- Conversion and Narrative: Reading and Religious Authority in Medieval Polemic by Ryan Szpiech
This wide-ranging, erudite study brings a welcome new perspective to the subject of medieval interfaith polemics. Focusing on literary rather than purely religious or historical approaches to source texts, Ryan Szpiech’s goal is to show how conversion [End Page 775] stories functioned to convey faith claims in the later Middle Ages. From the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, he argues, religious polemics were increasingly characterized by appeals to new types of auctoritas: not only “rational” discourse (as has long been recognized) but also converts’ specific claims to the “authenticity” of personal experience and expertise. Although his emphasis is mainly on Christian polemics of the Western Mediterranean, Jewish and Muslim conversion stories are also included for comparative purposes—in the process reminding us that all conversion accounts need to be read first and foremost as literary text, and not merely as “factual” expressions of spiritual (auto)biography.
After a survey of previous scholarship on the subtle topic of “conversion,” a first chapter examines how Pauline and Augustinian conversion paradigms were adapted and transformed in the later Middle Ages. Fifteenth-century writings of ex-Muslim Juan Andrés and ex-Jew Pablo de Santa María are presented as examples of how such updated paradigms served to further Christian theological attacks on Islam and Judaism. Chapter 2 goes back several centuries to map changes in Christian notions of textual “authority” through a long series of (mostly anti-Jewish) texts; twelfth-century conversion narratives by Herman of Cologne and Petrus Alfonsi here take center stage. Shifting focus, chapter 3 turns to Jewish conversion narratives and argues that these were actually quite rare. No significant polemical genre emerged to highlight outsiders’ adoption of Judaism, and exceptions such as the Genizah story of Obadiah ha-Ger may result from Christian influence. Analysis of rhetorical strategies used by wellknown thirteenth-century Christian polemicists such as Ramon Martí and Ramon Llull come next, followed by a chapter on the fascinating case of fourteenth-century proselyte Abner of Burgos/Alfonso of Valladolid. Abner/Alfonso is in some ways the star of the book, and Szpiech considers his ambiguously Christian yet still pro-Talmudic texts to be not only the culmination but also a conclusion and a collapse of their genre, “a turning point in the process of rethinking the nature of authority through narration that began two centuries earlier” (p. 145). A chapter on Muslim conversion stories rounds out the book with authors such as former Jew Samaw’al al-Maghribī and ex-Franciscan Anselm Turmeda (‘Abd Allāh), confirming Szpiech’s thesis that conversion rhetoric had a distinct and vital role to play in the texts of medieval Christianity above all.
There is much to be debated in this multifaceted study, and the book raises as many questions as it answers. One may ask, for example, whether the categories of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish do not overly simplify or even essentialize the works and authors treated therein. Conversion is, after all, an inherently unstable process, and texts can take on considerably different functions in the hands of different readers in different times and places. The fact that so little attention is devoted to important problems of textual production, distribution, intended audience, and audience reception also needs to be considered. Conversion and Narrative is a dense and by no means an easy read; each chapter swarms with both complex theoretical discussion and a plethora of specific examples, some of which will be unfamiliar to most readers. Jewish and Islamic sources in particular cry out for further treatment, as the author acknowledges (p. 225). Still, Szpiech’s impressive analytical and linguistic skills have allowed him to produce [End Page 776] a work of singular value, which will undoubtedly open up new lines of research for the future.
Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada