Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Conversion and Narrative: Reading and Religious Authority in Medieval Polemic

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Conversion and Narrative: Reading and Religious Authority in Medieval Polemic

Article excerpt

Conversion and Narrative: Reading and Religious Authority in Medieval Polemic. By Ryan Szpiech. [The Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2012. Pp. xiv, 311. $59.95. ISBN 978-0-8122-4471-7.)

This wide-ranging, erudite study brings a welcome new perspective to the subject of medieval interfaith polemics. Focusing on literary rather than purely religious or historical approaches to source texts, Ryan Szpiech's goal is to show how conversion stories functioned to convey faith claims in the later Middle Ages. From the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, he argues, religious polemics were increasingly characterized by appeals to new types of auctoritas-. not only "rational" discourse (as has long been recognized) but also converts' specific claims to the "authenticity" of personal experience and expertise. Although his emphasis is mainly on Christian polemics of the Western Mediterranean, Jewish and Muslim conversion stories are also included for comparative purposes-in the process reminding us that all conversion accounts need to be read first and foremost as literary text, and not merely as "factual" expressions of spiritual (auto)biography.

After a survey of previous scholarship on the subtle topic of "conversion," a first chapter examines how Pauline and Augustinian conversion paradigms were adapted and transformed in the later Middle Ages. Fifteenth-century writings of ex-Muslim Juan Andrés and ex-Jew Pablo de Santa Maria are presented as examples of how such updated paradigms served to further Christian theological attacks on Islam and Judaism. Chapter 2 goes back several centuries to map changes in Christian notions of textual "authority" through a long series of (mostly anti-Jewish) texts; twelfth-century conversion narratives by Herman of Cologne and Petrus Alfonsi here take center stage. Shifting focus, chapter 3 turns to Jewish conversion narratives and argues that these were actually quite rare. No significant polemical genre emerged to highlight outsiders' adoption of Judaism, and exceptions such as the Genizah story of Obadiah haGer may result from Christian influence. Analysis of rhetorical strategies used by wellknown thirteenth-century Christian polemicists such as Ramon Marti and Ramon Hull come next, followed by a chapter on the fascinating case of fourteenth-century proselyte Abner of Burgos/Alfonso of Valladolid. …

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