‘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

The Medici Press


In 1584, Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici founded one of the world’s first Arabic printing presses in Rome, an enterprise with a clear missionary purpose: to provide a vehicle for spreading the Catholic faith to the Arabic speaking peoples – Christian and Muslim – of the Near East, and for training native clergy in Rome.

Over the following decades, under the guidance of Giovanni Battista Raimondi, a traveller and student of Eastern languages, the press became a center for the collection, editing, and publication of a range of Arabic and Syriac texts, including a famous edition of the New Testament replete with illustrations of the life of Christ. Continue reading

Review: Antoinina Bevan Zlatar, Reformation Fictions: Polemical Protestant Dialogues in Elizabethan England, (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2011).

This book analyzes a range of Elizabethan Protestant dialogues with an eye towards providing a rehabilitative rhetorical and historicist reading of these often misunderstood and neglected texts.  It differs from previous studies of the genre by focusing specifically on a limited corpus, rather than attempting a more broad (and thus vague) collective understanding of varied subgenres.  In particular, Antoinina Bevan Zlatar argues for an increased emphasis to be placed on the strong fictive elements of these dialogues.  Continue reading

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

Augustine’s Confessions

Augustine’s Confessions: A Model for Conversion?

Above is the title page from the 1631 edition of the Confessions – note the flying cherubs/children who direct a stream of speech towards Augustine, ‘take up and read, take up and read’. In the bottom left hand corner is a Bible open at the passage from Paul to the Romans (13: 13-14) which brought about Augustine’s conversion.

Augustine writes the Confessions at the end of the fourth century AD, eleven years after his conversion in Milan, when he is Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. In many respects it was designed to refute the accusation that he was still a Manichee (a member of a sect who followed the teachings of Mani).

The conversion stories of Victorinus, Ponticianus, and Paul (mentioned briefly in relation to his change of name from Saul to Paul following his conversion) precede Augustine hearing the disembodied words ‘tolle, lege, tolle, lege’ (‘take up and read, take up and read’) in a garden in Milan. He picks up the book of the apostle Paul ‘opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit’. After reading the following passage, ‘All shadows of doubt were dispelled’:

‘Not in riots or in drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.’ (Rom. 13:13-14) Continue reading

News from Italy: The Italian Convert

From Naples to York (by way of Geneva): The Life of Galeazzo Caracciolo by Niccolò Balbani

This extraordinarily popular conversion narrative tells the story of an Italian nobleman, a member of Charles V’s court and nephew to Pope Paul IV, who abandoned Italy and the Catholic Church after absorbing the evangelical teachings of Juan de Valdés and Peter Martyr Vermigli in his native Naples.   He died in Geneva, stripped of his titles, wealth, and estates, and married to a Frenchwoman after his wife and children refused to follow him across the Alps.

Originally written by Niccolò Balbani and published in Geneva after Caracciolo’s death, the text was translated into Latin by Theodore Beza and then into English by William Crashaw (a Yorkshire clergyman and father of the religious poet and Catholic convert Richard). Translations into French and German were also made, but by far the most popular version was Crashaw’s which was printed in 1608, 1612, 1635, 1662, 1668 and 1677.  The story was disseminated even further through its inclusion in Jacques Auguste de Thou’s History of His Own Times, a book popular across the European ‘Republic of Letters.’

The 1668 edition below contains a series of entertaining woodcuts – spot the Jesuit with bags of gold! Continue reading