Fictions of Conversion investigates the anxieties produced by the rapid and erratic religious, political, and cultural transformations in early modern England, which were often given shape in poetry, plays, and translations by the figure of the Jewish converso.
2013 | 280 pages | Cloth $65.00
Literature / Religion
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. "The Jews Perverted and the Gentiles Converted": Confessions and Conversos
Chapter 2. "Thy People Shall Be My People": Typology, Gender, and Biblical Converts
Chapter 3. "The Meaning Not the Name I Call": Converting the Bible and Homer
Chapter 4. Alchemies of Conversion: Shakespeare, Jonson, Vaughan, and the Science of Jewish Transmutation
Chapter 5. Conversion and Enthusiasm: Radical Religion and the Poetics of Paradise Regained
On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go . . .
—John Donne, "Satire III"
In 1534, at the direction of Henry VIII, who had been acclaimed "Defender of the Faith" by Pope Leo X a mere thirteen years earlier, England turned from being a Catholic nation to a Protestant nation; when Henry's son was crowned as Edward VI in 1547, a series of sweeping and far more radical church reforms were instituted, making the break with Rome even more pronounced and seemingly definitive; yet following the young king's death in 1553, Mary Tudor's reign brought with it the return of Catholicism as the official state religion; with Elizabeth's assumption of the throne in 1559, Protestantism again became the regnant religion. In the space of twenty-five years, then, England converted three times. If, for some of its contemporary Protestant observers and chroniclers, the trajectory of the English Reformation lent itself to a historiography that narrated these political and religious developments as providential changes all leading to a millenarian fulfillment of God's special favor to the "Elect Nation," the speed and fitfulness with which these changes transpired could also lead observers to worry over their permanence and authenticity. Even during the relative calm of the Elizabethan Settlement the national conversion to Protestantism was repeatedly challenged, not only by those who remained loyal to the Pope, but also by Puritans and other Protestants of the "hotter" sort, who insisted that the break with Rome remained incomplete. Elizabeth's successor, James I, undertook extensive efforts to sustain the peace of this religious settlement; the English Bible that has taken his name, for example, was produced with the hopes of providing a scripture acceptable to a wide cross-section of the English population, from urban, bourgeois Presbyterians to rural Anglican aristocracy, and even to recusant Catholics and nonconformists. Yet James's reign was only in its second year when an English convert to Catholicism by the name of Guy Fawkes was discovered preparing to bomb the houses of Parliament; the Gunpowder Plot was quickly tied to a network of English Catholics, among them several Jesuits, setting off a wave of anti-Catholic paranoia and repressive legislation targeting recusancy and the persistent, often secret, Catholic presence in England. Clearly, conversion was not a finite, discreet process. Religious change could lead to salvation, but it could also breed deceit and treachery. Those on all sides of the religious conflicts of the period could be forgiven for harboring deep-seated suspicions about conversion's value, or even the capacity for human agents to effect and control its outcome.
This book takes the conversionary demands and competing claims for adherence made by different confessional identities in early modern England as the starting point for an investigation into the dynamics of change during the period and the anxieties produced by these religious, political, social, economic, and cultural changes. Current scholarship has revealed how ongoing and incomplete was the English Reformation. The Elizabethan Settlement sought to construct an ideologically and religiously coherent English identity, but these explicit and persistent efforts also attest to the resistance they continued to meet publicly and privately, in the urban centers and in the countryside, in the north and in the south. The boundaries between Catholicism and Protestantism, not to mention within and among newly emerging Protestant denominations, remained permeable and shifting; at one time or another throughout much of the sixteenth century most Englishmen and women—whose parents and grandparents very well may have attended a different church than they were attending—would have found it necessary to be somewhat circumspect, if not downright deceptive, about their own religious beliefs and practices. The "fictions of conversion" I examine in this study find their first expressions within the confessional transitions and shifts that happened with some frequency over the course of England's Long Reformation. So threatening to any sense of stability was this fraught history that its alarming implications often demanded to be projected outward onto an alien identity, whose potential for transformation offered both promise and peril but who could, in theory, be kept distinct from emerging formulations of Englishness, especially by virtue of his or her physical absence from England during the period in question: the Jew.
Even as the English Reformation gave rise to the providentialist historiography of John Foxe and others, it also precipitated a distinctively English interest in—some might even called it an obsession with—the Jews who had been entirely exiled from England's midst nearly 300 years earlier. English millenarian and eschatological writings inevitably included speculations about the "Calling of the Jews" or "the Great Restauration," the anticipated mass conversion of the Jews to (a specifically English version of) Christianity as one of the final steps preceding Christ's Second Coming. The Whitehall Conference of 1655 convened by Oliver Cromwell to discuss the legal readmission of Jews to England cannot be understood outside this apocalyptic climate. Yet before the conversion of the Jews became a staple topic for English millenarians in the seventeenth century, Jews already found their way into the English imaginary within an elaborate and self-contradictory network of fictions of conversion. The late medieval and early modern English stage offered audiences encounters with Jewish moneylenders and merchants, powerbrokers and panderers who were forced or who (seemingly) chose to convert; but also with desirable Jewish women, potential wives and mothers to future Christian children, who converted by marrying Christian husbands. English sermons celebrated the baptisms of individual Jews; but they also inveighed against stubborn Jewish resistance to Christian salvation, often in the same sermon. Jews held out the tantalizing possibility of redemption through conversion, particularly powerful insofar as they had once been God's chosen people and could recover that status again, even as they also manifested the fearful effects of preterition, to use Calvin's term for those not elected to salvation. The Jewish trajectory of falling in and out of divine favor was seen as anticipating the more recent trajectory of English providential history in its peripatetic path of reformation. But depending on where that Jewish history resolved itself—with God or as God's enemies—such parallels could bode well or ill for English Christianity. Jewish conversion (collective or individual) offered the most dramatic form of divine reconciliation; but Jews also threatened to undermine the salvific power of conversion whenever they refused, reneged, or, worse, revealed themselves to have converted under false pretenses.
Indeed, it is the specter of false Jewish conversion, in particular, that haunts the English fictions of conversion I examine in this book. To speak of Jews in Tudor and Stuart England was, with almost no exception, to speak of Iberian Jews and their descendants, those who had fled the forced conversions, expulsions, and subsequent Inquisition that had obliterated the largest and most prosperous Jewish population of the Middle Ages. This history of Iberian Jewry stands directly behind these fictions of conversion, for the limpieza di sangre, or blood purity laws that were the legacy of the forced conversions of fourteenth-century Spain, gave legal justification for Old Christian antipathy toward conversos, enforcing a Jewish designation on those who had converted to Christianity in order to avoid expulsion, forfeit of property, or execution. English encounters with Jews—occasionally on English soil, more often in the Levant, and especially in the growing Jewish communities of the Low Countries—were nearly always with descendants of this recent history of forced conversion. English Protestants like Henry Ainsworth (whose work figures significantly in later chapters of this book) spent considerable portions of their lives in close proximity to, and learning from, the Jews of Amsterdam. It is no coincidence that Ainsworth, and other English scholars like Hugh Broughton, Matthew Slade, and John Paget, drew so heavily on Jewish scholarship in his own biblical commentaries. Nor is it surprising that these Puritan Hebraists wrote extensively on and worked for the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. The Amsterdam Jewish community, concentrated primarily in the Vloomberg quarter of the city, was composed almost entirely of descendants from the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic community that had fled either before or after undergoing conversion to Catholicism. Many of those who had converted to Christianity used their migration to Amsterdam as the occasion openly to recover their Jewish identities. Others remained Christians, even as they retained ties with this recently reconstituted Jewish community. Conversion was the topic of the seventeenth-century Amsterdam Jewish community, the same community from which, only a few decades later, Menasseh ben Israel would call out to England for a change in its policy toward Jews living there. The experiences of conversos and former conversos called particular attention to the persistence of a naturalized notion of Jewishness, one that could be construed positively and not just in the negative light it was cast as a function of the Iberian blood purity laws. Conversos who reclaimed their Jewishness often did so explicitly as a recovery of an identity embedded in the body and familial lineage. But even those conversos who remained (proudly) Christian made special claims about the value of their Jewish ancestry, asserting the importance of the seed of Israel to the vitality and future of Christianity.
The promulgation of "philo-semitic" writing in mid-seventeenth-century England reveals the intense ambivalence with which Jews and Jewish conversion were regarded during this time. On the one hand, advocates of Jewish toleration made their case for the legal readmission of Jews on the strength of the millenarian expectation of mass Jewish conversion: Jews should be welcomed to a tolerant, Protestant England because it would accelerate the process of their total elimination through their transformation into Christians. On the other hand, as we shall see below, what was more worrying to many English writers than the thought that Jews had not or would not convert was the possibility that they would indeed convert, for the successful conversion of the Jew would signal the disruption and destabilization of the organizing differences that gave definition to Christianity in opposition to Judaism. And yet, as I argue in the chapters that follow, the notoriously embattled nature of converso identity—its exemplification of the disputed permanence of conversion—could also contain a potentially advantageous, if also unsettling, property, the quality of changeability. In the figure of the converso, early modern Englishmen and women would have recognized an uncannily familiar religious chameleon, someone whose economic, social, and political circumstances required a religious conversion, conformity, or counterfeiting that challenged the consolidation of a coherent identity. The legacy of forced conversions practiced in previous centuries in Spain and Portugal found its way into the writings of English Protestants, particularly in their efforts to distinguish their religion from what they regarded as the corrupt and ineffective practices of the Catholic Church. Though English Protestants prided themselves on the self-evident truth of the Christianity they professed, one of the effects of the history of forced conversions they sought to disown and, especially, of the Judaism marranos were believed to continue to practice secretly, was to underscore anxieties about permanence and change, authenticity and pretense, in the accounts of conversion that proliferated during the period. John Donne captures the paradoxical permanence of change as a feature of human existence in one of the several sermons he preached as Dean of St. Paul's—years after his own conversion to Anglicanism—on the Sunday that annually marks the conversion of Paul: "The people will change into contrary opinions; And whereas an Angel it selfe cannot pass from East to West, from extreame to extreame without touching upon the way betweene, the people will pass from extreame to extreame, without any middle opinion . . . . All change their minds; High as well as low will change, But I am the Lord; I change not. I and onely I have that immunity, Immutability; . . . all can, all will, all do change, high and low." Drawing the contrast between the characteristic volatility of human existence and the reassuring stability of divine immutability, Donne's conversion sermon succinctly encapsulates the paradox of conversion that lies at the heart of my analysis. While a Christian listener would have certainly desired a conversionary experience like the paradigmatic event that turned Saul the Pharisee into Paul the Apostle, he or she would have also no doubt worried that such a dramatic change, "from extreame to extreame," was not the final word. "High as well as low will change," Donne reminds his congregation. Those not yet saved might hope for the salvation offered by conversion, but the conversion preached especially in the Protestant churches required constant vigilance and self-examination, never offering the absolute certainty so many ostensible converts craved. By exposing the often implicit yoking of the Jewish convert to the master trope of conversion, I argue that these fictions of conversion attest to a fraught intermingling of anxieties about, and expectations for, change that permeates early modern English culture.
Written long before he took on the position of dean at St. Paul's, where he delivered his sermon on Paul's conversion, Donne's "Satire III" can serve to illustrate the fraught tension between the affirming and threatening features of the cultures of change they seek to construct, even as it also provides an example of the unanticipated recourse to the Jew as a means for thinking through the dynamics of transformation. "Of Religion," as it is titled in the manuscript, presents a speaker torn between "kind pity" and "brave scorn" as he meditates on the devotional demands of "our mistress fair religion." Donne wonders whether and how religion might achieve the same commitment that "virtue" had earned in the "first blinded age," the pre-Christian era when men were inspired to heroic acts in pursuit of "earth's honor" (9). Writing at a transitional moment in his life, poised between the Catholicism of his youth and the Anglicanism of his later adulthood and clerical calling, the poet expresses dismay over the risks young men like himself are prepared to take for the sake of adventure and valor. He ticks off a list of hazards an intrepid soldier of fortune might encounter in such efforts; the sequence begins with a series of dangers associated with military activities, mercantile escapades, and geographic explorations:
Dar'st thou aid mutinous Dutch, and dar'st thou layDrawing upon the paradoxes and juxtapositions Donne uses so effectively in his other lyrics, the lines brilliantly undermine the very vitality they seem to admire, placing the daring sailors in ships that are already sepulchers, watery tombs; the men give over their courageous lives to the "dungeons of the earth." And just a few lines later the poet invokes the conventions of the love poem (where such paradoxes and inversions are his stock-in-trade), as he mocks the hyper-masculinity of the Petrarchan lover who must insist on the superiority of his beloved over all others: "and must every he / Which cries not, 'Goddess!' to thy mistress, draw, / Or eat thy poisonous words?" (ll. 26-28). But between these two kinds of excessive (and implicitly misplaced) valor, of the adventurer and of the lover, Donne interposes a very different cluster of examples:
Thee in ships' wooden sepulchers, a prey
To leaders' rage, to storms, to shot, to dearth?
Dar'st thou dive seas, and dungeons of the earth?
Has thou courageous fire to thaw the ice
Of frozen north discoveries?
and thriceThese are obscure lines, intervening between two far more common expressions of virility and conquest. For if the framing passages speak to a kind of masculine virtue defined by the conventional notions of military prowess or erotic insistence, these intervening examples come from an entirely distinct realm, the world of religious conflict and forced confessional choices. The heat of these lines is the heat of religious oppression as it tests the mettle of the faithful, whether they be Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, the companions of Daniel thrown into the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3, or the victims of the Spanish Inquisition suffering public immolation at an auto da fé. What's more, in describing countries like Spain, which epitomize religious oppression, as "limbecks to our bodies" (25), Donne deploys an alchemical image that calls upon its associations with religious conversion—a point that is of central concern below, in Chapter 4—while undermining those very associations, insofar as the transformations are specifically of bodies and not souls.
Colder than salamanders, like divine
Children in th'oven, fires of Spain, and the line,
Whose countries limbecks to our bodies be,
Canst thou for gain bear?
Although the first portion of Donne's poem (through l. 42) sets out to distinguish between an improper devotion to worldly matters, which will "wither away and pass" (l. 36), and a more suitable commitment to "true religion" (l. 43), the lines that refer to the suffering endured by those who are oppressed for their religious beliefs, placed where they are in the poem between military and erotic defiance, appear to conflate these worldly kinds of commitment with those of the religious realm, rather than keeping them distinct (and evaluating their relative merits). Is the "gain" in question to be achieved in this world or the next? Religious choice in this poem seems to be a way to think about other, apparently more mundane choices, even as those other choices ostensibly contrast with the options of ecclesiastical affiliation. Indeed, the very soul that ought to be the true object and subject of religious devotion becomes in this poem a means to experience physical pleasure in the world, as the poet laments how "thy fair goodly soul, which doth / Give this flesh power to taste joy, thou dost loathe" (ll. 41-42). As is so often the case in Donne's poetry, from the erotic Songs and Sonnets to the devotional Divine Poems, the conventional language and imagery of these two seemingly disparate realms converge, overlap, define, and sometimes contradict each other. Holy Sonnet 18, for example, famously takes up a question similar to the shaping dilemma of "Satire III"—how to identify to the true church—drawing on the erotic language of Song of Songs as it asks, "Show me dear Christ, thy spouse . . . / Betray kind husband thy spouse to our sights, / And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove..." (ll. 1, 11-12). The paradox of openness and fidelity upon which the sonnet is built depends upon the conflation of the erotic and the religious, the secular and the spiritual. More specifically, what should be perceived as a sign of fickleness and adulterous infidelity within one context (the erotic) becomes the sign of sincerity and faithfulness, indeed a means of confirmation, in another (the religious or ecclesiastical). Christ's spouse, the true church, reveals its identity by virtue of its attraction of new lovers, those who turn to it in an erotically charged act of conversion.
The call in "Satire III" to "seek true religion," which deploys this same potentially paradoxical convergence of the erotic and the religious, presumes an understanding of ecclesiastical commitment as a choice to be made from an array of possibilities. The poem not only raises the question of religious commitment in the abstract, it defines religion precisely as a choice to be made among a range of competing options. After considering with dissatisfaction five different alternatives—Mirreus's Catholic Rome, Crant's Protestant Geneva, Graius's Anglican England, Phrygius's rejection of all confessional affiliations, and Gracchus's embrace of all—the poet nevertheless insists, "Of force must one, and forced but one allow; / And the right" (ll. 70-71). The stakes are high, the compulsion to choose, and choose correctly, strong. The poem works toward a rejection of any one specific religious choice grounded in power and force, preferring instead a path that has a goal but no apparent end:
On a huge hill,Truth cannot be attained through a direct path, a straight line; its "suddenness," that is, the steep incline and rapid ascent one must overcome to reach it, resists such a direct assault. The goal, "Truth," can only be achieved through indirection, specifically, through turning and turning again in a potentially infinite process where the turning itself becomes prioritized. The image is of a switchback trail, a physical path for reducing the "suddenness" of ascent into smaller, incremental climbs; but turning is also at the heart of the term Donne would have used for a more directly religious model of spiritual choice, conversion. The image, in fact, calls to mind one of the most celebrated humanist conversion narratives, Petrarch's letter to Dionisio da Borgo about his ascent of the highest mountain in Provence, Mount Ventoux. In that letter, Petrarch wrote of his spiritual transformation in relation to the difficult experience of making the very steep climb. There, Petrarch's efforts (and he makes more than one) to minimize the rapid nature of the ascent—its suddenness—by finding a less steep path turn out to be wasteful and unsuccessful: "I had failed to find an easier path, and had only increased the distance and difficulty of the ascent." Petrarch learns from this experience, coupled with the fortuitous reading of select passages from Augustine's Confessions (specifically, Book 10, which recounts Augustine's own conversion), that he must take a far more direct path to virtue and God's love. "Thou must perforce either climb the steeper path, under the burden of tasks foolishly deferred, to its blessed culmination," Petrarch writes, "or lie down in the valley of thy sins." Donne, however, uses the image of the severe ascent to the summit of Truth to derive a very different insight. His poem offers a knowing account of the confessional alternatives in early modern England, the competing claims they make for authority: "Is not this excuse for mere contraries / Equally strong; cannot both sides say so?" (ll. 98-99). And within this context of competing alternatives, "Satire III" embraces the transformative possibilities, the recursive turnings "about . . . and about," of conversion. Donne's promotion of conversion is not a function of its power to transform conclusively. Petrarch may have felt the need to commiserate "the universal instability of human conduct." But the changes and turns that Donne's poem validates offer a value in and of themselves, exclusive of where those turns appear to lead.
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go;
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.
(ll. 79-82, emphasis added)
Read as a fiction of conversion, Donne's "Satire III" also points to the linchpin of this book's argument, that the figure of the Jew is the embodiment of both the promise and the peril of change. If the poem's concern is with the possibilities and efficacy of conversion, then its reference to the Spanish Inquisition and to all that an ecclesio-juridical procedure suggests about the potential inauthenticity of Jewish conversion threatens to call into question these religious transformations. The poem seems, momentarily at least, to invite an identification between the converso targets of Spanish religious oppression and the speaker's other figures of courage and defiance. Readers of Donne's poetry will remember another moment of ambivalent identification with Jews, indeed, an out-Jewing of the Jews, in Holy Sonnet 11. That poem begins with an astonishing identification between its speaker and Jesus at it calls upon the conventional associations with Jewish perfidy in their rejection of Christ—"Spit on my face ye Jews." But quickly, and just as astonishingly, the speaker's orientation turns away from this imitatio Christi to an over-identification with Christ's oppressors, as he "pass[es] the Jews' impiety" in his crucifying of Christ daily, a function of his own sinful quotidian life. The converso and the Jew are, for Donne, certainly hazardous figures of treachery. The very hazards they figure, however, present compelling opportunities for adaptation and development.
This book's early chapters focus on the convergence of English writings on religious conversion and the Jewish question, using it as a means to study other features of English culture. My argument in the later chapters draws out the implications of this convergence by proposing that English cultural expression is permeated by what I am calling fictions of conversion. Conversion is not only the means through which to understand the fitful development of English religious history. Indeed, I argue that conversion does not merely function as a figure for change; rather, these fictions of conversion serve as a nexus for the negotiation of various kinds of change, often in conflict with one another. Conversion becomes a means through which other technologies of transformation—translation, alchemy, and enthusiasm—are figured during the period under consideration, roughly 1575 to 1675. My analyses in the chapters that follow are greatly indebted to the important studies that have appeared in recent years reasserting the importance of religion to the understanding of early modern culture. In particular, I have drawn on the insights of critics like Jonathan Burton, Nabil Matar, Molly Murray, Michael Questier, and Daniel Vitkus, who have all written on features of religious conversion in early modern England. The "Jewish Question" in early modern England has also received crucial attention in the past two or three decades; I have learned much from the important work of Janet Adelman, David Katz, Michael Ragussis, Jason Rosenblatt, and James Shapiro, among others. As in Donne's "Satire III," where religion is both distinguished from and the discursive framework for other features of lived experience, conversion provides a dynamic language for a period of dynamic and unpredictable change that extends beyond the shifting fortunes of competing churches. Situated at the hinge point of change, the converted Jew repeatedly surfaces as a particularly apt figure for the fraught tension between old and new, continuity and rupture, that is at the center of early modern English cultures of change. Cypher for and catalyst of change, the converso/Jew functions as the paradigmatic fiction of conversion.
Chapter 1 examines some of the key features of English writings on religious conversion. After a brief overview of the early models of Christian conversion, beginning with Paul and Augustine, I turn to early Reformation discussions of the processes and effects of conversion. In the writings of Luther and Calvin, and particularly in the ways in which their early writings shaped English Protestant "morphologies of conversion," it is apparent that conversion is defined precisely by its incomplete, ongoing nature. The recursive, fitful progress of this "evangelical" formulation of conversion was consistent with—may even be partly attributed to—what I have already characterized as the peripatetic path of the English Church. Such ecclesiastical turns and the laws used to enforce them created the conditions under which questions of authenticity and counterfeiting became a central feature of English fictions of conversion. The second half of this chapter reads a range of writings about conversion and confessional difference from the period, by figures including John Foxe, Thomas Cooper, and Daniel Featley, for the ways in which such texts assimilate—and convert—a language of authentic and inauthentic religious transformation taken from the discourse of Judaism and marranism. By exposing this important conjunction between English ecclesiastical and evangelical conversion on the one hand and Jewish conversion on the other, I establish a key premise of the remaining chapters of the book, that is, that the figure of the Jew-as-convert/Jew-as-converter generates the other English fictions of conversion I take up, even those technologies of transformation that are not ostensibly about religious change.
As with every other feature of religious life, English Protestants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries looked to the Bible for precedents in their writings about conversion. While the New Testament may be said to describe explicit examples of conversion—Paul's, most notably—the Old Testament's precedents were not so immediately apparent. There were, nevertheless, a number of examples drawn from the Old Testament to which early modern English divines turned. In Chapter 2, I examine exegetical and sermonic literature on the four most commonly cited Old Testament converts, Jethro, Rahab, Ruth, and Naaman. Insofar as the relationship between the Old and New Testaments was, itself, characterized in the language of conversion, and inasmuch as this transformation was grounded, especially for early modern Protestants, in an exegetical hermeneutics that revised earlier notions of allegory, this chapter is especially concerned with the function of typology as a means for integrating historical and allegorical interpretations of Scripture. Given Rahab's and Ruth's (material, maternal) positions within Christ's genealogy (as recounted in Matthew and Luke), my analysis reveals how the "conversions" of these two Gentile women function far more ambivalently as displacements of Israel-of-the-flesh by Israel-of-the-spirit than do the conversions of their male Gentile counterparts, Jethro and Naaman. Whereas readings of Rahab and Ruth are especially concerned with delineating the boundaries between Jew and Gentile, accounts of Jethro and Naaman address themselves more frequently to political and juridical questions, implicitly defining English identity along national and institutional lines.
Having focused specifically on matters of religious conversion in these first two chapters, the next three chapters turn to other fictions of conversion, following a rough chronological order, to investigate the cultural anxieties and expectations associated with the rapid religious, economic, social, and political changes occurring in England.
Taking as its subject the work of translation as an especially prominent and influential technology of transformation in the period, Chapter 3 considers the nearly concurrent appearance of seminal texts that were converted from their original, ancient languages to the idiom and culture of early modern England, the King James Version of the Bible (1611) and Chapman's complete translation of Homer's Iliad (1611) and Odyssey (1614). My analysis opens with an examination of the complex transmission and evolution of the terms used to refer to "conversion," from their earliest iterations in the Hebrew Bible, through the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, and several medieval and early modern English versions, up until the King James Bible. Beginning in Hebrew as a means for depicting recovery and return, the terms deployed in different languages gradually accumulated connotative associations, suggesting completion and innovation that are intimately tied to the shift implied in the transformation of the Hebrew Bible into the Old Testament and, more generally, of the particularized idea of Israelite identity and practice into the universalism of Pauline Christianity. In noting the changes of denotation and connotation that accompany the translation from one language to another, I argue that linguistic translation functions as a fiction of conversion. Following this preliminary meditation on the relationship between translation and religious change, I turn my attention to the status of names in translation, particularly when the names, like Isaac or Odysseus, have meanings of significance to the narratives but also serve to represent some kind of irreducible identity. To what extent do the King James Bible and Chapman's Homer carry over (trans latio) the task of translation to names, and what does it mean to translate a name? The very notion that translation is possible suggests the erasure of—or at the very least, the insignificance assigned to—the cultural, semiotic, and even epistemological differences that distinguish one language from another. Translations depend upon the prioritizing of some core meaning, a transcendental signified, that is not bound to the particularities of the language in which a text has been written. Names function preeminently to signal particularity and difference, to formulate an identity against generic homogeneity. Challenges pertaining to translation are thus particularly heightened and exaggerated at moments of naming.
If the analysis of translation as a fiction of conversion reveals how language both transforms and is transformed in the process, the same may be said about the technology of transformation to which I turn in the following chapter, alchemy. Chapter 4 examines the striking resurgence of interest in alchemy at nearly the same time as the emergence—and often in the work of the same proponents—of the new science. Alchemy is, of course, best known as a technique for transmuting base metal into gold, refining matter into quintessence (the fifth element, surpassing air, fire, water, and earth). But early modern alchemists repeatedly insisted upon the self-reflexive nature of their procedures. In producing the elixir, the philosopher's stone, through an esoteric process of transmutation, the alchemist was also producing an agent of further changes and, perhaps most important, effecting his own transformation, his own conversion. In light of alchemy's inherently transformative and potentially destabilizing qualities, then, I am particularly concerned in this chapter with how alchemy was understood as a "Jewish" science in the period and served to figure the disruptive effects of conversion. The burgeoning interest in alchemy (and the corresponding proliferation of alchemical skeptics) coincided with the flourishing of a variety of millennial and eschatological writings, many of which held as one of their primary expectations the conversion, en masse, of Jews. When alchemy was linked to Jews and Judaism during the early modern period, to the advantage and/or detriment of both, the transformational potentials of alchemy were often conflated with the proselytizing impulses that so often characterized the early modern English encounter with Jews. I use alchemy's fictions of conversion as a means to read the relationship between Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, and conclude the chapter with an analysis of the alchemical imagery in Henry Vaughan's poetry in relation to mid-seventeenth-century millenarian expectations for Jewish conversion.
In my fifth and final chapter, I bring into the foreground some of the questions that have remained implicit throughout the earlier chapters. I have suggested that at the heart of these discourses of transformation is the destabilizing question of authenticity. When conversion is said to have transpired, how can one be certain that the transformation is complete, reliable, or stable? Has the transformation genuinely captured and changed the essence of the pre-conversion person, text, or object? And if so, to what extent can such a transformation properly be said to have worked upon a person, text, or object whose irreducible identity has been preserved? Is the fiction of conversion the constructed and contrived nature of the transformation or the fictive assertion of continuous identity, or even identity itself? Chapter 5 focuses on mid- and late seventeenth-century English writings that raise the matter of an interior, irreducible self more explicitly and problematically than any of the material in the preceding chapters. If the early modern discourses of conversion betray an anxious uncertainty about the authenticity of religious transformation, then the phenomenon of enthusiasm, direct divine inspiration, which was an extreme outgrowth of the reforming movements that frame my analysis of conversion, makes these anxieties explicit. Even the most vehement critics of religious enthusiasm found it difficult to dismiss these claims and the calls to religious change with which they were typically combined, for they understood that to do so would be to undermine the bedrock premise of a revealed religion like Christianity. Yet such claims also threatened to disrupt emerging notions of national coherence and identity because they pitted these fictions of individual conversion against the imagined communities that were taking shape amidst the tumult of the English Civil Wars, Interregnum, and Restoration. As a final literary test case, I read the lively mid-seventeenth-century debates about enthusiasm in juxtaposition with John Milton's four-book epic, Paradise Regained, which I examine in the context of Milton's fraught identification with groups like the Quakers, Ranters, and Fifth Monarchists (to name only the most notorious of many radical groups from the period). Milton's final poem, about a savior who must come to know what his very identity as such means, raises particular concerns about verifying the unverifiable. In one final take on the Jewish question, Paradise Regained may be said to depict the conversion of Jewish messianic expectations (a timely question, indeed, in the context of the Sabbatean movement that took Europe by storm in the late 1660s) into Miltonic Christianity's anxious reimaging of the nature of salvation.