change of faith
  • Conversion as an intensification of faith
  • Conversion as a renouncing of faith
  • Conversion as process, accumulative – Augustinian
  • Conversion as event, singular, instant – Pauline
  • Conversion en route or in transit – reminiscent of pilgrimage and the wandering of errant knights from myth and romance
  • Conversion prompted by a change of geography, a move to Rome or Geneva
  • Conversion as a ‘turn’
  • Conversion as a change in language and rhetoric
  • Conversion as a costume change – the staging of public baptisms
  • Conversion as an economy of faith – language of profit, deficit, debt, balancing of books, conversion as currency.
  • Conversion as politics – In the words of Henri IV “Paris was worth a Mass”
  • Conversion as cure
  • Conversion as a return – motif of the prodigal son
  • Conversion as a physical transformation, does the convert change their racial identity?
  • Is there such a thing as an anti-conversion narrative?
  • Martyrdom as a celebration of conversion, perhaps the final transformation of the convert?

Planning a conference — programme now online!

Cantino world map

Fragment from the Cantino world map

When we were planning this project, we decided that we would host two conferences, one on ‘Conversion Narratives in the Early Modern World’, and a second on ‘Conversion and Gender’. Our first conference will take place in June. Its aim is to bring together scholars from all over the world who are working on questions of conversion, both to create and reinforce networks between people with similar research interests, and to make sure that we are taking account of a genuinely global context in our own studies. The job of organising a conference can be a tricky one — we’ve been booking rooms, buying plane tickets, and scrutinising menus — and there can be problems along the way. The immensely popular York Races take place every year, but the timetable isn’t published until the end of the previous year, so we had already confirmed our dates by the time we found out that York will be full of people in suits and hats, enjoying the races but also booking up masses of city centre accommodation. Continue reading

Researching conversion narratives

We’ve been checking our blog stats, and see that the question ‘what is a conversion narrative?‘ is one of the most popular queries that brings google users to this blog. With that in mind, we have a short bibliography on the main project website that might help others who are working in this area. We’ll be very glad of any tips for materials to add to this section, and for any comments, thoughts, or questions about how we define or categorize a conversion narrative. Our own definition is catholic (in the wide-ranging rather than the religious sense): it includes any text, or even perhaps an image or object, which explicitly describes the process or experience of conversion and has some rhetorical or narrative shaping, however subtle.

What is a conversion narrative?

Within existing historical and literary critical writing, conversion narratives are most often defined as a seventeenth and eighteenth century religious genre, in which a convert offers the testimony of his or her spiritual rebirth within a new Church or faith. In an important book, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative, Bruce Hindmarsh charts the rise of this kind of self-writing in the mid-seventeenth century, and its proliferation in the eighteenth century.

One of the aims of the ‘Conversion Narratives’ project is to rethink this popular paradigm, separating the idea of the conversion narrative from the closely related genre of spiritual autobiography. Continue reading


When we first started thinking about a project on Conversion Narratives in Early Modern Europe, we knew it would be important to find ways to communicate our findings to a wider public. Now that we are up and running, we will be doing  just that, partly by developing exciting educational resources, and adding more details to the project website, but also by staging an important public exhibition in 2013-14. But while it’s one thing to tell people about the results of our research, we realised that it’s quite another to let people see what it is we do when we undertake this kind of interdisciplinary project.

This blog is designed to let the project team — Doctors Simon Ditchfield, Peter Mazur, Abi Shinn, and Helen Smith — share some of the highs and lows of undertaking research in the Arts and Humanities. We want to reveal some of the possibilities of archival research, and the excitement of discovering new or neglected sources. We want to show the process by which we consider our methodology and start to think about how we interpret our finds. And we want to provide an insight into the sometimes complicated business of organising conferences, collaborating with colleagues across the globe, developing resources, and preparing for publication and an exhibition.

We will usually update this blog around once a fortnight, and perhaps more as we organise events or reach some of our project milestones. We hope that you will check here, and on our project website, periodically, to check on our progress and learn more about the stories people told about religious experience and change in early modern Europe and beyond.