Locating the Self, Negotiating the Other: Conversion and Imperial Rule in the Early Modern Period

Locating the Self, Negotiating the Other: Conversion and Imperial Rule in the Early Modern Period

Ricarda Vulpius, Historisches Seminar, Universität Münster; Nikolas Ender, Exzellenzcluster "Religion und Politik", Universität Münster
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
05.10.2023 - 07.10.2023
Maria Pauli, Exzellenzcluster "Religion und Politik", Universität Münster

The focus of this international conference on religious conversion in an imperial, primarily early modern context was to illuminate the following questions: To what extent did conversion function as a tool for the (forcible) integration of newly conquered communities into the institutional and social structures of early modern empires, how did incorporated communities react to imperial polities of conversion and in how far did conversions facilitate the emergence of new categories of belonging?

Studying conversion in and through different empires offers the advantage of looking at a wide range of geographical and cultural areas and enables scholars to draw comparisons and to identify entanglements caused by networks at the political, economic, and cultural level.

What exactly do we mean when we speak about conversion? The panellists repeatedly questioned different assumptions, such as interpretations of ‘sincerity’ in relation to possible definitions of conversion. At the same time, the case studies and perspectives presented different expressions, contexts and motifs of and for conversion. Ira Katznelson and Miri Rubin define conversion as a “radical deed” and a “fundamental spiritual reorientation”.1 Lewis R. Rambo and Charles E. Farhadian, in discussing contemporary approaches of conversion studies, conclude that most conversions proceeded less dramatically and radically than previously described.2 The following diverse case studies, however, illustrate the complex interplay between ruptures and continuities in historical conversion cases.

The first panel discussed the social category of the “Newly Converted”, which was created to highlight a characteristic status after converting to the state’s predominant religion. In his case study, BERNHARD HOLL (Potsdam) illustrated how the conversion of Iberian Jews to Christianity in medieval and early modern Spain and Portugal was and still is linked to three main narratives. Holl states that the narrative claimed either that the converts secretly maintained their Jewish faith or that the conversions were ‘sincere’, with a third narrative located somewhere “in-between”. The doubting ‘old’ Christian majority society, which predominantly demarcated itself from the converts, referred to them as “New Christians” across generations.

The case presented by RICARDA VULPIUS (Münster) shows similar dynamics in the demonstration of Russian imperial “Othering” in the 18th century. Vulpius argued that since the Petrine era, religious demarcation from non-Christians was linked to the colonial perception of lacking ‘civilisation’. Therefore, non-Russian subjects who were baptized did not succeed in overcoming their perceived backwardness in the eyes of the imperial elite. For generations, they remained demarcated as Novokreshchenye (newly baptised). Thus, the imperial administration continued to emphasize their ethnic otherness.

VICTORIA GERASIMOVA (Warsaw) focused on the conversion of Jews to Orthodoxy in the 18th century Russian Empire. As the panellist noted, Jews were allowed to reside within the empire’s territory if they were baptised. In this case, conversion served as a migration strategy and was closely linked to the state’s perception of political loyalty, as well as the actors’ choice of their legal and social status. For the 18th century Russian Empire, Gerasimova concluded that the confessional status appeared more crucial than ethnicity.

In the comments and discussions following the panel, some factors were highlighted that could explain the differences in the conclusions of these case studies: Gerasimova examined individual conversions from western areas that were influenced by certain characteristics (mostly young men with few family ties) whereas Vulpius focused on mass conversion of eastern ethnic groups that the state regarded as less ‘civilised’. The fact that Jewish converts in Gerasimova’s case rapidly lost their status as ‘newly baptised’ also suggests that the perception of ‘otherness’ must be divided into various levels.

The second panel was dedicated to the interplay between 19th century ‘national awakening’ and empires as multi-ethnic as well as multi-religious state structures through the lens of conversion. İLKAY KIRIŞÇIOĞLU (Rome) introduced the case of Polish and Hungarian refugees who fled into exile after the 1848’s revolutions in the Ottoman empire and there converted to Islam for “practical reasons”. Kirişçioğlu argued that the converts on the one hand were equipped with new political networks and opportunities, which they tried to use for the continuation of their revolutionary plans, on the other hand they were excluded from their former colleagues who condemned their conversion.

PAUL WERTH (Las Vegas) discussed conversion in and out of the Armenian Apostolic Church as imperial Russia’s “quintessential national church”. Three of his key points are worth emphasising: First, the decision to convert was mostly driven by practical, familial, and economic reasons. Second, the distinction between the Russian Orthodox and Armenian faith was not always clear, making it difficult to determine if the actors actually converted, even when the “language of conversion” was used. Third, for Armenians abroad imperial Russia’s credibility as a great power depended on its ability to “protect” the Armenian Church, for example from increasing “spiritual” conversions to Protestantism.

BARBARA SKINNER’S (Terre Haute) presented the case of the Belarusian and Ukrainian Uniate Church’s mass conversion to Orthodoxy, which was labelled as “reunion” and “purification” by the Russian Empire. The aim was to craft a loyal “Russian core” in the western part of the empire. According to Skinner, a large part of Russia’s secret conversion attempt was expressed by spatial and material alignments of liturgical objects to Russian Orthodox churches. However, the attempt was hampered by ongoing production bottlenecks resulting in the affected parishes becoming “something in between”.

Neither imperial Russia’s nationally minded mass conversion attempt in Western Ukraine nor the individual conversion cases of Armenians, Hungarians and Poles within and between different empires seem to have effectively challenged the pillars of the concerned imperial states. The presented cases were connected to ‘national’ politics that didn’t challenge imperial frameworks but unfolded within their boundaries.

The third panel aimed to illuminate conversion as an instrument of colonial rule and the impact of missionary activities on the development of colonial structures. THOMAS CROISEZ (Fiesole) presented on the dynamic and impact of missionary rivalries between Jesuits and secular priests from Paris in 18th century French Louisiana. He concluded that colonial authorities depended on the missionaries, who functioned as an instrument of imperial politics, whereas the missionaries themselves followed diverging interests, with regards to the colonial authorities and among each other. Indigenous people were aware of the conflicting parties and in return tried to increase their agency by using the rivalries to their own advantage.

JESSICA CRONSHAGEN (Oldenburg) emphasised the significance of labour as a “Christian practice” in the construction of colonial order through examining missionary engagement of the Moravian Church in 18th century Suriname. By focusing on economic branches of tailoring and weaving Cronshagen argued that missionary practices took place in missionaries’ tailor shops that taught the craft and through this process ‘civilised’ their employees.

GABRIELA RAMOS (Cambridge) highlighted the significance of the body as a starting point and field of negotiation for Catholic missionary interventions in the colonial Andes. According to Ramos, the attempted colonial reorganisation was accompanied by efforts to “invent”, “shape” and “occupy” the inner world of the colonized people. Therefore, sermons became an instrument that was supposed to induce the listeners to imagine their body in ways that reflected the colonizer’s view.

The case studies in this panel had three common aspects: First, the varying attempts of a ‘civilising mission’; second, the negotiation of a power imbalance between the different actors; and third, the significant role of missionaries. In relation to the first two aspects, conversion stands out as an instrument of power in both colonial actors’ and indigenous people’s attempt of ‘empowerment’. Missionaries appear as the most ‘mobile’ actors, based on their diverse roles as local intermediaries, executives, or competitors of the colonial administration.

Continuing within the framework of colonialism and missionaries’ role within it, the fourth panel examined various forms of cultural-religious encounters and the blending of knowledge during both enforced and negotiated processes of conversion. GUILLERMO WILDE (Buenos Aires) introduced three stages of the conversion process in the lowland regions of colonial Latin America, which were expressed as “encounter”, “destructuring and ethnogenesis” and ultimately the development of an “autonomous Christian subjectivity”. For the final stage, he emphasised the significance of indigenous language and the influence of “missionary materiality” on the local negotiation of the Christian faith.

DANIELE COLONNETTI (Naples) and ANDREA MARIA D’AMATO (Bologna) examined sources from 16th century New Spain to explore the indigenous influence on the treatises of the Franciscans Marcos de Niza and Bernardino de Sahagún. While Colonnetti analysed de Niza’s appropriation of mythological knowledge gained through intercultural contact with the indigenous population and its integration into a Christian framework, D’Amato described Sahagún’s Florentine Codex as a result of decades of conversion attempts. During this time, Franciscan missionaries even learned indigenous languages to efficiently interact with local informants, including gaining insight into their religious practices. The panellist concluded that the Codex should be considered as a “negotiated product” of the Franciscan friar and his indigenous students.

BEN LEATHLEY (Bologna) introduced the Open-deure tot het verborgen heydendom as a 17th century European encounter with religion in India, examining the Dutch empire’s missionary engagement carried out through the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC). Leathley primarily focused on the book’s footnotes, which were formulated by the anonymous editor “A.W.”. This editor provided a rich palette of historical, religious, and cultural background information to the treatise of the author and VOC-predikant Abraham Rogerius. According to Leathley, the editor “anthropologised” religion as an intercultural phenomenon and in this course campaigned for “softer” conversion attempts in India.

In his comment, Thomas Croisez highlighted the influence of language in all four case studies and questioned whether the adaptation of language was the “first step of conversion”. In response, Guillermo Wilde noted that in his case study language wasn’t adapted but created and worked as an “instrument of evangelization”. In general, it can be concluded that language in colonial contexts serves as an instrument of power and an indispensable, reciprocal medium of conversion by transporting, blending, and questioning religious as well as cultural ideas and practices.

The final panel aimed to highlight the circumstances of conversion or adhesion to a religion other than the official faith of the inhabited empire using a transimperial approach. SILVIA NOTARFONSO’S (Florence / Verona) presentation closely relates to the previous topic of religious hybridisation. Notarfonso identified the lack of Christian religious infrastructure as a contributing factor to the conversion of Christians to Islam upon the arrival of Franciscan missionaries in 17th century Ottoman Albania. Notarfonso noted that some Catholics who remained in their faith appropriated “Islamic Fridays” to celebrate the Christian martyr St. Veneranda. This practice reflected the interweaving of a “local system of beliefs”. St. Veneranda was a widespread cult throughout the Balkan region, connected with the fifth day of the week and probably of pre-Christian heritage.

Whereas Notarfonso's case study illustrated the diverse connections between local and regional religious practices and practical thinking in a cultural sense, the second presentation serves as an example for the networking between local and global driving forces as well as practical thinking in an economical sense. FELICITA TRAMONTANA (Rome / Warwick) examined the 17th and 18th century Syro-Palestine region of the Ottoman empire. Two of her observations are worth emphasizing: Conversion to Islam or Catholicism both offered potential converts an opportunity to improve their social and economic status. Conversion to Catholicism appeared to be particularly advantageous for merchants who benefited from a higher mobility through new accesses to global trade markets and diplomatic networks. The second observation concerned the significant role of missionaries whose direct influence was illustrated by the correlation of conversion numbers and the presence of catholic missionaries in the affected regions whereas Christians and other religious minorities who were out of the missionaries’ reach were more inclined to convert to the empire’s predominant religion of Islam.

The last two presentations examined individual cases of conversion that differed significantly in their circumstances: Commentator Jessica Cronshagen highlighted that DANIEL BAMFORD’S (Birmingham) presentation was the clearest example of conversion by force. KATHERINE KELAIDIS (Chicago) on the other hand interpreted the 18th century conversion of “Western” men to Eastern Christianity as a form of intrinsic “cultural conversion”. According to Kelaidis, the elite circles from which these men came from produced an image of a superior “Greek culture” which the converts projected onto their imagination of the Eastern Orthodox faith.

The panel identified various motifs and circumstances surrounding individual and group conversions, as well as the dynamics between local, regional, and/or global influences. However, it is questionable whether a transimperial approach significantly contributes to the analysis of the panel’s case studies.

Overall, it was evident that the case studies in all five panels were interconnected through larger themes such as language and mobility, the difference between individual and mass conversion, the interplay between local and global, between religious and ethnic minorities and majorities, between familiar and foreign, and the interrelation between so-called ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’. In many cases conversion was boosted by colonial pressure. ‘Intrinsic’ conversion motifs were often characterised by economic, social, political or cultural considerations. In the case studies, a theological dimension appeared to be present, albeit secondary. This underlines the multidimensionality and flexibility of ‘religion’, a concept critically questioned by the participants more than once. On the one hand, the case studies presented varying forms of hierarchy and inequality in European colonial empires that favoured a Eurocentric interpretive supremacy. On the other hand, the case studies illustrated spaces and processes of negotiation as the reciprocal exchange of religious and cultural knowledge.

The evaluation of ‘conversion’ is, therefore, highly context bound as well as dependent on the chosen analytical perspective. In this conference, conversion was itself used as an analytical tool to examine phenomena and dynamics of imperial history.

Conference overview:

Ricarda Vulpius (Münster) / Nikolas Ender (Münster): Welcome and Introduction

Panel 1: The “Newly Converted” in Early Modern Empires

Chair: Felicita Tramontana

Victoria Gerasimova (Warsaw): Jewish Conversion in the 18th Century Russian Empire: From Church Mystery to Act of Civil Status

Bernhard Holl (Potsdam): The Facts and the Fables: Conversion Narratives about Iberian New Christians Then and Now

Ricarda Vulpius (Münster): From Inozemcy (from other lands) to Inovercy (from other beliefs) and Novokreščenye (newly baptised): Othering in the 18th Century

Comments: Barbara Skinner

Panel 2: Conversion and Nation-Building

Chair: Daniele Colonnetti

İlkay Kirişçioğlu (Rome): Political Discourse Converted by Identity Shift: A Different Trajectory of the Hungarian Patriotism in the 19th Century

Barbara Skinner (Terre Haute): Conversion through Physical Transformation: The Belarusian and Ukrainian Churches during the Uniate 'Reunion' to Orthodoxy, 1830-1850

Paul Werth (Las Vegas): Armenians, Empire, and the Politics of Conversion in the 19th Century

Comments: Katherine Kelaidis

Panel 3: Conversion and Colonialism

Chair: Ben Leathley

Thomas Croisez (Fiesole): Une Terre aux Vignes Contestées: Missionary Rivalries and Instrumentalization of Conversion in French Louisiana (18th Century)

Jessica Cronshagen (Oldenburg): Labour, Conversion and Imperial Utopias in the Mission of the Moravian Church in Suriname (ca. 1735-1810)

Gabriela Ramos (Cambridge): Discursive and Institutional Strategies of Conversion to Catholicism in the Colonial Andes

Comments: Paul Werth

Panel 4: Conversion and the Pluralization of Religious Discourses

Chair: Victoria Gerasimova

Daniele Colonnetti (Naples): The Conceptualization of the Northern Frontier of New Spain in the Sixteenth Century

Andrea Maria D’Amato (Bologna): Strategies of Conversion and Indigenous Mimesis in Nueva España (16th Century). The Case of the Florentine Codex

Ben Leathley (Bologna): The 17th-Century Conceptualisation of 'Indian Religion' in the Open Deure Composed by the Reformed Predikant Abraham Rogerius

Guillermo Wilde (Buenos Aires): Imperial Catholicism and Indigenous Cosmologies. Religious Conversion on the Frontiers of Colonial Latin America

Comments: Thomas Croisez

Panel 5: Transimperial Conversions

Chair: İlkay Kirişçioğlu

Daniel Bamford (Birmingham): The Renegade Household of the Ottoman Grand Admiral and the English Embassy, 1588 – 1597

Katherine Kelaidis (Chicago): Heading East: 18th Century Converts to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, London, Moscow, and Captive Greece

Silvia Notarfonso (Florence / Verona): 17th-Century Multi Confessional Ottoman Albania

Felicita Tramontana (Rome / Warwick): Conversion in the Ottoman Empire and Imperial Policies (17th-18th Centuries)

Comments: Jessica Cronshagen

1 Ira Katznelson and Miri Rubin, “Introduction,” in Religious Conversion. History, Experience and Meaning, eds. Ira Katznelson and Miri Rubin (London: Routledge, 2016), 3, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315605111.
2 Lewis R. Rambo and Charles E. Farhadian, “Introduction,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion, eds. Lewis R. Rambo and Charles E. Farhadian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 5-6.