- Conversion and Narrative: Reading and Religious Authority in Medieval Polemic by Ryan Szpiech
Ryan Szpiech’s Conversion and Narrative deftly analyzes medieval conversion narratives from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, focusing its inquiry on the Western Mediterranean in geographic, linguistic, and religio-cultural terms. The central aim of the work is an investigation of first-person stories and their place in religious apologetic and polemical discourse. Of particular importance is Szpiech’s attempt to blur or dissolve the boundaries between historiography and literary studies, between the historical artifact and the literary text. By questioning the notion that the reader must assume that a personal account of conversion “happened” as it is narrated, Szpiech directs the reader towards the texts as representation. That is, conversion narratives are representations, not (necessarily) in the derridean sense, but in the polemical and exegetical tradition of religious dispute. Borrowing from Karl Morrison’s study of medieval conversion, Szpiech cautions that “one must distinguish between the experience of conversion, the “thing felt”, and the document written about it, “the thing made”—the récit not the histoire (3, 229). That is, Conversion and Narrative discusses the “thing made”, and posits a fundamental connection between conversion narratives and medieval polemic.
Against the Neo-Platonic view of conversion which conflates protagonist and convert in conversion tales, Szpiech approaches the conversion narrative like a stained glass window: it is a “thing made”, but it is “one that exists essentially not to be seen through but to be looked at … a stylized rendition meant to depict past events, with the illuminating light of context and the interpretive horizon of the viewer” (17). As such, he aims to look not at the texts of his study, but around them, seeing them as products of discrete cultural contexts rather than fragments of personal biographies. In this way, the reader avoids “pietistic readings” of the narratives without losing sight of the narrative’s signifying potential (20).
Szpiech discards the one-dimensional conception of narrative posited by Gerald Prince, as the “representation of events or changes in state of affairs,” and instead, borrowing from H. Porter Abbot, defines narrative as “the representation of events, consisting of story and narrative discourse … in which story is an event or sequence of events (the action); and narrative discourse is those events represented” (3, 19, [End Page 158] and in detail, 4). However, even the word “event” in Abbot’s definition is problematic for Szpiech’s understanding of narrative, for the former can theoretically be fixed in both space and time. As such, he resists Morrison and Lewis’s understanding of conversion as a single moment and instead sees it as a process of change. Like Augustine’s painful and arduous transformation in the Confessions, Abner of Burgos, for example, becomes Alfonso of Valladolid. As such, conversion narratives describe it as a process of transformation.
However, because this process bears different meanings to different confessional communities, Szpiech cautions the reader that “conversion”, as an instrument of critical analysis, cannot be employed equally in all cultures or religions. Indeed, after a detailed analysis of important and well-known Christian conversions narratives (Abner of Burgos’s Teacher of Righteousness, Herman of Cologne’s Little Work on His Conversion, the Barcelona Disputation in 1263, and Augustine’s Confessions), as well as Jewish and Muslim narratives (Judah Halevi’s Kuzari and Samaw’al al-Maghribī’s Silencing the Jews), Szpiech concludes that “narratives of conversion play a more prominent role in Christian polemics than they do in Muslim and Jewish treatises because they more fittingly reflect Christian notions of revelation, salvation, and time” (6). Szpiech suggests that while conversion in Christian sources is generally conflated with apology, the concept of conversion and its use as an argumentative narrative strategy are inapplicable to Jewish and Muslim traditions. And as such, Jewish and Muslim texts not associated with conversion to Christianity are included in his study to provide context for reading Christian conversion narratives and isolating their renewed importance in Christian polemic during...