History of the Jews in Spain.14th-Century.

The Jews in 14th-century Spain.
The attitude of tolerance towards the Sephardim (from Sepharad, the name that Jews give to Spain) that existed roughly from 1075 to 1350 in the emerging Christian kingdoms of Iberia began to turn ominously during the 14th century.

The struggle between crown and cities over the role and presence of the Sephardim, already under way in the 13th century, continued unabated, with the Sephardim caught uncomfortably in between. The Jews enjoyed the protection of the crown for their administrative expertise much to the annoyance of Christian city dwellers who objected to the perceived favoured status of the Jews and to their role as tax collectors etc.

At the same time the Jews faced continuing pressure from the preaching orders (Dominican and Franciscan) to convert to Christianity, a missionising programme carried over from the 13th century.

Surrounded by a sea of Christians, the Jews were always subject to discrimination despite the protection of the crown and nobles. Conversion to Christianity was always a threat to the community, and any unusual event might trigger some to look to Christianity as a means of protection or salvation.

Towards the very end of the 13th century (1295), for example, a wave of messianic prophesies and apocalyptic visions took root in the Jewish communities in the Castilian town of Avila, and a certain Sepharad named Abraham proclaimed himself a prophet.

Thousands of Jews, believing Abraham’s prophecy that the Messiah would arrive on a certain day in July 1295, gathered to greet Him.  But instead of the Messiah, they found crosses sticking miraculously to their clothes. Disillusioned many reportedly converted to Christianity.

One individual deeply affected by these events was the physician, philosopher and rabbi Abner of Burgos (born ca. 1260). He struggled with doubts for several years while serving his community until he had a dream (ca 1317) in which the Jews themselves were blamed for their problems, and he was urged to become a “teacher of righteousness” to lead them to the truth. 

A second dream around 1320, in which a man appeared clothed with crosses convinced him to convert to Christianity, after which he dedicated his life to proselytising for his new faith as sacristan in a prominent church in Valladolid, under a new name, Alfonso de Valladolid. Abner’s conversion and the zeal with which he praised Christianity’s superiority later gave way to advocating the separation of Jews and Christians and the active persecution of his former religious brethren.

Abner’s conversion and his harsh attacks on his former religion and its followers were but one of several disturbing factors that had a profound impact on the quality of life of the Sephardim in the 14th century. Of these other factors, we can begin with:
1.  Severe and unpredictable weather patterns –cold and floods– during the first 20 years of the century. Priests everywhere were quick to pounce on the Jews as the source of the problem.
2.   Increased rumours from northern European countries of alleged Jewish atrocities entered the peninsula, and made the Jews particularly vulnerable when the Bubonic Plague struck and ravaged Europe from 1348 to 1350.

The Plague hit Barcelona and Valencia in May 1348 and within a few months had penetrated deeply inland and decimated many towns and villages. As in other European countries, public order broke down as looters raided shops and peasants boldly settled on lands abandoned by the nobility.  Faced with terror and egged on by fear, people turned desperately to God for mercy and looked for scapegoats. 

The Jew was an obvious choice in the popular mind, and the plague was, to most commoners, a sure sign of God’s displeasure that the Anti-Christ was allowed to flourish in Christian lands. As instruments of the devil, the Jews were targets for revenge, despite papal and royal condemnation of such attacks, and despite the fact that they too were victims of the plague.

They were accused of deliberately poisoning wells (often using lepers to carry out their foul deeds!) as part of a diabolical conspiracy to rule the world. In France Jews were accused of receiving poisons and their orders from Toledo, a “Jewish city”, or from the “King of Granada” whose bribes inflamed Jewish greed.
3.  In Castile, the social dislocation following the plague was further aggravated by a dynastic civil war from 1350 to 1369 between Pedro/ Peter I and a coalition of nobles led his bastard half-brother Enrique/ Henry of Trastámara.

The Jews found themselves caught on the horns of a dilemma during this war. Pedro generally favoured the Jews and actively punished those found guilty of harming his Jewish subjects. He named as his chief treasurer Samuel Halevi, and even gave him permission to build the beautiful Sinagoga del Tránsito in Toledo (1355) at a time when the construction of synagogues was prohibited in Spain.

Interior of the Sinagoga delTránsito,Toledo. Main prayer hall, with the Ark (where the Torah is kept) in the east wall.

Enrique, tapping in on popular anti-Jewish sentiment, accused Pedro of being a “king of the Jews” intent on delivering Castile into Jewish hands. He went further, claiming that Pedro was actually the son of a Jewess, and painted himself as the defender of Christian rights. It was a deliberate anti-Semitic smear that resulted in the massacre of Jews in Toledo and several other cities in Castile and Aragón (as the war spilled over into the neighbouring kingdom).

Muddying the political waters for the Sephardim was internal hostility amongst groups of them in Pedro’s court. Samuel Halevi was one victim of this hostility. After having been denounced by some fellow Jews for conspiracy, he was imprisoned in Seville in 1360 where he died soon after under torture.

Pedro hung on to power for another nine years, but Enrique –with the assistance of French mercenaries– relentlessly assumed more and more control of the country. As he did so, his anti-Semitic rhetoric decreased and as readily as he had earlier condemned Jewish influence in his brother’s court, so now he began to look to Jewish financiers for support. 

The quandary for the Sephardic leaders is not difficult to understand.  Should they go over to Enrique when Pedro was still alive?  Should they support the man who had so vilified them when his brother and their protector might still make a come-back? How far could they trust Enrique?  The decision was made for them in 1369 when Pedro was stabbed to death by his brother in a struggle in a French mercenary’s tent. It was an inglorious ending to a headstrong king, known to history as both el Cruel and el Justiciero (“strictly just”)

Enrique II may have used the anti-Semitic card to great effect in his struggle against his half-brother, but with his enemy dead he now absorbed many of Pedro’s Jewish administrators into his court so that the royal treasury once more assumed a Jewish character. This may have comforted the Sephardic minority but it infuriated their Christian antagonists who felt betrayed by the king who had promised to cleanse the court of Jewish influence.

4.  One of those who may have felt frustrated by Enrique’s about turn was a relatively obscure archdeacon, Ferrán Martínez, from the small town of Ecija, near Seville.  This lowly priest with a vitriolic tongue and obsessive determination channelled the hostility of the masses, perhaps more than any other individual, against the Jews.

Beginning in 1378 and disregarding several royal and church injunctions over period of 14 years, he preached virulent sermons in Seville that advocated the destruction of all synagogues and the elimination of all Jews from the kingdom. Death might have been Martínez’s choice, but being a churchman he had to adhere –at least outwardly– to the Church’s dictate that forbade the killing of Jews; conversion should be the objective.

Martínez’s strength was in the people, the traditional enemies of the Sephardic community, and it is in their hostility that he found support.  Nevertheless, the situation might have remained a stalemate between him and the authorities but for the death of Enrique/Henry II in 1379, and his son Juan/John I in 1390.

Both had defended their Jewish subjects; both recognised their dependence upon them.  Martínez, of course, owed them nothing. When Juan died, his heir was a sickly 11-year old, and the kingdom was ruled by a divided and weak regency. With no authoritative figure to protect them, the Sephardim were particularly vulnerable, and Martínez now had a free hand. 

On top of that, a disastrous attempt to conquer Portugal (ending with the humiliating treaty of Aljubarrotas, 1385, recognising Portugal’s independence), and another epidemic that ravaged Andalusia added fuel to the feeling of frustration and provided fertile soil for hostility.

The assault that broke out in the narrow streets of the judería next to the cathedral of Seville on June 4, 1391 was the first of a massive tidal wave that swept, like a plague affecting Jews only, northwards via Córdoba and Segovia until by August it had reached Burgos. It spread, too, into Aragón, where coincidentally Martínez’s nephew was a priest and also virulently anti-Jewish.

The speed, breadth and hostility with which the attacks spread underline the depth of hate for the Sephardim among the Christian masses.  Martínez was, in a way, the match that lit the conflagration, and the flames of hate fanned outwards with a fury that left the Sephardic community more devastated than at any previous time in its history. 

From being one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, it lost –within three years—an estimated one-third of its number, and had been severely traumatised. The savagery of the pogrom in Seville was unprecedented in Spanish history. By the time the riots reached Burgos, with one of the largest Sephardic communities in Castile, most of the Jews rushed to the baptismal fonts rather than face the massacres, the news of which had undoubtedly sped north ahead of the actual disturbances.

Concrete figures are notoriously difficult to determine and the number of men killed and wives and children sold into slavery varies widely.  Suffice it to say that the major aljamas/juderías (Jewish quarters) of Spain were totally destroyed within three years, and an estimated loss of one-third of the Sephardic community was enough to severely demoralise the remaining Jews and weaken their resolve. And the 15th century bought no relief, if anything matters got even worse.


Fletcher, Richard  Moorish Spain London 1992
Gerber,  Jane S The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience New York 1992
Kamen, Henry  The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision London 1997
Netanyahu, Benzion The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain New York 1995
Paris, Erna  The End of Days  Toronto 1995
Ziegler, Philip  The Black Death Harmondsworth, Middlesex 1969. Reprinted 1975
Image of the interior of the Sinagoga del Tránsito: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/spain/toledo-sinagoga-del-transito

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