Sometime toward the middle of the twelfth century, it is
supposed, an otherwise obscure figure, born a Jew in Cologne and
later ordained as a priest in Cappenberg in Westphalia, wrote a
Latin account of his conversion to Christianity. Known as the
Opusculum, this book purportedly by "Herman, the former
Jew" may well be the first autobiography to be written in the West
after the Confessions of Saint Augustine. It may also be
something else entirely.
In The Conversion of Herman the Jew the eminent French
historian Jean-Claude Schmitt examines this singular text and the
ways in which it has divided its readers. Where some have seen it
as an authentic conversion narrative, others have asked whether it
is not a complete fabrication forged by Christian clerics. For
Schmitt the question is poorly posed. The work is at once true and
fictional, and the search for its lone author-whether converted Jew
or not-fruitless. Herman may well have existed and contributed to
the writing of his life, but the Opusculum is a collective
work, perhaps framed to meet a specific institutional agenda.
With agility and erudition, Schmitt examines the text to explore
its meaning within the society and culture of its period and its
participation in both a Christian and Jewish imaginary. What can it
tell us about autobiography and subjectivity, about the function of
dreams and the legitimacy of religious images, about individual and
collective conversion, and about names and identities? In The
Conversion of Herman the Jew Schmitt masterfully seizes upon
the debates surrounding the Opusculum (the text of which
is newly translated for this volume) to ponder more fundamentally
the ways in which historians think and write.
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