The Medieval Review 10.03.28

Vose, Robin. Dominicans, Muslims, and Jews in the Medieval Crown of Aragon. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 294. $99 ISBN 978-0-521-88643-7. .

Reviewed by:

Thomas W. Barton
University of San Diego

Many budding medievalists have dreams of becoming the next Sir Richard Southern reversing generations of scholarship by debunking the "School of Chartres" myth. Like this once-famed intellectual center, the notion that Christendom increasingly over the high and late Middle Ages targeted non-Christians for conversion (often referred to as the "Dream of Conversion," following a well-known article by the late R.I. Burns) has long been integral to the traditional picture of Christian/non-Christian relations. Sketched very briefly, this narrative has rising intolerance and concern about the presence of non-Christians, at home and abroad, fueling optimistic missionary efforts championed by the mendicant friars and promoted by monarchs, prelates and pontiffs alike aiming to convert the remaining world (sometimes paired with apocalypticism). The mixed success of these campaigns ushered in an era of increasing frustration with the mission's prospects that--combined with an irrational fear or even dehumanization of non-Christians, particularly Jews (encouraged by stories of subversion such as host desecration and ritual murder)-- helped spark outbursts of violence and forced conversion. This growing incompatibility of coexistence with the direction of development of Latin Christian culture encouraged mass expulsions of Jews and other groups. This traditional picture has persisted not only because it escaped systematic scrutiny but also because it is so comfortably intuitive to modern eyes, especially those seeking the origins of modern proselytizing and persecution.

Over the past several decades, however, meticulously researched archival projects (predominately focused on case studies in Iberia) have been presenting data incompatible with this received view. For example, in a series of path-breaking studies (The Muslims of Valencia and his volumes on the Jews of Morvedre), Mark Meyerson has been able to show how certain Muslim and Jews communities in Valencia were living in sustainable harmony before and even following episodes of mass conversion, such as 1391 for the Jews. He has argued convincingly that what motivated the eventual expulsions were concerns about the purity of the Christian community, which, thanks to forced baptisms, contained large numbers of unwilling conversos inclined to practice crypto-Judaism or Islam. David Nirenberg's now famous Communities of Violence made one of the most important methodological reappraisals, revealing how certain elements of fourteenth-century violence against non-Christians long viewed as a symptom of the breakdown of coexistence in fact sustained it by reinforcing the boundaries between the religious communities. Christian-ruled society as a whole has emerged from such work appearing more invested in the presence of non-Christian groups, so long as they respected Christianity's place at the top of the socio- religious hierarchy, and consequently less interested in seeking to erode or destroy religious difference. Syntheses such as Elukin's Living Together, Living Apart have deemphasized persecution and missionary activity afflicting non-Christians and sought to portray this sustainable coexistence as applicable to all of Christendom rather than simply exceptional regions like Iberia.

In hindsight, given this growing challenge to the traditional narrative, the role of the friars (particularly the Order of Preachers) in support of this alleged thirteenth-century Dream of Conversion now seems an obvious next element to be subjected to scrutiny and potentially deflated. Even those more recent scholars who supported the idea of mendicant missionizing in the Mediterranean, such as Burns, were not under any delusion that these alleged efforts yielded many converts. The hard part, of course, was to realize this opportunity, find the data (no easy feat given the fragmentary state of the Dominican archives), and engineer the study accomplish it. And this is what Robin Vose has done, systematically and often elegantly, with Dominicans, Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Crown of Aragon, confirming, in a thorough and exceedingly convincing presentation, that the friars were primarily concerned with correcting error amongst the already converted rather than bringing non- Christians into the fold. His resulting picture is compatible with the aforementioned revisionist works that had already mapped out how a range of authorities, ecclesiastical and lay, were primarily interested in maintaining the purity and integrity of the Christian community, less concerned with missionizing among non-Christian groups, and thereby less innately hostile to convivencia than has long been held by traditional scholarship.

Vose's work is distinguished by the fact that he not only offers a revisionist general history of friars immersed in the primary documentation in the course of developing his case study on the Crown of Aragon, but also searches for the origins of the myth in the history-writing conducted by the friars themselves (starting as early as the fourteenth century, but heavily influenced by Dominican historians working during the missionary project among the peoples of the New World). His introduction and first chapter represents a tour de force of historiographical reassessment, but he also elegantly maintains this engagement with traditional historiography on the friars throughout his study. Previous scholars have fallen prey to what Vose terms a "maximalist" interpretation of the evidence: using exceptional incidents of engagement with non-Christians or unique exponents of missionizing to construct a general narrative. Showing that these incidents were not in fact tips of icebergs does force Vose to make a fair number of arguments from silence, but these are supported by convincing reassessments of these exceptional leaders and moments to show that even they were less indicative of a missionary project. He is able to show how the Order's later efforts to establish their identity as a missionizing order misconstrued clear evidence that thirteenth-century Dominicans, from St. Dominic himself to Master General Humbert of Romans and Thomas Aquinas (reminding us that his Summa contra gentiles was more concerned about protecting the faith from infidel errors than promoting the missionary project and, accordingly, also carried the title De veritate fidei catholicae), had focused primarily on the Christian community and had not placed much stake or optimism in proselytizing amongst non- Christians at home or abroad. Furthermore, the impetus to expand missionary efforts emerged from other influences, such as conflicts with the secular clergy over pastoral care. Dominican thinking on missionizing was tempered by Paul's teachings ("For what have I to do with judging others ... But those who are outside, God judges"), which strongly suggested that conversion should be left to God alone. Rather than speaking in absolutes, Vose's work advances a nuanced sense of how different leading men within the Order considered or even sought to implement the objective of missionizing but then predominately moved away from it in prioritization of other goals. He paints a realistic and complex picture of the Order as a living and breathing institution whose identity and directives were in a state of flux as it grew over the course of the thirteenth century.

The study then shifts to focus its attention primarily on the case of the Crown of Aragon. In spite of very sparse records, Vose is able to trace in considerable detail the Order's establishment and development within the kingdom. Especially notable is his treatment of the Dominicans' curriculum, demonstrating clearly that language study for the purpose of missionizing amongst non-Christians was a subject of controversy among the Dominican leadership and accordingly affected only a small subset of the Order's brethren. Again, his discussion is focused on writing a history based on the primary documentation, yet never drops its dialogue with the flawed historiography. Vose shows how scholars have tended to lump Arabic and Hebrew language schools together, generating an inflated sense of the Dominican mission amongst the Jews. At times, the author exhibits marvelous ingenuity in the face of limited evidence: for example, he finds support for his argument that language study did not preoccupy the Order as much as has been believed in later catalogs of medieval manuscripts on Arabic and Hebrew from convents in Mallorca and Barcelona.

With the general narrative of the Order's development thus reestablished, Vose then turns to reassessing the true motives behind moments in history of the Crown of Aragon and its Mediterranean interactions that have been instrumental in the maximalist approach. His chapter on teaching orthodoxy sheds new light on the much-studied Barcelona Disputation of 1263, showing it to be exceptional and with little lasting impact on either the friars or subsequent royal policy. In considering the goal of combating error, Vose examines mixed evidence that the friars did seek to censor certain Jewish writings and prosecute blasphemy or the promotion of apostasy from Christianity by non-Christians, but reveals that these efforts, when they did occur, were almost always linked to a concern about protecting the Christian faithful rather than effecting conversions. Finally, shifting to the Order's call to spread the Gospel, he shows that evidence of sustained missionizing at home and abroad is equally scarce, with the friars devoting attention primarily to Christians living under Muslim rule (slaves, mercenaries, merchants, etc.). In a final piece of historiographical sleuthing, Vose concludes with a chapter debunking an analog to the "School of Chartres," the so-called "Tunis school" (embraced by such formidable names as Dufourcq), purportedly responsible for maintaining the Dominican mission among the Muslims of the Mediterranean. While elegantly rendered and germane to the book's argument, this last chapter did feel somewhat detached from the rest of the study and perhaps would have been more effective had it been integrated into the earlier chapters somehow. This is one of a small handful of moments where the study's earlier incarnation as a dissertation shines through. Throughout this second half of the book, then, the author continues to hammer nail after nail into the coffin of the thirteenth-century Dream of Conversion championed by the Dominican Order.

Vose perhaps could have sung his work's own praises more in the introduction by being clearer about the central importance of the project's argument given the emergence of recent revisionist studies (explaining more fully the historiography of coexistence in general alongside the present extended on historiography on the friars). He leaves some brief observations to the conclusion, but they are somewhat overshadowed by his look ahead to limpieza de sangre statutes and the missionary projects in the New World. But it is hardly a flaw to leave it to others to ponder the broader implications of one's own work.

Thoroughly researched, elegantly written, and clearly organized, this is a formidable revisionist history of the Dominican Order's involvement with non-Christians, grounded in detailed local evidence yet with clear implications for the wider medieval world. Dominicans, Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Crown of Aragon will become essential reading on the Dominicans and coexistence for Hispanists and medievalists alike.