- Fictions of Conversion: Jews, Christians, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England by Jeffrey S. Shoulson
By Jeffrey S. Shoulson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. 280pp.
In his previous work, Milton and the Rabbis, Jeffrey Shoulson explored the connections between Milton and early rabbinic writings, drawing out the literary and historical implications of this connection. With his second book, Fictions of Conversion, he continues his scholarship on Jewish-Christian relations in early modern England. Here, Shoulson examines the anxieties and suspicions associated with conversion in the early modern period, beginning with the shifting boundaries of Catholicism and Protestantism in the sixteenth century and continuing throughout the course of England’s Long Reformation. However, as Shoulson points out, a pervasive sense of instability troubled the early moderns, and it was this anxiety about change and uncertainty that became directed outwardly toward an “alien identity,” that of the Jew. In particular, it was the Jew who refused to convert from Judaism to Christianity, or worse yet, one who admitted to having converted to Christianity under false pretenses—a converso—that was at the core of suspicions about the Jewish population. The figure of the Jewish converso was recognized by early modern English men and women as a “familiar religious chameleon” that challenged the notion of a cohesive identity and, further, destabilized the binaries of Christianity and Judaism. Yet, as Shoulson argues, the Jewish converso had broader implications for English identity that encompassed more than simple anxieties about change. The converso functioned as a trope for the wider cultural anxieties associated with the economic, social, and political changes that occurred in England from 1575–1675.
In the first two chapters, Shoulson focuses primarily on “matters of religious conversion” by examining early models of Christian conversion, such as Paul and Augustine, and early Reformation discussions of conversion expounded upon in the writings of Luther and Calvin. The writings of John Foxe, Thomas Cooper, and Daniel Featley augment Shoulson’s investigation of the ways in [End Page 143] which texts interrogate religious transformation, especially in light of questions of authenticity. The last three chapters are focused on those texts which explore the anxieties and expectations the early modern English held about the rapid changes in the religious, economic, social, and political environments. Shoulson examines translated texts such as the King James version of the Bible (1611) and Chapman’s translation of Homer’s Iliad (1611) and Odyssey (1614) and argues that linguistic translation also functions as a “fiction of conversion” due to the changing connotative and denotative elements of the translation process. Shoulson’s pointed analysis of translation as its own fiction of conversion demonstrates the twofold nature of translation: language as transformer and transformed. As Shoulson observes, “Translation works to domesticate the foreignness of an alien text, but in the process, it also necessarily alters the culture of the target language” (88). Not only did conversion alter the converted, it altered the dominant culture into which the converted were assimilated. Shoulson also examines the effects of names in translation, which would be of particular interest to those whose fields touch upon semiotics and identity.
Shoulson’s discussion of linguistic translation nicely foregrounds his exploration of the renewed interest in alchemy during the early modern period, and in particular, how alchemy became linked to anxieties about conversion. In his exploration, Shoulson uses the trope of alchemy to read the relationship between Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, and he connects these works to the overriding anxieties about conversion as it relates to corruption of the finer element by the infusion of a base element. The final chapter of Fictions of Conversion concludes with a discussion of the discourses of transformation that betray a sense of anxiety about the authenticity of religious transformation, particularly Milton’s Paradise Regained. Shoulson juxtaposes mid-seventeenth century debates about religious enthusiasm against Milton’s epic poem to analyze Milton’s “ambivalent engagements” with the radical religious movements (the Quakers and the Ranters, for example) of his day.
Fictions of Conversion contributes substantially to the study of...