Professor Mary Laven

Chair of the Faculty of History
Professor of Early Modern History
Professor Mary Laven

I studied History at Cambridge, took a Master's in Renaissance Studies at the Warburg Institute, and completed a PhD on early modern nuns at the University of Leicester. I've taught at Cambridge since 1997 and am currently Chair of the History Faculty.  I am a Fellow of Jesus College.

My academic work has been inspired by a close relationship with the Fitzwilliam Museum, where I am proud to have co-curated two exhibitions: Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy.

My work is grounded in the social and cultural history of early modern Italy and Europe, and I have particular interests in religion, gender, sociability, and material culture. With Emily Michelson at the University of St Andrews, I am delighted to be embarking on a new study of 'Objects and Spaces of Encounter in Renaissance Italy,' funded by the AHRC, and in collaboration with the Fitzwilliam and Wardlaw Museums. This project for the first time places foreigners, migrants and minority groups at the centre of the Italian Renaissance.

My first book, Virgins of Venice, explored the experience of women living in convents at the time of the Counter-Reformation. Published by Penguin, and translated into seven languages, it was awarded the 2002 John Llewellyn Rhys prize. My second book, Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encounter with the East emphasises the importance of miracles, gifts and friendship to the Jesuits' mission. Awarded a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship for the period 2011-14, I embarked on a project that explored ‘Objects of Devotion: The Material Culture of Italian Renaissance Piety’. I was one of the Principal Investigators of an interdisciplinary project, funded by the European Research Council: 'Domestic Devotions: The Place of Piety in the Renaissance Italian Household'. This led in 2018 to the publication of a co-authored book, The Sacred Home in Renaissance Italy, which was awarded the Bainton History / Theology prize.

I have supervised PhDs on Religion and Disease in Seventeenth-Century Venice, the Plague Hospitals of Venice and the Veneto, Catholic Missions to Southeast Asia, the Hospitaller Knights of Malta, Women and Politics in Fifteenth-Century Italy, Enmity and Peacemaking in the Kingdom of Naples, the Materiality of Devotion in Sixteenth-Century Naples, Artisanal Culture in Sixteenth-Century Verona, The System of Lazzaretti in the Early Modern Mediterranean and Languages, Translation, Encounters in the Seventeenth-Century North Atlantic World, and Italian Heterodox Religious Exiles and the Debate on Toleration. Past doctoral students now hold posts at the Universities of Leeds, Oxford Brookes, York, Malta, the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Centre for History of Emotions, the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Aarhus.

My current doctoral students are working on Convent Women and Strategies of Self-Formation in Renaissance Tuscany, Childbirth and Devotion in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century England (co-supervised with Carl Watkins), Old Age in Early Modern Northern Italy, 'Everyday Humanism' between the Aegean and Italian peninsula, ca. 1566–1669, Devotion and the Senses in the Savoyard Borderlands and Co-Translation in Late Ming China (co-supervised with Dror Weil). They have received funding from the Gates Foundation, Cambridge European Scholarships, the Lightfoot Fund, and the AHRC. 

My undergraduate lectures tackle many aspects of early modern Europe, including the Renaissance, religious reform, encounters with non-Christian religions, and gender. More specialized courses for Part II students include 'Material Culture in the Early Modern World' and a special subject on 'The Culture of the Miraculous in Renaissance Italy'. I am a convenor of the Early Modern World History Seminar and Workshop. I am centrally involved in the MPhil in Early Modern History and regularly contribute to the teaching of visual and material culture.

I greatly enjoy collaborating with colleagues in History and other disciplines. I am a convenor of the Cambridge Italian Research Network, which brings together scholars working on all aspects of Italy, past, present and future; in 2014, I shared a Mellon-CRASSH Teaching Fellowship with Alex Marr (History of Art); and - together with Victoria Avery, Melissa Calaresu and Ulinka Rublack - I curated the exhibition, Treasured Possessions at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2015.  Our ERC research project, Domestic Devotions, straddled two schools and three departments; in 2017, we participated in another very successful collaboration with the Fitzwilliam Museum, the exhibition entitled 'Madonnas & Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy'.

Among my other professional responsibilities, I have served as external examiner at the University of Malta, UEA and Birkbeck; as elected Discipline Representative for History in the Renaissance Society of America; and as a member of the AHRC peer review college. I am a Syndic of the Fitzwilliam Museum and a member of the Hamilton Kerr Institute Advisory Council.

I have given plenary lectures at the Renaissance Society of America, the Society for Italian Studies and the Reformation Studies Colloquium, and have spoken at the Hay Festival, Salisbury Festival and Cambridge Wordfest.


Tags & Themes


Jesus College

Office Phone: 01223 3 39781


Key Publications

  • Virgins of Venice: Enclosed Lives and Broken Vows in the Renaissance Convent (London: Viking Penguin, 2002).
  • Mission to China: Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Encounter with the East (London: Faber and Faber, 2011).
  • Research Companion to the Counter-Reformation, ed. by A. Bamji, G. Janssen and M. Laven (Farnham - Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013)
  • Women and Religion in the Atlantic Age, 1550-1900, ed. by E. Clark and M. Laven (Farnham - Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013)
  • Journal of Jesuit Studies 2 (2015); special issue on the theme of 'The Jesuits and Gender: Body, Sexuality and Emotions', ed. by M. Laven; introduction, pp. 545-57.
  • Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, ed. by V. Avery, M. Calaresu and M. Laven (London: Philip Wilson, 2015).
  • Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy, ed. by M. Corry, D. Howard and M. Laven (London: Philip Wilson, 2017).
  • The Sacred Home in Renaissance Italy, by A. Brundin, D. Howard and M. Laven (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
  • Religious Materiality in the Early Modern World, ed. by Suzanna Ivanič, Mary Laven and Andrew Morrall (Amsterdam University Press, 2019).
  • 'Sex and celibacy in early modern Venice', Historical Journal (2001): 865-88.
  • 'Testifying to the self: nuns' narratives in Early modern Venice', in M. Mulholland and B. Pullan (eds), Judicial tribunals in England and Europe, 1200-1700 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003): 147-58.
  • 'Cast out and shut in: the experience of nuns in Counter-Reformation Venice', in Stephen J. Milner (ed.), At the Margins: Minority Groups in Premodern Italy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005): 93-110.
  • 'Encountering the Counter-Reformation', Renaissance Quarterly (2006): 706-720.
  • 'Jesuits and eunuchs: Representing masculinity in late Ming China', History and Anthropology (2012): 199-214.
  • 'The Role of Healing in the Jesuit Mission to China, 1582-1610', in Embodied Knowledge: Historical Perspectives on Belief and Technology, ed. by M.L. Stig Sørensen and K. Rebay-Salisbury (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013): 67-76.
  • 'Legacies of the Counter-Reformation and the Origins of Modern Catholicism', in Research Companion to the Counter-Reformation, ed. by Bamji, Janssen and Laven (Farnham - Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013): 451-69.
  • 'Recording Miracles in Renaissance Italy', Past & Present, 230 suppl. 11 (2016): 191-212.
  • 'Devotional Objects', in Early Modern Emotions: An Introduction, ed. by Susan Broomhall (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017): 147-52.
  • 'The Material Culture of Piety in the Italian Renaissance: Retouching the Rosary', by Irene Galandra-Cooper and Mary Laven, in The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Catherine Richardson et al. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017): 338-53.
  • ‘“From His Holiness to the King of China”: Gifts, Diplomacy and Jesuit Evangelization’, in Global Gifts: The Material Culture of Diplomacy in Early Modern Eurasia, ed. by Zoltán Biedermann, Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello (Cambridge University Press, 2018): 217-34.
  • 'Wax versus wood: Votive offerings and material choices in Renaissance Italy', in Religious Materiality in the Early Modern World, ed. by Suzanna Ivanič, Mary Laven and Andrew Morrall (Amsterdam University Press, 2019): 35-50.