The issue of conversion, as it was portrayed in both primary conversion narratives and on the early modern stage dealt with several key issues. As England made contact with the Ottoman Empire, there was a fear that England was emasculated by the hyper-masculine ideal of the Turk. As a result, early modern drama often feminized, or deemphasized the masculinity of Turks. Dramas also used the tropes of castration and circumcision as a way to take power away from the image of the Turk. The subjugation of England by Turks was often revised on stage to instead stand for Protestant ideals, suffering as a martyr rather than as a sign of weakness.
Recent scholarship has also focused on how these conversion narratives represented anxieties and fears about both the invasion of foreigners, and the loss of Englishmen to foreign powers. As commerce with foreigners, particularly foreigners that could be classified as Other during this time, and as immigration rose in England, this became more of a realistic fear. One way conversion narratives countered this was to show the Englishman always triumphing, often through their own faith, over the Turk or Other. Another way was to show characters who wanted to convert as fools.
This characterization of Other, or characters who sided with the Other, as fools also leads to the examination of the genre of the plays that addressed conversion. The majority of them used comedy, or tragicomedy to address these issues. One argument for the rise of tragicomedy during this time is that it allowed playwrights to work out the anxieties of conversion while relegating fears over conversion, and issues of apostasy, to a joke. Tragedies that dealt with conversion often involved the deaths, or punishment of Turks who converted, but whose conversion was not taken as serious. In comedies, slaves, or servants who converted to Islam were often punished through castration, or other emasculating acts, but because they were of lesser class, were seen as a something for the audience to laugh at. Upper class, Christian Englishmen rarely suffered physical punishments, and if they did, it was seen through the Protestant lens of suffering for their faith.
Given England’s history during this time, and three separate cycles of conversion as a country, many of these narratives can be read as working out issues and conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. Autobiographical works of the time often told the tale of academics or learned men who had converted, then converted again. The consequences for these men were often severe, resulting in ostracization from society. These texts in many ways represented the reality of England’s fears and anxieties about conversion, as they could not be joked away. On the other hand, parish registers that recorded conversions of Jews and Muslims illustrate a conflict between Popish ceremony in baptism, versus a Protestant need to evangelize and convert.
1. Burton, Jonathan. “English Anxiety and the Muslim Power of Conversion: Five Perspectives on 'Turning Turk' in Early Modern Texts.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 2:1 (Spring/Summer 2002):35-67.
Burton opens his argument with stating that England was seen as weak in the East during the early modern period. He also states that his interests are with “the ways in which English authors chose to represent or explain away that weakness, both in travelogues and on the stage” (35). Burton’s article focuses on narratives that dealt with Anglo-Islamic relations; Sanders’ narrative of the Jesus found in Hakluyt’s Voyages and Discoveries, Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London (1581), Daborne’s A Christian Turn’s Turke (1612), Kyd’s iSolyman and Perseda (1592), Billerbege’s Straunge Newes from Constantinople (1585), Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West Parts I and II and Massinger’s Renegado. Burton discusses the polemical discourse used by editors of non-fiction works, and how the editors expunged objectionable material, that presented “English and Christianity and masculinity as uncertain, vulnerable, even compromised” (40). Burton explains that descriptions of captivity often showed the view that “Islam regularly overpowered Christian travelers” (40). However, he also discusses how Protestant writers “reclaim subjugation and weakness for a patient Protestant fortitude in emulation of a martyr-God” (41). In this way, when English Protestants were captured, they were able to turn it from evidence of weakness to proof of their faith (42). One of Burton’s strongest points is the fact that England as a country had been converted three times, resulting in “England’s religious identity fractured, uncertain, and subject to more than a century of crucial, sometimes fatal, debate” (45-46). By far his weakest argument though is that by representing conversion on stage, it gave stage players a chance to address the charges of apostasy that were often directed at them. When apostasy was shown on stage, Burton argues that the “staging” of it was emphasized, therefore creating a difference, often through the act of pantomime (48) “between performance and conversion” (47). Burton also discusses how genre played into portrayals of conversion, with comedic characters, or comedy plays, being used to disregard actual dangers of conversion. As he states “The drama offered the possibility of returning to the scene of the English travelers’ narratives to rewrite subjugation as comedy while simultaneously preserving the model Christian Englishman” (55). As Heywood’s figure of Clem illustrates, the clownish figure “allows an audience to acknowledge the fact that Englishmen were overwhelmed in and by the Islamic world while simultaneously stripping that subjugation of its troubling spiritual implications” (56).
Burton’s argument about the “staging” of apostasy relates both to Dimmock and Murray’s work of conversion as ritual. While Dimmock’s work examines the actual parish records for evidence of ritual, Murray examines how poetry dealt with issues of conversion. Burton also engages with the concept of how genre was used to work out issues of conversion on the stage. To a lesser extent, Burton examines how English identity is tied up with, and defined by religious issues, and the threat of conversion.
2. Degenhardt, Jane Hwang. Islamic Conversion and Christian Resistance on the Early Modern Stage. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. Print.
Degenhardt argues that “This book interrogates the ways that Christian- Muslim conversion was conceived in the popular imagination, focusing in particular on the theater both as a receptacle for popular beliefs and as an influential force in shaping them.” (2). She examines how the expansion of commerce during the early modern period also brought with it risks; “The more general threat of Ottoman imperialism- of course linked to commerce in various ways- also raised the specter of conversion (1). Degenhardt rejects scholarship that seeks to subsume conversion narratives under “struggles of social, economic, or political power” choosing instead to look at how the theatre exposed and fragmented “Protestant models of faith” (8). Degenhardt also examines how other writings, such as pamphlets sought to cash in on early modern England’s interest in Turks and conversion. She discusses how conversion narratives often reinforced Calvinistic ideals of conversion, as well as pushing against Catholic interests. As she argues, “the early modern stage helps us to understand on an immediate, conceptual level as well the ways that English Protestant identity fused into a more ecumenical Christian identity” (26). Degenhardt examines how gender and sexuality as well as genre also played a role in creating this identity and the rhetoric of conversion narratives. Specifically, she examines how the genre of tragicomedy was used to work through issues of conversion. As she states in her examination of Othello, “what I hope to expose is not simply how religion becomes readable as race in these plays, but rather the process by which religious identities become fused with national, embodied, and proto-racial categories (151).
Degenhardt quotes Burton’s work examining the number of dramas that featured Islamic tropes as well as agreeing with Burton and Vitkus that the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and early modern England does not fit Said’s orientalism. Degenhardt also is concerned with issues of how English identity was influenced and formed counter to Turkish identity. She also discusses how the genre of these conversion narratives is key to understanding the work they are accomplishing.
3. Dimmock, Matthew. “Converting and Not Converting “Strangers” in Early Modern London”. Journal of Early Modern History 17:⅚ (2013): 457-478.
Dimmock points out that “the baptism of “strangers” in early modern England became a focal point for the interplay of contested religious positions, national and intranational communities, new merchantile horizons, and unstable notions of difference” (475). He explains that until 1662, there was no specific service that detailed how baptism of converts was supposed to be conducted. However, baptism was also closely linked to conversion in early modern England. He discusses parish records that detail the baptisms of “Indians”, “Jews”, “Blackmores” and “Turks” (458) but also notes that the details in these records are sparse. In some, the converted simply had to show a “desire to be baptised” and be “perfectly and constantly confessing and believing all articles of our faith” (460). Dimmock points out that “zeal for conversion” was often emphasized more than any actual ceremony (462) and that in these records, there is a noted absence of references to prior belief systems. He also asserts that there was some concern that there would be a “residual Jewishness” left even after baptism (464) which fed into greater anxieties about “becoming English” and whether or not this should be denied to “all but ‘natives’” (464). Dimmock describes an emphasis on “baptism and conversation rather than conversion” as a result of Calvinist ideals that influenced the Anglican church during the 1570s and 80s (466). However, he also notes that this also illustrated a conflict within Calvinistic doctrine, between “missionary impulse to convert and the doctrine of Election” (468). Dimmock notes that sermons of the time operate to “generate a sense of English renown and to validate Anglicanism in opposition to Roman Catholicism. But these were anxious assimilations.” (474). Despite fears and anxieties about these “stranger” baptisms, Dimmock ends his argument by stating that they were “one way in which a freshly baptised Christian might engage with a new country and religion on his own terms” (477).
While Dimmock’s work focuses on primary documents, he does ground his argument in the reality of the new commerce that England was exposed to during this time. He also addresses the issue of identity, although he examines it through the lens of whether or not the new identity of converts could be trusted, or whether or not there existed a residue of their former religions/
4. Mazur, Peter and Abigail Shinn. “Introduction: Conversion Narratives in the Early Modern World” Journal of Early Modern History 17 (2013(: 427-436.
Mazur and Shinn in their introduction to this special issue discuss not only the variety of conversion texts “in circulation in the early modern world” (435) but also the move these narratives made from “interiorizes experience to public testimony” and how they functioned as “a careful negotiation of competing political and religious demands as well as the skillful use of persuasive rhetorical tools and typologies” (436). They discuss that these narratives not only crossed physical borders, but also crossed borders of legality, as many of these narratives were printed on illegitimate presses, and were often smuggled into countries, and publications that were not sympathetic. They use this argument to demonstrate “the extent to which conversion and its effects permeated early modern culture” (429).
Mazur and Shinn reference Dimmock’s work, discussing how the ritual of the baptism was often as much a source of schism as the argument over whether or not baptism could override previous beliefs. Much as Dimmock uses parish records to solidify his argument, Mazur and Shinn reference Chakravarti’s argument that “many of the accounts of conversion in fact contain clues that can be used to recover the perspective of the indigenous converts and the way they understood their religious experience” (434). Their work is also similar to Pickett’s work in that they use terms of geography to discuss conversion, although Mazur and Shinn are more concerned with borders that are crossed and blurred, while Pickett is concerned with the idea of motion and conversion.
5. Murray, Molly. “Conversion and Poetry in Early Modern England”. A New Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
Murray’s work examines how poetry dealt with the issue of conversion. She states that “Protestants did not have a monopoly on the poetic rendering of conversion in early modern England” (411). She also argues that both Protestants and Catholics used similar language in their poetry as they did in their polemical writings (413), in fact Protestants often used tropes from the Catholic faith in both genres (414). Similar to language use in drama, “ecclesiastical and sexual discourse also characterises the poetry” that dealt with conversion (417). Murray also states that there was a “feminised vision of conversion” that became more pronounced as you moved through the early modern period, although in contrast to the feminine and conversion in drama, it was true faith that was feminized, not the converted heathen.
Murray is referenced directly in Shoulson’s work and she addresses similar themes as Burton when she addresses subjugation of Englishmen by Turks. Murray also intersects the work of Pearson on the idea of masculinity and how it is represented and portrayed in conversion narratives. Murray also addresses the concept of feminisation and conversion which Norton also addresses.
6. Norton, Claire. “Lust, Greed, Torture, and Identity: Narrations of Conversion and the Creation of the Early Modern Renegade”. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 29:2 (2009): 259-268. Print.
Norton’s argument focuses on the narrative tropes used in conversion narratives; the idea of forced conversions, forced conversions of women in order to have sex with them, and the trope of renegades. She begins her argument with stating that captivity narratives should “constitute their own genre of writing” (259) which is a new way to view these writings. She goes onto state that these tropes served particular rhetoric functions, such as a response to “the wealth, power, and economic opportunities available in North Africa and the subsequent phenomena of “mass” economic migration and conversion such opportunities engendered” (264). She also states that the “trope of forced conversion” (265 also may have served to make it easier to raise ransom money as well as a way to “ameliorate the collective social anxiety and threat to “national” identity that mass migration to North AFrica, conversion to Islam, and the captivity of so many English men and women engendered” (265-66). Norton also examines that “descriptions of unsuccessful attempted forced conversions also pandered to home audiences’ desire to read affirmations of their own religious belief system: the captives had been tested but had remained true to Christianity” (266). By focusing on the reality of conversion narratives, versus the fiction, she reveals that “some Englishmen living and working in North Africa may well have converted either to marry Muslim women or to progress into the upper echelons of the local administration” (268).
By making reference to the economics of the time period, Norton’s work intersects with Dimmock’s historicization, particularly the idea of how conversion may have been an economic tool for advancement as much as anything else. Norton also examines an issue lacking in other sources, the fiction of forced conversion. While both she and Shoulson examine fictions of conversion, Norton’s argument is more focused. However, it is her association of literacy with femininity that most closely associates her work with Murray, and how conversion narratives often feminised the Other. By creating a binary of feminine and masculine traits, Norton’s work also corresponds to Burton’s ideas of English subjugation by Turks.
7. Pearson, Jacqueline. “One Lot in Sodom’: Masculinity and the Gendered Body in Early Modern Narratives of Converted Turks”. Literature & Theology, 21:1 (March 2007): 29-48. Print.
Pearson’s argument stresses that conversion narratives involving Turks “demonstrate that early modern men were grappling with ‘competing forms of manhood’ allowing ideas of ambiguous masculinity to be projected on to an alien Other and so discussed in relative safety, thereby rhetorically asserting in contrast the alleged stability and coherence of English masculinity” (42). She argues that issues of Turkish masculinity were often used to make the argument for a strong English masculinity and that “revolutionary political changes and uncertainties of the 1650s” (30) resulted in a market for conversion narratives. She states that the power of Turks, often described in terms of masculinity was a source of anxiety for the English, and that in addition to descriptions of masculinity, Turks were also “defined by its ruined masculinities, its infliction of genital mutilation, circumcision and castration” (31) as well as association with sodomy (32). Pearson uses primary sources to discuss how these conversion narratives about Turks served not only to construct an identity, but also address English anxieties about masculinity (32-33). She also describes how different conversion narratives dealt with literacy, with Turkish converts not reading, although this is more how these conversions were viewed, and not the actual reality. She then goes on to state that Islam, as with Catholicism, was seen as an “illiterate, ‘feminized’ religion, and as a result, the converts are also implicitly feminised, the ambiguity of the masculine Turkish body being emphasized” (34). Pearson then connects literacy and masculinity by viewing circumcision as a written sign on the male body (34). She argues that earlier conversion narratives of Turks did not emphasize this type of rhetoric of the body in the 1580s, although they did participate in feminizing the Turk (36). Pearson argues that Islamic connections to effeminacy were “implied” as conversion also depended on “restoring proper gender roles” (38). She also counters Said’s orientalism statements that “accounts of Western discursive strategies as seeking to ‘feminise’ and so ‘dominate’ the East are anachronistic in the early modern period” (42) as her narrative examples “demonstrate that early modern men were grappling with ‘competing forms of manhood” (42).
Pearson’s discussion of literacy also runs parallel to Shoulson’s examination of the literature and language that the Protestants chose as their inspiration. Her analysis of the feminised Turk also relates to Murray’s gender work, although Pearson goes into more detail about exactly how Turkish characters were feminised as well as how English masculinity was threatened. Pearson also counters Said’s orientalism as a lens through which to view these narratives. Pearson is unique in her argument that circumcision could be viewed as signs written on the body.
8. Pickett, Holly Crawford. “Motion Rhetoric in Serial Conversion Narratives: Religion and Change in Early Modern England.” Redrawing the Map of Early Modern English Catholic. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. Print.
Pickett argues that serial converts in their writings “reveal the limitations of the stark polarization of Catholicism and Protestantism in early modern England. By rhetorically defining religious identity vis-a-vis movement, these serial converts craft or reflect an experience characterized by in-betweenness.” (89). Pickett first examines William Alabaster’s conversion narrative, Alabaster’s Conversion (1606) which traces Alabaster’s move from Protestant to Catholic back to Protestant. His conversion narrative uses “the language of kinematics to express his belief that spiritual wandering is a requisite part of any search for spiritual peace” (92) but it was also Alabaster’s use of the idea of movement as religious metaphor that became a target of his critics. Pickett’s next example is Marc Antonio De Dominis who converted to Protestantism, returned to Rome, was imprisoned by the Inquisition, then was declared a heretic. His critics accused him of shopping for a church that would accept his ideals, while De Dominis equated movement and geography to religious peace: “The separation of the West from the East, and of the South from the North, I could never bear with a calm mind, and I anxiously desired to recognize the cause of so numerous and so great schisms and to find whether it was possible to think of some way to bring together the wandering churches of Christ to a sure and ancient union” (95). De Dominis’ use of navigation as metaphor was a common one in the early modern period, although it often referred to science.Pickett’s last example is William Chillingworth who after his conversion from Protestant to Catholic, then back to Protestant, argued for “an even more theoretical connection between the concepts of travel and religious change” (102). Pickett argues that one of the concerns with serial converts was that the flexibility, and capability for mutation, led to fears of other types “of inconsistencies” (105). These conversion narratives are of interest because they challenge ideas of religious binaries (106).
Pickett’s discussion of serial converts addresses many of the same fears/anxieties that Dimmock’s examination of parish records reveals. Through this, she connects to the larger discussion as to what formed national English identity during this time. Her argument also engages with Shoulson’s examination of conversos. Pickett’s choice of primary documents also reinforces Mazur and Shinn’s argument about geography as each of the men she choice to highlight converted as a result of travel and exposure to experience. Pickett also emphasizes “motion rhetoric” which connects her work to Mazur and Shinn.
9. Shoulson, Jeffrey. Fictions of Conversion: Jews, Christians, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Print.
Shoulson’s book begins with an examination of the concept of conversos, moves forward by examining how Biblical examples of conversion were used in the early modern period, then a similar look at how language influences conversion in both the Bible and Homer, an examination of science and Jewish conversion, and finally an examination of how conversion can be read in Paradise Regained. He works his way chronologically through the early modern period in order to trace the evolution of conversion during this time. In particular, he focuses on how “false Jewish conversion” (3) haunted the fictions of conversions. Shoulson examines the way in which “texts assimilate- and convert- a language of authentic and inauthentic religious transformation taken from the discourse of Judaism and marranism” (11). He grounds his discussion of chapter two in the fact that English Protestants looked to the Bible for direction, and chapter three examines ideas of translation and naming in the Bible and Homer as a way to examine how identity, both national and religious was formed by naming. Chapter four examines both the Jewish question in more detail, as well as the actual science of alchemy as a Jewish science, and as a metaphor of conversion. Chapter five examines Paradise Regained with its issues of identity in light of historical context, and how the Jewish messiah is transformed by Milton into Christian hero.
Shoulson references Burton and Molly Murray’s work on the different “features of religious conversion” (11). He examines what it was about conversion- the ritual, the literature, the language, that made the difference between conversions that were accepted, versus those that were denied. He also engages with larger issues of the formation of English identity, although his focus is more on the formation of English versus Jewish identity, and therefore does not focus on this as much.
10. Stelling, Lieke. “Thy Very Essence is Mutability”: Religious Conversion in Early Modern English Drama 1558-1642.” The Turn of the Soul: Representations of Religious Conversion in Early Modern Art and Literature. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Print.
Stelling argues that “early modern theatrical representations of interfaith conversion are determined by theatrical genre and, to a lesser extent, gender, instead of religion. There is no fundamental difference between Christianizations of Jews, Muslims or adherers of any other non-Christian persuasion” (77). Stelling states that early modern England saw a large increase in conversions, in part due to contacts with the Ottoman Empire and men who “turned Turk” in order to gain mercantile favor. Stelling later argues that “the early modern theatre helps us to investigate how the public’s understanding of conversion was formed” (59). Stelling discusses past scholarship, and states that it has used conversion narratives as a way to understand how early modern audiences would have seen these Others: Jews and Muslims (60). Stelling also notes that these plays did not distinguish between interfaith and spiritual conversions, arguing that instead, the focus was to politicize, marginalize, and minimize the act of conversion and the threat it represented. Stelling examines early modern theatre through genres as a way to examine how they represented fears over England’s lack of religious stability; conversion comedies, comedies where the conversion was simply a subplot or was tied to the love plot and tragedies, where the conversion was seen as a type of “penitence” (69) or as a way to punish the Other.
Stelling’s discussion of how genre reveals information about how the audience should interpret staged conversion narratives intersects with Burton, and Murray’s work in this area. His emphasis on the mercantile incentive for conversion also references Dimmock and Norton’s work. His examination of the rise in conversions during this period is supported by the other works, but his argument that these theatrical conversion tales were based more on genre and gender than religion is a unique perspective. However, his statement that these productions were often polemical in nature aligns with Pickett’s examination of autobiographical conversion narratives