Clerical Conversion to Judaism in England 1190-1290: Attitudes, Responses, and Reactions
33 Pages Posted: 14 Sep 2019
Date Written: May 2, 2016
Religious conversion between Christianity and Judaism, in medieval Western Europe was overwhelmingly a one way street, as the Church both actively sought converts, and forbade conversion to Judaism. Jewish proselytisation was "essentially nonexistent", but was still harshly condemned and discouraged. Yet, conversion to Judaism not only occurred in the medieval period, but it did so, with surprising frequency. Even more surprisingly, conversions were particularly frequent amongst the population ostensibly most opposed to heresy: the clergy! In England during the period roughly stretching from 1190-1290, bounded by the York Massacre and the expulsion of the Jews, we have records of 6 clerical conversions to Judaism.
This paper is concerned primarily with the attitudes, reactions, and depictions of these clerical conversions, rather than the conversions themselves, for several reasons. For a start, Christian and Jewish sources were both reticent to record conversions--- Christians because of the embarrassment involved, and Jews because harboring a convert could bring death to the community, and Christians monitored Jewish chronicles. Using the evidence of these reactions, I that these conversions created enormous and profound questions for the English establishment. They undermined the central claims of the Church regarding the truth of Christian doctrine, and represented enormous embarrassment. As the period discussed here went on, laws against Jewish-Christian intercourse became more strict, and existing rules against interaction with Jews were more harshly enforced. This shows that the English church and state were keenly aware that Judaism had an appeal, particularly for the clerics. As the preachers, supposed to win over the Jews, were increasingly won over, the very presence of the Jews in England inspired more and more fear. Even though there were numerically few conversions to Judaism, each cleric defecting brought on profound existential questions, as well as compounded worries over apostasy, and, I ultimately argue, contributed, in part, to the Expulsion.
Keywords: history,british history, jewish history, history of religion, english history, history of england, religious studies, sociology of religion, ecclesiastical history
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