Some thoughts towards the 3rd of January. 1

Hi team. I am very sorry for the delay. Here are some thoughts hastily converted into rough prose this morning. Please excuse me for any howlers but do point them out.  I thought it would be best to get something down on paper to get the debate moving along to give us time to digest our ideas before the rapidly approaching deadline. I hope, at least, that it may help in that regard.


The Sacred in the Conversion of Space and Spaces of Conversion


  • Conversion – if it is to mean anything beyond a merely arbitrary transformation, metamorphosis, evolution or change – must be considered in its traditional sense as a conscious ‘turning towards something good’, or considered ‘better’, than its previous state.
  • Subjectively, this change is experienced as a revelation about one’s true nature or identity followed by an attempt at embodying that ‘truer’ state by changing one’s beliefs or actions or affiliations. Here I think that the Platonic premise that no one does wrong knowingly is very useful. One is always trying to be ‘good’ or find one’s true place in the world but may have been wrong about what that implied in the past, committing ‘outrages against one’s nature’, until one’s ‘conversion’ to the truth. Conversion, therefore, represents an attempt at resolving that problem. (We probably engage with this process everyday at a more basic level when we realise that a theory or an argument is no longer convincing or falsifiable  ‘converting’ us to a better argument or creating new problems we still wish to resolve.)
  • This begs the question about who or what convinces people to accept a different world-view and to re-orient their loyalties towards it. It also suggests that conversion is, in essence, about identity.
  • Conversions occur with relation to a sense of belonging and community, ‘within institutional procedures and social relationships’ and a ‘social matrix’, or after the conscious rejection these: it can lead to either a deeper acceptance within and of a community or a marginalisation from it.
  • Identity determines this. It can be complicated, multifarious and rarely fixed. It often depend on ‘affection’ rather than reason and can have many different layers or, as Vaclav Havel described it, ‘Concentric Circles’ that vary in one’s esteem (closer or further from the ‘centre’) and therefore vary in importance to the individual. The Prince of Salina, in il Gattopardo, could still feel satisfied when his status was recognized by the authorities of the Kingdom of Italy under the house of Savoy because his most cherished identity was to his family’s status and history. Spanish Jews, faced a far more harrowing and extreme choice in 1492. Under the decree of the Catholic Monarchs of that year they were forced to either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. This was an extreme case where such re-definitions were suddenly and explicitly forced on individuals and communities. It seems that a small majority identified more with their class, their native land and their physical well-being rather than their ancestral religion. One recent historian has suggested that it was their realisation of their preference for their local or class identity that convinced many of them to  ‘convert’ in the sense that they identified more with their Spanish society and it was their commitment and ubiquitous participation in Spain’s ventures that gave ‘lustre to the Spanish Golden Age’.[1]
  • In the context of social matrices and identity, accepted notions of what constitutes ‘the sacred’ are paramount because they represent some of the more fixed concentric circles or benchmarks of identity. These normally involve places like shrines or centres of political authority; or objects, like crucifixes or relics; but also words like prayers, hymns or anthems. These sacred things are particularly important when a whole community accepts them as sacred because it gives them practical power and therefore they can be embraced or rejected with tangible results. This is the message of the ‘Huarochirí manuscript’ where abandoned pagan Inca ceremonial sites, though desecrated by fornicators, still had the power to haunt a recent indigenous convert who sought security in recitations of the lord’s prayer in Latin when he visited them.
  • Although there are many instances to suggest the power of ‘sacred things’ it is still difficult to describe what constitutes a ‘sacred thing’ or why it becomes sacralised in the first place. In a sense this sacralisation is in itself a conversion of sorts both for the space/object/prayer and for the people who bestow this meaning upon it. It often involves either the experience or the memory of a sacrifice for the community or individual that elevates the sacred thing from the mundane and turns it into a notion: It may be represented or embodied in the physical world, but its essence is conceptual.
  • As such, sacred things focus the mind or ‘cognition’ and the interest of a community producing a common point of reference and identity. We can link this to ‘cognitive ecologies’ because ‘sacred things’ (we can also call them ‘converted and converting spaces/prayers/ rituals’) give a focus or a gravitational centre to particular ‘cognitive ecology’ and perhaps helps to distinguish one such ecology from other ecologies and to define these ecologies for an individual’s mind.
  • Sacred things, because they are essentially ‘embodied’ or ‘represented’ concepts or notions associated with the ‘good’ or the ‘true’, can be translated relatively easily across cultures that can then represent them/embody them in different ways while nevertheless retaining many of the same elements of their underlying meaning. This is akin, in some regards to the use of figurative language, that ‘aim not to describe things but to connect them, and the connection is forged in the feeling of the perceiver. The connection may be made in many ways: through metaphor, metonymy, simile, personification or a transferred name.’[2] This can happen to how people are perceived/perceive themselves and how places are considered. For example a Mesoamerican Tecuhtli could easily be equated with a Spanish nobleman and vice-versa because they both represented the notion of a member of the socio-political elite. The viceregal palace and its court operated in the in the same space as Montezuma’s palace and centre of government. A Mesoamerican Indian knighted by a Spanish viceroy using adapted European chivalric traditions (but celebrated for his status with traditional native dances and pageants), under the auspices of Franciscans, in Montezuma’s old, but restructured, palace in Mexico City represents several conversions. In this instance, Montezuma’s palace and the old imperial city where it resided became re-sacralised and converted into the centre of the Spanish empire’s political power in Mesoamerica after the conquest. Both retain this position in modern Mexico. At the same time a native Mesoamerican became a vassal of the Spanish crown, which in turn was converted into the liege lord of a Mesoamerican, and the newly knighted nobleman became a recognized member of the elite within his community.
  • These conversions naturally have an effect on the ‘social matrix’ of the community. A detailed knowledge of Catholicism or the political theory behind Spanish social hierarchies, were not necessary to create an affiliation with Spanish imperialism– or for that matter for the Spanish empire to adapt its interests to local concerns.
  • Once such basic affiliations are established the concentric circles of identity can alter and the attempt to resolve contradictions can either lead to an attempt to approximate one’s behaviour even further to the ideal expectations of the societies with which one identifies or to reject them.
  • Conversion is rarely, if ever, completed. It is always a process because it seeks to approximate to idealised expectations. Most people are satisfied with the sense of community that participating in shared rituals entails because that makes them converted enough (as it were) to be accepted as members of that community. Prayer, study or the veneration of sacred places or objects become central to those who wish to improve their conversion.






Peter Gose ‘Converting the Ancestors: Indirect rule, settlement consolidation and the struggle over burial in colonial Peru, 1532-1614’ in Conversion Old Worlds and New.


Louise M. Burkhart, Holy Wednesday: Nahua drama from early colonial Mexico

University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.


The Anthropology of Religious conversion

Andrew Buckser and Stephen D. Glazier eds. (2003)


Samuel Y. Edgerton Theatres of Conversion: Religious architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico, New Mexico, 2001

Solari, Amara Maya ideologies of the sacred : the transfiguration of space in colonial Yucatan 2013


The Huarochirí manuscript : a testament of ancient and Colonial Andean religion


Conversion to Christianity: ‪from late antiquity to the modern age: considering the process in Europe, Asia, and the Americas

‪Calvin B. Kendall, ed., Center for Early Modern History, 2009

[1] F.F.R Fernández-Armesto, 1492: The year our world began (2009)

[2] R. Scruton, Beauy (Oxford 2009) p.124

One thought on “Some thoughts towards the 3rd of January.

  • Matteo Soranzo

    Thanks for this insightful post, Jose-Juan, which I think brings up a crucial concept around which our research might productively converge, that is, the “sacred”.

    The reason why I think it might be useful to further pursue this question is that “the sacred” is both a controversial concept in the history of religion, which (leaving aside Rudolf Otto) has been used and defined by Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade and, more recently, J.Z. Smith; and a category that is broad enough to match and compare otherwise disparate cultural practices (rituals of consecration of places and people, for instance, or the investiture of kings). In particular, Smith (To Take Place, 105) has underlined (largely in response to Eliade) the transitive character of the sacred, which he sees as the result or product of ritual (e.g. sacri-ficium), rather than interpreting (as Eliade did) ritual as a manifestation of the sacred (hierophany).

    Reading about Mexico and the conversion of its sacred places, therefore, reminded me of a crucial phase in the history of Christianity, that is, the times of Constantine. It was only with Constantine, according to Smith, that Christian ritual was closely tied with specific places (Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher, for instance); and it was only at the time of Constantine that the diffusion of Christianity became linked with redefinition of spaces (demolition of pagan temples, for instance, or conversion of profane into sacred buildings). For example, Eusebius of Caesarea uses the language of conversion in relation to cities precisely in his Life of Constantine, thus setting a precedent that might have been present to the Franciscans operating in the New World (also because Eusebius is largely used in Canon Laws concerning sacred places).

    Personally, therefore, I think that your emphasis on the “sacred” is both stimulating and potentially useful for bringing together our different objects of inquiry. Any thoughts from the rest of the team?

    Some readings

    Eliade, M. The Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion. New York, 1958.
    Bouillard. “La categorie de sacre dans la science de religions” (1974)
    Smith, J.Z. To Take Place. Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago, 1987.
    Spicer-Hamilton. Defining the Holy. Sacred Space in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. 2005.

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