95.04.02, Morrison, Understanding Conversion

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John V. Tolan

The Medieval Review baj9928.9504.002


Morrison, Karl F.. Understanding Conversion. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992. Pp. xxvi + 246. ISBN: 0813913608..

Reviewed by:
John V. Tolan
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

The project of Karl Morrison's Understanding Conversion is encapsulated in its title: it is to understand both the term conversio and (to the extent possible) the phenomenon called "conversion" by Western Christians—in particular, by authors of the twelfth century.

Why conversion? Because, for Morrison, "the repertory of changes called conversion has kept the call for moral change dominant and relentless in Western culture, and thus one of the most decisive norms according to which the West has thought about and shaped itself" (p.xii). He contrasts Christian notions of conversion with those of other world religions (in particular Islam and Buddhism) and finds the Christian concept unique in its incessant call for personal moral renewal. While he looks at conversion in its various permutations from antiquity to the twentieth century, the focus is on the twelfth century.

Why the twelfth century? Because of his conviction that "powerful lines of intellectual and spiritual continuity bind us to the Europe of Mont-St.-Michel and Chartres, lines more powerful, indeed, than those to the classical world" (p.2). The idea of conversion received its fullest and richest expression in the twelfth century and that idea shaped western concepts of ethics and psychology.

Throughout, Morrison is cautious and meticulous in his definition and use of the terminology employed by the authors whose work he analyzes. "Conversion" had a long history before the twelfth century, indeed multiple histories, and Morrison unpacks and disentangles them carefully. Conversion is a metaphor, borrowed from the mechanical arts: it referred, for example, to the transformation of tin and copper into bronze. As a metaphor used by classical pagan and Christian authors, its connotations were many: for example, cosmic egress and regress for the Neoplatonists; changing of religious allegiances from paganism (or Judaism, Islam, or Christian heresy) to Catholic Christianity; rejecting the world to lead the life of a hermit or monk; transformation of man (God's likeness polluted through the fall) through redemption into a true image of God. This attention to the polyvalence of "conversion" makes Morrison's subject both broader and richer than what many earlier scholars have referred to as "conversion."

At this point Morrison skillfully attacks earlier scholarly definitions of conversion, in particular that of Arthur Darby Nock, whose view Morrison calls the "peripety" theory of conversion. For Nock, conversion was a transformative event, a swift, dramatic and permanent change of religious allegiance: the best-known examples of this sort of conversion were Saul's transformation into Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9.17) and Augustine's (in the garden in Milan, described in Confessions, book 8). Morrison counters that conversion, for medieval authors, is a gradual transformation, a turning towards God. Nock and others have misread the stories of Saul/Paul and Augustine. Saul did not CONVERT on the road to Damascus, he was only CALLED; he only understood the importance of his mission after Ananias explained it to him and after exile in Arabia; his true conversion was a gradual turning towards Christ in love by imitating him and culminated in his receiving the reward of martyrdom. Similarly, most scholars have focused on Augustine's calling in the garden and ignored the descriptions of his continuing temptations and tribulations in books 10-13 Confessions: for Augustine, his "conversion" to God was anything but complete.

This kind of conversion then—which Morrison terms "empathetic conversion"—was a gradual transformation. It is distinct from "formal conversion" which is a change of religious status and affiliation: either of a non-Christian to Christianity (conversion away from Christianity was termed apostasy rather than conversion) or of a layman to the life and habit of a monk. Formal conversion, unlike empathetic conversion, could be false, hypocritical. Even if sincere, it was merely a step in the long transformative process of empathetic conversion, a process that could be broken or abandoned at any stage along the way.

This notion of conversion is tangled up with several paradoxes involving theodicy and free will. Is true conversion (and hence salvation) a gift of grace from God, or can it be willed by man? The convert, imitating Christ, is portrayed as spurned and abused by the his fellow, poor and tortured like Christ himself, dead to the world. This sort of suffering can lead to reaffirmation of one's role as conversus, or it can on the contrary lead to doubt and wavering. Hence narrations of conversion contain visions and miracles which are meant to reassure the conversus and strengthen his resolve (and of course to prove his sanctity to the reader); these visions are interspersed with long periods of suffering and doubt, meant to test the convert's conviction and endurance. Rather than solve these theodical paradoxes, these narratives tend to enforce them, to revel in them.

The stories of conversion, Morrison repeatedly emphasizes, are fictive: they describe not the phenomenon of conversion itself but rather how twelfth century authors explained and understood that phenomenon. The texts, moreover, provided role models for action in the world: they described actors in the divine drama who were meant to be emulated. Missionaries (to pagans of the Baltic, to Jews, or to Muslims) modeled their behavior on that of the apostles and of early medieval missionaries (as their lives were known to the twelfth century through text and art). Their chief concern, as reflected in their biographies, was less to convert infidels than to perfect their own conversion through their steadfastness and, if possible, through winning the crown of martyrdom. They were players reenacting a sacred drama, and they were admired for their ability to courageously and nobly play their role through to the bitter end.

This leads Morrison into another paradox: noble humility, the subject of his sixth chapter. The idea of conversion is essentially subversive: the rich shall be poor, the poor rich; the meek shall inherit the earth. The ideal is an attack on the worldly hierarchies based on wealth, power, and birth. Monasticism becomes—another paradox—institutionalized conversion. Morrison shows that the ideals of nobility are taken over from the knightly class and—rather than being subverted—are transformed and reaffirmed. God's army, the conversi, endure suffering, hardships, and physical privations in their battle for their Lord. The weak and ignoble stumble and fail; the strong and noble succeed.

The twelfth century, with its preoccupation with ecclesiastical and monastic reform, and with the growing ideal of imitatio Christi, is for Morrison the golden age of empathetic conversion. We have already seen that monasticism embodies the paradox of institutionalized conversion: monastic tracts such as those of St. Bernard are road maps for the spiritual pilgrimage towards Christ. It is no accident that at the same time that reformers preach the duty for each individual Christian to abandon the world and follow Christ, Jews are increasingly reviled and attacked. Jews come to represent the absolute rejection of the call to empathetic conversion: they refuse to imitate Christ and they are increasingly accused of his murder. Jews are under increasing pressure to convert, and some of those who do convert (Hermann-Judah, Petrus Alfonsi) write tracts in order to show that their formal conversion to Christianity reflects a true (empathetic) conversion. By putting Christian- Jewish relations in the context of the conversion ideal he brings interesting new perspectives on the oft-debated issue of why anti-Judaism is on the rise in eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe. Surprisingly, Morrison has very little to say about that other great twelfth-century preoccupation, heresy, and ignores recent work on relations between reform and heresy in the twelfth century. It would have been interesting to see how he might fit heresy into his schema.

While the largest (and indeed strongest) sections of this book deal with twelfth-century Latin Europe, Morrison ranges far beyond, both chronologically and geographically. He needs to, of course, in order to support the major premise of his book: that the twelfth-century concept(s) of conversion changed the western categories of ethics and psychology. Earlier periods (especially Pagan Rome) are cited primarily to show discontinuity while the more recent periods in European and American thought are cited to show continuities with the twelfth century. The result is mixed: some striking insights come, for example, from his analysis of Simone Weil or James Joyce in the light of twelfth-century notions of conversion. In the context of this book such forays into more recent centuries are necessarily few and brief, and this inevitably lends a certain air of arbitrariness to them. The choice of texts reflects the authors own range of reading and interests rather than any systematic approach to post-medieval thought; the result is a series of striking parallels, but not a convincing argument. Morrison's footnotes are thick with references to the best recent scholarship as long as he is within the twelfth century, when he strays to other periods, references thin out: ironically he leans more on scholarship for his analyses of the period for which he is an unquestioned expert than for those outside the middle ages.

While some of his analyses of other periods yield unexpected gems, others fall flat. Let me look at one example in detail. His fourth chapter is about the concept of conscience (and a host of satellite concepts). Conscience as we know it, Morrison argues, is largely a product of the twelfth century. To prove this, of course, he has to show not only continuity between the twelfth century and later periods but a break with earlier periods—in particular, with pagan Rome. He argues that a "sea change in ideas of empathetic education" (p.119) took place between the writings of Catullus and Terence on the one hand, and Peter Damian and John of Salisbury on the other. His contrasting (at pp.100-101) of Catullus' Carmen 63 with a passage from Peter Damian's Liber Gomorrhianus attacking clerical homosexuality is one of the weakest of Morrison's juxtapositions. The two texts, extremely different in genre, purpose, and audience, both deal with the themes of emasculation and remorse. Morrison amply shows that Damian's text reflects a greater range of moral consciousness and subtlety than Catullus' poem. But what does this prove? No one in Rome in the first-century B.C. would have accused Catullus of being a subtle moral philosopher; on what grounds can Morrison invoke him as representative of pre- Christian Roman ethics? If we are to see the vocabulary of conscientia and related concepts as a crucial development of twelfth-century ethics, why does he not contrast this with an ethical lexicon taken from pagan Roman and Greek philosophers? In the notes to this chapter, Morrison cites not a single book of scholarship on the Roman period. I am not denying that Morrison's "sea change" may have indeed have taken place; but his presentation of the Roman ethical universe is too weak to give us a clear idea of what that change might have been.

I have similar reservations about some of his sweeping contrasts with the ethical systems of Islam and Buddhism. "To adhere to Islam," he says (p.6), "is 'to follow the right way,' meaning formal observance." There is indeed in Islam (as in Judaism and Christianity) a strong tradition emphasizing orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. Yet by equating Islam solely with formal observance is to ignore major themes in Islamic ethics and spirituality. The Qur'an is rife with condemnations of Munafiq, hypocrites: those who through their actions and words appear to be pious but in their hearts are not. While formal monasticism and an ordained clergy were indeed not part of Islam, the legal traditions and the mystical sufism of Islam certainly had complex and sophisticated ethical notions. If Morrsion wishes to contend that these notions are substantially different from twelfth-century conscientia (which they may well be), he will have to make a case for it.

These reservations in no way detract from the power and grace of the central focus of the book: the compelling nature of the doctrine of conversion in twelfth-century Latin Europe. Morrison ranges over a rich variety of Latin texts. His argument skillfully explains phenomena familiar to scholars of the twelfth century, undercovering interesting and unexpected connections between them (for example, the connection between monastic reform and anti-Judaism, discussed above). Anyone interested in the intellectual history of the twelfth century or in the history of ethics and religion will find this book fascinating and will come away with new insights.

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Author Biography

John V. Tolan

University of North Carolina at Greensboro