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Early Modern Conversions: Religions, Cultures, Cognitive Ecologies


Whether it is an awakening to a new faith, an induction into a religious cult or radical political movement, a sexual transformation, or the re-engineering of human beings as bio-mechanical “cyborgs,” conversion is a source of fascination and a focus of anxiety for people in the 21st century. We do not know if such conversions are inward turnings toward a better life or monstrous impositions upon unwitting victims. We cannot fathom how individuals or groups of people are able to convert to a new politics, religion, or way of life all at once and quite completely, as if they had never been other than what they have become. We would not want to part with the freedom of self-determination embodied in conversion, which seems to be its purest expression, even though we are troubled by what radical transformations tell us about the instability and changeability of human beings.

The Conversions project will develop an historical understanding that will enlighten modern debates about corporeal, sexual, psychological, political and spiritual kinds of transformation. The project will study how early modern Europeans changed their confessional, social, political, and even sexual identities. These subjective changes were of a piece with transformations in their world—the geopolitical reorientation of Europe in light of emerging relations with Islam and the Americas; the rethinking and the translation of the knowledge of Greek and Latin Antiquity, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; changes in and changing uses of the built environment; the reimagining of God.

Indeed, early modern people changed the world and themselves in ways that have been lost to view on account of the discipline-boundedness of much recent study of the past. By examining forms of conversion across disciplinary boundaries as a network of movements and transformations, we will develop an understanding of religious, cultural, and cognitive change that will provide a new account of early modernity and a foundation for a renewed understanding of the present age. The project will make use of new ideas about extended mind and cognitive ecologies. Cognitive ecologies are, according to team members John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble, “the multidimensional contexts in which we remember, feel, think, sense, communicate, imagine, and act, often collaboratively, on the fly, and in rich ongoing interaction with our environments.”

Led by McGill’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI), the project is partnering with eighteen research centres in Canada, USA, Australia and England. The University of Warwick is one of these partners, where project co-Invistigator Professor Peter Marshall (History) is working in collaboration with colleagues from the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance to help fulfil the project's aim of rethinking early modern Europe as an “age of conversion.” The project will involve younger scholars, other scholars, artists, and members of the public. The four artistic partners will develop creative programs in collaboration with the project and take part in workshops that will inspire audiences to think creatively and historically about the possibility that we might be entering a new great age of conversion. The project’s ability to engage with multiple public audiences will depend first of all on the coherence of the story it has to tell about conversion as an agent of historical change. The artistic partners will be crucial to the coherence and appeal of that story, especially since the performing arts are themselves forms of historical research, experiential ways of understanding the lines of connection between the past and the world of modernity. There is further information on the 2013-14 Research Project, 'The Soul' here.

Edwin_Landseer_Titania and Bottom

Scene from A Midsummer Nights' Dream 'Titania and Bottom' by Edwin Landseer