Conversos and Moriscos: Tyranny of Food. 2016.

The Tyranny of Food.

Food says a lot about us. Are we conservative or adventurous? Do we try new dishes at home, on holiday or business, or do we stick with familiar foods? Mass migration has spread new tastes across the world. Our neighbours now might be from anywhere around the globe and they bring their cuisine with them. When they invite us to share a meal, it brings us together and helps to break down barriers.

But food can also have a darker, sinister side — this is what we mean by the tyranny of food. As an important cultural marker it can be used as a weapon to identify and isolate or denigrate groups by social class, ethnic background, religious dietary obligations or any other perceived “differences.”

In 16th-century Spain, what was bought in the market and cooked in the kitchen could lead to social ostracism, fines, house arrest, public whipping, loss of property, obligatory wearing of a sambenito (a penitential garment) or even being publicly burned at the stake in an auto de fe. Why such cruelty?

In the 16th century, Spain became a politically unified country following the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón, (aka the Catholic Monarchs –Los Reyes Católicos). Underpinning the political union was religious conformity imposed on Muslim and Jewish communities, both of which had existed in the Iberian Peninsula for centuries, albeit under increasing Christian intolerance during the 15th century.

A large number of Jews had converted to Christianity during the 15th century, and those who didn’t were given an ultimatum in March, 1492 to convert or go into exile. Jews who chose conversion, thereby joining those who had done so during the 15th century, were known as Conversos or, disparagingly, marranos (swine).

The situation of the Muslims was more complicated and no way better. In 1492, after the conquest of the last Islamic state in the Iberian Peninsula (the kingdom of Granada), the terms of capitulation recognised the right of Muslims to follow their own laws and customs, and continue practicing their faith. However, by 1501 those terms were revoked and all Muslims, with the exception of those living in Navarre, Aragón and Valencia, faced conversion or exile.  By 1525, these too were confronted with the same choice: convert or leave. Muslim converts were called Moriscos.

Both converted Jews and Muslims were also referred to frequently as cristianos nuevos (New Christians) to distinguish them from cristianos viejos (Old Christians), i. e. Christians of impeccable Christian lineage with no “taint” from Jewish or Muslim blood.

This blood distinction between old Christians and new Christians in the 16th century is significant because the concept of limpieza de sangre or purity of blood –which first surfaced in the second half of the 15th century– became a cause of deep social division. As Christians, former Muslims and Jews could no longer be differentiated by religion since, in theory at least, they were all Christians! But the rancour that old Christians, especially the peasantry, had long felt for Jews and Muslims was now transferred to Conversos and Moriscos and to their descendants.  So blood or race, not religion, became the criterion distinguishing those living in Spain.

Despite restrictions, Conversos regularly occupied the same influential urban positions that Jews held earlier, e. g. as merchants, traders, shopkeepers, physicians, financiers, administrators, money lenders, tax collectors, lawyers, scribes etc. Many wealthy Converso families married into Christian nobility and some Conversos even became members of the church or religious orders (e. g. the Inquisitor General and confessor to Queen Isabella, Tomás de Torquemada, and Saint Teresa of Avila).

Moriscos, in general, were less assimilated by Christian society, and mixed marriages were very rare, despite official inducements. Their numbers were heavily concentrated in Andalusia, Aragón and Valencia.  In Andalusia, they were more numerous and they tended to live together in isolated mountain villages, or in barrios (districts) in larger towns. 

In the case of Aragón and Valencia they were valued as field workers and cheap labourers on the estates of the nobility. Where they lived in towns with Christians, they usually occupied trade jobs such as builders, carpenters, metalworkers, tailors, cobblers.  Everywhere they were recognised as excellent market gardeners and had a near monopoly as muleteers. A sprinkling of Morisco lawyers and doctors also attended to fellow Moriscos. 

There was also a Morisco minority in Castile living in villages scattered on the plains. Their numbers were later increased by the forcibly-displaced Moriscos from Granada following the failed Morisco uprising in the Alpujarras 1568-70.

Conversion to Christianity and its Consequences.
Converting to Christianity came with a major headache for both Conversos and Moriscos. The problem centred on whether the conversions were sincere or in fact a pretence. If, after conversion, converts secretly reverted to their original faith, they were guilty of heresy, and that made them vulnerable to investigations by the dreaded Inquisition. (Nowadays, those who clung secretly to their Jewish or Muslim faith are called respectively Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Muslims.)

The Inquisition, initially set up in 1478 to delve into alleged heresy of Conversos, later expanded its mandate to include Moriscos. Both groups were subject to constant scrutiny,  but especially the Conversos because of their greater integration into Christian society and their upward mobility and wealth through the jobs they occupied.

Many Conversos in fact hid their background, even resorting to creating forged family trees as proof of purity of blood or paying witnesses to vouch for them. (Saint Teresa of Avila, for example, carefully omitted any reference to her Jewish background in her autobiography.)  Conversos posed a threat to old Christians because they gained power from within, i. e. by weaving their way into positions of authority (e. g. the town of Segovia was said to be run by Conversos).

There were also widespread fears that
Moriscos “bred like rabbits” and
threatened to outnumber old Christians.

The danger posed by Moriscos came from outside, i. e. they were believed to be traitors, pseudo-Christians plotting with Muslim powers in Turkey or Morocco for the return of al-Andalus (the name given by the Moors to the land they occupied).

What was needed to set in motion an investigation by the Inquisition was a report–which was often made in secret– by an informant of any suspicious activity or casual comment that smacked of heresy.  Of the numerous offences that could betray an individual or family (e.g. lighting Sabbath candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, sitting on the ground Morisco-style instead of on seats, taking regular ablutions or bathing), food was one of the most common.

Christian holidays were particularly testing times for Conversos and Moriscos. During Lent, the forty days before Easter, meat was forbidden and replaced by fish. A similar injunction against meat prevailed on Fridays, in remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, was a day of abstinence.

To be seen breaking these church observances invited condemnation. On the other hand, Conversos and Moriscos were also on dangerous ground if caught observing their respective holy days: e.g. for Jews, celebrating Passover, or eating on the Sabbath (Saturday) adafina, a stew prepared on Friday and left to cook on ashes in a pot overnight; for Muslims, fasting or not lighting fires during the day during Ramadan, or celebrating Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan with dances and celebrations.

The purchase of certain ingredients (e.g. eggplants, chick peas) or certain spices (e.g. coriander, saffron), or the aroma of a dish cooked with olive oil were enough to alert neighbours to possible heresy. Conversos and Moriscos regularly cooked with olive oil rather than lard (pork fat), preferred by Christians. Moriscos, like Christians, also used clarified butter in cooking; Conversos did not since Jewish dietary laws forbid mixing meat and dairy products.

There is a telling episode in chapters 7 and 8 of the early 16th-century dramatized novel, La Lozana Andaluza, where the Andalusian-born Lozana –recently arrived in Rome— meets some Converso women, originally from Spain. These are reluctant to say much about themselves because they don’t know Lozana. So they decide to ask her to help them prepare some sweet fritters or couscous (alcuzcuzu). The test is whether she will use water or olive oil in the preparation. If she uses olive oil, then she will be accepted as “one of us.” Lozana passes with flying colours. Getting ready to prepare the fritters, she asks: “And do you have coriander? Let someone (i.e. me) have a bit of good flour and lots of oil, if it’s good, and I’ll make you a basinful that you’ll never forget even when you are dead” (Chapter 9, 53).

Faced with constant surveillance, Conversos and Moriscos developed coded means to identify fellow believers, as in Lozano’s case above. Where they lived among old Christians, they adopted subterfuge to avoid discovery, even sometimes going so far as to fry bacon or eat pork in public, hang ham outside, or cook on the Sabbath, in order to confirm their Christian orthodoxy.

Both committed converts and pseudo converts could adopt the same measures, the former to prove their conversion, the latter to pass as converts. But any ill-timed comment or inadvertent action could set up an investigation. Gitlitz and Adamson (54) record an Inquisitorial case of a woman pinching her nose whenever she smelled pork, or lamenting her conversion, sighing “alas Old Testament … Cursed be the one who prohibited the Old Testament.” For a Morisco, declining an invitation to dine during the day in the month of Ramadan, refusing wine or sitting on the ground to eat were enough to be accused of heresy.

The Inquisition was scrupulous about detailing the alleged offences and drew up lengthy lists of Jewish customs that could help identify heretical practices: Christians should look out for “Those who keep the Sabbath by cooking on … Fridays such food as is required for the Saturdays and on the latter eating the meat thus cooked on Fridays as is the manner of the Jew; … cleansing or causing meat to be cleansed, cutting away from it all fat or grease and cutting away the nerve or sinew from the leg; not eating pork, hare, rabbit, strangled birds, conger-eel, cuttle-fish, nor eels or other scaleless fish, as laid down in the Jewish law; and upon the death of parents … eating … such things as boiled eggs, olives and other viands … who have porged (sic) or deveined the meat they are preparing to eat, soaking it in water to remove the blood, or who have removed the sciatica vein from the leg of mutton or from any other animal… Or who have eaten meat during Lent or other days during forbidden by the Holy Mother Church without needing to do so … Or who celebrate the Festival of unleavened bread, beginning by eating lettuce, celery or other bitter herbs on this days” (Gitlitz and Davidson 3-4).

Although the above applies to Conversos, Christians were expected to keep the same kind of watchful eye on Morisco practices, many of which were similar to those of Conversos. Like Conversos, Moriscos slaughtered their animals ritually, avoided pork and scaleless fish, refrained from eating or drinking animal blood, ate similar vegetables and fruits, fried many desserts, mixed sweet and savoury, and cooked with olive oil.

The following list of dishes that the Conversa, Lozana, had learnt from her grandmother could equally well apply to foods eaten by Moriscos: “I learnt to prepare noodles, small pies, couscous with chick peas, rice …, little meat balls with fresh coriander that anyone could recognise were mine. … And pickled meat? … everyone wanted to try it, especially if it was made of mutton. And we had wonderful honey from Adamuz and saffron from Peñafiel and the best stuff from Andalusia ended up in my grandmother’s house. I knew how to make pancakes, fruit fritters drenched with honey, doughnuts made with puff pastry, croutons from hemp seed and sesame, nougat, thick fried and honey-sweetened dough, puff pastry, pastries covered with grated bread, ground almonds, honey and olive oil, soft dough with almond milk, porridge and turnips not with bacon but with cumin, … [I could cook] Murcian cabbage with caraway. As for stews of eggplant and mixed vegetables, all spiced, fabulous! And casseroles of sweetened eggplants to perfection! And casseroles with a taste of garlic, a pinch of cumin and a touch of vinegar … Stuffings, cuajarejos? of kid, chicken stews and kid spiced with lemon from Ceuta. And dried fish casseroles with arugula, and fantastic Morisco casseroles … Jam for the house and honey-syrup to offer [others], and syrup from quince, lavender, grapes, eggplants, nuts, and walnut flower in times of pestilence; [and] drinks from oregano and mint for those without appetite (Chapter 2, 38-9).

Jaime Bleda, Dominican priest in a Morisco parish near Valencia, and ferocious apologist for the expulsion of the Moriscos at the beginning of the 17th century, pours part of his scorn for them on the food they ate:  “They ate vile things: legumes, lentils, fava beans, millet, bread from millet. With this bread, those who could mixed raisins, figs, syrup, honey, milk and garden produce. They stuffed themselves with cucumbers, egg plants and melons. Their meat was usually goat or mutton/lamb. They were great lovers of cheap fish, cod, sardines, and of green salads.” (transl. from Rincón 202).

Another priest, Pedro Aznar Cardona, denounced Moriscos in similar language as “The vilest of people … In their meals they were coarse. They always ate on the ground with no table or any other piece of furniture that might smell of other people… What they ate were vile things … vegetables, grains, fruits, honey, and milk; they do not drink wine nor eat meat unless it is slaughtered by them … they are peddlers of oil, fish, honey, sugar, eggs, and other produce…” (Carr 189).

“Conversion” and exile effectively silenced the voices of Jews and Muslims in Spanish society as distinct religious and linguistic entities. But their cultural legacy persists in different forms and indeed is now celebrated (e. g. there are routes commemorating both Jews and Moors: Routes of Sefarad, Route of the Caliphate).

Foods and dishes that once identified and condemned Conversos and Moriscos are now commonly eaten in many parts of Spain. Dishes which include ingredients such as egg plants or chick peas, or are meat-based seasoned with fruit, or are generously spiced, or are prepared with rice are likely to have been inspired by recipes that go back to Converso and Morisco cuisine, and beyond that to Jewish and Muslim kitchens of the Middle Ages.

The same holds true for desserts especially those prepared with e. g. eggs and flour containing almonds, honey, raisins, pine nuts etc. Of course, many will have been modified over the centuries, especially with foods introduced into Europe by Spaniards in the 16th and 17th centuries (potatoes, tomatoes, vanilla, chocolate spring immediately to mind). But that is another story.

PS. Anecdotally I heard a lecture by a Jewish scholar investigating medieval music in Extremadura (in the village of Hervas) late in the second half of the 20th century. On being offered a pork tapa or bacon in a bar, she refused. A few questions by the owner determined that she was Jewish, whereupon he then withdrew the tapa with the words: “Ah, you are one of us.” 500 years after the expulsion of the Jews, there were still pockets of Jews in Spain who had secretly followed the faith of their predecessors while overtly living as Christians!

Street of the Synagogue, Hervás. Extremadura
Looking at Jewish quarter, Hervás. Extremadura
Carr, Matthew  Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain New York, London 2009
Delicado, Francisco La lozana andaluza ed. Bruno Damiani Madrid 1969
Gitlitz, David M & Davidson, Linda Kay  A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews  New York 1999 (Very interesting book.)
Kamen, Henry  The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision London 1997
Roden, Claudia The Food of Spain  New York 2011
Salazar Rincón, Javier El Mundo Social del Quijote Madrid 1986
For a very interesting article on the significance of food in16th-century Spain, see