Symposium: "Conversion Tales: Missionaries, Mary Magdalene, and Catholic Culture"
November 10, 2006

As part of its fall line-up of events, on Friday November 10 the Center convened a symposium organized by Merry Wiesner-Hanks (History; Interim Center Director) under the title “Conversion Tales: Missionaries, Mary Magdalene, and Catholic Culture.” Co-sponsored by the Departments of History and Spanish & Portuguese, and the Comparative Study of Religion Program, the event featured two speakers, both of whom presented new research projects that, each in its own way, spoke to aspects of our research theme, “Autonomy, Gender, and Performance.”

Before a diverse, multi-disciplinary audience of Center fellows, faculty, graduate students, representatives from other area institutions, and community members, historian Jodi Bilinkoff (UNC-Greensboro) was the first speaker. Author most recently of Related Lives: Confessors and Their Female Penitents, 1450-1750 (Cornell, 2005), Bilinkoff presented a paper entitled “Missionary Lives.” Bilinkoff’s project involves an examination of texts by three 17th and 18th century Jesuit missionaries to the Americas. These texts have been viewed as hagiography, but Bilinkoff’s approach centers on how they can also be viewed as “constructions of male clerical lives.” Presenting what she called preliminary ideas, Bilinkoff was able to link her material to the Center theme, although she was quick to remind the audience that autonomy, gender, and performance were not terms used at the time. For example, she emphasized that while missionaries had to be independent, versatile, and indeed autonomous, their solitary existence was often characterized by isolation, loneliness, and alienation. The putative heroism of their mission could feel more like exile. Bilinkoff also argued that her texts suggest that missionaries had the sense of always being on stage, all alone trying to convert indigenous people.

The second speaker was Elizabeth Rhodes (Hispanic Studies, Boston college). She is a specialist in early modern Spanish literature, theology and religious culture, and women’s studies and feminist theory, the author of many articles and book chapters, and the editor of This Tight Embrace: Luisa De Carvajal Y Mendoza (1566-1614) (Marquette, 2000). Using a lively array of images to illustrate her argument, Rhodes presented a paper “Who was Mary Magdalene–Really?: A Literary Archeology.” The paper traced alterations in representations of Mary Magdalene in the early modern era. Rhodes convincingly showed a trend toward Mary Magdalene’s objectification between the late-15th and mid-16th centuries (and beyond) from fairly straightforward accounts depicting her as an apostle—heroic, royal, and always with agency—to stories conveying the image of a submissive, unchaste, hysterical figure. After the 16th century, the apostolic element of Mary Magdalene’s story disappears virtually completely. The case offers a good example, Rhodes argued, of the ways women ”dangerous to men” become commodified objects rather than active subjects. Rhodes concluded with a brief excursis of more modern representations, including the musical and movie Jesus Christ Superstar and The Da Vinci Code, in which Mary has been removed completely from the story of her own life, leaving only a salacious trace in the lives of others.

In a change of pace from normal Center practice, after the presentations and discussion, speakers, Center fellows and staff and other audience members moved to Center fellow Anne Hansen’s house for a potluck dinner. As part of her visit, Professor Bilinkoff also met with members of the Feminist Theory research workshop for a discussion of her article, “Navigating the Waves (of Devotion): Toward a Gendered Analysis of Early Modern Catholicism,” in Crossing Boundaries: Attending to Early Modern Women, Jane Donawerth and Adele Seeff, editors (University of Delaware Press, 2000).

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Center for 21st Century Studies

Merry Wiesner-Hanks

Center for 21st Century Studies
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, WI 53201 USA
tel: 414-229-4141; fax: 414-229-5964; email:



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