Critical Annotated Bibliography: Conversion Narratives in Early Modern England
The issue of conversion, as it was portrayed in both primary conversion narratives and on the early modern stage dealt with several key issues such as national identity, genre, fears of immigration and gender. While language and rhetoric is mentioned as sub-issues, they are not fully explored in the scholarship. As England made contact with the Ottoman Empire, there was a fear that England was emasculated by the hyper-masculine ideal of the Turk who was powerful and wealthy, as portrayed in travel narratives. 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. Both the feminization and issues of emasculation were used to make the Turks the subject of comedy within the dramas. 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. In this way, these dramas most often seen in tragicomedies revised the tragic elements of travel narratives and turned them into plot devices that served the comedic/romantic sections of the drama.
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 subaltern 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 subaltern such as Vitelli in Renegado or Almuisa in The Island Princess. Another way was to show characters who wanted to convert as fools such as Clem in Fair Maid of the West, Part I.
This characterization of difference or characters who sided with the subaltern or foreigner, 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. In this way, form followed function supporting the argument that tragicomedy became popular at this time, specifically to discuss conversion because it allowed playwrights to work out the anxieties of conversion while relegating fears over conversion, and issues of apostasy, to a joke. 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. This can be read as evidence of these comedies and tragicomedies reinforcing social boundaries, with transgressors punished for violating the strata to which they belonged such as Ithamore in The Jew of Malta, Clem in Fair Maid of the West, and Grimaldi in Renegado. Upper class, Christian Englishmen such as Vitelli in Renegado and Armusia in The Island Princess rarely suffered physical punishments, and if they did, it was seen through the Protestant lens of suffering for their faith. Ward in A Christian Turn’d Turk also reinforces this as he denies his English identity, and the protection it affords, when he converts to Islam, and therefore ranks on the same level as characters marked as different-not English.
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. While I can see how these plays are clearly marked as Protestant, I am not as convinced that these plays are as much about Catholicism as they are about Jews or Muslims. In many of these works, such as The Island Princess, there seems to be a conflation of Catholics and Turks with the identifiers of Catholicism transferred to Turks as a marker of difference and to represent the threat of not-Protestant.
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 by 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 travel narratives and dramas that dealt with Anglo-Islamic relations, including; Daborne’s A Christian Turn’d Turke (1612), 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, and even compromised” (40). He also argues that Protestant writers claimed harsh treatment during capture was evidence of their characters’ martyrdom and 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). I found this his strongest argument because in many of these plays the fear or threat of conversion is also standing in for domestic fears, so this argument made sense to me. By far his weakest argument is that by representing conversion on stage, stage players had a chance to address the charges of apostasy that were often directed at them. I wasn’t convinced by this mainly because the evidence seems weak- how does he know? Did these actors leave journals that directly showed this? It read as supposition.
Burton also discusses how genre played into portrayals of conversion, with comedic characters, or comedy plays, being used to downplay actual dangers of conversion. 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). I agree that this supports the argument that the genre of tragicomedy evolved in large part in order to discuss these issues of conversion. Burton’s argument about the “staging” of apostasy relates both to Dimmock argument about fears of ritual over “true” conversion and Murray’s work of the feminizing work conversion as ritual (see entries for Dimmock and Murray in this bibliography). While Dimmock’s work examines the actual parish records for evidence of ritual, Murray examines how poetry dealt with issues 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). One of her arguments is 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. Degenhardt’s work covers the familiar issues of conversion scholarship. I was not entirely convinced by the argument that race is separate, as it’s such a marker of difference in drama. I needed more evidence for this argument to convince me. As it agrees with my own analysis, I thought the strongest part of the argument was the support for the rise of tragicomedy as a vehicle for working through issues of conversion.
3. Dimmock, Matthew. “Converting and Not Converting “Strangers” in Early Modern London”. Journal of Early Modern History 17:5, 6(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 mercantile 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. The strongest arguments in Dimmock’s work are the ones that focus on the fears and anxieties of this specific historical moment. The fact that baptism rituals, and rituals in general would be a focus of converts rather than true spiritual conversion made sense. It also made sense to me that ritual could become a way of hiding, as seen with conversos. I am also interested in the idea that knowing the ritual serves as of acceptance in society, even if the conversion is not real. At what point does imitation become reality?
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.” They also examined how conversion narratives balance “a careful negotiation of competing political and religious demands as well as the skillful use of persuasive rhetorical tools and typologies” (436). They examine the fact 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 in favor of these narratives. 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. I was most interested in the focus on border crossing, and how boundaries were fluid and flexible. I thought this was supported in the types of texts that Mazur and Shinn examined as well as their argument that popular literature was reflective of the politics and culture of the time.
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 feminization and conversion which Norton also addresses. I was intrigued by the concept that Protestants and Catholics used similar language in their writings but did not think Murray provided enough textual evidence. I’m a fan of close readings as a start to scholarship, as unfashionable as they seem to be now in scholarship and I was not completely convinced by Murray’s evidence (or lack thereof). I also thought her argument on Protestant use of Catholic tropes was a little unclear as she didn’t delineate uses or purposes. However, given that it supported the other scholarship I’ve read, I found her argument for the language of conversion as sexualized compelling.
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 feminized the subaltern. By creating a binary of feminine and masculine traits, Norton’s work also corresponds to Burton’s ideas of English subjugation by Turks. The concept of sexual language used to describe conversion was supported by other works I’ve read. While I believe that tragicomedy rose during this period specifically to address fears of conversion, I found Norton’s discussion of captivity narratives as their own genre unsatisfying again because of lack of textual evidence. I also wanted more information on how the language used in texts that showed forced conversion represented a threat.
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. Again though, I wanted more specific analysis of the language, and specific examples from the works she chose. Her analysis of the feminized Turk also relates to Murray’s gender work, although Pearson goes into more detail about exactly how Turkish characters were feminized as well as how English masculinity was threatened. Pearson also counters Said’s orientalism as a lens through which to view these narratives. However, she doesn’t offer another solution to Said’s approach, which I saw as a gap. If you’re going to identify the problems of a specific approach I think you need to at least gesture towards possible solutions. Pearson is unique in her argument that circumcision could be viewed as signs written on the body and I wish she had written more about this, more clearly tying the issues of gendering of English/Turk with the issue of writing, specifically conversion as a written sign.
8. Pickett, Holly Crawford. “Motion Rhetoric in Serial Conversion Narratives: Religion and Change in Early Modern England.” Redrawing the Map of Early Modern English Catholicism. 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, and 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. I thought her issues of flexible boundaries and interdisciplinary approach was the best part of her argument, especially in light of the view we’ve taken in class this semester. Her argument engages with Shoulson’s examination of conversos although I would have liked to have seen more elaboration on her challenge to religious binaries. 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. I wanted to see more evidence from other texts that connected navigation imagery to her ideals, as specific language from diaries, travel narratives, and pamphlets of the time would have solidified this as an argument and as a future approach. Pickett also emphasizes “motion rhetoric” which connects her work to Mazur and Shinn but again, I wanted more evidence from other types of works of the time.
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 which connects with Dimmock’s work about fears of false conversion and the appeal of ritual over faith. 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. I saw in this issue of his argument much of Pickett’s argument, with the issue of flexibility and fluidity of identity during this period. Likewise in his argument about language and its importance in conversion I thought of Murray’s argument, but again I wanted specific examples of what the language used was and how it differed from other writings about conversion.
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 subalterns: 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 different.
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. I thought this was the strongest part of his argument, as it takes a global viewpoint to the influences of conversions at this time. 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. I did not agree with his argument that these plays did not distinguish between interfaith and spiritual conversions. While I acknowledge that these two are often collapsed in the romance plots of these plays, I think the issue cannot be cleanly delineated into these binaries. However, his statement that these productions were often polemical in nature aligns with Pickett’s examination of autobiographical conversion narratives. Yet again though, I wanted to see more evidence of how these productions were polemics, what specific arguments they were making and how these arguments changed through time.