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Worshipers of the Cross and Eaters of Pork: Food, Conversion and Religious Identity in the Early Modern Mediterranean

Date: 3 July 2013 6 to 7pm
Venue: Webb Lecture Theatre, Geography Building, UWA

One of the central credos of food studies is Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s famous aphorism, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” What Brillat-Savarin sensed intuitively, modern scholars have verified: because of the biological imperative of daily consumption, food inheres in a uniquely intimate way in collective and individual identities, and functions as a potent social, gender, political, and cultural marker. Food also marks religion, where it functions as symbol, as subject of petition, and as a form of communion. Food functions as a “sacred cement” that defines and differentiates communities of faith through rules on what to eat and how to eat it, and rituals of sacrifice, feasting and fasting.

Given the significance of food in religious practice and identity, what impact does conversion have on an individual’s foodways? What changes accompany, or are expected to accompany, conversion? The experience of the Morisco minority in early modern Spain represents a suggestive case-study of the complexways in which food informed religious and communal identity, and how the sincerity of religious change associated with conversion was measured in part by changes in food practices.

While food plays an important part in reconstituted religious identities brought about by conversion, however, we should be cautious in drawing overly stark culinary boundaries between religious communities in an Iberian peninsula characterized by a rich, fluid and complex food culture.

Eric Dursteler joined the History Department of Brigham Young University in 1998, where he is an associate professor. He earned his PhD from Brown University in 2000. His research focuses on gender, religious identity and food in the early modern Mediterranean. He has received research fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, the American Philosophical Society, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, and the Folger Shakespeare and Huntington libraries.  His next book, The Medieval and Early Modern Mediterranean World, coauthored with Monique O’Connell, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2014. He is the editor of the News on the Rialto, and book review editor for the Journal of Early Modern History.