The Journey of Deacon Bodo from the Rhine to the Guadalquivir

Apostasy and Conversion to Judaism in Early Medieval Europe

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Frank Riess
  • New York, NY: 
    , April
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In 838 CE a man named Bodo, who served as a deacon in the palace of Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious, traveled to Spain and (either there or along the way) converted to Judaism, taking the name Eleazar. We know about Bodo from three main sources: a poem written about him by Walafrid Strabo when he left the monastery where he was educated, a chronicle (the Annals of St-Bertin) recounting and deploring the conversion, and some letters that survive from a debate between Eleazar and Paulus Alvarus of Cordoba.

Although we have Alvarus’s letters, Eleazar’s replies have been largely destroyed and only fragments survive. This is not enough to make a biography, or even a “Life and Times,” so Frank Reiss’s book, The Journey of Deacon Bodo from the Rhine to the Guadalquivir, elucidates the scant information by placing it in a variety of contexts. These contexts include the history of the Carolingian empire and court, including the empress Judith, with whom Reiss suggests Bodo may have been politically aligned as both came from Alemannia; the nature of Carolingian monasticism and education, including the foundation history of Reichenau and its possible links to pre-Christian paganism; the Carolingians’ and the Frankish church’s policy toward Jews; the situation of the Jews in Visigothic Spain and later in the emirate of Cordoba; the nature of the Christian and the Jewish liturgy; the relation of Christian biblical exegesis to Jewish scholarship; and the study of the manuscript in which the letters survive.

The most interesting aspect of the book is the discussion of the nature of Bodo’s conversion, conversions in the period generally, and Jewish and Christian attitudes to them. Reiss discusses Bodo’s familiarity with and possibly deep love for the chanting of psalms, and suggests that this may have made him comfortable with the Jewish liturgy. The author points out that the line between Christianity and Judaism may not have been as clear as the churchmen who wrote about Eleazar or modern scholars wish to make it.

There was, especially in Iberia, a “multiplicity of religious choices and alterations that could have been accepted and passed unnoticed” (116), whether between Christianity and Islam or Judaism and Christianity. Alvarus was probably a converted Jew or the descendant of one, and his dismissal of Eleazar as someone who has not been immersed in Jewish learning suggests that even Jewish converts to Christianity may have tried to gatekeep Jewish identity. The annalist describes the practical manifestations of Bodo’s conversion to Eleazar too: besides changing his name, he was circumcised, grew a beard, married, and “assumed a warrior’s gear” (55) Reiss describes the annalist’s take on these changes as “he has become another species, his anatomical shape taken to pieces and reassembled as the member of another collectivity” (56). This is perhaps an overstatement, but it is clear that conversion was not just a change in belief, but in entire way of life. Reiss suggests that the “warrior’s gear” may have been the belt worn by dhimmis or protected religious minorities in the Muslim world. I wonder whether there may have been something to Alvarus’s suggestion (88) that Bodo became Eleazar in part for the opportunity to marry, although Reiss does not pursue the topic.

Unfortunately, the various contexts for Bodo/Eleazar’s story are presented in a rather confusing manner. The book presents a great deal of information and it is not clear how all of it is relevant or how it is organized. The story itself—as far as we know it—and the evidence for it is revealed gradually throughout the book rather than told in brief in the introduction.

In the first chapter, to orient us to the Carolingian lands, we are told that “approximately thirty million years ago, the collision of the African and European tectonic plates caused a rippling of the land mass to the north, creating successive ridges and folds that formed the limestone Jura in northern Switzerland, eventually the Alps” (7; for a similar description of the Guadalquivir estuary and its current status as a bird sanctuary, see 108) and given a brief history of the Roman Empire. When the account switches in the final chapter to early modern reception of texts from medieval Cordoba, the transition is: “The earth turned for centuries, days speeding by as night followed day. For near seven hundred years the sun waxes and waned witnessing hundreds of thousands of dawns and sunsets” (175). This is histoire totale (a complete history) taken to the extreme.

Reiss wants to give the full background to everything he writes, but the thread of the book gets lost. There are also some confusing turns of phrase, such as a reference to the psalms being sung in “the ancient Jewish church” (23), probably referring to early churches made up of Jewish Christians, but nevertheless jarring. The description of capitularies as “a database that could be downloaded when required” (35) masks very large issues of communication within the Frankish empire. The “Arab world” (64) and the Muslim world are not the same thing; the Babylonian Talmud is known as Bavli, not Balvi (132), and Reiss does not question that the Mishnah is an exact transcription of oral tradition. It is a bit of a stretch to refer to Charlemagne as expressing “unease with Christianity” (150).

Scholars interested in the nature of conversion in the early Middle Ages will find this book stimulating. Issues of structure make it less suitable for classroom use.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Ruth Mazo Karras is the Lecky Professor of History at Trinity College Dublin.

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frank Riess is Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, London.


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