Varieties of Religious Conversion in the Middle Ages

Article excerpt

Medieval

Varieties of Religious Conversion in the Middle Ages. Edited by James Muldoon. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 1997. Pp. vii, 208. $49.95.)

The subject of this important anthology is conversion to Latin Christianity from alien cults, mainly between the fifth and the fifteenth centuries. The one exception to the rule is an essay by Father Leonard P Hindsley, O.P, about conversio monastica, the spiritual progress of the Dominican nun, Margaret Ebner, through obedience to the discipline of her order. The nine collaborators have provided independent variations on the theme of conversion, each with its own foci of place and time. Two (ohn Howe, on the creation of a sacred topography of shrines, churches, and other sacredly taboo spaces as Europe assimilated Christianity; and Jonathan Elukin, on the suspicion of hidden or impending apostasy which haunted Jewish converts) span the entire period and gather materials from all over the map. The rest are studies on discreet events or texts, predominantly from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The extraordinary wealth of learning mustered into the volume unfolds to display articles on papal evangelistic missions to the Far East, the criss-crossing of religious borders in the Crusader states of the Levant, dilatory flirtations with which pagan Lithuania long tantalized the Teutonic Knights, literary recreations by Scandinavian writers of conversions which occurred centuries earlier, and the agonized, spiritual eroticism of a bed-ridden nun in an obscure corner of Germany.

The three articles-all by women-grouped together under the heading, "Women in Conversion History," concern different subjects (from Merovingian Gaul to England and France in the waning Middle Ages). They have in common the proposition, imported from literary criticism, that, until recent times, articulating historical narrative was a privilege of dominant male elites. This valuable accent on historical narrative as an assertion of power allows a reflection on the admittedly limited homogeneity of Fragestellungen in the contributions to this volume.

The facts that three out of the four female collaborators took up the theme that narrative expressed the class values of the narrator (including gendered ones),and that none of the seven male contributors adopted this perspective, open the way to other observations: that (with one exception) all the contributors received their professional training in the United States, that (with one exception) all of those professionally trained in the United States were educated in the northeastern corridor (where most still live), and that (with two exceptions) all have appointments in university posts. Unfortunately, I am unable to establish a generational profile of the collaborators. However, the limited homogeneity of Fragestellungen in the splendidly varied articles displays one common preoccupation of academic historians in North America during recent years, of which the importation from literary criticism, particularly from feminist criticism, is one sign.

At least before the Reformation, Christian theologians agreed that conversion was a miracle wrapped up in the mystery of baptism. The seven historians and two linguists who collaborated to make this anthology run to political experience, rather than to miracle or mystery. …