Friday, 26 October 2012

Sixteenth Century Studies at Cincinnati

A half-time report on this always amiable conference. In amongst seeing old friends and eating a lot of seafood, I have also made it to a few papers. Megan Hickerson and Margo Todd gave excellent papers on, respectively, how the fact that Henry VIII was fat has affected the way we've understood him, and on the genuine popularity of the comprehensive moral policing that sixteenth-century Perth enjoyed.

But the fun of these conferences is hearing people you've never heard of speaking on subjects you never thought of. I'd pick out two so far as especially good:

Yesterday, I heard Rosemary Lee, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, speaking about the Carmelite missionaries in Persia in the early 1620s; and in particular about their housekeeper, a woman whom they nicknamed 'Teresa'. 'Persian Teresa' apparently converted to Catholicism or something which she understood to be Catholicism - and not because the missionaries tried to convert her, but of her own initiative, since they were clearly surprised. And then she took it on herself to become a wandering preacher, until the surprised friars realised what was going on and reined her in. But she was a preacher in an apparently traditional Shi'a Muslim mode; this combination of homegrown Catholicism and Persian Shi'ism seems to have been very much her own concoction. It's a great story and she presented it very engagingly: it should make a terrific article.

And today, I heard Bruno Feitler of the Universidade Federal de Sao Paulo in Brazil talking about the Inquisition in Goa, the Portuguese colony in India, in the late sixteenth century. I've always told students that the Inquisition only had jurisdiction over baptised Christians, but I now discover that's not exactly true. Even in Portugal, it occasionally claimed the right to try Jews who were pretending to have converted but had in fact never been baptised. In Goa, the Inquisition was initially felt to be a hindrance to missionary work (since baptism meant subjecting yourself to it). But then it discovered an ingenious workaround. It claimed the right to try non-Christians who were luring Christians into error; which meant, in practice, sentencing these people to death and then pardoning them on condition that they converted and were baptised. This trick was by 1580 producing so many converts that the Jesuits queried the practice - but the king of Portugal backed them up. By the early 17th century the Goan Inquisition was using this wholesale, even on indigenous peoples who hadn't threatened converts' religion at all. And it worked ... who says persecution doesn't pay?

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