Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Emily Michelson's "Catholic Spectacle and Rome's Jews"

Emily Michelson is senior lecturer in history at the University of St Andrews. She is the author of The Pulpit and the Press in Reformation Italy and the coeditor of A Linking of Heaven and Earth and A Companion to Religious Minorities in Early Modern Rome.

Michelson applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Catholic Spectacle and Rome's Jews: Early Modern Conversion and Resistance, and reported the following:
I would be dismayed to think that page 99 captures the whole of my book. It’s a necessary page that makes a key point, but it’s one of the least thrilling – a workhorse page. Page 99 argues that the job of Preacher to the Jews became a prestigious position in early modern Rome, and discusses the nature and origins of that prestige. This is a key aspect of my overall argument that early modern Rome benefitted from making a public show of converting Jews. But it’s an expository page, without the humanizing examples and other evidence, and without the book’s other innovations.

My book makes three main contributions to the history of religion and of Rome. 1. It reconstructs the history, process, and nature of forced conversion sermons to Jews, a public, well-attended event which took place roughly weekly from the late sixteenth century into the nineteenth. The book argues that this spectacle was a crucial platform for defining and defending the new Catholicism of the early modern period. Methodologically, it combines historical reconstruction, textual analysis of sermon literature, and vivid storytelling from the archives. 2. It publicizes the existence of a large collection of manuscript conversion sermons, catalogued but mostly unknown, covering a 40-year period and full of surprises. 3. It uncovers and pieces together evidence of a continuous and varied tradition of Jewish resistance to conversion sermons.

Page 99 contributes to only the first of these categories. It’s part of a chapter on the careers of conversion preachers. The chapter discusses how prominent men rushed to undertake these conversion sermons, eager to see them succeed, and how, subsequently, official Preachers to the Jews used their title to confer prestige on other activities. Page 99 is the third page of the chapter, a transition between the chapter’s opening hook and its meat. It begins to reframe the early history of this event, which has been reasonably well documented, by placing it in a longer-term, lesser-known perspective. Page 99 contains critical points about how important the sermon spectacle was to early modern Catholic Rome. For example: “a turn in the pulpit remained a prestigious move…the title alone added weight and authority to other enterprises.” In that sense, the test works. It accurately signals the book’s core argument. But a casual browser who read only page 99 would think this is a narrower and more boring book than it really is. They would miss its other more surprising findings, its drama, and its pain.
Learn more about Catholic Spectacle and Rome's Jews at the Princeton University Press website, and follow Emily Michelson on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue