- Conversion and Narrative: Reading and Religious Authority in Medieval Polemic by Ryan Szpiech
Religious Studies, Medieval Iberia, Intellectual History, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Ramon Llull, Alfonso de Valladolid, Anselm Turmeda, Catalan Studies, Mediterranean Studies, Translation, Conversos, Jewish Studies, Ryan Szpiech, Michelle M Hamilton
In this study, Ryan Szpiech shows how various medieval authors (many of them Iberian) avoid or reify inherited models of conversion and conversion narratives to meet their needs as polemicists. Szpiech chooses from the large corpus of available material those conversion narratives associated with ‘‘explicitly polemical and interconfessional apologetic writing’’—beginning with Augustine, but focusing on the medieval Mediterranean world of Muslims, Jews, and Christians and how the latter either legitimate or discredit accepted authoritative knowledge and discourses. Szpiech’s comparative approach, which seeks patterns of similarity and of methodology across time and religion, proves fruitful and offers a portrait of polemical literature, often authored by converts, and of the changing and developing role of narrative within it.
Each of the six chapters presents case studies of converts, and illustrates how their conversion narratives have been shaped to establish the authenticity of the convert’s new identity by paradoxically establishing his authority in the old faith. In chapter one, ‘‘From Peripety to Prose,’’ Szpiech explores how a convert from Islam, Juan Andrés, and a convert from Judaism, Pablo de Santa Marίa, both include autobiographical accounts of their conversions in fifteenth-century polemical treatises. Once converted, both Juan Andrés and Pablo de Santa Marίa use their knowledge of the proof texts of their former religion (the Quran and tafsir for the former, and Talmud and works of Jewish authorities like Rashi and Mai-monides in the case of the latter) in an attempt to convert their former coreligionists. These two examples reveal the strategies and models that are the end result of a long process of development and adaptation to which Szpiech turns in the following chapters.
In the second chapter, ‘‘Alterity and Auctoritas,’’ Szpiech explores how two twelfth-century Jews, Judah/Herman of Cologne, and Petrus Alfonsi, a Judeo-Andalusi intellectual, adopt elements of the accepted Augustinian/Pauline conversion paradigms and meld them with the new Aristotelian rationalism entering Europe to forge a new type of conversion narrative. Both Alfonsi and Judah/Her-man introduce Jewish authorities and Scripture into their narratives, thus proving [End Page 251] their authenticity as former Jews, but also beginning a process of destabilizing traditional Christian authority. In Petrus Alfonsi’s Dialogue Against the Jews, his fictional converted self debates with his former Jewish self who demands an explanation, and in the process Alfonsi makes alterity visible. As Szpiech points out, Alfonsi uses Jewish texts both as authorities recognized by his former Jewish self, and as authoritative sources for Christological interpretations—thus he wants it both ways, and in so doing ‘‘throws the meaning of auctoritas into flux’’ (79). Szpiech explores in the following chapters how this crisis in authority played out as a growing ambivalence toward all authorities and toward the teleological notion of Christian history that undergird them.
In chapter 3, ‘‘In the Shadow of the Hazards,’’ Szpiech takes up conversion to Judaism as an illustrative counterpoint to narratives of conversion to Christianity discussed in the second chapter. He compares the conversion of two ninth-century Christians, Bodo/Eleazar and the Austrian Wecelinus, with that of the legendary conversion of the king of the Khazars as recounted in the letters of the Genizah and in Judah Ha-Levi’s twelfth-century Book of the Khazars. Bodo/Eleazar’s account survives only in Paulus Alvarus’s account of the epistolary exchange he purportedly engaged in with the latter, and Wecelinus’s conversion account survives only in the work of the Benedictine chronicler Alpertus of Metz. Both are presented by their Christian narrators as invalid. In contrast, Judah Ha-Levi’s twelfth-century account of the conversion of the legendary King of the Khazars, although also polemic in nature, is presented as a logical and rational choice on the part of the...