- Between Christian and Jew: Conversion and Inquisition in the Crown of Aragon, 1250–1391 by Paola Tartakoff
In the last forty years, historians have been industrious in their search for evidence of medieval attitudes to outsiders. Heretics, Jews, lepers, and prostitutes have all been assigned a place on the map of medieval Christian society. The intricacies of their social and cultural interaction with the majority have been explored and the hermeneutical images of otherness in Christendom identified and deconstructed. But if otherness lies in the eye of the beholder, then it is also fluid and ambiguous, transcending binary models of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Few groups represent this ambiguity better than Jewish converts to Christianity: embodying the hopes and fears, aspirations and repulsions of Jews and Christians alike, their journeys towards (re)integration were often arduous. While scholars have discussed the stories of some high [End Page 280] profile converts such as Hermann of Cologne or Paul Christian, ‘ordinary converts’ have not yet received systematic attention. The recent monograph by Paola Tartakoff attempts to rectify this situation.
Tartakoff’s book revolves around one central episode: a peculiar case of a baptized Jew named Pere, who was almost burned at stake for blasphemy by the justicia in Calatayud in 1341. It was only thanks to the last-minute intervention of the Dominican friar Sancho de Torralba that Pere escaped execution. When interrogated by Fra Sancho, Pere confessed that he had acted under the influence of a group of Jews from a nearby village. Upon hearing about his conversion, they convinced him that the only way to atone for this great sin was to publicly renounce Christianity and suffer the inevitable death at stake. Only then, they claimed, would his soul be ‘safe with God’. Instead of dying as a Jewish martyr, Pere became crown witness in the inquisitorial proceedings aiming to identify and punish the group of ‘Judaizers’ who targeted converts and strove to bring them back to the Jewish fold. Tartakoff examines closely the surviving testimonies of three Jews whom Pere identified as the initiators of his apostasy: the couple Janto and Jamila Almuli, and Jucef de Quatorze. All three denied any involvement in Pere’s apostasy, that is, at least until more ‘efficient’ methods of interrogation were employed.
Testimonies recorded by inquisitions are notoriously difficult to interpret, but Tartakoff approaches her sources with commendable caution, using them as a springboard to broader analyses of the phenomenon of Jewish conversion in the Kingdom of Aragon and associated Christian anxieties. In the first two chapters, she maps Christian preoccupations with harmful Jewish influence in Christian society and outlines the formal characteristics of inquisitorial proceedings dealing with the Jews. In the second part of the book, Tartakoff focuses on the converts themselves, examining their background prior to baptism and their lives as Christians. In the last two chapters, she turns to Jewish attitudes to apostates and the efforts to bring them back to Judaism.
Tartakoff demonstrates that many converts chose baptism to avoid punishment by Jewish authorities, circumvent the prohibitions regarding marriage and adultery, or to escape poverty and violence. As a result, Christians often doubted the sincerity of Jewish conversions and their suspicion became a self-fulfilling prophecy when converts who failed to integrate into Christian society decided to return to Judaism. In Jewish communities, apostasy had a profound impact on marriages and economic relations. It also produced considerable tensions: many Jews publicly jeered at and insulted apostates. Some Jews, however, continued to interact with the apostates and tried to persuade them to return to the Judaism, employing a variety of rhetorical tools to present the deficiencies of Christian faith. [End Page 281]
This book is a valuable collection of carefully interpreted material on Jewish conversion in the Kingdom of Aragon approached with awareness of the complex social and religious implications of Jewish conversion. The compact size of the book and the selection of sources leave some questions unaddressed...