Feedback from the POCRAM Doctoral Workshop

What does it mean to convert to a religion? What can historical inquiries through multiple cases of religious conversion reveal? Although it might seem intuitive at first, there are at least three definitions of what one means by religious conversion. Religious conversion in its every-day sense generally signals an internal and personal change of heart and mind; that is, conversion as personal transformation. Sometimes this simply means a person has become more committed to their God, a religious way of life and devotion, a belief system and moral code, or all of the above. A second way of understanding religious conversion is as an external change from one religious community to a different one; that is, conversion as a change in public affiliation. In this sense one might convert, for example, from Islam to Judaism, or Judaism to Christianity, or Christianity to Islam. A third meaning of religious conversion could be understood in terms of a process over time or a conversion moment, such as a conversion ritual or experience of conversion, such as a baptism or public profession of one’s new faith.

As Éric Rebillard has observed in a seminal work, Christians and their many identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE (2012), the categories of Christian and non-Christian set in binary opposition is a discursive construct in need of re-evaluation. In other words, there is a real difference between how the historical sources and even historians and scholars define Christians and non-Christians over the years (which shifts and changes), and what the lived experience of Christians and non-Christians actually was. The result is that, from a historical perspective, it is quite difficult to chart the “every-day sense” of religious conversion for a particular religious community over time as well as across different geographic regions. Over time, a religious community develops and changes as circumstances, external and internal conflicts, and controversies occur. Thus, it is crucial that historical evaluations of conversion (entrance into a religious community) and apostasy (withdrawal or removal from a religious community) are studied in comparison with other religions.

In the POCRAM doctoral workshop, “Religious Conversion and the Political Sphere: New Approaches,” led by Dr. Claire Sotinel and Dr. Isabelle Poutrin, participants explored two basic themes. First, what internal and external agents drive or motivate mass religious conversions. Second, how does one judge the quality or integrity of conversions in a range of political spaces. Providing a framework for the exploration, Dr. Claire Sotinel set forth why it is so difficult to speak of conversion in Late Antiquity, and Dr. Isabelle Poutrin articulated how theorisations in canon law (16th and 17th centuries) framed the extortion of consent in conversion, apostasy, and other circumstances of life.

Three scholars explored the motivations for mass religious conversions. 

First, Davy Essone Bouyou, a doctoral student at the Université Paris-Est Créteil, deftly explored the role of the fifth century bishop, Sidonius Apollinaris, in the conversion of Jews to Christianity in Gaul. To obtain the conversion of the Jews Sidonius employed several strategies such as employing Jews and their relatives as his couriers to other bishops. Sidonius also invited and encouraged other bishops to represent and defend Jews in court cases. These strategies simultaneously highlight the role of the bishop in the community and the processes of Jewish conversion in late antiquity. This also raises question of the real motivations driving Jewish conversions to Christianity in fifth century Gaul.

Next, David Barritt, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, explored the ‘dynamics of conversion’ in early medieval Europe, focussing on the conversion of the Slavs to Christianity in the ninth century as a test case for various conversion models, with a view towards building comparisons from this test case. He explored the dynamics and interactions between the conversion mission itself and religious leadership trying to direct conversion in Rome and Constantinople. He also explored the sociological theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber and Michel Foucault as applied to this conversion process, with a view to using these theories for synchronic comparison.

Then Dr. Todd Rester, a post-doctoral research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast on the EU ERC project, “War and the supernatural in early modern Europe,” analysed Scotist and Franciscan positions on holy war, the duties of a Christian prince, and forced conversion. These positions were taught at the Univeristy of Paris in the sixteenth century. Dr. Rester also demonstrated the influence of these positions in works defending royal and ecclesiastical policies of conversion of indigenous peoples in New Spain and Spanish military and social policies toward indigenous peoples in the Chichimeca War. Also, Marine Tesson, Université Paris-Est Créteil, critically engaged the role of powerful women in in the conversion of kingdoms on the border of the Roman Empire in late antiquity, such as kingdoms in Persia, Iberia, Georgia, Bedouin tribes, and Ahksum in Africa There was not a particular process or plan of conversion in the Latin or Greek rites, but the role of the ruler in granting permission to the missionaries and public identifying with Christianity could further the process of conversion. But in the sources of the ecclesiastical histories, there are instances where an unbelieving queen was unsuccessful in preventing the conversion of her people.

Door of the tribunal of the Inquisition, Villanueva de los Infantes (Spain). Rafa, Flickr, 2012.

With respect to the quality or integrity of conversions when the converts were in contested political spaces, three participants focused on aspects of this topic.

Bert Carlstrom, a doctoral student from Queen Mary University London, evaluated Hernando de Talavera’s expectations for new convert conduct in late fifteenth century Castile. Talavera’s cathetical work clearly articulated his expectation that new converts would not just abandon their former faiths, but also sever their ties with their families and past lives. Carlstrom demonstrated that Talavera understood this call for strict segregation as the most charitable means of allaying suspicions that the newly converted were insincere in their new faith, and thus more easily integrating these converts into the social and political community.

Valentina Oldrati, University of Madrid, focused on the religious identity of the so-called “renegades” and their shifting political affiliations in the context of Spanish-Ottoman rivalry and espionage. Particularly, Oldrati analysed the rhetorical patterns that hid behind the correspondence between the Spanish secret service and high-ranking Ottoman renegades during the second half of the sixteenth century. Her analysis has shown how inter-religious negotiations offered practical political and social benefits, such as the possibility of exploiting familial and linguistic ties. But such negotiations were also fraught with great challenges and risks to the renegades as Spain’s political intrigues were often in conflict with Spain’s staunch confessional identity, ecclesiastical power structures, and inquisitorial policies towards religious apostasy.

Gonçalo Matos Ramos, at the University of Lisbon, traced how conversions frequently occur in contested political spaces, like the frontiers and borderlands of the fifteenth and sixteenth century Mediterranean where Portuguese territory overlapped the western edge of the Maghreb in North Africa. Through intimate portrayals of friendship, betrayal, conversion, and apostasy, Ramos exhibited the complex personal relationships of common people and soldiers that stood in contrast to official political policies of states and empires and the stated beliefs of religious authorities. Converts to Islam or to Christianity never completely severed relationships among families, friends, and communities when they remained in the same geographic region. There were complex personal decisions and negotiations that occurred within these political spaces at the margins where state and religious authority were more remote from centres of power.

Overall, the array of presentations and discussions demonstrate the social and political complexities involved with religious conversions from one religion to another. Changes in religion, which can include changes in belief and practice, often carried political significance and shifted communities. Sometimes conversions of people groups and communities were precipitated by rulers and leaders who were negotiating new relationships with other political powers. Other times these conversions were the work of missionaries who held to particular understandings of what methods and tactics were permitted in converting people groups. Sometimes conversions posed great risks and dangers, as well as benefits and privileges, to individuals caught up in systems of political power and religious authority.

Pour citer cet article : “Feedback from the POCRAM doctoral workshop”, Conversion/Pouvoir et religion (, 26 janvier 2018, by Todd Rester, David Barritt, Davy Essone Bouyou, Bert Calrstrom, Gonçalo Matos Ramos, Valentina Oldrati, Marine Tesson.

En ligne :

Isabelle Poutrin

Professeure d'histoire moderne à l'Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne

More Posts

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée.

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.