History of the Jews and Conversos in Spain. 15th Century

Jews and Conversos in 15th-Century Spain.
A brief glossary:
Converso(s): used primarily to refer to converts from Judaism to Christianity and their descendants, but sometimes included Christianised Muslims and descendants;
Cristiano(s) nuevo(s) (New Christian(s): a Converso, increasingly came to be used to designate difference from the Cristiano(s) viejo(s) (Old Christian(s);
Marranos: a disparaging term (meaning swine) used to refer to ostensibly converted Jews and their descendants who secretly followed their Jewish faith. Now frequently replaced by Crypto-Jew;
Anusim: Hebrew word meaning forced converts and their descendants;
Meshumadim: a willing convert to Christianity;
Mudejar(s): Muslims living under Christian rule;
Sephardim: Jews living in Spain (from Sepharad, the Hebrew name for Spain).

The 14th and 15th centuries were periods of fundamental and unpleasant changes for the Jews of Spain, (made up primarily of Castile and Aragón, but not including last remnant of Muslim al-Andalus: the Kingdom of Granada).

The pogroms of 1391 and subsequent mass conversions were followed in the early 15th century by continued pressures on the Sephardim to apostate. Names of fanatical Christian priests such as Ferrán Martínez and Vicente Ferrer, and equally zealous Jewish converts to Christianity like Pablo de Santa María or Jerónimo de Santa Fe, resonated throughout the juderías (also aljamas) of the country.

The mass conversions, however, had results that complicated social relationships in unforeseen ways, and their impact was to be felt into the 16th century and beyond.

Conversions of Jews to Christianity had taken place periodically from early times, but what distinguishes the period of approximately 1391 to 1415 is the unprecedented number of Jewish converts, a large percentage of whom –because of their employment in public offices and their closer contact with the Christian upper classes– belonged to the elite of their community.

The result is that in the 15th century we have a complicated social picture: First there were Christians of old stock, Cristianos viejos (the majority), joined now by a significant and highly visible number of “New Christians” (Conversos or Cristianos nuevos). There still remained a substantial community of Jews, many of whom prospered despite the trying times. And in Aragón and eastern and southern Castile many Mudejars added to the social mix.

Of the thousands of Conversos, many were genuine converts (e.g Pablo de Santa María), but on the other hand, the numerous forced, rushed or mass conversions also meant that there were inevitably many ostensible Cristianos nuevos who felt no real attachment to their new faith and continued practicing their old beliefs in secret (i.e. they were Crypto-Jews, Marranos).

Outwardly they were Christians, but within the walls of their houses and in their personal life, they still followed Judaic laws and rituals as far as possible. They lived double lives, reinventing themselves by publicly taking on Christian names (those of saints being particularly popular), but given the speed with which conversions took place they were hardly able to assimilate a new Christian identity and cast off their Jewish customs overnight.

They found themselves caught between the familiarity of their Judaic culture and the demands of their new religion. This meant publicly renouncing their former values, attending church instead of the synagogue, acknowledging Christ as the Messiah and the Virgin Mary as his mother, working on Saturdays and changing radically their dietary habits. A traumatic task at the best of times, but under the ruthless conditions of the day it was fraught with insecurity, uncertainty and possible ostracism from both camps.

Genuine Conversos, eager to convince their “Old Christian” neighbours of the truth of their conversion, often went out of their way to mock their Jewish past, attack their ancient beliefs, denounce as heretics those who secretly practiced Judaism, or actively persecute those remaining Jews, in the manner of Pablo de Santa María.

Consequences of Conversion.
Given the proselytising zeal in the years following the 1391 pogroms, it wasn’t long before the sincerity of many converts began to be questioned.  Ironically, the question of their sincerity might have not become a major issue but for the consequences of their becoming Christians.

Simply put, once baptised all Conversos were Christians and therefore enjoyed all the privileges of belonging to the majority group. In other words, they could no longer be discriminated against on religious grounds and could now freely take up positions which Christian commoners had long sought to deny Jews and participate fully in the social and economic life of the Christians.

Old Christians, for their part, found that the new converts not only remained what they had been as Jews (merchants, traders, shopkeepers, physicians, financiers, administrators etc.), but now had even more access to power.

Three new areas in particular opened up for the Cristianos nuevos: the nobility, the church (and religious orders), and public offices. Jews had long served as administrators of noble estates, but a more intimate relationship –such as marriage– had been rare.

Now, however, as “Christians” they faced no religious obstacle and many noble, old Christian families and wealthy Converso families contracted marriage to their mutual advantage: for the Conversos it secured protection and instant “respectability,” for the Christian upper classes it was largely a commercial transaction often to improve their economic lot. Indeed, intermarriage became such a common practice that by the end of the 15th century, it was claimed that most noble houses contained Jewish ancestry.

As for the Church and the religious orders, they could hardly discriminate against the Conversos, and indeed had done much to persuade Old Christians to receive their new religious brethren generously (after all, why should the Jews convert if they were going to be ill-treated!). 

As a result, numerous Conversos made significant advancement within the ranks of the church and the religious orders, the transformation of Solomon Halevi, chief rabbi of Burgos into Pablo de Santa María, bishop of Burgos being but one example.

A corner of the Jewish quarter in Segovia.

As for public offices, legal constraints had prohibited Jews from holding positions of authority over Christians, but Cristianos nuevos –freed from such constraints– quickly moved into those areas with such success that many Castilian towns, e.g. Burgos, Segovia, were in fact run by Converso families.

On the surface, the sustained assaults of Ferrán Martínez, and Vicente Ferrer and others had certainly borne fruit with the decimation of Jewish communities, but success carried with it an unexpected sting.

The trouble is that instead of eliminating differences and unifying society, the mass conversions at the turn of the 15th century complicated social cohesion by creating a hybrid Christian group that came to be hated as much as or even more than the Jews!  Why?

The Sephardim had been highly visible outsiders, and in them Old Christian resentment had an easily identifiable target. However, as Conversos replaced the Jews in the same spheres of influence and even penetrated the nobility, the church and public offices, commoner resentment soon found a new target in them and their descendants.

It wasn’t long before  whispers and accusations of treason, conspiracies and corruption became widespread, to such a degree that, as with the Jews, the Conversos required royal edicts that specifically protected them from discrimination.

A decree of Enrique/Henry III (1390-1406) commands that if any of the Jews be converted to the Christian faith, “all people of our dominions treat them respectfully, and that none dare detract them or their lineage by mentioning, in an insulting manner, the fact that they had been Jews. [We further order that] they [the Conversos] may have all the offices and honors which the other Christians have” (Netanyahu, 271).

However, in the popular mind, royal protection did no more than foster the belief of preferential treatment and exacerbated the on-going struggle between crown and municipalities (where the voice of common people was heard).

It did not help matters either that the public advancement experienced by the Conversos took place against a background of intense struggles between rival aristocratic factions circulating around the throne of the youthful and politically disinterested king, Juan II (1406-54). 

The king’s favourite and closest advisor, Alvaro de Luna  –the major political figure in Castile during some 30 years of near anarchy before losing royal favour, and his head, in 1453– had a particular political agenda: the promotion of the concept of royal absolutism and the divine rights of kings.  This meant overriding the opinions of the nobles and dispensing with the Cortes (Parliament), where the municipalities had a voice.

As part of this agenda, Alvaro created a new bureaucracy that would not only be loyal to the crown but would work to improve royal control over administrative matters, including taxation. Which is where the Conversos come in.  Luna recognised that the Conversos had the practical experience to carry out these functions and introduced many of them into the royal administration. The resentment of both nobles and commoners was palpable.

Toledo and the Birth of Limpieza de sangre (Purity of Blood).
For the next and crucial step in this story we go to Toledo, the Christian capital of the country and home also to one of the largest Converso communities of Castile.  In January, 1449, Alvaro de Luna arrived at the “imperial” city to raise taxes for the king. 

The man charged with the collection was Alonso Cota, a Converso. There had been poor harvests recently, a chronic shortage of grain and sharp inflation of prices, and then demands for money… they were a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, the commander of the fortress of Toledo, Pero Sarmiento –bitterly disappointed by failed promises from the king and Luna– was in a rebellious mood.

What happened next is not exactly clear.  Some chronicles of the period talk of a spontaneous insurrection by the commoners against the demands for money; others suggest that Sarmiento, sensing an opportunity to take control of Toledo, claimed the Conversos were false Christians, enemies of the Church, and were conspiring to kill all the Old Christians. 

Whatever the case, the Conversos were reviled by the commoners because of their power, and detested by Sarmiento because they supported the king and Luna. With the ringing of cathedral bells to urge them on, packs of Old Christians attacked and destroyed Converso homes, and underlined their resolve by hanging several Conversos in the public square.

But the destruction of Converso property was not what made the Toledo rebellion significant; it was what followed. With the city now in their hands, in June 1449 the rebels promulgated a special statute, called the Sentencia-Estatuto, which set the parameters of social life in Spain for centuries to come.

Following allegations that Conversos conspired to seize control of key offices with the aim of destroying Christian society from within, the Sentencia-Estatuto declared that from henceforth no Conversos or their descendants could hold any public or private office at any time. Despite a papal bull condemning the action of the rebels and the Sentencia, the vitriol directed at the Conversos  as “beasts … sowers of all discord, rich in … perversity” etc. (Reston 20) could not be contained. 

The Sentencia-Estatuto was the first clear articulation that religion was no longer the principal feature distinguishing those living in Spanish society but blood and race (the same criterion would be applied also to converted Muslims –Moriscos).  Purity of blood, —limpieza de sangre— here explodes onto the scene for the first time.  At this moment, however, it expressed the deep felt sentiments of commoners in Toledo; quickly it became a national obsession as restrictions for those with Jewish lineage become widespread. 

It presaged, too, the introduction into Spanish life of an investigative body that became the embodiment of suspicion and terror in its pursuit of heresy: the Inquisition.


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Reston, James Jr.  Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors  New York 2005