By Claire Marsland, Early Modern Catholic Material Culture PhD
On the 17th March 2019 I gave a paper at the Renaissance Society of America’s annual conference in Toronto, Canada. My conference fee was funded by the St. John’s College student opportunities fund for which I am very grateful. I am currently in the third year of my part-time PhD focussing on Early modern English Catholic material culture and attending the RSA annual conference was a great opportunity to present my work to an international audience of various disciplines. The title of my paper was Material Culture of Persecution: Identifying and Analysing English Catholic Liturgical Objects. It outlined the benefits of using artefacts to further understand the liturgical practice of English Catholic communities during years of illegal activity and argued that the creation and use of mass equipment was more complex than previously thought. Throughout my presentation I displayed images of specific artefacts from the collections of Ushaw College, of which I am custodian in my day job, and from other institutions visited during research trips. The religious restrictions placed upon English Catholics after the reformation resulted in the creation of unique liturgical artefacts which were designed to be easily concealed. This took the form of chalices which could unscrew into small sections; portable altar stones made out of thin roof slates; vestments made with all the colours of the church calendar so that only one was required and chalices of plain pewter which could be mistaken for a secular drinking cup. Still largely held in private hands, these items have been working sacred items, with some continuing to be used to this day, and have therefore received little academic attention.
My paper was part of a panel: The Material Culture of Catholicism and Confessional Politics in Early Modern England chaired by Dr. Alexandra Walsham (Cambridge University). The other papers were That Silken Priest”: Catholic Disguise and Anti-Popery on the English Mission (1559–1640) by Sarah Johanesen (King’s College, London) and Sacred Materials and Political Subversion in the Jesuit Mission to England by Dr. Aislinn Muller (Boston College). All three papers flowed well together and are an example of the increasing use of material culture in British Catholic historical studies. The panel had a great turn out and resulted in very interesting questions and debates. I attended other panels throughout the conference, including papers on 16th century European dress, English Catholic networks and reading 17th century religious artwork. The key note lecture was The Winged Eye at Work: Leon Battista Alberti Surveys Old St. Peter’s by Anthony Grafton, Princeton University, who presented to a packed ballroom a fascinating reinterpretation of primary sources.
I was fortunate enough to have a bit of time to see the City of Toronto which quite rightly deserves its nickname ‘Mini New York’. Gleaming towers stretch across the skyline with an underground network of paths and shopping centres for the harsh winter. The Art Gallery of Ontario has a wonderful collection of European Renaissance and Modernist art and I very much enjoyed seeing an exhibition of Impressionist paintings, including Monet’s Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877 on loan from the Chicago. I also could not have travelled so close to Niagara Falls without visiting and it was definitely worth the effort. There were still large sections of ice covering the falls and the bright sunshine and blue sky made for a very atmospheric visit and resulted hundreds of photographs!
Presenting a paper at the RSA conference has been wonderful experience for my personal and academic development. Until this point I had not attended such a large international conference and interdisciplinary feedback has been incredibly useful in forming my future research.
Photographs by Claire Marsland.