Conversion and Narrative: Reading and Religious Authority in Medieval Polemic

Conversion and Narrative: Reading and Religious Authority in Medieval Polemic

Conversion and Narrative: Reading and Religious Authority in Medieval Polemic

Conversion and Narrative: Reading and Religious Authority in Medieval Polemic


In 1322, a Jewish doctor named Abner entered a synagogue in the Castilian city of Burgos and began to weep in prayer. Falling asleep, he dreamed of a "great man" who urged him to awaken from his slumber. Shortly thereafter, he converted to Christianity and wrote a number of works attacking his old faith. Abner tells the story in fantastic detail in the opening to his Hebrew-language but anti-Jewish polemical treatise, Teacher of Righteousness.

In the religiously plural context of the medieval Western Mediterranean, religious conversion played an important role as a marker of social boundaries and individual identity. The writers of medieval religious polemics such as Teacher of Righteousness often began by giving a brief, first-person account of the rejection of their old faith and their embrace of the new. In such accounts, Ryan Szpiech argues, the narrative form plays an important role in dramatizing the transition from infidelity to faith.

Szpiech draws on a wide body of sources from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim polemics to investigate the place of narrative in the representation of conversion. Making a firm distinction between stories told about conversion and the experience of religious change, his book is not a history of conversion itself but a comparative study of how and why it was presented in narrative form within the context of religious disputation. He argues that between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, conversion narratives were needed to represent communal notions of history and authority in allegorical, dramatic terms. After considering the late antique paradigms on which medieval Christian conversion narratives were based, Szpiech juxtaposes Christian stories with contemporary accounts of conversion to Islam and Judaism. He emphasizes that polemical conflict between Abrahamic religions in the medieval Mediterranean centered on competing visions of history and salvation. By seeing conversion not as an individual experience but as a public narrative, Conversion and Narrative provides a new, interdisciplinary perspective on medieval writing about religious disputes.


The past is never dead. It is not even past.

—WILLIAM FAULKNER, Requiem for a Nun


There was once a Jew who, well into his adult life, began to think deeply about the trials of his people. One day, he entered a synagogue and, with lamentation and bitterness in his heart, began to pray, “Lord God, I beg you, have mercy on our trials. What is the cause of your anger and fury against your people, the sheep of your pasture? Why will the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’ Lord, hear now my prayer and my cries, and illuminate your desolate sanctuary. Have mercy on your people Israel.” And with great heaviness of heart, exhausted from the burden he had taken upon himself, this Jew grew tired, fell asleep in the synagogue, and began to dream. In his dream he met a great man who said to him, “Why do you sleep? Understand my words, and pay attention: The Jews are in such long exile because of their insanity and their ignorance, and because they lack a righteous teacher in whom they may know the truth.” When he awoke from his dream, he began to scour the Bible and books of religion and philosophy for explanations to his questions, but he only grew more doubtful and confused, and vowed to remain steadfast in the faith of his forefathers and not to pay heed to the doubts in his heart. Yet his tribulations and doubts persisted, and his dreams did not stop. A few years later, after spending the day fasting, he had another dream in which the same man appeared and scolded him angrily. The man ordered the Jew “to arise from his sleep,” telling him . . .

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