Conversion in the medieval and early modern periods, as scholars have increasingly been inclined to demonstrate, was neither an absolute rupture from the host community nor an irreversible marker of one's identity. In this slender book, Paola Tartakoff marshals precious documentary evidence in support of this perspective while making a productive contribution to the related fields of medieval Jewish- Christian relations, inquisition studies, and conversion. Drawing from a little-known set of inquisitorial records in the seemingly inexhaustible royal and cathedral archives of Barcelona, she undertakes an examination of Jewish converts to Christianity in the century and a half prior to the massacres and forced conversions of 1391, a date that has received great scrutiny in recent years by historians of violence and persecution. Indeed, it is in view of the attention given to the more heavily documented later examples of mass conversion that Tartakoff has decided to confine herself to the pre- massacre period when the situation for converts was more fluid and less overtly violent; in her words, "paradoxical."
Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Christians were increasingly enamored by the idea of winning over Jewish souls, yet many Christians were disdainful if not outright skeptical of the motivations that led Jews to convert in the first place. At the same time, some Jews, sensing royal and inquisitorial pressures, were eager to bring apostates back to Judaism. What, therefore, might the experience have been to be a convert operating between these competing and sometimes hostile worlds? Tartakoff has identified a protagonist to tell this story of shifting relations between communities and institutions: his name is Alatzar (Eleazar) and he was born to a Jewish family in the Aragonese town of Calatayud. He converted, for reasons that remain uncertain, in December 1340 in the Catalan town of Sant Pere de Riudebitlles, taking on the new name Pere (Peter) following his baptism. Within a month, Pere returned to his native town and was seized by the local Jewish community, who ostensibly convinced him to court death at the stake by publicly denouncing Christianity. He might well have died, bound and tied to the pyre as he was, had it not been for the last minute intervention of the local Dominican prior who arrived on the scene and ordered his release, just as the flames were lapping at his feet. This, at any rate, is the story Pere told a hastily assembled inquisitorial tribunal in the Dominican monastery in Calatayud where he was taken and questioned, the convent itself rather coincidentally (?) named Sant Pere Martir.
The story of Alatzar/Pere's religious peregrinations, the Jewish conspirators he names in his depositions, and the resulting sentences that were meted out to all the parties concerned unfold over the course of six relatively brief chapters arranged into three parts. Part I, "Before the Tribunal," explores the inquisitorial prosecution of Jews and converts as an arena of Jewish-Christian conflict in the medieval Crown of Aragon. This includes a very valuable discussion of the paradox inherent in the Dominican prosecution of a subject population that the kings of Aragon insisted was theirs alone to judge. Part II, "At the Font of New Life," examines the lives of Jewish converts who lived in the Crown of Aragon before 1391: their backgrounds, their motivations for converting, and their experiences following baptism. Drawing on a range of Christian and Jewish writings, Tartakoff concludes that the majority of converts during this period turned to baptism in order to escape personal difficulties, such as poverty, conflict with other Jews, and unhappy marriages. Part III, "By the Fire," turns to Jewish antagonism towards apostates, looking at how Jews deliberately harmed converts by disinheriting and taunting them, denouncing them to Christian authorities, and in other cases tried to bring them back to Judaism. The three parts are each bracketed by short interludes that summarize Pere's inquisition and trial, and probe intelligently into the nature of a convert's identity.
The upshot of this book's somewhat peculiar structure is that Pere's journey is embedded within a broader canvass of other known converts, inquisitors, and accusers. His story emerges as both remarkable (it is in fact one of the earliest known instances of Jews supplying testimony to inquisitors) and unremarkable because Jewish converts were a not insignificant population that straddled communities and interacted daily with all members of society. The rich documentation unearthed by Tartakoff illustrates this powerfully. The downside is that the important roles played by Pere's accused (the Almulis and Jucef de Quatorze) become slightly entangled within a myriad number of other names and events, making these crucial elements of the unfolding story somewhat difficult to follow. Many of the names are understandably, but frustratingly similar: the index lists eleven additional Jucefs, fourteen different Isaacs, and twenty-three holders of the name Joan. An appendix of known or presumed converts would have helped, especially as most appear in the text only in passing.
The most challenging part of this book concerns the very reliability of the inquisitorial records, which are often fragmentary, given under considerable duress, and replete with mutually contradictory claims and counter-claims that are not easily resolved. Tartakoff is of course well aware of these perennial interpretational problems but seems largely unwilling, perhaps out of extreme caution, to offer any new solutions or methodology to cope with these challenges. It is not always clear which testimonies are valid and informative and which ones reflect the imagination of the inquisitors, both of which she accepts as likely occurrences. Part III, which presents the culminating verdicts of the various proceedings, thus concludes rather anticlimactically with a truism: "As fact, fabrication, or a combination of the two, the charges that Pere and the Navarros leveled against the Almulis and Jucef de Quatorze stand as striking evidence of the vigor of mutual hostility between Christians and Jews in the Crown of Aragon" (131). But surely this was the premise for the study in the first place. Many of the testimonies summoned on the pages of this book, rich and provocative as they are, cry out for greater reflection.
The compact size of this book poses a final challenge. At just over two hundred pages (bibliography, notes, and index included), Between Conversion and Jew is more than a micro-history of the trial of Alatzar/Pere, which it might have been had the focus been exclusively on Alatzar/Pere's negotiations between communities, but it is also something less than a full study of pre-1391 conversions promised in the subtitle and introduction of the book. The trial of Pere and his accused took place over the course of twenty months between 1341 and 1342, and many if not most of the other examples concern the second and third quarters of the fourteenth century. These complaints aside, Between Conversion and Jew provides a valuable addition to an important and expanding field of contemporary scholarship. A paperback version of the book would facilitate its integration into graduate classes, where the content and nature of these inquisitorial accounts could continue to be discussed and debated.