- Conversion in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Seeing and Believing ed. by Kenneth Mills, Anthony Grafton, and Conversion: Old Worlds and New ed. by Kenneth Mills, Anthony Grafton (review)
- Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies
- Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, UCLA
- Volume 35, 2004
- pp. 205-208
- View Citation
- Additional Information
REVIEWS 205 Conversion in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Seeing and Believing , ed. Kenneth Mills and Anthony Grafton, Studies in Comparative History (Rochester: University of Rochester Press 2003) x + 283 pp.; Conversion : Old Worlds and New, ed. Kenneth Mills and Anthony Grafton, Studies in Comparative History (Rochester: University of Rochester Press 2003) xvii + 301 pp. Although, between them, these two companion volumes cover at least seventeen centuries and five continents, they still bear much more than their origins and general theme in common. Both are “collections of essays on religious conversion drawn from the activities of the Shelby Cullum Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University, between 1999 and 2001.” But more specifically, both books—despite the vast range of topics and approaches— offer some key and recurring insights into the study of religious conversion across various “subfields of history” (Old and New ix). Conversion in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Seeing and Believing offers eight essays on Christendom from the second to the ninth centuries, while Conversion: Old Worlds and New presents eleven essays that range from thirteenth-century England to late twentieth-century India. Although more global in its scope, the heft of the book is still devoted to the pre-modern and early modern world, with only four of the essays devoted to subjects after 1700. In both books, moreover, the line between old and new beliefs becomes harder and harder to draw, and Christianization becomes an intra-faith as well as inter-faith endeavor. Many of the contributors argue that classic definitions of conversion, such as Arthur Derby Nock’s in 1933, place too much emphasis upon the discontinuities involved in the process. Nock argued that conversion “implies a consciousness that a great change is involved, that the old was wrong and the new is right.”1 The scholars assembled in these volumes, however, frequently argue, as Richard Lim succinctly puts it in his contribution, that “the old was not always bad” and that the acceptance of one tradition does not always imply the denunciation of another (Seeing and Believing 85). Allan Greer, for example, argues that for the new Iroquois Christians in seventeenth-century New France “the adoption of one form of prayer or view of creation does not imply the rejection of others” (Old and New 177). And Raymond Van Dam reminds us that Constantine ’s adoption of Christianity did not imply a complete and unwavering rejection of paganism (Seeing and Believing 127–151). The second main insight developed by many of the contributors is that Christianization is an intrinsic as well as an extrinsic process. Often the major lines of conflict are not between Christians and non-Christians, but within the Christian community itself. As Neil McLynn puts it in his afterword to the first volume: “When A. D. Nock published his classic study of conversion in 1933, he could treat ‘Christianity’ as a given: here it sits squarely at the center of the problem” (Seeing and Believing 225). John Van Engen, for example, reminds us that for medieval Europeans, the word conversion more often meant to intensify one’s Christian commitment by joining a religious order, than it did 1 A. D. Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (1933; repr. London 1961) 7. REVIEWS 206 simply to join the Christian community from another faith (Old and New 30– 65). It was a word that signified a shift within Christianity, not into it. Similarly, Valerie I. J. Flint argues thirteenth-century English devotion to the Precious Blood may have been more of a bid to convert English women to greater ecclesiastical conformity than a Xenophobic response to the Crusades (Old and New 1–29). Julia M. H. Smith also focuses on the use of relics, this time in the Carolingian empire around the year 830, to Christianize Christians: “the task was not conversion, in the sense of the baptism of pagans, but rather the upgrading of Christian observance” (Seeing and Believing 211). Although it is difficult to do justice to the rich contributions in a sentence or two, a brief summary of the chapters will nonetheless convey...