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


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.

A book that converted…


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

Reflections of an intern: creating the Virtue & Vice app


There are days to go until the opening of the exhibition “Virtue & Vice” at Hardwick Hall. This will coincide with the availability of an accompanying app for Apple and Android smartphones. This aspect of the project has been a real departure from the norm and, having had the opportunity to play with the beta-version over the weekend, I can honestly say it is thrilling to see all our work coming together. Being available on the iTunes store is, of course, a nice little bonus too!

From its meagre beginnings as a Powerpoint diagram (I discovered I can create a reasonably convincing iPhone using the ‘Draw’ toolbar) the app has become an accessible, rich and, dare I say it, rather stylish resource. With the invaluable help of Nottingham-based developers Rusty Monkey, a wealth of images, informative text and ideas have been pulled together into something that not only supports the exhibition itself, but may also stand alone. I like to think that it will be something to show friends, family, total strangers etc., inspire them to visit Hardwick and encourage them to think about the early modern period in new ways. 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

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

Carnivalesque #84

Detail from Bruegel's Combat between Carnival and Lent

The King of Carnivalesque, Mikhail Bakhtin, is famous for celebrating François Rabelais’ joyfully satirical world-turned-upside down, in which grotesque bodies eat, belch and excrete their way across a fantasy of early modern Europe. Despite (because of?) his own time spent in Holy Orders, Rabelais was no fan of organised religion: his monks are venal, greedy, and incontinent — and frequently destined for an unpleasant end!

For our conversion Carnivalesque, we’ve tried to bring in both Carnival and Lent, celebrating some great posts which handle religious literature and history, but also remembering that ‘conversion’ itself can embrace ‘Transposition, inversion’ (OED n.4), and extending our gaze to moments of transformation, hybridity and change.

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A devil with a double voice: conversion and possession in early modern Provence

Along with the other members of the Conversion Narratives team, I’m currently in Washington, DC, preparing for the Renaissance Society of America Conference: a three-day event with a dizzying array of papers and panels. We’re lucky enough to be working in the wonderful Folger Shakespeare Library, whose slightly gloomy mock-Elizabethan interior makes the perfect setting for my discovery of a very peculiar story.

In 1613, a book was published in London, telling readers about The admirable historie of the possession and conversion of a Penitent woman. Seduced by a Magician that made her to become a Witch, and the Princes[s] of Sorcerers in the Country of Province [Provence]. The story is a striking one: an ambitious Priest called Lewes Gawfridi, living in Marseille, became a sorcerer thanks to some ill-advised leisure reading. Continue reading

In the Archives: an Interview with Craig Harline

The cover of Craig Harline's book on ConversionsCraig Harline’s recently-published Conversions brings together two stories of changing faith: one from the Dutch Reformation, the other from 1970s California. Craig’s book offers an accessible and engaging account both of Jacob Rolandus, the son of a Dutch Reformed preacher, who converted to Catholicism in 1654 and ran away from home, and of ‘Michael Sunbloom’, a young American who converted to Mormonism in 1973, but left the church when he began to explore and embrace his homosexuality.

It is a book about religious change, and about the effects of movement between Churches on both families and wider communities, and closes with a moving plea for the tolerance and understanding needed to understand and interpret these diverse stories.

Craig was kind enough to meet up with the Conversion Narratives team at the recent Sixteenth-Century Studies Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, and to talk to us about a rich range of topics, including the importance of these stories, the role of the historian, the challenges of writing popular history, and his own experiences as a converter. You can listen to the full interview on our project website.

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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