- The Evolution of Converso Literature: The Writings of the Converted Jews of Medieval Spain
The title of this book is very promising, especially the overt implication that Spain’s New Christians (conversos) produced literature that was, perhaps, not exactly like that of their Old Christian compatriots. After all, the two groups sharing the geographic territory of Spain lived in two different realities, as Stephen Gilman pointed out in The Spain of Fernando de Rojas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972). Here, our author takes a new semiotic approach to analyzing medieval Spanish literature, concentrating on the “semions” (“lexical entities that suggest an associative total, or semion” [End Page 165] [p. 36]) which refer to alienation of conversos in a series of works, beginning with those of Juan Poeta and ending with Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina.
The fact that works written by New Christians would, in one way or another, show peculiarities that might well indicate the author’s background is one of those matters that is accepted and repeated, but without much analysis to see if, indeed, it is so, to what extent, and how similar these converso aspects are among that group of authors. There have been attempts to show a “Jewish” content or slant in individual works (see chapter 4 of Yirmiahu Yovel’s Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Marrano of Reason [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, 2 vols.], entitled “Marranos in Mask and a World without Transcendence: Rojas and La Celestina,” where he concludes that the language in this work “functions as a carnival of masks” [v. 1, p. 112]). The notable and welcome difference here is the attempt to approach the question from a relatively objective point of view, maintaining consistent criteria. Indeed, if this approach is valid, it should allow the identification of works written by New Christians and may even allow us to resolve the debate among Sephardic Jews who would like to claim Cervantes as one of their own.
Kaplan is making a case for “a unique type of allegory that I call a converso lament, a manifestation of the converso code that reflects the intensification of anti-converso discrimination toward the end of the fifteenth century” (pp. 95–96). Having studied poems by Juan Poeta and several poems which deify Queen Isabel at the beginning of her reign, Kaplan examines San Pedro’s Cárcel de Amor, Cota’s Diálogo entre el Amor y un Viejo and Rojas’s La Celestina, showing the reader that there is, indeed, distinctly converso material in each of them, expressed with differing degrees of obliqueness according to the New Christians’ situation within the Spanish society of their time. In conclusion, Kaplan affirms “that the converso meaning of the texts under consideration is best defined from the sociohistorical perspectives of those who were considered as Others” (p. 133).
A general problem with the book is that it has not been “dedissertationized” sufficiently, which makes it tedious to read and allows the inclusion of notes which are unnecessary or, at worst, pedantic in a work obviously meant for a specialized audience. And speaking of notes, in this age of the computer, there is no excuse for the user-unfriendly format which puts all notes at the end of the text. When they are there, they create an undesirable interruption in the reader’s train of thought. And then, when the note turns out to be “See Parkes (356–57) for more on the Fourth Council of Toledo” (Chap. 1, note 3), which is really tangential to the author’s point, this reader resents the time spent flipping from page 7 to page 135. Happily, as the chapters progress, the notes become fewer. Notes are items which do not fit in the text and which, consequently, should be as unobtrusive as possible; i.e., at the bottom of the page.
Another matter is the translation of quotes in Spanish, especially in the first three chapters, as well as in the notes. It seems that...