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Early Modern Conversions: Religions, Cultures, Cognitive Ecologies

IPLAI welcomes Early Modern Conversions, a five-year SSHRC Partnership Project (2013-18) that will bring together an international, interdisciplinary group of artists, scholars and partnering institutions.

Whether it is an awakening to a new faith, an induction into a religious cult or radical political movement, a sexual transformation, or the re-engineering of human beings as bio-mechanical “cyborgs,” conversion is a source of fascination and a focus of anxiety for people in the 21st century. We do not know if such conversions are inward turnings toward a better life or monstrous impositions upon unwitting victims. We cannot fathom how individuals or groups of people are able to convert to a new politics, religion, or way of life all at once and quite completely, as if they had never been other than what they have become. We would not want to part with the freedom of self-determination embodied in conversion, which seems to be its purest expression, even though we are troubled by what radical transformations tell us about the instability and changeability of human beings.

The Conversions project will develop an historical understanding that will enlighten modern debates about corporeal, sexual, psychological, political and spiritual kinds of transformation. The project will study how early modern Europeans changed their confessional, social, political, and even sexual identities. These subjective changes were of a piece with transformations in their world—the geopolitical reorientation of Europe in light of emerging relations with Islam and the Americas; the rethinking and the translation of the knowledge of Greek and Latin Antiquity, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; changes in and changing uses of the built environment; the reimagining of God.

Indeed, early modern people changed the world and themselves in ways that have been lost to view on account of the discipline-boundedness of much recent study of the past. By examining forms of conversion across disciplinary boundaries as a network of movements and transformations, we will develop an understanding of religious, cultural, and cognitive change that will provide a new account of early modernity and a foundation for a renewed understanding of the present age. The project will make use of new ideas about extended mind and cognitive ecologies. Cognitive ecologies are, according to team members John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble, “the multidimensional contexts in which we remember, feel, think, sense, communicate, imagine, and act, often collaboratively, on the fly, and in rich ongoing interaction with our environments.”

Led by McGill’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI), the project is partnering with eighteen research centres in Canada, USA, England, and Australia. The partners will work together toward a rethinking of early modern Europe as an “age of conversion.” The project will involve younger scholars, other scholars, artists, and members of the public.  The four artistic partners will develop creative programs in collaboration with the project and take part in workshops that will inspire audiences to think creatively and historically about the possibility that we might be entering a new great age of conversion. The project’s ability to engage with multiple public audiences will depend first of all on the coherence of the story it has to tell about conversion as an agent of historical change. The artistic partners will be crucial to the coherence and appeal of that story, especially since the performing arts are themselves forms of historical research, experiential ways of understanding the lines of connection between the past and the world of modernity.

This project is supported by a Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council


conversions [at] mcgill [dot] ca

Paul Yachnin, Principal Investigator
Office: 3610 McTavish St., room 21-3
Tel: 514-398-7185
paul [dot] yachnin [at] mcgill [dot] ca

Leigh Yetter, Project Manager
Office: 3610 McTavish St., room 22-6
Tel: 514-398-6154
leigh [dot] yetter [at] mcgill [dot] ca

Project Director
Paul Yachnin, Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies; Director, Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas, McGill

Project Manager
Leigh Yetter, Executive Director, Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas, McGill

Sarah Beckwith, English, Religion, Theater, Duke University
Julie Cumming, Schulich School of Music, McGill
Iain Fenlon, Professor of Musicology, University of Cambridge
Carlos Fraenkel, Philosophy and Jewish Studies, McGill
Torrance Kirby, Religious Studies, McGill
Peter Marshall, History, Warwick University
Steven Mullaney, English, University of Michigan
Alberto Pérez-Gómez, School of Architecture, McGill
Benjamin Schmidt, History, University of Washington
Stéfan Sinclair, Digital Humanities, Languages, Literatures, Cultures, McGill
John Sutton, Centre for Cognitive Science, Macquarie University
Valerie Traub, Women’s Studies, English, University of Michigan
Angela Vanhaelen, Art History and Communication Studies, McGill
Mark Vessey, Principal, Green College, University of British Columbia
Bronwen Wilson, Art History, University of East Anglia

Patricia Badir, English, University of British Columbia
Anthony Dawson, English, University of British Columbia
Marguerite Deslauriers, Philosophy, McGill
Hussein Fancy, History, University of Michigan
Michael Gaudio, Art History, University of Minnesota
Douglas Hedley, Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge
George Hoffman, French, University of Michigan
José R. Jouve-Martín, Hispanic Studies, McGill
David Lines, Italian, Warwick University
Justin Smith, Philosophy Concordia University
Matteo Soranzo, Italian Studies, McGill
Evelyn Tribble, English, University of Otago
Carla Zecher, Director of Renaissance Studies, Newberry Library

Postdoctoral Fellows
José-Juan Lopez-Portillo
Stephen Wittek

Academic Partners
Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions, University of Western Australia
Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture, University of British Columbia
Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, UCLA
Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, Victoria University in the University of Toronto
Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library, Chicago
Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies at the University of York
Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), University of Cambridge
Centre for Research on Religion (CREOR), McGill University
Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, University of Warwick
College of Literature, Science and the Arts, University of Michigan
Department of English, University of Michigan
Department of History, University of Washington
Folger Institute, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC
Green College, University of British Columbia
Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London
Institute for the Humanities, University of Michigan
John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI), Duke University
Macquarie University

Arts Partners
Montreal Baroque Festival
Repercussion Theatre, Montreal
Segal Centre for Performing Arts, Montreal
Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario

Convsersions Research Group meetings:14 April - Cognitive Ecologies

Held at IPLAI, 3610 McTavish, Room 21-6 at 3:30-5pm

  • Monday, 13 January
    "The Sense of Hearing" - Julie Cumming

  • Monday, 27 January
    "Space of Conversions" - Matteo Soranzo

  • Monday, 10 February, 12:30-2pm, Birks
    "The Soul" - Torrance Kirby
  • Monday, 24 February
    "Mapping Horizons" - Angela Vanhaelen

  • Monday, 10 March
    "Early Modern Cities" - José Jouve-Martin and Stephen Wittek

  • Monday, 24 March
    "Digital Humanities" - Stéfan Sinclair

  • Monday, 14 April
    "Cognitive Ecologies" - Paul Yachnin

IPLAI/Conversions Speakers Series:

  • Thursday, 22 January, FERR 456, McGill, 4:30-6pm
    "Reading the Reform of the Rake"
    Marcie Frank
    (Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture at Concordia University)

  • Tuesday, 18 February, Senior Common Room, Birks, 4:30pm
    "Conversion: Ontological and Secular from Plato to Tom Jones"
    Wayne Hankey (Carnegie Professor and Chair of Classics and Religious Studies, Dalhousie University and King's College)
  • Wednesday, 19 March, 16 Old Chancellor Day Hall, 4pm
    "Emotion and the conversion narrative: Conversion and the invention of the self in the early Protestant missionary movement, 1770 - 1830"
    Elizabeth Elbourne 
    (Associate Professor and Departmental Chair of History and Classical Studies, McGill University)

  • Thursday, 27 March, Bronfman Building room 423, 5:00pm
    Felipe Fernández-Armesto (William P. Reynolds Professor of History, University of Notre Dame)

  • Friday, 4 April, 3:30pm, Coach House, 3715 Peel St.
    Roundtable on "Conversion and Modernity"
    Marguerite Deslauriers
    (Professor of Philosophy at McGill University),
    Alberto Perez-Gomez
    (Saidye Rosner Bronfman Professor of Architecture History and Theory at McGill University),
    José Jouve-Martin
    (Associate Professor of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures - Hispanic Studies at McGill University)