‘What is Early Modern English Catholicism?’ Durham 28 June-1 July, 2013

There are big conferences and then there are epic conferences. The ‘What is Early Modern English Catholicism?’ conference was the latter sort and centred around a weighty question. According to the CFP the aim was to bring together an interdisciplinary body of scholars who would ‘change perceptions’ of early modern English Catholicism by ‘questioning perceived notions of what is actually meant when Early Modern Catholicism is mentioned in the English context.’ The conference addressed English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh Catholic practices amongst laity and professional religious; convent history; devotional writing by and for laity; periodization; book history of many kinds, and many aspects of national identity.

The conference was organized by Dr James Kelly, hosted by the Durham Centre for Catholic Studies and based at beautiful Ushaw College in nearby Esh. The event honored Eamon Duffy’s contribution to the study of Catholicism, particularly early modern Catholicism, and coincided with his receipt of an honorary doctorate from Durham University.

The conference drew 120 delegates from around the world. The program was comprised of four plenaries, seven parallel sessions of three concurrent panels each, totalling fifty speakers in all. In addition to papers, there was an evening of recusant music performed by Cappella Fede, and an exhibition of Ushaw archival holdings curated by Claire Marsland. Myself and three fellow graduate students had the pleasure of guiding delegates through the exhibition. This required us to stand in the beautiful Pugin cloisters and chapels. It’s a hard life for some.

Proceedings began with a plenary address from Brad Gregory of Notre Dame, IN, titled ‘Situating Early Modern English Catholicism.’ Gregory broke his talk into three parts revolving around three terms. What do we mean by ‘early modern’, ‘English’ and ‘Catholic’? While giving us an up-to-date and comprehensive overview of the historiography, he deftly argued for ‘early modern’ to span 1530 to at least the 1790s—from the years of the Henrician reforms to the French Revolution, which forced most of the exiled English and Irish convents and seminaries back to the British Isles. As for Catholicism, he urged us to include Henrician Catholics, as well as church papists—a group that Alexandra Walsham, another plenary speaker and significant contributor to the field of early modern history—mentioned in her plenary address on Saturday morning. In the round table on the final day, Gregory again encouraged us to be broad in our definitions of ‘Catholic’ and cautioned against what he deems the too-easy-way-out, of referring to ‘Catholicisms’, plural, to encompass the complexity of English Catholic practice in the period c. 1530—c. 1790.

The second plenary was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Thomas McCoog, SJ: ‘An Identity crisis? The Vicars Apostolic and the suppressed/restored English province of the Society of Jesus’ and drew on his extensive knowledge of Jesuit archives and politics. The talk was engaging and delivered with ease and humor, but I must admit that I was a little worn at this stage in proceedings and didn’t take the best notes from which to reconstruct a review, but you can hear more from McCoog about his experience of working with the Society of Jesus and Fordham here.

Walsham used her plenary session on day three to provide an overview of historical studies of early modern English Catholicism, and ways forward for future research. Indeed, by day three, the catch phrase ‘that’s a topic for a PhD thesis’ appeared reliably in plenary addresses and Q&A sessions. Walsham’s address was  shaped by three themes: 1) the importance of international initiatives; 2) her conviction (which I share) that we cannot understand anti-Catholicism and Catholicism in isolation from one another; and 3) the degree to which being members of a proscribed religion shaped early modern English Catholic experience.  Walsham deployed a compelling metaphor for the models of Catholicism offered by the pioneering historians John Bossy and Christopher Haigh. Bossy’s Catholicism is like a ‘fresh faced child’ renewed in the face of persecution. Phoenix-like, it is reborn stronger than it was in the medieval period. In contrast, Walsham characterizes Haigh’s model as ‘a robust middle aged man’. Our scholarly approaches to the early modern Catholic church have been shaped by these leading schools of thought, and require ongoing interrogation and a high degree of self-awareness when we interpret our findings.

Walsham then suggested that Michael Questier’s work on the Lancastrian Catholic  networks is fundamental to the field and may offer a useful model for future examinations of lived Catholicism in the Four Kingdoms. It is a mark of Walsham’s magisterial command of the subject, and her characteristic generosity to other scholars, that this blog post can by no means encompass the names of all those she mentioned. Both Walsham and Gregory are to be commended for their attentiveness to the work and voices of others, including early career scholars and doctoral candidates.

Professor Duffy gave a plenary on the evening of day three. He demonstrated (what I gather is his characteristic) mixture of generosity, charm and cheeky sense of humour. In the round table that closed the conference he described his plenary lecture of the night before as ‘a gentle polemic against Bossy’ adding, ‘It was gentle both because I love and revere him, but also because I thought he might be in the room.’ Duffy’s plenary took us ‘from the macroscopic’ of Walsham’s exploration to the ‘microscopic’ of his own study of one work, the Manual of Prayers. Despite this claim to making a small study of a single work, Duffy traced the complex genesis of this work within the Elizabethan-era Catholic community, and demonstrated its centrality to English Catholic lay devotion from the early modern period to the present day.

The conference itself appears to have been structured in such a way so as to break up usual suspects and thematic groups. Thus, while there were a number of familiar faces and friends speaking in sessions about early modern nuns, I was not able to attend all of their papers, most regrettably the one delivered by Dr Laurence Lux-Sterrit, which ran parallel to mine. But this, I believe, was by design, so as to shake us out of our rutted tracks and expose us each to topics and speakers we would not hear otherwise. I enjoyed the opportunity to hear papers about Irish and Scottish Catholics, Japanese Catholic martyrs, and a Jesuit mission in the Welsh borders, just to name a few. I walked away from this conference with a better-rounded sense of what my professed period of study is all about, and quite convinced that this is a growing and vibrant field, full of people whose work I want to know better.

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