It was with great excitement that the team gathered this summer for the start of our three-day conference Domestic Devotions in the Early Modern World. With speakers travelling from around the world to Cambridge, we were relieved to be able to welcome them to the city on a beautiful sunny day.
Our call for papers had generated a fantastic response, so we were looking forward to a packed programme of papers examining the question of domestic devotion from a wide range of geographical and disciplinary perspectives. With its global focus, our hope was that the event would allow for the exploration of common themes across faiths, times and places, the drawing of fruitful comparisons, the deepening of knowledge, and the provoking of new questions.
Our first two sessions both explored one of the longest established, and nowadays most challenged, dichotomies in the study of the domestic sphere: the boundary between public and private. In the first session Jaap Geraerts (UCL), Torsten Wollina (Orient-Institut Beirut) and Dotan Arad (Bar-Ilan University) each called attention to the complexities of this distinction, in papers that addressed respectively collective worship in the homes of Dutch Catholics, the religious lives of Muslims in early modern Syria, and the use of domestic space for public prayers by Ottoman Jewry. In the second session Naomi Pullin (University of Warwick) shone light on the significance of the domestic context to Quaker wives and mothers who travelled the world as missionaries, Tina van Kley (Brandeis University) examined the myriad ways in which priestly homes in Protestant England became spiritual models for both their parishioners and society at large, and in a study of ancestral halls in late Ming China Joe McDermott (University of Cambridge) considered the intersection of the familial, the sacred and the financial. Even though every one of these papers addressed a distinct faith, themes that ran throughout the conference began to emerge, such as: the significance of mental prayer; the role of food in demarcating sacred time and space in the home; the complex ways in which men and women negotiated gendered concepts of ideal behaviour; and the importance of pragmatic and quotidian concerns to the organisation of religious life.
Another key area of investigation – the tensions and disparities that inevitably existed between the religious authorities who declared how the laity ought to feel and what they ought to do, and the laity themselves – was explored in more detail in one of the afternoon’s sessions. The sources employed in this endeavour were fascinatingly diverse: for Lucy Busfield (University of Oxford), pastoral correspondence provided a way into examining the relationships between between God-fearing devotees in Protestant England; Cristina Osswald (Universidade do Porto) examined the material culture of Jesuit missionaries in order to consider their effectiveness in eighteenth-century Brazil; Bianca Lopez (Washington University in St. Louis) informed us that even in sacks of grain or fava beans could hold devotional significance if they were then bequeathed to the Virgin’s shrine at Ancona in fifteenth-century Italy.
Another afternoon session focused on the significance of travel, pilgrimage and journeys, where the theme of transformation came to the fore. Movement, whether physical or in the mind, was often central to attempts of contemporaries to transform themselves in a particular religious model. The focus of Beatrice Saletti (Università degli Studi di Trieste) on the souvenirs that many brought back with them after trips to the Holy Lands suggested the importance of tangible reminders of these defining acts of piety, which could be kept in the home indefinitely; Ermanna Panizon (independent scholar) examined the winding paths and presence of tiny pilgrims in the backgrounds of the religious paintings of Giovanni Bellini; and Linda Honey (independent scholar) recounted how the marooning of a sixteenth-century Frenchwoman on the Canadian frontier led to her being celebrated as having completed a unique spiritual journey on her return to France.
In the fifth session of the day Pau Castell Granados (Universitat de Barcelona), and Remi Chiu (Loyola University Maryland) each considered the ways in which the domestic and the religious intersected when it came to sickness and healing. In Granados’s paper the agency of the Catalan women who used prayer and magic in their treatment of the sick was notable, as when they recounted only their most innocuous remedies to Inquisitors. Chiu drew attention to the importance of music in defending homes and cities against the plague in early modern Italy, where women and children were encouraged to listen to processional litanies from their windows in order to invoke divine protection for themselves. As with all the sessions, this one concluded with a lively discussion in which the common threads that ran through the papers were scrutinised and developed. These two talks revived debate on another topic familiar to historians of ‘popular’ piety: the interrelationship of magic (or ‘superstition’) and licit practice.
Having been richly stimulated by the day’s papers and conversations, and after a sustaining cup of coffee, everyone gathered together to hear the first of the keynote lectures, with Andrew Morrall (Bard Graduate Center, New York) speaking on ‘To “tapisse sure the chambres of thi minde and remembraunce”: The Uses of Biblical Decoration in the Early Modern Protestant Home’. Through a fascinating analysis of material culture and images Morrall set out to explore the everyday religious lives of Protestants across Europe. From drinking vessels and knives to portraits and embroidered Bible covers – his lecture illuminated the myriad ways in which domestic objects shaped and reflected the spirituality of members of a household. Some were highly didactic, often intended for the instruction of children, others suggested the possibility for more flexible pious conversation, recitation and reasoning over a meal. When an inscription on a stove tile could prompt meditation on hell fire, the multiple potential meanings of even the sensory experience of warmth in the home were revealed. The lecture highlighted more positive aspects of Protestant piety, such as the careful attention paid to the value of beauty, both aesthetic and spiritual, as expressed in the delicately wrought embroidered fruits and flowers in a scene of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Morrall’s wonderful exploration of this world of speaking objects led to a vibrant discussion, in which the depth of the distinction between Protestant and Catholic attitudes to pious domestic adornment and one’s inner religious life were questioned.
The day concluded with a well-earned glass of prosecco, and a sense of keen enjoyment in the conversations that the papers and ensuing discussions had prompted.