- The Conversion of Herman the Jew: Autobiography, History, and Fiction in the Twelfth Century
Jean-Claude Schmitt, perhaps the premier French medievalist of his generation, has taken what is a relatively minor but controversial medieval text (it claims to be the autobiography of a converted Jew) and has used it to meditate [End Page 540] on a wide range of topics, including the nature of historical truth, a shared Jewish-Christian medieval religious culture, and the meaning of conversion for medieval Christianity. The focus of his study is the Opusculum de conversione sua, which exists in only two manuscripts from about 1200. The "author" claims to be Herman, formerly a Jew, writing after his conversion and entry into the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré at Cappenberg, a monastery located in northwest Germany. Two camps of historians have grown up around the text, each taking up a position either advocating that a converted Jew actually wrote it or that it was the creation of a Christian author writing for conversionary purposes. The English version of Schmitt's 2003 French monograph, ably translated by Alex J. Novikoff, begins with a rehearsal of the contents of the memoir. He also provides a new translation of the Opusculum itself and an extract of a related text—the vita of Godfried, count of Cappenberg, which contains a reference to a Jewish convert in the order who might have been the putative Herman. (There is a previous English translation of the text in Karl Morrison's Conversion and Text: The Cases of Augustine of Hippo, Herman-Judah, and Constantine Tsatos.)
Schmitt then summarizes the various arguments on either side of the debate about the text's authorship before moving off in a different direction. He essentially puts aside the question of the reality of the narrator. For him, it is a question mal posé that limits what the text has to tell us. The text is authentic in the sense that it is a genuine document of medieval religious culture. It may be impossible, and perhaps ultimately unimportant, to determine if the author of the text was actually that Herman who converted from Judaism to Christianity.
Without those blinders, Schmitt sees a text, produced by a monk or monks at Cappenberg, whose content is clearly meant to speak to the institutional and religious concerns of the order of canons. (An individual Jew may have, Schmitt acknowledges, converted and come to live at Cappenberg, thus inspiring the construction of the text.) Schmitt offers a sensitive and nuanced reading of the text to support this approach. He points out that the appearance of Bishop Rupert of Deutz, a major ecclesiastical authority on the Jews, paradoxically can suggest a Cappenberg voice behind the text. According to the memoir, Herman meets the bishop as he becomes attracted to Christianity, and engages him in a disputation. Rupert fails to convert him, which is significant, as Schmitt points out, since Rupert was an opponent of the new order of canons. His failure, then, suggests the failure of the order's enemies. Herman's ultimate adherence to the order of canons, following a more spiritual conversion aided by the prayers of holy women, makes it clear that it is Cappenberg rather than Rupert's traditional Benedictines who are the heroes [End Page 541] of the account. The bishop's failure is a subtle way to attack the traditional enemy of the canons and to enhance the prestige of their relatively new order.
On a larger scale, Herman's story becomes, according to Schmitt's reading, the story of conversion from the carnal to the spiritual, which is the core message of the conversion to monastic life. The fact that it happens to a Jew, the archetype of carnality, reinforces the power of the transformation. In Schmitt's view, then, Herman's story of gradual conversion to monastic life is a metaphor for the journey that the monks of Cappenburg (and in...