Conference Report: Early Modern Catholics in the British Isles and Europe, 1-3 July 2015

At the start of July I attended the international and interdisciplinary conference ‘Early Modern Catholics in the British Isles and Europe: Integration or Separation?’ at Ushaw College, Durham. The conference was funded by the Centre for Catholic Studies, Durham University; Univesity of Notre Dame; University of Bergen; the European Network on the Instruments of Devotion; St Cuthbert’s Society, Ushaw; and the Catholic Record Society. The conference was directed by James Kelly and very well administrated by Hannah Thomas.

I think the measure of the quality of research on offer at a conference is the number of times you are genuinely torn between which panels to attend. As two or three panels ran simultaneously, it was not an easy task deciding which one to attend when everything looked so interesting!  The first day was a relatively easy warm up. An enlightening opening keynote by Peter Marshall on ‘The Birthpangs of Roman Catholic England’ argued that Roman Catholicism in England was born, not deconstructed, in the reign of Henry VIII. He argued for the ‘conversion’ of many in England into ‘Papists’, a ‘repackaging’ or re-evaluation of issues such as papal supremacy, which eventually distinguished Catholics in a way it had not before the Reformation. I attended the panel on ‘Catholic Female Agency’ in the afternoon. Cathryn Ellis spoke confidently about Elizabeth Somervile, an Elizabethan woman suspected of harbouring and smuggling Catholic devotional works into England. Adam Morton revealed the ways in which Catherine of Braganza and her consort were a source of cultural exchange, that Somerset House was ‘private yet public, familiar yet foreign’, a site where the English were exposed to Catholic continental culture. Hannah Thomas traced the movements of the English Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre from their foundation in 1642 to their return to England in the 1790s, analysing how this movement and fundamental change was documented in their accounts and records.

Approaching Ushaw (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After a lovely meal in the evening and a well deserved rest at St. Chad’s College, it was time for the main day of the conference on Thursday. It featured a total of 25 speakers, including an illuminating keynote on the Rosary by Susannah Monta. Because of the sheer number of papers, I want to highlight a few that particularly stood out. Aislinn Muller discussed the role of the Angus Dei in Elizabethan England, a time when owning items of Catholic religious devotion could result in charges of treason. Her account of the protective powers they were believed to have had was especially interesting to my own research. Katy Gibbons gave a detailed paper on Thomas Percy (1528-72) as the ‘public face’ of Catholic suffering in England, while James Kelly discussed how English convents in Europe attracted patrons and reinforced their own identity and aims through buildings, statues and decoration.

My own panel on ‘British Views of Continental Catholicism’ featured an excellent paper from Elizabeth Evenden on John Foxe and Spanish Catholicism, as well as a thoughtful paper by Ben Slingo on royalist theft of Jesuit ideas. My own paper on the Philadelphian Society, which discussed their use of Catholic works of mystical theology, engaged with the title of the conference in a very different way to most other papers. I noticed that many papers addressed whether Catholics in the British Isles were intergrated or seperated from Catholic movements in Europe, while I had attempted to reach across the confessional divide and discuss how Protestants (specifically Pietists and Philadelphians), used works by Catholics (especially Quietists) in their own religious beliefs. Although a conference on Catholicism was always going to have such a confessional focus, it reinforced the central argument of my research; that Catholics and Protestants shared devotional and mystical works in ways that polemical accounts at the time (and indeed perhaps some scholarly work today) would not admit.

St Cuthbert’s Chapel at Ushaw (Source: DM Allen)

The final day of the conference featured a thought provoking keynote by Stefania Tutino, in which she argued against the ‘insularity’ of English Catholicism and promoted viewing it as constantly interacting, but not merging, with European Catholicism. Especially interesting to me was a paper by Genelle Gertz on the visionary women Mary Ward and Elizabeth Orton, which provided me with several new viewpoints on the position of my own research in the wider field. I also enjoyed a paper on the same panel by Bronagh McShane concerning the Irish Poor Clares and their travels between Ireland and Europe in the face of uncertain political events. Later highlights included a paper by Carol Baxter on the French Jansenist’s attempts to use the plight of Irish Catholics to encourage Charles II to help them with their own troubles in France, as well as a paper by Sr Dominic Savio Hamer on St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775).

Overall the conference was a fantastic experience and an intellectually stimulating three days. Although I sadly missed papers by Emilie Murphy, Liesbeth Corens and Christopher Gillett, the papers I did attend were all of an extremely high quality and renewed my passion for my own subject. Even talking to scholars not giving papers proved inspiring, as conversations with Steven Foster over dinner revealed that we shared a similar methodological framework in our research, despite completely different subject matter. I was also thrilled that Caroline Bowden mentioned my research at the closing roundtable discussion, which has further inspired me in the final few months of my PhD.

For those on twitter, the conference was heavily tweeted about using #EMBIC. A full conference programme is available to read on Durham University’s website here. I am especially grateful to Northumbria’s Graduate School for funding my attendance and accommodation at the conference.