Conference Report: Reformation Studies Colloquium, Newcastle, 14-16 September 2016

The Reformation Studies Colloquium took place in Newcastle between Wednesday 14th and Friday 16th September. The event was well attended and featured speakers from a variety of countries. I was lucky enough to be able to enjoy all three days of the conference without the looming threat of admin and the start of the new academic year, and was thus able to enjoy a whole range of papers and panels.

The first panel I attended was ‘Local Responses to the Reformation’. Anne Le Baigue (Kent) started the panel with a fascinating exploration of the process of religious change in Sandwich, arguing that the town’s port made the area a ‘hotbed of non-conformity’ during the late sixteenth century. Many separatists journeyed back and forth from the continent, especially to/from Leiden, and this accelerated the spread of non-conformity in the area. Elizabeth Goodwin (Sheffield) discussed the competition over monastic lands by local aristocratic families in Yorkshire during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. She argued that this process is often overlooked in wider accounts of the Reformation, and revealed that many of these families had personal, spiritual and genealogical links to the sites. Goodwin also mentioned the importance of the mystic Richard Rolle, which was bound to get my attention! The final paper from Sarah Bastow (Huddersfield) used the commonplace book of Thomas Meynell of North Kilvington to show how his Catholic piety was a blend of old and ‘new’ Catholic traditions, with local miracles, folklore and superstition still playing an important role in his beliefs.

Abbess Marie Angelique Arnauld

Later in the day I listened to three great papers on the theme of ‘Life writing in Counter-Reformation Europe’. Carol Baxter (Trinity College Dublin) explored the role of family ties at the Port Royal convent. Baxter noted the role of the Arnauld family at the convent, beginning with Abbess Marie Angelique Arnauld. Accounts of Angelique’s life, written and witnessed by other members of the family, revealed the dominance of such family ties. Jaime Goodrich (Wayne State University) gave a great paper on the relationship between Lucy Knatchbull and Tobie Matthew and their joint enthusiasm for the Spanish mystical writer Teresa of Avila. Goodrich noted that Matthew placed Knatchbull in an ‘elite spiritual community’ which featured Avila and others aspiring to intense piety, one which transcended the literal community of the convent (which resulted in tensions with others at the convent as a result). Jennifer Hillman’s (Chester) paper on spiritual biographies in Counter-Reformation Paris was also very revealing, recounting how the account of the life of Anne de Lamoignon was written by her friend Marie de Miramion, with the latter’s life later being written by her own daughter Marguerite. Hillman argued that the accounts of the lives of these women were not just the result of friendship and family ties, but also form an attempt to defend a spiritual way of life for women lived actively in the world.

After a lovely meal at Blackfriars and a well deserved rest, the longest day of the conference began. In the morning I enjoyed a wide ranging paper on forced migration during the Reformation by Nicholas Terpstra (Toronto), whose new book was quickly added to my reading list as a result. I enjoyed a great paper by Nina Adamova (St. Petersburg State University) on scriptural justifications of emigration to America. Adamova moved through the various uses of different biblical parallels (moving to the ‘wilderness’, the idea of the ‘promised land’, God’s wrath etc.) with startling clarity. The afternoon brought a great paper by James Kelly (Durham) on the contested image of martyr George Gervase. Gervase was claimed by both the secular clergy and the Benedictines, and even featured in images produced by both groups in entirely different clothing. Using archival letters, Kelly revealed that both groups knew exactly what the other was trying to achieve, and linked this struggle to the conflict over the Oath of Allegiance, the ‘single most dividing issue’ for many Catholics.

Augustine Baker,
the main subject of my paper

The final session of the day was when I delivered my paper on Benedictine texts and their Protestant readership in the mid-seventeenth century. My paper built on work by Alec Ryrie, Alison Shell, Anthony Milton and Nigel Smith by arguing that spirituality was often an area where Protestants and Catholics shared a common Christian ground. In the 1650s this overlap became so frequent that Benedictine texts started to include addresses to readers who were ‘not Catholic’ which attempted to warn Protestants off from reading the works. Although the Benedictines were mostly worried about radical Protestants reading their texts, which I explored through the examples of Cambridge Platonists and Quakers, I also argued that more ‘moderate’ figures such as Robert Leighton and Richard Baxter also read the texts with great enthusiasm. The panel also featured an interesting paper from Eilish Gregory (UCL) on the experiences of sequestration and compounding felt by the Catholic gentleman John Caryll, whose lands were eventually returned to him after several purposeful delays on the part of the government.

On the final day I attended the panel on ‘Scripture, Law, and Society’. It featured a confident paper by Steven Foster (Leeds) on the uses of Romans 13 by sixteenth-century divines attempting to create a culture of obedience. Using such verses, they argued that rebellion was a fundamental challenge to divine order, and that even a tyrant must be obeyed as part of the divinely decreed order of society. Jonathan Willis’s (Birmingham) paper covered similar themes, this time exploring the use of the Ten Commandments in assize sermons in constructing concepts of secular and royal authority. The panel also featured a very detailed paper by Takayuki Yagi (Edinburgh) on the works of the Puritan William Ames. The paper was incredibly useful for me, having struggled to get my head around the various theories of predestination (Supralapsarianism, Infralapsarianism etc.) for some time. Yagi’s clear explanation of these different theories swiftly ended that confusion. Yagi may also have taken the prize for best conference quip, apologising for the fact his paper featured ‘the English versions of Dutch names spoken in a Japanese accent’.

Overall the conference was a great success, no doubt due to the tireless effort of the organiser, Adam Morton. I was struck by the number of papers which suggested that the concept of a ‘long Reformation’ was now widely accepted. Marc Forster’s (Connecticut College) keynote on the ‘Popular Reformation’ stressed the flexible hybrid nature of sixteenth century German communities, with multiple examples of towns and cities which overlooked confessional and theological differences and prioritized urban peace and security over conformity. He argued it was only towards the end of the seventeenth century that the boundaries of ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ were truly drawn. In a similar way, Lucy Wooding’s (Kings College, London) closing keynote discussed how both Protestants and Catholics both understood the ‘mind’s eye’, or imagination, in a similar way. An inheritance of the medieval period, both sides had those who celebrated the use of the imagination, and those who suspected it.  This was an inherent continuity in the English Reformation which contradicts the established notion of Catholicism as ‘imaged based’ and Protestantism as ‘textual’. The idea of a slower Reformation, one which highlights the inherent similarities between Protestant and Catholics in many aspects in the period, seemed to be at the forefront of the conversation. Forster and Wooding both suggested elements of continuity with the past, rather than some sort of immediate break with the medieval period. This left me with plenty to ponder in regards to my own future research and plenty of notes to type up afterwards!

A full conference programme can be accessed here.