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What was the real religious identity of the Archbishop of Samos: Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, or perhaps even an ‘ecumenist’ ahead of his time? This is the question posed in the introduction to John Barron’s already classic study of Joseph Georgirenes and his unorthodox travels in the seventeenth century. It is also a question that early modern Europeans asked themselves when faced with the eclectic evidence of religious belief produced by countless Eastern Christians who travelled through Protestant and Catholic Europe. More than anything, early modern Europeans struggled to make sense of what this lecture will call the ‘improvisation’ of identity, that is, the unplanned, spontaneous actions, utterances, and writings used by Eastern Christians to describe their identities to European audiences. In the way of Barron’s work, this lecture looks through the fog of the past to consider the uncertain evidence left behind by Eastern Christian travellers in Europe: these clues include one-off rituals performed in empty churches, professions of faith scribbled down in haste, and even oral legends and stories dictated to orientalists and patrons. For their part, Europeans fantasized that they could sift through these improvisations for ‘authentic signs’ of Protestant or Catholic belief within Eastern Christianity. At the heart of these approaches, therefore, there lay the fundamental inability of Western Christians to imagine Eastern Christianity on its own terms.

Building outward from Barron’s study of the Archbishop of Samos, this lecture will present a few episodes of improvisation from the history of early modern encounters between Western and Eastern Christianity. It considers contemporary approaches to questions of improvisation and authenticity, and it asks what historians of early modern Christianity can learn by taking these moments more seriously as a window into the multiple possibilities of religious identity available to individuals in the seventeenth century.

Please book in advance.

The lecture will be followed by a reception with food and wine.