Mercedes García-Arenal and Yonatan Glazer-Eytan, eds., Forced Conversion in Christianity, Judaism and Islam: Coercion and Faith in Premodern Iberia and Beyond

In: Journal of Jesuit Studies
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Mercedes García-Arenal and Yonatan Glazer-Eytan, eds., Forced Conversion in Christianity, Judaism and Islam: Coercion and Faith in Premodern Iberia and Beyond. Numen Book Series: Studies in the History of Religions, 164. Leiden: Brill, 2020. Pp. xiv + 418. Hb, $172.00.

This collection of essays explores how forced conversion was instigated, justified, and remembered in the premodern era, as well as the many transformations that it brought about. It advances our understanding of the roles of violence, political and religious imperatives, legal precedents, and collective memories in what is broadly defined within as “a change of faith induced by constraint or compulsion” (3). Forced conversions created new identity categories, problems between and within faith groups, definitions of belonging, and boundaries of exclusion. Force took many forms, just as there were many kinds of conversions, and the chapters in this volume illustrate what Isabelle Poutrin here identifies as both “the moment and the process of conversion” (86). In particular, this volume brings to light how communities of faith and faith itself were rearticulated by forced conversion, which “called for a new affirmation of the foundational categories of religious identity” (2).

This book’s focus on pre-modern Iberia (fifth to seventeenth centuries) is due to the peninsula’s long history of religious diversity and forced conversions—what the editors term a “laboratory of conversion” and of “interfaith problems arising between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam” (3). Chapters looking beyond Iberia make connections with North Africa, France, and Italy, but not, as one might expect, Iberian overseas colonies; the editors point out this next, necessary step, calling for future research to “explore the continuities and discontinuities between Iberian forced conversions and those of the New World” (12).

The book contains a compelling introductory chapter by the editors, followed by thirteen chapters organized into four parts and an epilogue. In Part 1, “Visigothic Legislation on Forced Conversion and Its Afterlife,” Elsa Marmursztejn investigates the place of Visigothic legislation in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century theological debates over forced conversion, paying special attention to the question of baptizing children and removing them from their Jewish families. Rosa Vidal Doval examines the uses of Visigothic law in fifteenth-century texts responding to religious violence and mass conversion, in the context of the 1449 Toledo rebellion and Sentencia-Estatuto of Pero Sarmiento. Isabelle Poutrin compares opinions on forced baptism and on the sacraments of marriage and ordination to assess the meanings of coercion and consent in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century canon law.

In Part 2, “Eschatology, Radical Universalism, and Remembrance: Forced Conversion during the Almohad Rule,” Maribel Fierro assesses forced baptism in the Almohad period with a focus on converted Jews and points to the “dream of conversion” that existed in Almohad territories. David J. Wasserstein proposes a new understanding of Almohad policies toward Christian and Jewish minorities: that it was “not an extension of an old practice but a wholly innovative expression of a new attitude and a radical re-interpretation of Islamic law and behaviour” (151). Highlighting how different communities have different responses to forced conversion, Alan Verskin examines Jewish collective memories of religious persecution, which, he argues, were the basis for new conceptions of Jewish-Muslim relations.

Part 3 is “Rethinking Will: The Forced Conversion of Jews in 1391 and beyond.” Ryan Szpiech begins by examining precedents to the 1391 riots and argues that, contrary to earlier claims, the 1320s–40s writings of convert Abner of Burgos/Alfonso of Valladolid do not directly support forced conversion. Ram Ben-Shalom’s chapter turns to the decades following the 1391 riots to examine how Sephardic Jews developed a new “grammar of conversion” to distinguish between Jews and conversos, “responding to the unprecedented demands of the new socio-religious discourse” (205). Yonatan Glazer-Eytan examines Spanish Inquisition records to discuss ideas about the relationship between the inner beliefs and external actions of forced converts from Judaism. Tamar Herzig investigates how Jewish men convicted of crimes could be pardoned by converting to Catholicism in fifteenth-century Italy, cases of individual baptism that held great political significance and shed light on the function and meaning of baptism in the pre-Reformation era.

Part 4, “Between Theology and History,” begins in late fifteenth-century Granada with Davide Scotto’s examination of Hernando de Talavera’s opinions of forced conversion, which were, as Scotto argues, more complex than the prevailing myth of Talavera’s religious tolerance has allowed. Giuseppe Marcocci examines the impact of the 1496–97 forced baptism of the Jews of Portugal, focusing on “the interaction of multiple memories through the legal controversies, theological debates, and historical writings” throughout the following century (328). In her analysis of the 1521–26 forced conversions of the Muslims of Valencia and the deliberations surrounding their expulsion in 1609, Mercedes García-Arenal investigates doubts over the efficacy of baptism, anxieties over baptizing Morisco children, and how forced conversions in Iberia led to the creation of blood-based identity categories. David Nirenberg’s epilogue presents forced conversion as a significant “historical indicator” that we can use to engage with a variety of concepts from a range of places and time—a fitting conclusion to a volume that allows its central topic to remain complex in useful ways.

While the Society of Jesus is not the primary focus of any chapter, scholars in the field of Jesuit studies will find this book useful for engaging with histories of faith, baptism, and conversion, including some discussion of religious orders. Direct references to the Jesuits include Marcocci’s brief examination of a text by Manuel da Nóbrega in mid-sixteenth-century Brazil; Poutrin refers to the Jesuit José de Acosta and focuses in one section on Juan Azor’s and Tomás Sánchez’s opinions on force and the sacraments. This collection is a timely and strong addition to a growing field of scholarship on conversion, in which the work of Mercedes García-Arenal is already central. It will be of great use to scholars and students working on themes of religion, violence, and the relationships between people of different faith communities from social, legal, and theological perspectives, as well as on themes of memory (see especially Vidal Doval, Verskin, and Marcocci), childhood (notably Marmursztejn and García-Arenal), identity, belonging and exclusion.

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