Paola Tartakoff

junior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2016/2017
discipline History
Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies, Rutgers University

Research project

Women and Conversion to and from Judaism in Medieval Europe


Claims about medieval Jewish conversion have long been central to prominent narratives in Jewish historiography. Focusing on violent forced conversions of Jews to Christianity, they have served in particular to illustrate an alleged cultural contrast between northern Europe and Spain. In recent decades, these influential interpretations of Jewish history have been extensively challenged. Yet, the notion that the history of religious conversion can provide insight into broader cultural dynamics remains compelling, for, in medieval Europe, conversion from one religion to another involved the ultimate testing of group boundaries.


A number of scholars have taken a new approach to the study of Jewish conversion to Christianity in medieval Europe, focusing on "voluntary" conversions instead of on conversions that occurred at sword’s point. Over one thousand such conversions are known to have transpired during the thirteenth century alone. The implications of this research to date have been profound, not only challenging ingrained assumptions about converts’ identities, motivations, and fates, but also complicating understandings of cultural trends in northern Europe and Spain and the nature of medieval Jewish-Christian relations more generally.


My research at the IIAS will focus on the gender dynamics of conversion between Judaism and Christianity in twelfth- to fourteenth-century Western Europe, a major theme of my book-in-progress, Conversion, Circumcision, and Ritual Murder in Medieval Europe. Drawing on a wide array of Jewish and Christian manuscript and printed sources, my work explores the interplay and disjunction between medieval Christian perceptions and portrayals of Jews, on the one hand, and empirical realities, on the other. It uses gender as a lens through which to examine converts’ motivations and fates and the construction of boundaries between Jewish and Christian communities and identities. My project also elucidates the hitherto largely overlooked experiences of medieval women as converts and as facilitators of conversion, and analyzes the seemingly improbable phenomenon of conversion from Christianity to Judaism, as well as relations between Jews, Jewish apostates, and apostates’ children.


Linking major facets of medieval cultural history, the work that I propose to bring to fruition aims to establish a richer and more inclusive framework for the study of Jewish-Christian relations and religious conversion, while illuminating key aspects of medieval constructions of gender and the experiences of women.



Paola Tartakoff is Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the Department of History of Rutgers University. She holds a Ph.D in History from Columbia University. She studies the social and cultural history of Jews and Christians in medieval and early modern Europe and is particularly interested in conversion to and from Judaism, the medieval and Spanish inquisitions, and ritual murder accusations. Her current work explores Western Europe and the Mediterranean more broadly.


Selected publications


'Testing Boundaries: Jewish Conversion and Cultural Fluidity in Medieval Europe, 1200-1391', Speculum, vol. 90, 2015, pp. 728-762.


Between Christian and Jew: Conversion and Inquisition in the Medieval Crown of Aragon, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2012.


'The Toledot Yeshu and the Jewish-Christian Controversy in the Medieval Crown of Aragon', in P. Schaefer, M. Meerson & Y. Deutsch (eds), Toledot Yeshu Reconsidered, Mohr Siebeck, Berlin, 2011, pp. 297-309.

'Christian Kings and Jewish Conversion in the Medieval Crown of Aragon', Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies, vol. 3, 2011, pp. 27-39.

'Jewish Women and Apostasy in the Medieval Crown of Aragon, c.1300-1391', Jewish History, vol. 24, no. 1, 2010, pp. 7-32.



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