For most members of a history department, summer is both a finishing line and a starter’s pistol. Papers that had become mere memories come back into view; promises that you had made in January and failed to fulfil come back to haunt you, oh, and conference season hits you like a train.
There has been some noise recently about how one might tackle conferences or if the traditional conference format is valid any more. There are other, basic, problems. I always sign up for too many; I forget about how tiring it can be and then, at some point in September, I work out that I’ve spent more time in hotels or halls of residence than my own bed. What conferences do allow, however, is for us to take a step back and assess the direction of things a little more than usual. Conferences are good barometers of academic interest and tentative signposts to where disciplines, and sub-disciplines, are going.
The two largest events on my summer calendar were the Sixteenth Century Society Conference (SCSC) and the biennial Reformation Studies Colloquium (RSC). Something that struck me at all of these events was the idea of experience and how, across early modern studies, those of us interested in religiosity are moving away from assessing liturgy – or rubrics of faith – to understanding the experiential side of things. The boundary between the social and the religious has never been so blurred.
SCSC met in venues dotted across the Belgian city of Bruges at the end of August. It was warm and the temptation to dunk your head into the nearest glass of beer or bowl of chronically sweet waffles was palpable. I kicked off my time in Bruges by attending a session on devotion in the late-medieval period. Immediately, this first panel raised the idea of personal, almost unmediated, interactions with the divine. Papers from Donna Sadler (Agnes Scott College) and Vibeke Olson (North Carolina, Wilmington) underlined how the experience of the worshipper himself imbued devotional images or objects with meaning. Olson suggested that concepts of Christ being present and paradoxically absent at the same time allowed worshippers access to an interpretative space where they could have access to their own personal Jesus.
Presentations on central European religious cultures are leading the way in showing how this process worked in the parish setting. Rather fittingly, two of the panels that I found most rewarding took place in the most stunning of venues – the Provinciaal Hof in the centre of Bruges. Jason Coy (Charleston) and Sigrun Haude (Cincinnati) underlined how concepts like witchcraft and divination – things that we think we know about – were pinned to very specific contexts in the German parish. The following day, a number of notable Calvin scholars presented what was one of the most cohesive panels of the Summer on discipline and authority. Karen Spierling (Denison) outlined how even the concept of ‘scandal’ might not be so straightforward afterall and was tied, initially at least, to very specific ‘stumbling blocks’ that Calvin outlined in the Institutes. Just as I had digested Spierling’s masterclass of definition, Philippe Chareyre (Peu) presented a paper that explored the importance of the social composition of the consistory in Nîmes. As I walked out of the Provinciaal Hof – taking the obligatory photo on the way (look, everybody was doing it) – I wondered how possible it was to explore some of these questions with a different corpus of sources. Could it be that only German or Swiss historians can have this sort of fun?
Just under a month later, I travelled to Newcastle to attend the Reformation Studies Colloquium – a biennial event that brings together scholars in a uniquely supportive environment. On the opening day, I sat in on a session exploring local negotiation of religious change in sixteenth-century England. Two papers stood out as particularly noteworthy – especially considering what I had seen at RSC. Anne le Baigue (Kent) and Elizabeth Goodwin (Sheffield) underlined how change in the early Reformation period was a process of negotiation. This is nothing new – we have heard this argument for years – but it was the sensitivity of these two papers to the contextual discourse that struck me.
Considering these themes, Marc Forster (Connecticut) delivered a quite beautifully pitched plenary paper to close day one of the conference. Forster asked how concepts of ‘popular’ religious change now fit into our interpretations of the period. In the course of the paper, Forster questioned our narrow periodization of Reformation and then ripped into neat categories. He finished by stressing how, at least in the sixteenth century, people could shift quite easily between different confessional causes. Susan Karant-Nunn (Arizona) continued a great many of these themes in her plenary paper the following day. How can historians of the period understand individual religious identity in a period that was, supposedly, experiencing quite massive centralising tendencies?
Conference experiences are subjective. I couldn’t see all of the papers at these two quite massive events. From my limited perspective, though, these two events prove that conferences can be genuinely transformative. Yes, they are tiring and, yes, they probably detract from the other duties of our various callings. However, the breadth of work on community and the experience of religious change in the early-modern period is quite remarkable. Only a conference setting – with its social dynamic – can underline these trends and show the sheer concentration of scholars working on a topic at any given time.