Conversion and History
The past is never dead. It is not even past.
—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
The Dream of Rabbi Abner
There was once a Jew who, well into his adult life, began to think deeply about the trials of his people. One day, he entered a synagogue and, with lamentation and bitterness in his heart, began to pray, "Lord God, I beg you, have mercy on our trials. What is the cause of your anger and fury against your people, the sheep of your pasture? Why will the nations say, 'Where is their God?' Lord, hear now my prayer and my cries, and illuminate your desolate sanctuary. Have mercy on your people Israel." And with great heaviness of heart, exhausted from the burden he had taken upon himself, this Jew grew tired, fell asleep in the synagogue, and began to dream. In his dream he met a great man who said to him, "Why do you sleep? Understand my words, and pay attention: The Jews are in such long exile because of their insanity and their ignorance, and because they lack a righteous teacher in whom they may know the truth." When he awoke from his dream, he began to scour the Bible and books of religion and philosophy for explanations to his questions, but he only grew more doubtful and confused, and vowed to remain steadfast in the faith of his forefathers and not to pay heed to the doubts in his heart. Yet his tribulations and doubts persisted, and his dreams did not stop. A few years later, after spending the day fasting, he had another dream in which the same man appeared and scolded him angrily. The man ordered the Jew "to arise from his sleep," telling him, "You are responsible for the sins of all of the Jews and their children and future generations." Miraculously, as he said this, the great man made crosses appear all over his clothing. The Jew awoke, and after dreaming this same dream repeatedly over many nights, he finally vowed to convert to Christianity and to write a book in defense of his new faith.
Such is the story told by the Castilian Jew Abner of Burgos (ca. 1265/70-ca. 1347), known after his conversion as Alfonso of Valladolid or Master Alfonso (Maestre Alfonso), in the opening of his lengthy anti-Jewish polemic, Teacher of Righteousness (Moreh Ẓedek), composed in Hebrew in the early 1320s. The text, which survives only in a contemporary Castilian translation under the title Mostrador de justicia, is one of the longest anti-Jewish works written in the Middle Ages, comparable to the enormous Dagger of Faith (Pugio fidei) from 1278 by the Dominican Ramon Martí (Raimundus Martinus). Unlike Martí's Dagger, however, Abner/Alfonso's Teacher is written from a first-person perspective that begins with a narrative account of the author's conversion.
Who was this sorrowful Jew, dreaming of crosses in a synagogue? A variety of sources, including archival documents and polemical treatises written by Jews and Christians, confirm the existence of a real person named Abner of Burgos who did become a Christian around 1320, took the new name Alfonso of Valladolid, and wrote a series of anti-Jewish works in Hebrew, including the Teacher. Was Abner/Alfonso, the double-named author of this first-person account, the same man who in the text prayed and dreamed and converted? It seems obvious that the author was also the character in his first-person narrative, and at first blush there is no reason to doubt that this conversion account describes the author's experience. There is, however, virtually no information to be found about the real conversion of the author, Abner/Alfonso himself, beyond what can be gleaned from his autobiographical account. We must assume that it happened as he narrates it.
Or must we? Behind the composition of his book, we might imagine that there is the experience of the real author that led to the actual event of his conversion, which we know must have occurred shortly before the account of it was composed. Are we correct, therefore, in seeing the elements of this conversion narrative as representations, perhaps embellished but accurate nonetheless, of actual events as well? The great historian of Iberian Jewry, Yitzhak Baer, who maintained a lifelong interest in Abner/Alfonso, believed we are. After summarizing the same account given above, he remarks, "Abner wrestled in spirit for some twenty-five years until (shortly before the year 1321) he announced his profession of the Christian faith."1 Historians like Baer can date the public announcement of his new faith and consider it as a historical fact (although since we know of no one else who was there to hear such an announcement and tell of it, even this depends on Abner/Alfonso's own testimony to a good degree), but Abner/Alfonso's feelings before his conversion are more problematic. We only know that he "wrestled in spirit for some twenty-five years," as Baer says, because Abner/Alfonso himself tells us he did, and he constructed his story to be read as part of his attack on his former faith. Although one can verify through later evidence external to the text that Abner/Alfonso was a real person who did profess Christianity, the process of that conversion is available only through the account by the author himself written after the fact. Perhaps the author Abner/Alfonso did indeed "wrestle in spirit" (whatever this might mean) just as his character did, but his autobiographical testimony can only tell us about the struggles of his fictional counterpart. As Karl Morrison insists in his study of medieval conversion, one must distinguish between the experience of conversion, the "thing felt," and the document written about it, the "thing made."
This book studies the "thing made" to represent conversion in a variety of medieval works that discuss religious belief and identity, in particular polemical works directed against other religions. In exploring the contours of that "thing made," I consider not only its form and content but also its placement within, and in relation to, other texts. Although my focus is mainly on deliberately constructed accounts like Abner/Alfonso's, the study includes other sources, such as examples of religious polemic and disputation as well as historiography and exegesis. I focus on medieval Christian texts, principally from the twelfth century to the fifteenth, but also consider the late antique paradigms on which those texts were modeled, and I contextualize the developments in those stories by comparing them to contemporary narratives of conversion to Judaism and Islam as well. While this broad view includes material from across the Mediterranean, as well as from farther north and east, it focuses on the Western Mediterranean as a center around which there circulated competing and complementary currents of belief in the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The central question I aim to address is what place such first-person stories had in the discourse of religious apology and polemic. Although I focus heavily on Christian sources, I ask the same question of treatises from all three Abrahamic religions: Why did polemical writers tell these stories? What connection did a writer like Abner/Alfonso see between his story and his theological criticism of Judaism? How would a Jewish reader of this Hebrew text understand such a personal narrative? Most important, how did such stories convey meaning as stories? In pursuing these questions, this book attempts to provide a new, interdisciplinary perspective on medieval writing about religious dispute by viewing it through the lens of literary studies.
By including examples from such separate historical moments and places of origin, I do not at all mean to blur the essential differences that define them or to suggest an absolute homogeneity of either thought or purpose across languages, religions, or historical periods. I do, however, wish to signal a coherence of understanding and of written form that constituted the backbone of various overlapping or intersecting traditions of representation. Interpreting late medieval scenes such as those embedded within Abner/Alfonso's dreams through the lens of late antique and early medieval depictions of conversion will not only offer a wider historical scope in understanding conversion, but will, I hope, lead us to rethink what we (as postmedieval readers) mean by the term religious conversion and to redraw, or at least challenge, the generic boundaries between the archival, doctrinal, and narrative sources that represent it. As these boundaries change, so also the disciplinary boundaries between history, religious studies, and literary criticism might need to be adjusted in accord with new insights.
I have deliberately used Abner/Alfonso's story, a confession embedded within an anti-Jewish treatise, to raise theoretical and conceptual questions about the nature of individual identity and belief, not to provide definitive answers to them, but as a way to adumbrate the premises on which the arguments of this book are based: that there is a fundamental connection between conversion stories and medieval polemical writing, and that even though these stories are patterned on the model of Christian hagiography (saints' Lives), the analysis of conversion narratives found in disputational texts requires a different set of critical tools than conversion accounts in other forms of historical and devotional writing. As I will show, the connection between conversion and polemic is most evident in their shared arguments concerning individual and collective identity, arguments that, in turn, share a fundamentally narrative structure. By narrative, I mean not merely, in Gerald Prince's definition, "the representation of events or changes in states of affairs," but more specifically H. Porter Abbott's words: "the representation of events, consisting of story and narrative discourse," in which "story is an event or sequence of events (the action); and narrative discourse is those events as represented." By narrative structure, I imply the sequence of events as represented in language according to a coherent but not necessarily chronological order and unity, one that unfolds from scene to action to effect and that is enhanced through repetition and retelling. Robert Alter calls this, in the context of biblical prose, the "narrative continuum," which he defines clearly as "a coherent unfolding story in which the meaning of earlier data is progressively, even systematically, revealed or enriched by the addition of subsequent data."
In stressing their shared structure and form, I aim not only to signal the admittedly obvious connection between conversion stories and polemical argument (the very representation of conversion through narrative is, in the Middle Ages, a form of religious apologetic, an aggressive way to define and defend one's beliefs). Taking this connection as given, this book has three main goals, each tied to the core arguments I defend in the remainder of this introduction. The first goal is to consider the place of conversion narratives in religious dispute, to ask why and how the form of conversion stories serves to express their polemical intentions. In attempting to answer this question, I argue that narrative serves as a fitting vehicle for medieval Christian arguments because both the individual conversion story and the general polemical ideas are expressions of a shared understanding of Christian history.
My second goal is to explore the reasons for the renewed importance of stories of conversion in Christian arguments beginning in the twelfth century. In particular, I hope to show the place of conversion stories among the various aspects of Christian disputational writing that began to change in the twelfth century, aspects that also included an increasing use of philosophy, a new focus on non-Christian Scriptures, and a heightened interest in the original languages of those sources. I argue that conversion stories, as expressions of sacred history, also become a basis for authoritative proof offered in light of this evolving definition of Christian auctoritas.
Third, I aim to contextualize the changing importance of conversion accounts in Christian texts by comparing them to a few parallel examples from Jewish and Muslim traditions. In Christian writing, the natural conflation of conversion with apology points to the fundamental narrative structure underlying Christian conceptions of religious identity and difference within the framework of salvation history. The question emerges, in considering contemporary examples from Jewish and Muslim traditions, whether the same structure holds beyond a Christian framework. In comparing Christian, Muslim, and Jewish texts, I argue that narratives of conversion play a more prominent role in Christian polemics than they do in Muslim and Jewish treatises because they more fittingly reflect Christian notions of revelation, salvation, and time.
Rereading Medieval Conversion
The close link between apologetic writing and conversion narrative develops in late antiquity in a unique way in Christianity. The development of antipagan and anti-Jewish texts from the earliest written documents in Christianity (the New Testament letters of Paul of Tarsus) becomes at the same time a development of the rhetoric of narrating conversion. Starting with this connection allows us to see conversion not, or not only, as a type of experience among believers but as a category of discourse alongside other basic categories of Christian expression such as polemic and, even more broadly, biblical exegesis. As it evolves, writing about conversion does not develop in isolation as an independent sort of "life writing" (or ego document) and even less as a subgenre of historiography. Instead, it constitutes part of the debate about a variety of theological and doctrinal problems in Christian thought, problems that, with few exceptions, give way to defensive and offensive rhetoric as well. Conversion narratives in medieval apologetic sources combine inward-looking apology and outward-looking polemic not through autobiography or historiography, but through what can be better described as a combination of hagiography and heresiography, an allegorization of the life of an individual believer combined with a defensive reflection on the boundaries of acceptable belief. The predominance of heresiological concerns is especially evident in early representations of conversion such as those of the early apologist Justin Martyr (100-165), in which conversion is merely one concept in the construction of a nascent vocabulary of anti-Judaism. Similarly, as Nock has noted, the description by the ex-pagan convert Arnobius (d. ca. 330) of his "having been led into the paths of truth [in vias veritatis inductus]" is couched in a scathing vilification of pagan ideas. Even the famous narration of the conversion of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in his Confessions, hailed so often as a foundational moment of modern autobiography, can also be understood as part of his larger offensive against Manichaeism, a project evident in most of his key texts from the 390s and culminating a few years after the Confessions in his monumental anti-Manichaean treatise Against Faustus. In most of the examples that follow, the narrating of conversion points less to individual experience than to community standards of belief.
My reason for giving more attention to Christian narratives and discourse than Jewish and Muslim examples is that conversion and conversion stories become particularly important in Christian treatises after the twelfth century because Christian notions of argumentative authority and proof begin to change at this time. Most medieval conversion stories in Latin polemical texts before the twelfth century rehearse the same themes as earlier biblical and patristic models: the theological replacement of Israel by the Church, the prophetic fulfillment of the Old Testament in the New, and the obdurate rejection of Christ by the "stiff-necked" Jews. The dominant medieval model of such writing, at least up to the eleventh century, is Augustinian. It closely follows the insights and images of Augustine's intricate exegetical combination of the theological rhetoric of the Pauline Epistles with the narrative depiction of the character Saul/Paul in the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles.
A need to elaborate a new image of textual authority in Christian writing emerges around the twelfth century following a shift in this Augustinian paradigm of conversion. This shift, I believe, resulted from the introduction of extrabiblical sources into traditional disputational and apologetic writing. While numerous scholars have made a similar claim about Christian, and especially anti-Jewish, policy and debate, I approach the same topic of the twelfth-century evolution of Augustinian ideas in terms of both polemical content and the presentation of that content through narratives of conversion. As the campaign against Jews and other non-Christians began, in the late eleventh century and the twelfth century, to blend Augustine's biblically based interpretations with new positions derived from philosophical reason, the representation of conversion shifted in tandem, blending imagery from Acts and Augustine with philosophical arguments derived from non-Scriptural sources. In these twelfth-century reformulations, converts themselves emerge as characters within their narratives, playing the role of mouthpieces for the elaboration and defense of a new, rational apologetic.
The influence of philosophy, however, went beyond the reasons adduced in dispute. Twelfth-century conversion texts do not simply repeat the theological formulas of old but mix philosophical language and reasons into the warp and weft of their changing discourse. Just as the very concept of what constituted an auctor—a venerated and credible source cited in authorization of one's own discourse—expanded in the twelfth century to include not merely biblical testimonia (citations of well-known verses) but also philosophical authors such as Aristotle and his commentators, so too did other related concepts. Most important, the concept of auctoritas—the authority by which proofs were credible—expanded to include the ratiocination of contemporary authors alongside (although never quite equal to) biblical auctores. As the supplanting of the synagogue by the church began to be explained not only through exegesis but also through syllogism, conversion accounts began to include the personal testimony of their authors as a new source of authoritative proof.
Those conversion narratives appearing at the beginning of longer polemical treatises might thus be compared to the form of the standard medieval prologue. Frequently affixed to the beginning of common school texts from different branches of learning in the trivium and quadrivium, such prologues (called variously an accessus in the arts, materia in legal writing, and introitus or ingressus in some exegesis) came in a variety of evolving forms but often included some comment on the circumstances of the work's genesis (the life of the poet, the title, the intention, the contents and order, etc.).5 The well-known conversion stories of the twelfth century such as those of Judah/Herman of Cologne and Moses/Petrus Alfonsi (which I consider in more detail below) vividly reflect the theological changes taking place within biblical and Augustinian paradigms, above all in their conception of authority. They also share important characteristics with the more recognizable examples of academic prologues, offering the circumstances under which the author came to acquire the authority to speak against his former religion.
Throughout this book, I use the terms apology and apologetic to refer to writing intended to defend one's ideas or the ideas of one's group, and I use polemic and polemical to refer to works intended to denounce the ideas of another individual or group. These terms are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, insofar as polemical discourse itself is inherently a form of apologetic, aimed at defining or reinforcing boundaries of group identity against a foil of heterodox difference—and apology always implies a comparative rejection of opposing views—the two terms form an almost indivisible pair. My use of each term in this book aims to highlight the primary mode of the text (offensive or defensive) but does not assume a firm distinction between them.
The transformation in what constituted authoritative proof in twelfth-century Christian polemical output, embodied so lucidly in the conversion narratives produced during this period, only intensified in the thirteenth century, especially within the recently founded Dominican and Franciscan orders. The works produced by such movements—including the claims attributed to the convert Pau Cristià against Jews at the famous Disputation of Barcelona in 1263 and after, the writings of the Dominicans Riccoldo da Monte di Croce (d. 1320) and Ramon Martí (d. after 1284), as well as the Franciscanesque rhetoric of the polymath Ramon Llull—can all be understood as part of this ongoing process of adjustment and growth within traditional concepts of what constitutes authority in polemical argument. The writing of Abner of Burgos/Alfonso of Valladolid (including the conversion narrative with which I began), penned in the first half of the fourteenth century, in the wake of the Dominican projects of the previous century, links the theological debate over authority with the shifting role of personal testimony. The images of conversion recast in the texts of Moses/Petrus Alfonsi in the twelfth century, Ramon Martí in the thirteenth, and Abner of Burgos/Alfonso of Valladolid in the fourteenth appear together in the fifteenth century in the work of the Castilian convert from Judaism, Solomon Halevi/Pablo de Santa María (d. 1435), and through these writers, the high-medieval changes wrought upon the Augustinian conversion paradigm were internalized and transmitted to the early modern world.
Between Text and Event
Before attempting to answer the questions implicit in this historical trajectory—Why do Christian conversion stories function so well to express polemical arguments, and what role in particular is played by the narrative form of such stories?—I must first consider the more basic methodological problem of distinguishing between conversion itself and the stories about conversion. This question, which bears directly on the definition of my corpus of sources in this study and on the justification for comparing them across historical and geographical boundaries, brings me back to the example with which I began, that of Abner/Alfonso. Although he was a historical person, we know virtually nothing of his change of religion except what he records in his testimony. Is his narrative fact or fiction? The question is not one of sources but of epistemology: What would a factual conversion account look like? (What, indeed, are conversion's facts?) What does it mean to say a conversion "happened" at a certain moment? Or that a conversion never "happens" at any one moment? Can we say Abner/Alfonso converted at the moment he changed his mind about which religion to follow, perhaps sometime around 1317 or 1318? Or at the moment he publicly declared his new faith and was baptized (what Karl Morrison calls a "formal conversion"), an event that occurred a few years later, according to his narrative in the Teacher? Or was it upon his change of name and integration into a new Christian community in Valladolid (what Richard Bulliet calls, in an Islamic context, "social conversion")? How can we distinguish between the inner and the outer manifestations of conversion and, more important, decide on what grounds to give precedence to one over the other? Should we resist, as Morrison and Lewis Rambo counsel, locating conversion at any single moment, but instead see it as a process of transformation? In this approach, which favors an empathetic view of conversion as essentially an interior process of change, one could situate the beginning of Abner/Alfonso's conversion in 1295, the moment that led to his first doubts about his religion. It was then, some twenty-five years prior to his first dream events, when he says he heard of the failed messianic movements among the Jewish communities of Ávila and Allyón, an experience to which he likens the dream vision of crosses related in his account.
Understood in this way, Abner/Alfonso's narrative seems to portray conversion as a process rather than a single event. Rather than emphasizing a sudden paroxysm of physical blindness and moment of insight, such as that told of Saul "becoming" Paul on the road to Damascus (as related in the New Testament book of Acts), Abner/Alfonso's description stresses the long and arduous process of his transformation, including his resistance to the sudden challenge of his dream and his efforts to remain steadfast in the face of these external blows to his ancestral faith. His story of conversion is of another sort than this Pauline paradigm, especially in its depiction of the circularity of his doubt and faith and the gradual erosion of erstwhile belief. In stressing the slowness of his process, Abner/Alfonso creates a space within his old religion for his new one rather than replacing it entirely at one stroke. He wears away his old faith with the slow, eroding drip of doubt rather than eliminating it in a single blast of will.
This dilatory, protracted transformation is a topos of representation, a product of the exigencies of narrative drama rather than spiritual doubt. Let us consider, by way of contrast, the story of another conversion, told at about the same time that Abner/Alfonso publicly announced his conversion to Christianity and moved from Burgos to Valladolid, the story of a man from Aragon, Bernat Nadal, who took a trip to North Africa and decided to convert to Islam. This story is found in a letter addressed to the vicar of Tortosa about the petition of Sybil, Bernat's "poor and miserable wife," for financial assistance:
A case came before us on behalf of Sybil, the poor and miserable wife of Bernat Nadal, in which . . . it happened that the said Bernat was traveling in the regions of Bijāya (Bougie) and the Barbary [coast] when, led by a diabolic spirit, he chose the sect of Muhammad, denying the name of the Lord. After which, the father of the said Bernat, finding this out, entering those said regions and finding his said . . . son, brought him back to the city of Tortosa with him and brought him to the Bishop of Tortosa who corrected and reconciled the said Bernat and gave him penance for his crime. And after the death of the father of said Bernat, you, the fiscal procurator [treasurer], claimed from the said Bernat on account of what happened, a quantity of money of belonging to said Bernat on account of inheritance . . . asserting that both the said quantity and also the other property of said Bernat pertained to our court on account of his above-mentioned crime. Therefore, it is claimed that said Bernat [now] lives in a far-away place, his wife having been abandoned without any provision with a multitude of children. On account of which, it was humbly pleaded before us on behalf of the said Sybil that in consideration of piety and giving alms for the upbringing and education of her children we deign to make the said quantity available to her.
Unlike Abner/Alfonso's story, this account was not written by the convert himself but was recorded by an anonymous notary for the Crown of Aragon. Despite its detail, it was not constructed with any doctrinal point in mind, but only to record the facts of the case for legal purposes. Understanding his conversion as a process, we might see that a narrative about Bernat's conversion to Islam arises, seemingly spontaneously, through the reconstruction of the circumstances of the case. Bernat "flees," physically and spiritually, from his Christian home, and is brought back to the fold, at least physically, only through the intervention of his father. In the narrative of the case, however, there is still virtually no information about Bernat's spiritual experience beyond mention of the simple fact that he changed religion. Bernat's adoption of Islam is, in fact, only a preliminary detail to the real story, that of his return to Tortosa, subsequent harassment by the local vicar, and final flight (to North Africa and, it might be presumed, to his new faith).
Did Bernat change his mind twice about his true beliefs? The text tells us nothing. The circumstances of his decision to become Muslim are absent from the frame of the narrative. Certainly, a formal change of religion could indicate a conversion of belief, but we do not know if Bernat actually underwent any real transformation at all. Perhaps he did not care what religion he was made to profess, and "chose the sect of Muhammad" only as a convenience or to facilitate marriage with a local girl he met on his travels, like the Galician poet Garci Ferranez de Jerena later in the fourteenth century, who, according to the Cancionero de Baena, converted to Islam for love of a Muslim jongleuresse and then followed her to Granada. In Bernat's case, one could ask, Why was he traveling? Perhaps Bernat actually did undergo a profound transformation in which he came to embrace Islam as the true religion, and left his infidel family behind only with sadness and regret. Such speculations are possible—indeed, one has no reason to doubt that Bernat's experience was any less dramatic than Abner/Alfonso's—but they are ultimately fruitless, because the only significance of his change of religion in the text is its impact on his family and its bearing on the legal decision to return to the wife the money and property confiscated in Tortosa. Bernat's personal experience or lack thereof finds no place in the official letter.
The fragmentary representation of Bernat's move from Christianity to Islam in this archival record is radically different from the longer account of Abner/Alfonso's move from Judaism to Christianity in the Teacher. The most significant difference between these two texts, beyond the enormous differences of perspective (third-person versus first-person narrative) and form (polemical treatise versus royal register), lies in the lack of concern by the Aragonese scribe with Bernat's experience of religious conversion, what Wayne Proudfoot calls, in his summary of Schleiermacher's On Religion, "an experiential moment irreducible to either science or morality, belief or conduct." His movement between religions is as matter-of-fact as his physical movement between Tortosa and North Africa, neither meriting a detailed description. In their textual forms, which are the only accounts we possess, Bernat's conversion seems instantaneous, while Abner/Alfonso's seems just the opposite. Our understanding of his conversion either as an event or as a process depends appreciably on the nature of the source in which it is found and our expectations as readers in approaching it.
Despite the differences between them, historians classify both accounts as documents about conversion. These two types of representation of the religious change—the protracted narrative of doubt and suffering and the matter-of-fact allusion in archival sources—are, moreover, not the only examples of religious change lumped together under this single rubric. To these one can add an even more succinct anecdote, that of a "forced" conversion in Abner/Alfonso's hometown of Burgos. The municipal archive contains a document issued in 1481 by Queen Isabel of Castile outlawing the forced baptism of Muslim children. The brief text narrates the case of an unnamed "moor of very tender age [un moro de muy tyerna hedad]" who was "turned Christian" by the chief magistrate (Alcalde mayor) of the city in a forced conversion that was "against the will of his father and mother [tornaron cristiano contra su voluntad de su padre e madre]." No other information about the case was given, and the young Muslim has no lasting historical identity beyond this phrase included in a legal document. Even so—despite the dearth of information about the boy, his personal experience, his reaction, or the final outcome of the case—his story is also deemed one of "conversion, more or less forced." Drawing from archival sources, one might add thousands of such accounts.
I have chosen these two archival examples because of their circumstantial intersection with Abner/Alfonso's narrative. Bernat Nadal's profession of Islam occurred within a few years of Abner/Alfonso's public turn to Christianity, and the young Muslim's forced adoption of Christianity took place more than a century later in Burgos, Abner/Alfonso's home city. Despite their commonalities, however, all of these examples bespeak vastly different events in very different written forms, and yet all three are promiscuously treated as writings relating to the nebulous topic of conversion. A common denominator of these three cases is their mention of religious change, yet in each case this implies something dramatically different: a heartfelt change of belief and understanding, an (apparently willful) change in social identity, and an imposed change in religious affiliation, respectively. The process, experience, impact, and meaning of that religious change are very disparate in each source, and yet all have been tacitly conflated and incorporated into a single, totalizing conceptual historiography.
The implicit connection or differentiation among these cases depends not only on epistemology but on terminology as well, on how one defines the word conversion itself. Is conversion a formal change of religion? A sacrament or ceremony? An experience of sudden change or a deliberate action? An enduring process of slow renewal and rebirth? Is conversion all of these things, or must it be at least one of them? Is it performed, and if so, does it have to be witnessed? Is it an expression of individual human agency, or the subjugation of that agency to larger social norms and rituals? To begin to answer these questions, even to distinguish between a formal change of affiliation and a sincere change of feeling, requires a series of decisions about the nature and meaning of both religious experience and identity. Any such decisions will be made within the context of a long history of assertions about the nature of conversion. While I specifically examine medieval characterizations of conversion in greater detail below, the scholarly path leading back to such primary evidence is not a smooth one. It is, rather, littered with the conceptual scaffolding of a century of critical inquiry into the nature of conversion, and little sense can be made of the documents themselves can be made before those concepts are put in order, connected, and contextualized.
Traditional scholarly approaches tend to place different conceptions of conversion, and with them different conceptions of experience and identity, in a hierarchical relation to one another. The father of the modern study of conversion, William James, for example, famously understands conversion from a psychological perspective as an experience of change and renewal, exemplified by those he calls the "twice born." His definition of conversion has had a profound impact on subsequent discussions of the subject and uses of the word: conversion is "the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy [sic], in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities." This focus on the restoration of the "divided self"—the modern, psychological equivalent of what Gerald Peters calls the Platonic and Christian "reorientation of the sick soul"—accompanied a criticism of interpretations that gave equal attention to the social and institutional aspects of religion, in which James explicitly states that his focus is "not ritual acts . . . [but] personal religion pure and simple." The classicist A. D. Nock, following James very closely in his study of conversion in the ancient and early Christian world, takes this hierarchy between the personal and the ritual one step further and denies that other phenomena are even worthy of the name of conversion, constituting instead what can be called "adhesion, in contradistinction to conversion."
An inverse hierarchization has taken place in the study of conversion by sociologists and, to a lesser degree, anthropologists, primarily on the basis of Max Weber's foundational formulation. In contrast to Émile Durkheim, who unexpectedly characterizes conversion less in social than in personal terms drawn in part from James, Weber understood conversion according to the terms of his theory of religious rationalization, a process that he saw as more advanced in "World Religions" such as Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, than in "primitive" religions. His distinction between "traditional" and world religions, especially concerning their use of prophecy, associates the psychological elements of conversion with the unsystematic primitivism of traditional societies. Building on such foundations, Peter Berger characterizes conversion as a change of the individual in relation to social norms: "The individual who wishes to convert, and (more importantly) to 'stay converted,' must engineer his social life in accordance with this purpose. . . . [M]igration between religious worlds implies migration between their respective plausibility structures." Recent anthropological studies of conversion have generally recognized the need to "to strike a balance between the two extremes of intellectualist voluntarism and structural determinism." Even so, many treat interior, subjective models of conversion in the school of James and Nock as culturally biased representations that fail to adequately convey the influence of social context. Clifford Geertz affirms that too many definitions "glide past that which we most want to know: by what means, what social and cultural processes, are these movements toward skepticism, political enthusiasm, conversion . . . or whatever taking place? What new forms of architecture are housing these accumulating changes of heart?"
Central to the anthropological treatment of conversion has been the question of what is commonly called agency. In the work of Peter Stromberg, Talal Asad, and Webb Keane, among other anthropologists, the discussion of agency in the context of conversion reaches a much more nuanced level of sophistication, especially in connection with the use of language. Both Keane and Asad have also offered powerful critiques of the modern notions of agency, selfhood, and intentionality and the authenticity implied by these as they relate to the phenomenon of conversion. Nevertheless, apart from these important interventions, many anthropological approaches, even those aiming to find a middle way between subjective and social forces, still tend to treat agency as a stable, analytical category and view any private or inner experience of religion as derived from or dependent on more essential social realities.
Many scholarly discussions of conversion, whatever their basis, find themselves hamstrung, or at least hampered, by these fundamental rifts between objective and subjective methodologies or between psychological and sociological foci. Devin DeWeese succinctly states the problem in his study of narratives of conversion to Islam in central Asia: "'Conversion' is inevitably a process of such considerable psychological and social complexity that even a thorough reconstruction of the historical setting and events that occurred, and even a precise description of 'what happened' could not convey the significance of the conversion understood and felt, religiously, by the adherents of the new faith and their communal heirs." The fact that conversion can point equally to internal conviction and external affiliation indicates that any questions one asks about its meaning come with an initial hermeneutic burden that must necessarily begin by defining the relationship between subjective and objective meaning, on the one hand, and individual and collective experience on the other. Thus what can be said about conversion in the fields of theology, psychology, anthropology, and sociology is necessarily different and necessarily incomplete. When we approach the question of conversion historically, any failure to address such epistemological incommensurability impoverishes our thinking and conceals unspoken prejudices about the nature of faith and identity. To employ the word conversion in scholarship, like the words identity and agency/, already presumes a methodology and a worldview.
As Karl Morrison has argued, "the classical tradition of the West displays not one kind of conversion but an ill-matched repertory of such patterns, each having a distinctive history," and as a result, "it is a confusion of categories to use the word conversion as though it were an instrument of critical analysis, equally appropriate to any culture or religion." I must take Morrison's insights as my starting point for considering such disparate examples of religious change, acknowledging from the outset that there can be no "general morphology of conversion, applicable to conversion as a universal human experience." As my three short examples make manifest, however, I must also stress that there can be no such specific morphology even within the sources from the same historical moment or the same geographic location. Rather, I must begin by conceding that conversion itself is a placeholder for other protean concepts and paradigms that explain and qualify change of religion in different ways without ever exhaustively defining it. (Such indeterminacy is, to be sure, an epistemological irony for a concept that for many is premised on notions of certain change and firm distinction.) As a result, it is impossible to use the term conversion meaningfully without further qualification, and even with such qualification one must grant that any use of the term itself is imprecise and can refer only very loosely to a range of possible meanings, all of which are never present together. Conversion is a collective representation that can be used for convenience but whose full range of significance is perpetually deferred and never definitively grasped.
Between a Hermeneutics of Faith and a Hermeneutics of Suspicion
And yet, conversion leaves a trace. In each of its "ill-matched" shapes, it implies a change, a distinction between two things: one religion and another, one culture and another, one practice and another, one understanding and another, one time and another, even one self and another. As a marker of change, it is a marker of otherness, a borderline that implies both an identity and a difference, a site, as Steven Kruger notes in his Derridean reading of conversion texts, of both the "conjuring up" and "conjuring away" of the old self. Thus, Morrison's caveat, although appropriate, is not entirely satisfying, because even as it frees us from trying to generalize across sources and methods, it does not address the persistent duality within its semantic core across its definitions in which conversion is not simply an affirmation of faith but is also a denial of difference. At the same time, Morrison, I believe, also glosses over the problem of representing this duality when he sets out to distinguish between the "thing felt" and the "thing made," affirming "that the experience of conversion is quite different from what is called conversion in texts, that scholars cannot penetrate to experience through texts, that what we can actually study is a document, a written composition, and whatever kinds of understanding it may manifest." Despite the insistence that conversion "is a metaphor," the survival within his thinking of that "thing felt" as prior to any representation of it reinscribes an imagined, sacrosanct single "experience" of faith as the primary origin of conversion. "The experience of conversion," he laments repeatedly, "is lost." Yet this regret over our inability to "penetrate to experience" tacitly assumes the priority of that experience as conversion's true meaning, a single, transcendental signified outside the web of any partial and deferred signification. Morrison's attention to the text itself rather than the reality it claims to depict assumes an original, albeit inaccessible priority of the "thing felt" over the "thing made." It sees the latter simply as, faute de mieux, the only available object of analysis—the last, best outpost of understanding beyond which we cannot proceed despite our will to do so. In this way, it still depends on the projection of a single, stable meaning within the empty cipher of conversion. It is my contention that any such model of conversion that establishes this hierarchy of significance—whether the subjective above the social, or the inner above the outer, or the "feeling" above the "representation"—assigns a core meaning (however ill-defined) to the concept of conversion as first of all an individual spiritual experience. More problematically, it also gives this assignation epistemological precedence over any other representation.
Such hierarchies affect any attempt to separate and analyze conversion tales apart from individual experience in the world. This implicit faith in an original, "real" conversion behind the text and the impulse to penetrate through the fog of the narrative to an imagined reality has up until recently permeated the historiography of medieval religious identity and is still very much alive within it, leading to numerous ill-founded debates and assertions about the facticity of our sources. Perhaps the most significant (and certainly the most voluminously treated) is the recurrent question regarding the historicity of Augustine's conversion in book 8 of the Confessions. Against the tradition of seeing Augustine's account in literary rather than historical terms, those in favor of a historical reading insist, in the words of one recent critic, "that the Confessions may be approached as a source of historical facts." A similar debate has roiled around the historicity of the twelfth-century conversion account by Judah/Herman of Cologne, Little Work on His Conversion (Opusculum de Conversione sua, a title assigned by the modern editor, Gerlinde Niemeyer), leading Jeremy Cohen to affirm that the narrative "can in fact serve as the basis for a worthwhile appraisal of Hermann's apostasy. . . . [T]he Opusculum does reveal signs of Hermann the individual behind the stereotypes in style and in plot." Nock made similar assertions about the book of Acts, remarking about its numerous conversion stories, "There can be no doubt that the account as a whole gives us a faithful picture of the way in which things happened." This insistence on what lies behind the work approaches its story as an obstacle to reality, a screen we must penetrate in order to understand its meaning.
I believe that this pervasive imperative to aim beyond the text, just like the deflated acceptance of it as cut off from a plenitude that is lost, not only relies on a historiographical illusion. It also succumbs to an implicitly pietistic understanding of conversion (and apostasy), one that mimics the ascendant, teleological imperative dramatized within the text itself. It does so by assuming a transcendental image of conversion as a climactic event in the salvation of the protagonist, a singular and revelatory moment in the individual movement toward God. Any verbal or pictorial representation of that original theophany must necessarily be taken as secondary and derivative, a faint reflection of an original and private splendor. This inherently Neoplatonic view, describing identity in eminently modern terms through, in Charles Taylor's words, "the language of inwardness," uncritically conflates real converts with the protagonists of conversion narratives they sometimes (but by no means always) inspired. Even more problematically, it assumes that the convert, as a kind of postmedieval "sovereign self," is defined by some prelinguistic, unmediated fullness of experience that is necessarily superior to any subsequent depiction in symbol or language. But it nonetheless relies on that inferior textual portrayal as a faithful, if fragmented, guide leading us back to that presymbolic transcendental totality. Such a pertinacious and tangled "hermeneutics of faith," to adapt the early terminology of Paul Ricoeur, artificially reduces conversion to a singularity, a true moment that is paradoxically both beyond comprehension and representation and at the same time is a datum to be tracked, charted, collated, summarized. Such a reading of faith, which easily lends itself to a matter-of-fact historiographical reading of conversion as a discrete event in historical time, internalizes the terms and hierarchies of hagiography without pausing to consider the legendary story behind the saint.
Against this view, I propose to approach the conversion narrative, in the heuristic phrase of Jack Miles in his literary reading of the Bible, "like a stained-glass window," a "thing made" to be sure, but one that "exists essentially not to be seen through but to be looked at." This image of an illuminated window scene is particularly fitting in its fusion of the rendered image, itself a stylized rendition meant to depict past events, with the illuminating light of context and the interpretive horizon of the viewer. Pushing this beyond its immediate aesthetic sense requires us to look at conversion narratives in medieval polemics not only for their form and construction, but even more for their symbolic function and ideological role within their local context. I aim, then, not only to look at the text (rather than through it), but more important, to look around it, to ask why it was made and why it was placed in its context. The metaphor can be extended in another way as well: like a stained-glass image, these conversion narratives fuse the depiction colored by tradition with the real light of historical context. In this fusion, neither the representation nor the reality can stand apart from the other: even as the former remains dark without the latter, so the latter cannot pass through the former without taking on its coloring. By seeing the story's details as products of a specific social, religious, and ideological context rather than as fragments of an individual biography or a timeless epiphany, we can move away from the trammels of a pietistic (and largely postmedieval, Reformationist) reading without calling into question the powerful signifying potential of the narrative itself. As Jean-Claude Schmitt insists, if somewhat too cautiously, Judah/Herman's story can only be approached as "truth and fiction" without either realm claiming precedence over the other. This observation can be fruitfully extended to other medieval polemical works and conversion narratives as well.
Although the conversion accounts I consider in this study are those associated with, affixed to, or embedded within polemical writing, my critical trajectory here must follow that already forged by the study of conversion in hagiographic studies. Long mimicking the hagiographical biography itself in focusing on a central, beatific image of the individual saint, criticism of hagiography has, in the past few decades, shifted its focus away from the saint to his or her social context, and this shift has affected the approach toward the hagiographical text itself. As Felice Lifshitz explains, scholars no longer see "'legendary accretions' as dross to be sifted and cleared away" but instead have tended "to move away from bobbing for data to reconstructing mentalities and, consequently, to move from searching for the original version of each particular saint's biography to studying all extant versions, each in its particular compositional context." As they have continued to develop, hagiographic studies have moved even further away from the purported events of a saint's life toward a concept of sanctity in which hagiography played an ongoing exemplary role. In undergoing its own linguistic turn, scholarship of hagiography has come to consider the saint's Life as a constructed text rather than an imperfect rendering, and even to see it as the locus at which sanctity is made, preserved, and rehearsed, both individually and socially. As Cynthia Hahn states, "A meticulously composed construction, the saint's Life not only 'makes the saint,' but ideally in some sense is the saint."
Taking my cue from this shift in focus in hagiography, my view is directed at the mechanism by which conversion narratives, through a commanding and multifarious discourse that might be compared to the boasting aretalogies (legends of gods' miracles) of ancient Greece and Egypt, both make the convert and are the convert. This approach could conceivably be followed across a broad canvas of stories, including tales of Marian miracles, historiographical chronicles, and stories embedded within saints' Lives themselves (which is by far the most abundant material about medieval conversion, outside of archival notices). Obvious candidates for analysis might include the abundant tales found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Who can resist the famous story of King Edwin and the sparrow?), vernacular texts such as Aelfric's Lives of Saints, or even accounts of mass conversion in Old Norse sagas or Old English poems such as Andreas (in which Saint Andrew undertakes an arduous sea journey to rescue Saint Matthew from the clutches of the cannibalistic Mermedonians, converting them all in the process). From a later period, many stories could be drawn from the immensely popular Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea) of Jacobus de Voragine (d. 1298), a work surviving in many hundreds of manuscripts and, among incunabula, published more often than the Bible.
Despite the wealth of material offered by many such sources, too abundant to concert together in any meaningful way, my purview is more modest, taking in mainly those narratives found in or associated with explicitly polemical and interconfessional apologetic writing. Such examples are explicitly learned and theological (rather than pietistic, devotional, or popular), and in this sense they can be sharply distinguished from the emotive appeal of hagiography and also from the popular zeal of Marian legends. Constructed in imitation of Hebrew Bible prophetic callings (such as Jeremiah 1:4-13 and Ezekiel 1:1-3), they speak in first-person voices with a peremptory, didactic authority. Their protagonists are decidedly all male, and they can thus be distinguished from the hagiographic glorification of weakness through ascesis and also the depiction (in Marian legends, host-desecration accounts, and accusations of ritual murder) of the perverse deviance of men in contrast to the affective, pliant tractability (and convertibility) of women and children. Rather than constructing an ideal of sanctity or piety, these versions enact the double function of reassigning to nontraditional textual sources, both philosophical and Scriptural, a new authoritative value, and of empowering the purported convert/author to wield such sources legitimately. Parallel with but separate from the conceptual matrix of hagiography, polemical conversion narratives work to construct an image of auctoritas—understood as both authority and, more problematically, authorship—through the symbolic testimony of the convert. Rather than contributing to a collective understanding of sanctity, these fictions construct an image of textuality, a shared corpus of auctoritates (trusted proof texts) that are, by definition, both authoritative and authentic.
To look at and around the text as a text rather than to imagine looking through it to conversion's lost truth requires us first of all to abandon the affective internal moment of conversion in its transcendental isolation—and with it the isolated and afflicted body or the imagined autonomous self and its emotions—and instead see this moment as flanked by its "before" and its "after," as both text but also context. While this approach has led to important insights in working with actual imagery and illumination, it has proved harder to sustain in relation to formulaic treatises, which are very often unaccompanied by images. While most of the texts I examine are of this sort—devoid of images or pictorial embellishment of any kind—part of my strategy in moving my analysis away from a biographical or historiographical reading is to view the stories as if they were dramatizations that possess the unity and simultaneity of narratives conveyed in images.
I recognize that this must, however, go beyond affirming that conversion is a process rather than a peripety (dramatic reversal, what Aristotle calls peripeteia)—an assertion that is still based on an experientially framed, theologically derived model. It must also approach conversion as inherently and originally a representation of that alleged process, a prospective rather than retrospective narrative whose meaning precedes that of its subject. Paula Fredriksen already alluded to this reversal of signifying processes more than twenty-five years ago in her comparison of Paul and Augustine: "To see a content-filled moment of conversion is to have constructed a narrative whereby that moment emerges retrospectively as the origin of (and justification for) one's present. . . . [T]he convert thus sees the subsequent events of his life in light of his conversion; but, à l'inverse, his description of his conversion should be read in light of these subsequent events." The final step in this inversion must involve a reversal of the relationship between event and text, but also a distinction between the event posited in the story and the event of real experience that may or may not have occurred before it. In expanding Fredriksen's insights to include the later renditions based on the models of Paul and Augustine, I approach the "thing felt," in other words, as itself a product of the "thing made," leaving any real experience outside the text and its web of signification to be called by yet another name, one that need not detain us here. If we insist on looking through the window of representation, behind it we see not the real world of real events but the world interpreted (not apprehended objectively, of course) by the representing mind and feeling heart, a sort of reflection back of the very window we sought to dispense with. To distinguish between the "thing felt" and the "thing made" is not to separate reality from representation but merely to separate one level of representation from another. Accepting this, spiritual conversion in medieval sources thus becomes, in Geoffrey Harpham's apt phrase, "simply . . . a strong form of reading." In taking this view, I aim both to dissolve the hierarchy that preserves the event as behind and before the text and to shift the locus of conversion's meaning partly onto the dramatization within the work itself. Reading conversion as a narrative dismantles the hierarchy that posits the interior experience as necessarily prior, both temporally and ontologically, to its exterior manifestation. Like the saint's vita, the polemical conversion narrative literally is the convert.
Fredriksen's model, however, also urges us as readers to do more than simply replace an implicit "hermeneutics of faith" with a demystifying "hermeneutics of suspicion" in which conversion becomes "just a text" and no more. Real people really did change religion for concrete social and spiritual reasons, and the archival evidence for such real conversion is immeasurably more abundant than what I am here calling conversion narratives. Moreover, the occasional representations of such changes in words and images did affect such real actions. In my analysis, I will pause to consider a few examples of the intersection of the symbolic action of imagined conversion with the outside world of physical action, such as the missionary and pastoral strategies of Dominican friars in the mid-thirteenth century, including both writing and forced sermonizing to Jews and Muslims, and the forced conversions that followed in the wake of the anti-Jewish riots that swept across the Iberian Peninsula in the summer of 1391. In focusing on such intersections, however, I am concerned above all with the impact that the presentation of conversion in one context had on subsequent disputational writing. For this reason, I largely prescind from considering the abundant archival sources such as those documenting the case of Bernat and the "moor of very tender age"—although these too, one must insist, are no less represented than longer fictions—or the many legendary conversions built into saints' Lives.
In the chapters that follow, I develop the argument that medieval polemical conversion narratives, especially in Christian treatises, can be seen as a form of learned discourse dedicated specifically to the allegorical expression of a theological vision of soteriological and ecclesiastical history, of "salvation history" or Heilsgeschichte. The convert-protagonist, when not imagined as a stand-in for an extratextual, real converted person, emerges as what the formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin calls a chronotope, a narratological device for delineating time through physical or spatial terms. (Recognizable examples cited by Bakhtin and his followers include the chivalric romance in Don Quixote, Proust's Combray and Paris, the vertical gyres of Dante's Hell and Paradise, and Joyce's map of Dublin.) As "the primary means for materializing time in space," the convert-as-chronotope embodies and reflects the entirety of salvation time, the before-and-after of figural Christian thought, the linear imperative of Christian triumphalism, and also, as we will see, Islamic historical abrogation and the closure of prophecy. Rather than expressions of a mystical or devotional imagination or the purely fabricated elements of fiction, the conversion and the convert of polemical writing are manifestations, within a narrative form, of both the communal sense of the fissure between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and the relation between past and present according to a historical model of prophecy and revelation. They constitute, in Peter Brown's words, "microcosmic re-enactments, in one's own region, of a universal order."
Considering how this is so will entail shifting my sense away from the convert's original "thing felt" to the community's "process imagined" (without linking these in a fixed hierarchy of authenticity). In particular, this will involve looking at the narrative form of conversion stories. Reading conversion according to its narrative form will, I think, allow me to overcome the traditional dichotomy between subjective and objective paradigms of conversion by integrating both into a symbiotic network of text and action. As Miri Rubin reminds us in her penetrating study of host-desecration tales and anti-Jewish violence, "Narrative has a mimetic function: narrative prefigures and refigures action. Narratives which give sense to violence are encoded within local frames of reference." A focus on narrative undermines the implicit dichotomy between individual and collective experience, providing a way to approach the representation of conversion as a shared locus of meaning in itself without denying or downplaying the concrete, extratextual impact of that meaning both for individual devotional practice and for the collective understanding. Thus to see conversion narratives as "a venture in poetics" in which "there is little to distinguish a fictive reconstruction of an actual event from the fictional invention of one that never happened" in no way mitigates their concrete impact on the level of interpretation, understanding, and practice. Narration, by uniting past and present, event and representation, within a dialectical web of mutual dependence, is not only itself constitutive of the very concept of conversion, but is also the key to its interpretation in terms that go beyond the text's theological hierarchy without denying its pietistic and polemical impact.
In proposing this narrative approach, my study departs from previous treatments of conversion in three critical ways. First, as I have already outlined, I underscore the essentially social, ideological function of conversion narratives as expressions of apologetic rather than devotional or psychological meaning, communal portrayal rather than vestiges of individual experience. By this I do not mean to consider conversion simply in social terms as a mass movement; it should be clear that my project interacts little with the work of historians charting the spread of religion as a historical process (Christianization or Islamization). It involves an approach distinct from the abundant literature treating early modern spiritual autobiographies and also constitutes a departure from the perspective developed in the wake of the recent affective turn in the study of devotional and hagiographic material. I approach conversion narratives as primarily intellectual, not affective, constructions.
A second departure of my reading entails a consideration of the distinct role played by narrative in expressing this connection between conversion and authority, or what Robert Bellah calls "the dialectic of conversion and covenant." In the medieval recapitulation of the Augustinian paradigm, the typological structure of prefiguration and fulfillment allowed the convert's past story to become part of his expertise in understanding. The more authentic his former infidelity and error, the more pronounced (and pronounceable) became his transformation. His argumentative authority was all the greater because of his former alterity. While Steven Kruger has offered a powerful affective reading of this duality in terms of embodiment and the crucial conceptual axis of corporality in Christian-Jewish conflict, I follow this dichotomy along a separate textual track according to the form of the emplotment of change in both individual experience and communal history, one that considers, in Hayden White's terms, "a structure of relationships by which the events contained in the account are endowed with a meaning by being identified as parts of an integrated whole." This narratological emphasis on conversion's duality as both an embracing and a rejecting allows me to weave together its formal doctrinal and narrative elements, which both rely on this double movement of before and after, concealment and revelation. The convert's narrative enacts an implicit gesture of power that can be either directed within the life of the convert himself—an exclusion of the old self by the new—or waged in social terms of the convert's former coreligionists by his new community. By looking at the representation of conversion not as a distant reflection of a plenitude of grace but as a constructed articulation of identity and difference, I stress also its unremitting duality as both a positive affirmation and a negative denial, both theological apology and social polemic.
The third departure of this study from prior investigations of conversion narratives entails a comparison of Christian conversion paradigms with the depiction of conversion within the apologetic works of Jewish and Muslim writers. I begin with the assumption that conversion does not signify a one-sided concept, but instead that every conversion implies also some sort of apostasy, that every finding of faith implies the abandoning of another structure of thought or belief. This Janus nature is reflected in the semantic range of biblical words for conversion (Heb. shuv, "to return," and its cognates, Gk. strephō and Lat. verto, "to turn," and their derivatives), in which every "re-turn to" God is simultaneously a "turn away" from sin; every positive affirmation implies at the same moment a negative denial. In all three terms, there is a multiple semantic meaning of both "returning" to God (as in Ezekiel 14:6, "Repent and turn away from your idols"—shuvu ve-hashivu, lit. "return [intransitive, i.e., turn back] and return [transitive, i.e., yourselves]"), as well as the obverse meaning of backsliding, to "turn back again to those weak and beggarly elemental spirits" (Galatians 4:9), as "a dog turns back to its own vomit and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mud" (2 Peter 2:22, Proverbs 26:11). Conversion cannot be thought of apart from reversion; aversion from sin cannot be posited without rejecting perversion and subversion of the law. As Augustine remarks in the Confessions, playing with this double sense, "Quia inde aversi sumus, perversi sumus. Revertamur iam, domine, ut non evertamur" (Confessions 4.16.31/1:45), which Wills translates as "Aversion from that good is perversion, so give us conversion to it, lest our fortunes be inverted." Conversion, especially in the religiously pluralistic context of the later medieval Mediterranean, is never simply the turning to one thing but also always implies a turning from another. Both textually and historically, every new convert is posited and understood in dialogue with its former self. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin in the terms of this study, there is no document of conversion that is not at the same time a document of apostasy.
Despite the inclusion of Muslim and Jewish stories of conversion, however, what follows is still predominantly a discussion of Christian conversion narratives. This is in part a matter of practical necessity; to do justice to the different perspectives contained in Jewish and Muslim sources across many centuries and in many cultural contexts would require more than just one additional book. While I hope that the discussion of a few Hebrew and Arabic examples will contribute to their further analysis and discussion apart from a predominantly Christian framework, I also must state frankly that these examples serve in this book above all as foils to highlight the peculiarities of the Christian case. I hope that including such readings here, even in this necessarily schematic way, will point to the rich potential of interconfessional comparison and provide a starting point for more detailed discussions centered on non-Christian examples. Nevertheless, it is not among the goals of the present work to present an exhaustive treatment of sin, salvation, and faith in Judaism and Islam. My intention is, rather, to show how Christian notions of faith, which are implicit in the concept of conversion itself as it is used in much scholarly literature, can be of only limited use in discussing non-Christian traditions because narratives of religious change convey different notions of sacred history in each.
I have structured each of the following chapters around a series of close readings of conversion stories drawn from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish disputational sources. Because this is not a history of conversion or an exhaustive overview of its sources—and even less a systematic study of the experience of conversion in a real-life missionary context—but is rather a comparison of the use of narrative form to express religious arguments in a wide selection of texts, the chapters do not follow a strictly chronological order. I begin in Chapter 1 with a comparison of two late medieval Iberian cases, that of the late fifteenth-century account purportedly of a Muslim convert to Christianity called Juan Andrés, told as the introduction to a longer anti-Muslim treatise, and that of fifteenth-century rabbi turned bishop, Solomon Halevi/Pablo de Santa María. I show that although Juan incorporates competing biblical models into his late medieval narrative, he is able to sidestep the question, inherent in the Pauline paradigm, of the precise historical and theological role of Judaism within Christian thinking by focusing his offensive on Islam. By comparing Juan's account to that of Solomon Halevi/Pablo de Santa María, a convert who could not avoid this confrontation with the conceptual specter of his Jewish past, I show that Solomon/Pablo's writing was affected by the conceptual tensions he found within the Pauline paradigm of conversion, and that he sought to sublimate those tensions through careful adaptation of the fifth-century interpretation of Augustine of Hippo.
A close reading of Solomon/Pablo's story reveals the traditional Augustinian elements that persisted throughout the Middle Ages, most abundantly in hagiographical conversion narratives, and also shows the philosophical and theological innovations initiated by twelfth-century writers. In Chapter 2, I jump back in time to take up those twelfth-century interventions, with a focus on Moses/Petrus Alfonsi and Judah/Herman of Cologne, to show how the concept of argumentative authority began to change as a response to the incorporation of extrabiblical sources and terms into polemical disputation, and how conversion narratives came to play a specific function in mitigating the theological instability wrought by that change. In Chapter 3, I take a wider view of the same period by examining the documents related to conversion to Judaism between the ninth century and the twelfth. I show that, while such representations did sometimes reflect a simple narrative structure, just as contemporary Christian examples do, that structure was less prominent than the nonnarrative apologetic arguments being expressed in favor of Jewish belief.
In the fourth chapter, I turn back to Christian writing to follow the evolution of the concept of authority in the texts of the later thirteenth century. I argue that disputational authors—both Dominican friars and their critics—were increasingly concerned with the authenticity of their sources and the uncertain authoritative validity of their claims in light of those sources. They sought to replace the representation of conversion with meditation on translation. In the fifth chapter, I trace the convergence of these two trends of the appeal to authenticity through linguistic and narrative channels in the corpus of Abner of Burgos/Alfonso of Valladolid in the fourteenth century. In his strategic attempt to blend Christian and Jewish models into a single, hybrid discourse in Hebrew, his opus marks both the culmination of this increasing appeal to authenticity and its rhetorical collapse under the weight of its assumptions about authority and identity. Chapter 6 expands the scope of the discussion again to include a comparison of contemporaneous accounts of conversion to Islam from the twelfth century to the fifteenth, including works by Samawʾal al-Maghribī (1126-75), Saʿīd Ḥasan of Alexandria (converted in 1298), ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq al-Islāmī (fl. fourteenth century), Anselm Turmeda/ʿAbd Allāh al-Tarjumān (ca. 1325-ca. 1423/32). I examine how the rhetorical function of conversion narratives in these examples reflects a more general ideology of religious supersessionism that is expressed in concrete historical terms, in contrast to the figural ideas represented in Christian examples.
I conclude by proposing that the connection between medieval conversion narratives and polemical texts is not fortuitous but bespeaks a fundamental similarity of structure between the two subgenres. By highlighting the implicit narrative affinity of apologetic argument and the representation of conversion, I highlight also the hermeneutic tension within both types of writing between the tendency toward fictional typology and allegory and the persistent need for literal historicity. This tension between singular, microcosmic uniqueness and universal, macrocosmic exemplarity defines both the foundational rhetoric within the Pauline paradigm of conversion as well as its many late antique and medieval invocations and recensions.