Historians and the Sacred

June 29, 2010

Professor Anthony Grafton delivered an enthralling plenary lecture to a memorable conference on ‘Historians and the Sacred: Late Medieval to Early Enlightenment’, organized by Felicity Heal and Paulina Kewes for the Centre for Early Modern Studies and the Centre for Early Modern British and Irish History (Jesus College, 19 June). Ecclesiastical history, he argued, was a distinctively innovative genre, bringing in new techniques of documentary research and also opening up the study of comparative religion, with deepening research into Hebrew studies and later into the religions of East Asia. The other papers were appropriately wide-ranging. Felicity Heal and George Southcombe discussed the languages of religious polemic in England, Diarmaid MacCulloch exposed a much-used source for ecclesiastical historians as a forgery, and Lori Anne Ferrell examined the role of the Parker Society editions in forming views of the English past. Peter McCullough demonstrated the breadth of Lancelot Andrewes’ scholarship including his Hebrew learning which, he concluded, prepared the way for Selden’s. Ian Maclean discussed the  role of church history in the European book trade. Nicholas Davidson explored reasons for the absence of ‘the sacred’ in Paolo Sarpi’s church history, while Irena Backus opened up the neglected area of Leibniz’s extensive writings on church history (her paper is available here). Discussing Alessandro Valignano, a leader of the Jesuit mission in Japan, M.Antoni J.Ucerler was struck by common concerns on the writing of church history with many of the other writers discussed in the conference. Such connections were a striking feature of a lively and productive conference. Originally planned to inaugurate Professor Grafton’s visit this term, in which he has been so generous in creating dialogue with Oxford scholars and graduate students, the postponed conference now formed a prelude to the swiftly-ensuing conferences on John Selden and on ‘Reading Hebrew and Jewish Texts in Early Modern Europe’.

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