Women and the work of conversion in early modern England
Claire Canavan and Helen Smith
This chapter opens by establishing women's centrality to the religious life of the household and community, and, in particular, their work as model converts and proselytisers. It argues that women’s devotion was neither inherently private nor inherently concerned with questions of selfhood or personal transformation. Drawing on the Queer Phenomenology of Sara Ahmed, the chapter suggests the extent to which conversion functions as a re-orientation and change in direction. The second half of the chapter takes women’s biblical needlework as a case study in material culture as an instrument of orientation. Considering a group of manuscript poems alongside the evidence of inventories and surviving stitchcraft, the authors argue for the evangelical and devotional effects of women’s decorative arts, and suggest that scriptural and religious themes were not simply emblematic but intended to work upon and transform the viewer. For early modern readers and viewers, the needle was a doubly efficacious tool, able to prick not only fabric but the consciences of those who wielded it or meditated upon its products.