Conference Report: Catholic and Protestant Responses to the Early Modern Papacy

Emma Turnbull looks back over a fascinating workshop designed to showcase the work of graduate students and early career researchers. The symposium was held at TORCH (Radcliffe Humanities Building, Oxford) on Saturday 6 February 2015. 

Anti-popery has been a burgeoning area of research across the humanities for the past three decades. Since Peter Lake urged us to examine the structure of anti-papal rhetoric in 1989, anti-popery has shaped recent narratives of confessional division, identity and nationhood in early modern Europe. The symposium aimed to bring together scholars working on different aspects of Catholic and Protestant anti-popery into a workshop. By bridging the still-pervasive divide between studies of Catholicism and Protestantism we hoped to broaden our understanding of the criticism, derision, and prejudice the papacy inspired.

The workshop began with papers touching on the Venetian Interdict crisis of 1606-7. Nina Lamal (St Andrews and Leuven) examined the different responses to the Interdict in the printed news circulating in Italy and the United Provinces. She argued that while anti-Roman tropes were prominent in Venice, these were sublimated to broader anti-Spanish themes in Dutch pamphlets. Emma Turnbull (Oxford) explored the 1608 travelogue of the English Protestant traveller, Thomas Coryate. Whilst Coryate displayed a marked hostility to the papacy, his writing also reveals an accommodating attitude towards Catholics and Catholic religion. This is indicative of a conflict within English Protestantism about what it means to be ‘anti-papal’.

The second panel shifted the focus from news and travel pamphlets to plays and polemic. Jan Machielsen (Oxford) assessed the various Catholic and Protestant responses to the myth of Pope Joan. Whilst acknowledging that certain confessional differences existed, he argued that more scholarship is needed to deepen our understanding of Catholic reform as a textual transformation. Paul Quinn (Sussex) examined the imagery of the cup on the English stage, demonstrating that the complex set of associations between ingestion, seduction and Catholicism merged powerfully in The Devil’s Charter by Barnabe Barnes. Abigail Shinn (St Andrews) compared the conversion tracts of two English Catholic converts to Protestantism, James Wadsworth and Thomas Gage. She focused on the theme of fatherhood and argued for its specific theological and personal meanings to these men as they transferred their religious allegiances.

The third session shifted the focus back on the political. Adam Morton (Newcastle) explored the Catholic queen consort to Charles II, Catherine of Braganza and argued, contrary to common perceptions of her marginality in the Popish Plot crisis, that as a Catholic woman close to the king Catherine commanded a level of fear and attention that meant she became a key figure of anti-Catholic polemic. Christian Schneider (Durham) examined the ‘flip-side’ of anti-popery, the efforts of Pope Clement VIII to broker peace in the Low Countries and in the Sweden-Poland dispute. He argued that Clement commanded a practical authority as peacemaker that transcended the confessional divide.

The symposium then heard a plenary lecture by Alison Shell (UCL), which brought to light the instability of satire as a platform for anti-popery but also the self-consciousness of satirists about engaging explicitly in polemic. She emphasised the significance of filial metaphors to describe the confessional division within Christendom and its capacity to convey obligation and unity as well as rivalry.

In the closing discussion, speakers and delegates affirmed the importance of thinking about anti-popery as both Catholic and Protestant. We also discussed how genre and audience shaped the nature and ferocity of anti-popery and how it ebbed and flowed according to political circumstance. Anti-popery remains a concept with inherently interdisciplinary connotations; fashioning an array of theological and political ideas and symbols into a prejudicial mindset. But it also emerges from this symposium as a mindset that sat alongside more practical, accommodating attitudes towards Catholicism and the papacy – and this flexibility is an important area of future study.

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