Disrupting the Sacred Narrative in the Early Modern Catholic World

AHA Session 124
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Berkeley Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Lu Ann Homza, College of William and Mary
The Audience

Session Abstract

Recent early modern historiography has produced a wealth of important work on European cross-cultural encounters with non-European “others.”  Studies centering on travelers, missionaries, diplomats, merchants, and slaves have enriched our understanding of how Europeans made sense of and judged the diversity of peoples they encountered as they moved beyond the boundaries of Europe.  Much of this work stresses how Europeans defined and demarcated groups of “others” by imposing European hierarchies based on race, religion, and “civilization.”  Less has been written, however, about the ways in which such encounters destabilized European senses of identity, as Europeans became increasingly aware of the complexity and enormity of the non-Christian world.  This panel seeks to address moments of destabilization by focusing on one specific European identity-marker: religion.  It explores how encounters with “others” could disrupt narratives of the sacred in the early modern Catholic world.  Such disruptions in turn helped to reshape new understandings of holiness and identity in a global era.

Each paper in this panel focuses on a moment when the sacred was threatened or contested by the intrusion of a profane “Other.”  Erin Rowe investigates how the “discovery” of ancient Christianity in Ethiopia complicated European visions of its own cultural and spiritual superiority vis-à-vis “heathen” Africa.  In a similar way, Adam Beaver argues that the discovery of ancient non-Christian artifacts threatened long-standing beliefs about the sacred origins of the Spanish nation.  Pilar Ryan’s paper addresses the anxiety generated when sacred objects floated in a sea surrounded by infidels and pirates.  In each case, early modern encounters with a broader (non-Christian) globe led to fears that the sacred might be displaced, sometimes physically, sometimes ideologically.  In each case study, fears generated by such displacement were met with creative attempts to rework the sacred narrative, thereby simultaneously protecting and altering it.

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