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‘What is Early Modern English Catholicism?’ Conference

Ushaw_College,_Durham

On Saturday afternoon I made my way to Ushaw College, Durham for the ‘What is Early Modern English Catholicism?’ Conference in honour of Eamon Duffy. This was a very large conference and certainly the most comprehensive I have attended in terms of the range of scholars present. The conference was extremely ably organised by Lucy Underwood and James Kelly, with help from Liesbeth Corens, and all those involved deserve high praise for the smooth running of the event and the welcoming atmosphere created for the delegates. The only major lecture I was able to attend was Alexandra Walsham’s ‘In the Lord’s Vineyard: Catholic Reformation in Protestant Britain’ on Sunday morning. This was a masterful and sweeping survey of the history and present state of early modern Catholic studies, in which Walsham mentioned important recent work that is advancing our understanding of the English Catholic community. I was glad to hear her mention work on the Rookwood family as Catholics who, in spite of their notoriety, managed to negotiate very successful relations with their non-Catholic neighbours. I presume that Professor Walsham was referring to my work, and perhaps that of Carys Brown, as I am not aware of anyone else working on the Rookwoods.

A portion of Walsham’s lecture was devoted to the constructed fantasies through which Catholics and Protestants viewed each other, for instance anti-Catholicism in the case of Protestants, and she argued that anti-Catholic and Catholic discourses cannot be usefully separated from one another. On this theme she pointed to the work of Alison Shell, and gave the impression that research into this area is largely being conducted within the realm of English Literature. Walsham also touched on the world of thaumaturgy as part of the Catholic mission, including exorcism and sacramentals, and it was on this theme that I raised a question at the end of the lecture, asking to what extent she thought that caution and scepticism about the supernatural in the Catholic community was a reaction to anti-Catholicism, or an internal Catholic anxiety derived from the Council of Trent. Professor Walsham replied that it was the result of both, but pointed out that such anxieties and scepticism existed before the Reformation as well. She singled out the work of Caroline Walker Bynum on late mediaeval devotions, which were often as much signs of the need for confirmation of faith as they were superstitious excesses. Eamon Duffy then entered the debate, citing doubts expressed in the Douai Cases of Conscience about the appropriateness of indulgences obtained from grain blessed by the Pope as evidence that English Catholics remained concerned about the legitimate limits of devotion. As one delegate commented to me afterwards, it is rare that these two titans of English Catholic history share the same platform, and I was glad to have stimulated this exchange between them.

My own contribution to the Conference was more modest, and consisted of a short paper on the use of Neo-Latin by English Catholics. I noted the almost complete absence of scholarship on Latin literature produced by Catholics, in spite of the fact that Latin works considerably outnumbered vernacular works in the printed literature of the English Counter-Reformation between 1559 and 1640. In the subsequent discussion Peter Marshall asked me, quite legitimately, whether my paper reinforced or challenged the conventional view that English was the language of Protestants while Latin was the language of Catholics. I replied that, although I was advocating greater recognition for the Latin works of Catholics, this was because Latin literature (whether by Catholics or Protestants) is neglected in general; I would be happy to see more study of Latin works by Protestants as well. My argument would therefore be that the Catholic-Protestant Latin-English dichotomy is a thoroughly false one. Professor Walsham felicitously referred to the martyr paintings of Circignani in the chapel of the English College in Rome as Renaissance transformations of familiar mediaeval English saints, a topic of particular interest to me at present since it concerns the post-Reformation transformation of images of St Edmund. I offered St Edmund’s assimilation to St Sebastian as an example, and noted the dependence of the paintings’ Latin commentary on Nicholas Harpsfield’s Historia Ecclesiastica Anglicana, circulating in manuscript in the 1580s.

The Conference offered many delights to enjoy, not least the concert of the latest music unearthed by Peter Leech from James II’s Chapel Royal at Whitehall, Catherine of Braganza’s chapel, and the private chapel of Cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart. I was particularly intrigued by a peculiar Latin motet by Thomas Kingsley personally addressed to the nun Cecilia Tasburgh, one of the sisters of John Beaumont Tasburgh. I was pleased to catch up with Victoria Van Hyning, Gabriel Glickman and Maurice Whitehead, whose work I am always interested to hear about.

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This entry was posted on July 1, 2013 by .
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