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The Conversion of Herman the Jew: Autobiography, History and Fiction in the Twelfth Century, by Jean-Claude Schmitt, trans. Alex Novikoff. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. 303 pp. $59.95.
Alex Novikoff has produced an elegant and indeed exemplary translation of Jean-Claude Schmitt’s study of a now famous little text (Opusculum) purporting to be the description of a twelfth-century German Jew named Judah (or Judas) to Christianity and his spiritual journey to monkhood under the baptismal name Herman. Schmitt’s work appeared in French in 2003, but it will now receive a much wider readership—and deservedly so. Schmitt was in part responding to an article that questioned the authenticity of the text, that reduced it, if that is the word, to fiction. While being stimulated by the article and by the numerous responses to it defending the authenticity of the events the text described, Schmitt insisted that the question was poorly put. Herman is only known through the text and very few other memorials. We can never know, he repeatedly asserts, whether the events happened they way they are described or perhaps even happened at all. What we can do is situate the text in a set of contexts, and the effort at situating is what Schmitt does so well.
This being said, I must nevertheless go back to the so-called question mal posée. First, even though he deems it an inappropriate question, Schmitt, I think, hints more than once at his answer. He is to my mind more a skeptic than a believer (unlike myself, for instance). The very act of contextualizing, which to a great extent can be translated as finding analogs in other texts, suggests that Herman’s epistolary autobiography is so artful a construction that it almost begs the scholar, instantiated in Schmitt, to consider it a fiction. I am willing to be corrected in this perception. Explicitly, after all, Schmitt is merely agnostic on the authenticity question.
However, and as a second observation, Schmitt’s restatement of the question mal posée seems to me to be a tad tendentious or, rather, sets up a kind of straw man. When other scholars have argued for or accepted the authenticity of the events, they have not quite claimed what Schmitt asserts they claim. He writes that they have “wished to show that Judas/Herman ‘really’ existed, that he was the ‘author’ of his ‘autobiography’, in short, that things did happen the way the Opusculum says they did” (p. 194). Speaking for myself, I would demur as to “equating” (the real force of the phrase, “in short”) the belief in the real existence of Herman and his authorship with a naïve acceptance “that things did happen the way” the text describes them. The whole point of history-writing is to challenge the veracity of self-representation, whether it is in police records, travel accounts, or hagiographies. What those who affirm the authenticity of the text are really saying is that properly deconstructed it can tell us a great deal about the genuine experiences of a real Jew who became a sincere Christian in the twelfth century, one who obviously described his experiences and emotions consciously and/or unconsciously in ways that were intended to guide later readers and hearers’ understanding. In doing so, he—again consciously and/or unconsciously—employed an allusive style, utilizing tropes and topoi drawn from everything he, his circle(s), and his redactors knew.
And it is precisely on this point that Schmitt’s book is so helpful. One needs to know how authorship worked in the Middle Ages. Schmitt writes magisterially on the question, freeing students from modern notions of lone authorship. (This is why he puts the word author in quotation marks in the passage cited above.) When a man under the strong impress of his companions wrote about himself in the twelfth century, what was expected from him? What was autobiography (again in quotation marks with Schmitt), besides being very rare, in the Middle Ages? In addressing this issue Schmitt necessarily elucidates the problem of genre conventions related to medieval autobiography.
At the very center of Herman’s conversion is a dream, which propels Schmitt into a rich evocation of what dreams meant in the Middle Ages—what dreams meant to Jews, what they meant to Christians, how different strains of interpretation vied at the same time, how the description of dreams worked in autobiographical and non-autobiographical texts, etc. Similarly, because the visual image of Jesus—humiliated and exalted—also plays a complex role in Herman’s conversion, Schmitt excavates the lore and practices surrounding devotional art and criticisms of devotional art in the twelfth century as well as directly analyzing relevant surviving objects which might have been seen and touched by Herman, if Herman existed. Also, and in a similar vein, because an exchange between Judas/Herman and the Christian monk and polymath, Rupert of Duetz, plays a role in the former’s journey to Christianity, Schmitt goes deep into the history of Jewish-Christian dialog and debate, including the genre conventions associated with disputation texts. (Here, too, questions of authenticity have been lively: how many of the medieval disputation texts record genuine face-to-face encounters?)
At his best—and Schmitt is always at his best in these excursuses—new dimensions of Herman leap into sight. Take the very name, Herman. In a kind of genealogical archeology, Schmitt shows that the family to which Herman is alleged to have owed so much for the Christian phase of his life, had a holy ancestor, named Herman. To take that name or be given it at baptism was an affirmation of belonging not solely to the Christian community in general but to the community of religious who nurtured the convert and to the lineage that provided for the community of religious themselves. After this brilliant piece of historical detective work and having brought his own analysis dangerously close to affirming the “authenticity” of Herman and the Opusculum, Schmitt draws back and reaffirms his agnosticism. Authenticity is “impossible to verify” (p. 168). And perhaps the naming choice actually “points in the direction” of fiction, because it fits so neatly with the vested interests of particular communities, religious and familial.
This is a lovely book—unsettling in its way, provocative, and wholly productive to the discussion of conversion and selfhood in the Middle Ages.
William Chester Jordan