By: Kenneth Best
The 16th century was a tumultuous time for religion in Europe. The Reformation divided nations, with Catholics and Protestants each pressing their desire for national dominance, and was further complicated by the rise of Calvinism in Switzerland and Lutheranism in Germany. Nowhere was the ideological divide more conflicted than England, where the nation’s religious identity changed three times within 25 years.
Religious conversion in England was by no means stable, with family histories dotted with differing religious affiliations through succeeding generations and questions about so-called “false conversion” – particularly about the Jews, who had been banished from the island nation – looming in the background of that time.
The idea of false conversion and accompanying concerns, which remained a threat to the desire for national unity in England through a common religion, is examined in a new book by Jeffrey S. Shoulson, director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life and Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies, titled Fictions of Conversion: Jews, Christian, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press 2013).
Shoulson, who is also professor of Literatures, Cultures and Languages and professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says English uncertainties about authentic religious identity following conversion are reflected in 16th and 17th-century writings that reference the Jews, who had been expelled by King Edward I in 1290.
“The degree to which writers in 16th and 17th-century England give attention to Jews in that period, when no Jews were living in England, raises questions,” Shoulson says. “I was asking, why is there continued interest in Jews and Judaism, and is this interest related to how one defines a particular Christian identity?”
Religious identity and conversion
In Fictions of Conversion, Shoulson looks at John Donne’s poem “Satire III,” in which the poet struggles over his own conversion from Catholicism to the Church of England; and examines how issues over conversion were influenced through translations from the Old Testament to the New Testament and later, in 1611, the King James Bible; the resurgent interest in alchemy – the turning of base metal into gold – that was linked to Jews and their image, as reflected in writings such as Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” in 1610 and Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” circa 1597; and the nature of religious transformation in a period that was witness to the proliferation of numerous radical Christian sects.