Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Convert’s Tale: A new study assesses the 12th-century memoir attributed to 'Herman the former Jew'

Sometime in the 12th century CE, at the monastery of Cappenberg in western Germany, a fascinating and enigmatic document was produced. Its Latin title, Opusculum de conversione sua, means “A Short Work About his Conversion,” and it is attributed to Hermannus quondam Judaeus—“Herman the former Jew.” What makes this work especially significant, writes Jean-Claude Schmitt in his newly translated study The Conversion of Herman the Jew: Autobiography, History, and Fiction in the Twelfth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press), is that it “is presented in a form that we today call an autobiography.” At a time when autobiographical writing was very rare, a memoir written in Latin by a Jew was unique.

For centuries, the Christian clerics and scholars who read Herman’s book took it at face value, as the confession of a Jew who learned to cast off the darkness and ignorance of Judaism and embrace the truth of Christianity. The Opusculum functioned, in other words, as a textual weapon in the fight against Judaism. Schmitt points out that the first printed edition of the work, in 1687, is included in an anthology of anti-Jewish polemics, whose frontispiece shows a dagger that “reaches out from a celestial cloud and threatens a terrified old rabbi.”

But in the last few decades, Schmitt shows, the Opusculum has become the subject of a new and intense debate. It began in 1988, when Avrom Saltman of Bar Ilan University published an article arguing that no such person as Herman the Jew ever existed. The text was, rather, a “work of fiction, an edifying autobiographical novel,” written by Christians for Christian audiences, in which a genuinely Jewish voice is never heard. This “radical position,” Schmitt sums up, “completely changed the terms of the historiographical debate,” and in the last 20 years medieval historians have argued over whether the Opusculum is fraudulent. If this debate is unusually heated, it is because, as Schmitt puts it, any opinion about the truth or falsehood of Herman’s account rests on “a critical question: could Jews in the past have abandoned the faith of their ancestors consciously and without the usual physical threat?”

Click here to read this article from The Tablet