Conversion Narratives in Early Modern England

Tales of Turning

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Abigail Shinn
Early Modern Literature in History
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , October
     255 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Abigail Shinn’s book, Conversion Narratives in Early Modern England: Tales of Turning, examines print and manuscript English conversion narratives from the 1580s to the 1650s, with the aim of highlighting an “intricate network of conjoined rhetorical and spiritual turnings” (4). As Shinn notes, the period of her study starts with a decade characterized by the Jesuit Mission and Elizabethan Protestants’ “concurrent struggles . . . to secure further godly reformation” and ends with a decade arguably known as a “high point” in the publication of conversion narratives, especially those connected to the independent gathered churches (6). Over six chapters, including an introduction and a short conclusion, Shinn eloquently shows that by studying Protestant and Catholic conversion narratives’ formal and stylistic properties, including the writers’ use rhetorical figures and tropes, “we can excavate the ways writers both mirror and, attempt to contain, the kinetic qualities of conversion” (3). This attempt at containment is key because, as Shinn notes, “The paradox which lies at the heart of conversion is that its affinity with the language of movement results in fears of instability” (2). In light of this paradox, Shinn finds that there is an “often-symbiotic relationship between turned words and turned souls,” which she argues reappraises “our understanding of the interconnectedness of early modern literary and religious cultures more generally” (3).

One of the book’s many strong points is Shinn’s adeptness at applying a wide range of critical theories to the study of conversion narratives. For example, the monograph, which Shinn notes is the “first book-length study to pay sustained attention to the literary composition of conversion narratives,” is influenced by New Formalist theory, although Shinn does not explicitly refer to it (3). New Formalists explore “forms” within texts in relation to their specific social and cultural contexts. For instance, Shinn argues that the “form of the conversion narrative is profoundly influenced by arguments circulating in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries about the value and use of rhetoric, and its relationship to different forms of religious expression and sacramental theology” (7). In chapter 3 in particular, she traces how converts use rhetorical tools such as metaphors and similes to signal their conversion to readers and also to persuade others to convert (79). She contends that reading tropes, eloquence, and translation through the lens of conversion demonstrates that the “manipulation and movement of language” is “at the heart of the early modern understanding of the motions and effects of religious change”  (110).

In addition to New Formalism, Conversion Narratives in Early Modern England also draws from space-place theory, particularly in chapter 4, in which Shinn explores converts’ configuration of spiritual change as a journey. The chapter builds upon the work of major figures in space-place theory, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Michel de Certeau, and explores both the construction of allegorical space in conversion narratives, as well as these narratives’ reconstruction of actual journeys (122). Drawing from de Certeau, Shinn examines how the proper names of places function as emblems for converts—for instance, she explores in detail the significance of Rome to converts transitioning to and away from Catholicism (139). Altogether, she finds a “series of preoccupations with the geographies of conversion” in the narratives that she studies, and notes that the “twinning of lived experience and religious progress within a geography which is simultaneously known . . . and unknown  . . . allows the convert to stand as a model, or parable, whose footsteps can be followed by others” (159).

Some readers might say that Conversion Narratives in Early Modern England attempts to cover too much ground—that examining conversion narratives from disparate religious groups together elides key differences between Catholicism and Protestantism and within Protestantism. However, the wide scope of Shinn’s study is one of its strengths rather than a weakness. As she herself notes in the conclusion, “collapsing any neat distinction between religious groups” allows her to demonstrate “that a common rhetorical culture often underpins many of the dominant features found within conversion narratives” (213). This rhetorical culture is not unique to any one religion, but rather to early modern England in general. Other readers might question Shinn’s chronological focus, which as she notes represents a departure from the recent critical tendency to focus on mid- to late 17th-century spiritual autobiography (6). However, Shinn’s focus allows her to contribute more broadly to the study of conversion narratives than if her focus were on that later, more specific genre. Conversion Narratives in Early Modern England is informed by Shinn’s understanding of earlier influences on the early modern period, such as the lasting implications of medieval memory culture. Moreover, the book informs study of conversion narratives after 1660. In the conclusion, Shinn briefly turns to John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666) and The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). These texts separate trope “from the motions and experiences of the individual convert-in-the-world,” thereby representing a departure from the conversion narratives from the 1580s to 1650s (218). The publication and longstanding popularity of Bunyan’s texts signal the beginning of a new “era of turning,” Shinn concludes (219).

Given the book’s broader implications for study of not just conversion narratives but also early modern literary and religious culture in general, Shinn’s Conversion Narratives in Early Modern England: Tales of Turning will be of interest to scholars of religious conversion, early modern rhetoric, and sacred travels.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Danielle Sottosanti is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
February 10, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Abigail Shinn is Lecturer in Early Modern Literature and Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London.


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