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Reviewed by:
  • The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe
  • Anna Sapir Abulafia
The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe, by Jonathan Boyarin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 208 pp. $32.50

In this study Jonathan Boyarin examines the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century encounter between the Catholic Spaniards and the inhabitants of the Caribbean and Latin America within the wider context of medieval Christian-Jewish (and to some extent Christian-Muslim) relations in Latin Christendom. For the year 1492 did not herald an unprecedented new beginning. Rather, the actions and ruminations of the Spanish explorers and mendicant missionaries echoed many centuries of Christian engagement with Jews (and Muslims) in different parts of Europe. Christian-Jewish relations were especially wrought because of the built-in ambiguities of that encounter. On the one hand, Christianity had emerged from a Jewish cradle to supersede its progenitor; on the other, Christians and Jews continued to vie with each other as rivaling siblings drawing their credentials from the same texts, which each read in opposing [End Page 164] ways. Judaism was theoretically tolerated by Christian teaching, but it was tolerated not for its own sake; Jews were preserved to serve Christians through witnessing to Christian truth by adhering to the Hebrew Bible in which Christians found the prophecies concerning Christ. The fact that they lacked dominion and lived under Christian rule served Christians by showing them how God punished those who rejected Christ. Yet in the end all Jews would recognize Christ as their God and savior. All of this meant that Christian-Jewish relations consisted of a volatile mix of toleration and deprecation. Jews were valued but at the same time feared as ever-present markers of possible opposition to Christian authority. Jews who did convert were often suspected of contaminating Christian purity; baptism was seen as only the beginning of a life-long journey to Christian perfection. (This was true for Christians and Jews alike.) Jews for their part had continually to negotiate their positions with the lords in whose lands they resided, taking advantage of the ever-present gulf between religious theory and pragmatic reality. Recent studies have examined the different trajectories of the medieval Jewries of England, Northern France, Germany, Eastern Europe, and regions of the Latin Mediterranean. Just as there was not one homogeneous medieval Christendom, there was not one medieval Jewry. This is, of course, equally true of the very disparate Muslim world which confronted medieval Christians in many different guises and arenas. As the Normans conquered Sicily and as the Christian kings of Iberia expanded their territories into Al-Andalus, more and more Muslims came under Christian sway. In North Africa and the Levant, however, Muslims were powerful antagonists both respected and feared by Christian knights for their military prowess. Along the frontiers of Eastern Europe Christians faced the military threat of the Mongols and Tartars from the thirteenth century. There were other others than Jews and Muslims!

Boyarin's repeated insistence on the need to accept that Europe in 1492 was not a monolithic Christian entity lacking awareness of non-Christians within and without its borders does at times come across as a struggle to unlock an open door. True, there are still plenty of examples in the literature which betray what most scholars would now consider an outdated Christo-centric approach, but serious work in this area has been engaging with the medieval non-Christian other for some time. Indeed David Abulafia's The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus, which must have appeared while this book was in the press, examines the explorations of Columbus within the context of medieval forays into the Canary Islands, and European engagement between Christians and Jews is used as an interpretive tool in an attempt to understand how the Spanish tried to make sense of the large populations of non-Christian peoples they encountered. [End Page 165]

Boyarin's emphasis on the paradox between Christian universalistic endeavors to include ever more peoples within the Christian fold and Christian attempts to work ever harder to achieve Christian purity within Christian society is undoubtedly important. As Christian doctrines were...


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