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  • Forced Baptisms: Histories of Jews, Christians, and Converts in Papal Rome by Marina Caffiero
  • William V. Hudon
Forced Baptisms: Histories of Jews, Christians, and Converts in Papal Rome. By Marina Caffiero. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. [S. Mark Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish Studies.] (Berkeley: University of California Press. 2012. Pp. x, 317. $63.00. ISBN 978-0-520-25451-0.)

When Marina Caffiero wrote this book under the title Battesimi forzati (Rome, 2004), she met with well-deserved acclaim in both popular and scholarly media. She provided a fine contribution to early-modern cultural, religious, and legal history in Italy. Drawing upon largely unexplored sources, she painted a picture of baptisms, conversions, “offerings,” marriages, and pregnancies among Jews in the Christian world of papal Rome in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The book is now, fortunately, available in an excellent translation. Caffiero expanded here on a thesis she argued in an earlier article: that in this era one can locate steps toward antisemitism, and other forms of intransigent ideology found in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Along the way she illustrated, with sensitivity and evenhandedness, some of the rich complexities surrounding the interaction of early-modern Jews and Christians in Rome.

Caffiero demolished the assumption, reinforced by the image of ghetto walls, that Jews and Christians in papal Rome lived in separate communities devoid of interaction. She identified opposition to, and persecution of Jews in that context, but also insisted that the victims were not passive before such provocation, and neither did they lack other, conflict-free contact with Christians, for they were active participants in urban life. She challenged presumptions about “two souls” (p. 8) in contemporary Catholicism, a papal soul more tolerant toward the Jewish population, and a popular one that was decidedly intolerant. Instead, she considered the eighteenth century an age of widespread intransigence and as a decisive turning point—especially under Pope Benedict XIV—toward political antisemitism. Caffiero argued this while identifying Jewish petitions and protests against unreasonable clerical behavior that could be quite effective. She identified Jewish manipulation of systems that in theory oppressed them, as vehicles for settling conflicts in their own community. She traced, through case studies, the extraordinarily complicated—and semi-inquisitorial—practices of the “offering” of Jewish relatives by neophyte Christians as candidates for conversion, and of “denunciation,” again by neophyte Christians, of expressions of desire to convert by their Jewish relatives. She traced clerical reasoning supporting both sides of the dispute over the right of pregnant Jewish women to determine whether or not their new-borns would be baptized.

Surely, some will find this excellent book uncomfortable. Caffiero argued, after all, for demolishing standard views of characters like Benedict XIV and Clement XIV, especially their reputation as forward thinkers and supporters of the Jewish community. Others may be troubled reading about shifting positions among ecclesiastical authorities on the employment of Roman/Christian law—or of Judaic law—depending not upon logic or right, but upon service of church interests. Caffiero identified early-modern departure from St. Thomas Aquinas’s ideas about fetal animation, and toward definition of the beginning of soul-infused life at conception, a departure hotly contested by some ecclesiastics. But in the end, Caffiero’s corrections and revelations, [End Page 795] properly understood, simply steer us in the right direction: toward finding complexity in this era, rather than unsustainable caricatures.

Caffiero did not provide a conclusion to the book. This is unfortunate, for we cannot jump to her ultimate goal concerning ideology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without many presumptions. She seemed uninterested in systematically identifying the variety—and possible origins—of theoretical motivations behind restrictive policies and behind frequently contradictory action in legal practice. There was indeed anti-Judaic sentiment in ecclesiastical writers, not to mention language challenging what we might consider the reasonable rights of mothers and of those contracting marriage. But there was denigration of all “infidels,” not just Jews. There were, apparently, medieval notions of truth, knowledge, and faith—and about what their effect on reasonable people should be—lurking in sentiments expressed by solicitors consulted on the cases she examined. They surely exhibited inconsistent respect for human free...


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