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Fictions of Conversion

Jews, Christians, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England

By Jeffrey S. Shoulson

Publication Year: 2013

The fraught history of England's Long Reformation is a convoluted if familiar story: in the space of twenty-five years, England changed religious identity three times. In 1534 England broke from the papacy with the Act of Supremacy that made Henry VIII head of the church; nineteen years later the act was overturned by his daughter Mary, only to be reinstated at the ascension of her half-sister Elizabeth. Buffeted by political and confessional cross-currents, the English discovered that conversion was by no means a finite, discrete process. In Fictions of Conversion, Jeffrey S. Shoulson argues that the vagaries of religious conversion were more readily negotiated when they were projected onto an alien identity—one of which the potential for transformation offered both promise and peril but which could be kept distinct from the emerging identity of Englishness: the Jew.

Early modern Englishmen and -women would have recognized an uncannily familiar religious chameleon in the figure of the Jewish converso, whose economic, social, and political circumstances required religious conversion, conformity, or counterfeiting. Shoulson explores this distinctly English interest in the Jews who had been exiled from their midst nearly three hundred years earlier, contending that while Jews held out the tantalizing possibility of redemption through conversion, the trajectory of falling in and out of divine favor could be seen to anticipate the more recent trajectory of England's uncertain path of reformation. In translations such as the King James Bible and Chapman's Homer, dramas by Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson, and poetry by Donne, Vaughan, and Milton, conversion appears as a cypher for and catalyst of other transformations—translation, alchemy, and the suspect religious enthusiasm of the convert—that preoccupy early modern English cultures of change.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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pp. 4-4

Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. 5-9


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. 1-15

In 1534, at the direction of Henry VIII, who had been acclaimed “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X a mere thirteen years earlier, England turned from being a Catholic nation to a Protestant nation; when Henry’s son was crowned as Edward VI in 1547, a series of sweeping and far more radical church reforms were instituted, making the break with Rome even more...

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Chapter 1. "The Jews Perverted and the Gentiles Converted": Confessions and Conversos

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pp. 16-39

The Christian discourse of conversion begins with Paul, whose turn from Pharisaic persecutor of Jesus and his followers to apostle to the Gentiles (especially as it is described in Acts 9) marks a dramatic, miraculous transformation. The question of Paul’s conversion, however, has become a hotly contested one in recent years, part of a more extensive interrogation of the...

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Chapter 2. "Thy People Shall Be My People": Typology, Gender, and Biblical Converts

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pp. 40-81

God’s charge to Abram in Genesis 12.1, “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from they father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee,” captures the inextricable link between the formation of a new identity and the necessary separation from earlier attachments such a new identity demands; in answering this divine call, Abram enters into a privileged, covenantal...

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Chapter 3. "The Meaning, Not the Name I Call": Converting the Bible and Homer

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pp. 82-111

The Augustinian paradigm for conversion, inspired by the call of tolle lege, “Take up and read,” proposes an important connection between textual encounter and religious transformation, a connection that may already be suggested by—or perhaps read back into—Jesus’ explanation for his use of parables.1 Mark (revised in Matthew and strikingly absent in Luke) reports...

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Chapter 4. Alchemies of Conversion: Shakespeare, Jonson, Vaughan, and the Science of Jewish Transmutation

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pp. 112-151

In February 2007 a memo was circulated by the offices of Georgia state legislator Ben Bridges, calling for the elimination of the teaching of evolution in public schools on the grounds that it was derived from “Rabbinic writings” and other Jewish texts. While it may come as a surprise to some that “tax-supported evolution science” is really a Jewish plot, and that “evolutionism"...

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Chapter 5. Conversion and Enthusiasm: Radical Religion and the Poetics of Paradise Regained

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pp. 152-192

The fictions of conversion I have addressed in the preceding chapters render their transformations as changes from one more or less visible state/status to another, whether it be the “conversion” of Rahab and Ruth from heathen to Hebrew, biblical text and Homeric epic from ancient language to modern vernacular, or base metal to gold and quintessence. In each of these case studies...


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pp. 193-230


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pp. 231-254


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pp. 255-260


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pp. 261-263

E-ISBN-13: 9780812208191
E-ISBN-10: 0812208196
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812244823
Print-ISBN-10: 0812244826

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 858601668
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Fictions of Conversion

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • English literature -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism.
  • Christianity and other religions -- Judaism -- History -- 17th century.
  • Religion and literature -- England -- History -- 17th century.
  • Jews in literature -- History and criticism.
  • Conversion in literature -- History -- 17th century.
  • Culture conflict in literature -- England -- History -- 17th century.
  • Hebrew literature -- Appreciation -- England.
  • Jews -- Conversion to Christianity.
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