The Ambivalent Converso Condition. A Review-Article Of The Evolution Of Converso Literature: The Writings of the Converted Jews of Medieval Spain
- Calíope: Journal of the Society for Renaissance and Baroque Hispanic Poetry
- Penn State University Press
- Volume 9, Number 2, 2003
- pp. 93-102
- View Citation
- Additional Information
THE AMBIVALENT CONVERSO CONDITION. A REVIEW-ARTICLE OF THE EVOLUTION OF CONVERSO LITERATURE: THE WRITINGS OF THE CONVERTED JEWS OF MEDIEVAL SPAIN E. Michael Gerli University of Virginia T he pivotal role played by conversos (Christians who descended from Jews, or who were themselves recently converted from Judaism) in Medieval and early modern Spanish culture is undeniable, particularly in the fifteenth century.Although in Iberia Jews had converted to Christianity throughout the Middle Ages, it was in the fifteenth century in the kingdoms of Castile and Aragón that conversions became widespread, both cause and consequence of profound social, political, and cultural change. Estimates of the number of conversions in Castile during the fifteenth century range from a conservative figure of 300,000 (Domínguez Ortiz 141) to a startling one of 600,000-700,000 (Netanyahu 234-45). Whichever number one chooses, however, it is clear that by the middle of the fifteenth century Castile had emerged as a Christian-converso kingdom whose population was confronted daily with vital questions of religious and cultural change and social, as well as personal identity. The conversos, especially in the period from 1391 up to the promulgation of the Toledo statutes on purity of blood on June 5, 1449, constituted a large, new, socially ambiguous group in Castilian life. Given their tenuous circumstances, they and their immediate descendants were, as a result of conversion, faced with the problematic of belonging—of assimilation, social transformation, and recognition by their “Old” Christian coreligionists. Contrary to medieval Jews who lived as outsiders and formed part of a corporate body consisting of a group of permanent ‘others’ that existed detached from the Christian community, conversos were faced with the dilemma of forging strategies to overcome their forebears’ traditional condition of estrangement: to find ways in which to craft and negotiate new identities of likeness rather than divergence. The newly converted were placed in uniquely emerging interstitial cultural circumstances and were obliged to forge in-between social identities that called for the elaboration of new CALÍOPE Vol. 9, No. 2 (2003): pages 93-102 94 E. Michael Gerli D individual or collective strategies of existence that produced new signs of identity, and, especially after 1480 and the establishment of the Inquisition, yielded inventive ways of collaborating with or contesting their relationship to society at large. Gregory B. Kaplan’s book on the evolution of converso literature in medieval Spain (but principally fifteenth-century Castile) has the merit of seeking to reanimate interest in this crucial formative moment in Spanish cultural history (Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2002. 168 pp. ISBN 0-8130-2475-7). His useful study comprises eight chapters in which he endeavors to trace an evolution in converso literary texts over the course of the latter half of the fifteenth century. To do this Kaplan first provides an historical overview of the conversos in medieval Iberia (Chap. 1) and then draws a theoretical frame that employs semiotics to identify and decode certain recurring distinguishing signs in the works of the late fifteenth-century authors and groups of authors that occupy his interest (Chap. 2). Despite the book’s initial promise to reanimate interest in conversos and clarify the compelling formative role they played in society, however, the historical overview which serves as the base for Kaplan’s study is impaired from the outset since it relies excessively on a number of disputable texts for its evidence: Kaplan’s historical survey hinges on, among other things,Alfonso’s X’s Siete Partidas, which were not promulgated until early modern times and reflect more the king’s imperial ambitions and juridical wish-list than any historical practice, plus miracles from the Cantigas de Santa Maria and Berceo’s Milagros de Nuestra Señora that are reworkings of Latin prose narratives with trans-Pyreneean ecclesiastical origins. Neither of these can be taken as faithful representations of the treatment or status of converts in late thirteenth-century Castilian society. In addition, while theoretically a semiotic approach in attempting to decipher a converso message in a “converso code” (32) would appear feasible—and certainly fashionable—in practice, it becomes more of an obstacle than a help in reaching the study...