Sunday, 25 October 2015

More from Vancouver

I thought I was done blogging the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, but the session on Early Modern Women's Writing in the punishment slot (8:30am on Sunday) was too good not to notice: I think probably the all-round best panel I attended.

I'm accustomed to expecting great things from Kate Narveson, who didn't disappoint, in her account of how several early seventeenth-century women produced Bible collages which constructed a very particular view of God - emphasising his comforts, care and (it seemed to me - Kate didn't put it this way) his maternal qualities. In doing so they clearly constructed the God they wanted, needed or had encountered, but did so on the irrefutable grounds of the bare scriptural text.

Paula McQuade, whose book on catechisms is stuck in editorial limbo but must surely emerge soon, was also as humane and insightfue and as ever. He sense that the act of catechesis could be and often was a profoundly intimate moment in family life, and in particular between mothers and children, is worth holding on to. As she points out, the stereotype of catechesis as a repressive and disciplinary process simply is not supported by any significant evidence from the earlier period, even if some Victorians felt that way.

Victoria Burke's work is newer to me, but she was talking about a text I thought I knew, namely Elizabeth Isham's autobiography from the 1630s. What she revealed, however, was the extent to which Isham is, quietly and unfussily, making herself into a scholar in this text: not just referencing an enormous amount of reading, but processing it critically and testing her emerging views against various authorities and against Scripture. She began by suggesting that Isham's work is intellectual rather than conventionally devotional, which is clearly the case, but she ended up demonstrating something rather more important: that this was devotion by the means of intellectual labour. It's quite a trick.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

SCSC Vancouver

The Sixteenth Century Studies Conference in Vancouver has been as fun as ever this year, even through the mental fog of an eight-hour time change. 

There have been highlights from some of the usual suspects. Natalie Mears pointed out that, irrefutably, that the spate of adoring monuments to Queen Elizabeth I in early seventeenth-century London parish churches weren't attempts to send subtle messages to James I - not when there were far better and cheaper ways of sending messages to him than by building monuments which he would never see.

Jon Reimer revealed his newly discovered copy of a book by my old friend Thomas Becon, which proves that Becon really did feel bad about having recanted his evangelical faith in 1543. And Nick Thompson is not only tackling Stephen Gardiner's ding-dong over clerical celibacy with Martin Bucer, but pointed out along the way that Gardiner was labelled 'Anglican' by his hosts in Louvain. Well, sort of, anyway.

But the real treat at a conference is the chance to hear the people you don't yet know, and in this category the one I am most excited about is Harriet Lyon, a second-year doctoral student in Cambridge, who gave us a first glimpse of her work on the way the dissolution of the monasteries was remembered. I've been droning on about the importance of the dissolution for years, and so I'm naturally pleased to see someone tackling this: but she's also doing it with real creativity, thinking about how it's managed in historical writing and how the economic impact of it is processed in the generations that followed. It's genuinely innovative work and I'm excited to see where she takes it.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The happy Klan

Reading about 20th-century American Protestantism, I come across an excellent and disturbing book about the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which emphasises the organisation's commitment to Protestantism as a core value.

I had always thought of the Klan as kind of conservative and reactionary. Apparently I had underestimated their ambition. They seem to have thought of themselves as optimistic, forward-looking and even in a sense progressive, allied as they were with the great progressive cause of the day (Prohibition) and opposed as they were to retrogressive forces such as Catholicism (priestcraft and intolerance) and to racially inferior groups (Jews and African-Americans) who would drag America backwards. They were also keen on intra-Protestant ecumenism. Onwards, to a paradise of united Protestant racial purity!

And they thought they were winning. This macabre image doesn't just show a Klansman sitting on the dead body of American Catholicism, which he has defeated. He is, incongruously, visibly happy and optimistic about it. Who knew you could get a smile out of one of those hoods?

But apparently I have been misreading the hoods themselves. In the original, 1860s Klan the white robes were said to symbolise the vengeful ghosts of the Confederate war dead. In the new, cheerful, forward-looking Klan of the Twenties, a brighter and more edifying alternative was preferred. These were, the Klan now declared, the white robes of the righteous, as in the book of Revelation, symbolising purity of conscience as well as, they hardly needed to add, skin colour. And we were told that the hoods were not in fact to conceal murderous cowards, but so that humble Christians might not be seen to take the credit for the Klan's godly works, but instead anonymously give the glory to God. As the Exalted Cyclops of Texas (I am not kidding) wrote in 1923:
Who can look upon a multitude of white robed Klansmen without thinking of the equality and unselfishness of that throng of white robed saints in the Glory Land?

Who indeed. How could anyone possibly think of anything else?