Conference Report: Early Modern Orders and Disorders, 28th June- 30th June 2017

Last month I was lucky enough to present a paper at ‘Early Modern Orders and Disorders: Religious Orders and British and Irish Catholicism’. The conference was held at the University of Notre Dame London Global Gateway, a beautiful building right in the heart of London and moments away from Trafalgar Square. The event was well attended, with scholars from across the globe coming together to discuss the current state of Catholic studies and enjoy papers on a wide range of topics.

The first panel I attended was ‘Transmission, Translation, Integration and Early Modern Women Religious’, which saw papers from scholars all linked to the ‘RECIRC: The Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1550-1700′ project. Marie-Louise Coolahan opened the panel with a paper which cautioned scholars to engage with sources by and about women religious with diligence and forensic insight, noting how many of the surviving sources contain different ‘layers of reading’ within them when circulated by subsequent generations. Some later nineteenth and twentieth-century sources even entirely overlooked the role women played in preserving and circulating texts by women religious, a fact Coolahan reminded us was highly problematic. Problematizing sources was also a theme of Bronagh Ann McShane’s paper, which focused on the sources preserved in the Bon Sucesso Dominican Convent in Lisbon. McShane noted the lack of an Irish counterpart to the ‘Who Were the Nuns‘ project, which focused on English nuns, and highlighted the fragmented and scattered nature of the sources for Irish women religious. Finally, Emilie K. M. Murphy gave an excellent paper on language barriers in English convents in exile. Murphy noted that precious few nuns within the convents spoke fluent French or Dutch, thus making those that could very valuable and often to be found in important ‘public facing’ roles as a result. Murphy also revealed that many of the nuns muddled through with a form of ‘Franglais’, a curious mix of English and French that often resulted in some unusual phrases!

The devil and a Jesuit work together to seduce Cadiére.

My second panel was ‘Protestant Views of Religious Orders’, which started with a thought-provoking paper by Christopher Gillett which focused on the life of Thomas Gage, a Catholic priest who converted to the Church of England in 1642. Gillett noted that Protestant anti-Catholicism was not simply reliant on prevailing stereotypes, but also fed on Catholic activism. Gage was often guilty of purveying such stereotypes, drawing on anti-Catholic tropes in his writings and duties as an expert state witness in the trials of Catholics. Caroline Watkinson followed this with a paper concerning the interaction between the English convents in exile and the banished Jacobite court. While strong links were formed well into the eighteenth century, Watkinson noted that these ties were eventually weakened and became less important as time passed. Finally, the panel ended with a paper by Sonja Fielitz, who took a multidisciplinary approach in her analysis of the English reception of the scandal of the French Jesuit Jean-Baptiste Girard’s seduction of Catherine Cadiére. The scandal was recreated in English dramas in no less than twelve different versions. Fielitz focused on the version produced by Henry Fielding, which was noticeable for avoiding the gender stereotypes of the other versions and presenting Cadiére as a quick-witted and clever woman, rather than a helpless and gullible maid.

The final day saw my paper presented as part of a panel entitled ‘Spirituality: Engagements and Experience’. The panel started with a paper by Victor Houliston which explored the works of Robert Parsons, especially in the context of Jesuit and Dominican spirituality and the role of Luis de Granada’s works. Houliston interestingly noted that in many ways Protestants and Catholics shared an enthusiasm for such spirituality in a way which blurs religious identities in the period. My paper focused on the reception of mysticism among the English Philadelphians, a topic which featured heavily in my PhD research and has been at the forefront of my mind while drafting my first monograph. The paper explored how millenarianism and a belief in the second coming of Christ allowed some radical Protestant groups, both in England and on the continent, to actively absorb Catholic works of mysticism and reference them as proof of the spiritual outpourings they believed would precede the end of the world. The final paper of the panel was a thought-provoking paper by Jessica McCandless on mysticism and the role of space in the visionary accounts of English Carmelite nuns. McCandless argued that mysticism was not only an inner experience, but also contributed to an ‘atmosphere’ or space within convents whereby mysticism could be facilitated and encouraged. Most of the mystical experiences among the nuns took place in spaces that were important to the convent, highlighting the role this space must have had in inspiring their mysticism. McCandless argued that inner mysticism and outer spacial sanctity thus fed off each other and were mutually beneficial to the nuns.

Overall the conference proved to be a space for stimulating discussion and debate. I was happy to see many papers on women religious, as well as a growing number of papers which addressed the interactions, both physical and spiritual, between Catholics and Protestants. Like Ushaw two years before, which I also attended and reported on, the conference was well organized by James Kelly, Hannah Thomas and Cormac Begadon.

My attendance was supported by a Durham University Centre for Catholic Studies travel bursary. Without this I would have been unable to attend. I am grateful to Durham and to the conference organizers for making this support available.

The conference programme is available to view online here.