Under the combined effects of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations within and pressure from the Ottoman Empire without, early modern Europe became a site in which an unprecedented number of people were confronted by new beliefs, and collective and individual religious identities were broken down and reconfigured. Conversions: gender and religious change in early modern Europe is the first collection to explicitly address the intersections between sexed identity and religious change in the two centuries following the Reformation. The varied and wide-ranging chapters in this collection bring the Renaissance 'turn of the soul' into productive conversation with the three most influential ‘turns’ of recent literary, historical, and art historical study: the ‘turn to religion’, the ‘material turn’, and the ‘gender turn’. Contributors consider masculine as well as feminine identity, and consider the impact of travel, printing, and the built environment alongside questions of genre, race and economics. Of interest to scholars of early modern history, literature, and architectural history, this collection will appeal to anyone interested in the vexed history of religious change, and the transformations of gendered selfhood. Bringing together leading scholars from across the disciplines of literary study, history and art history, Conversions: gender and religious change offers novel insights into the varied experiences of, and responses to, conversion across and beyond Europe. A lively Afterword by Professor Matthew Dimmock (University of Sussex) drives home the contemporary urgency of these themes, and the lasting legacies of the Reformations.
The introduction explores existing scholarship on conversion and on the interrelationships between gender and religious experience in early modern Europe. It argues for the need to consider masculine as well as feminine modes of selfhood as malleable in the light of changing religious affiliations, and considers questions of performativity, language, materiality and orientation. Briefly outlining the contents of the collection as a whole, the introduction also points forward to important possibilities for further research and scholarship.
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.