History of the Jews in Spain. Early 15th-Century.

The Jews in Early 15th-Century Spain.
The Jews in early 15th-century Spain faced a very uncertain future. The 14th century ended with  horrendous massacres in 1391 and the subsequent mass conversion of thousands of Sephardim (from Sepharad, the name that Jews gave to Spain).

It was a time of crisis, and many historians –both Jewish and non-Jewish– agree that this period represents a massive erosion of faith in Jewish history. But it was only the beginning of a sustained proselytising crusade that lasted well into the 1400s, and Ferrán Martínez –the main firebrand who ignited the 1391 attacks on the judería of Seville, which then spread across the country– was not alone in his determination to cleanse the country of Jews.

Two contemporaries, one an ascetic Dominican priest from Valencia and the other a learned bishop from Burgos contributed mightily to the conversions of thousands of Jews to the “true faith” at the beginning of the 15th century. 

The priest, Vicente Ferrer (1350-1419), had travelled widely through France, Italy and Spain and was known for his saintly qualities, living frugally, wearing coarse clothes and shunning the temptations of courtly life. His sermons touched on all aspects of daily life of the time, with particular attention paid to the temptations of the flesh and the wiles of women.

Highly articulate and persuasive, it wasn’t long before Ferrer attracted followers who distinguished themselves by self-flagellation with chains until they bled and inflamed the passions of all those who witnessed them as they accompanied their leader on his missionary ventures. But it is for his work as a saviour of the Jews that St Vincente Ferrer, the “Apostle of the Faith,” is best known, especially towards the end of his life when he undertook a campaign of conversion in response to a call by the antipope, Benedict XIII (a friend, and Aragonese by birth).

The saintly Dominican did not believe in forced conversion; the word rather than the sword was his weapon, his tongue was a rapier shredding opposition where Martínez had wielded a hammer. He vigorously advocated enforced separation of Jews (and Mudejars: Muslims living under Christian rule) from the Christian majority, a matter that may not seem unusual since it was normal for the juderías to be enclosed within a walled enclave. But not all Jews lived in juderías and what Ferrer pursued was complete segregation in an attempt to marginalise and demoralise the Sephardim even further, and render them less resistant to his message of salvation.

Pulpit from which San Vicente Ferrer preached, in the Patio de los Naranjos, Cathedral of Seville.

Against a background of popular hostility and with the memory of 1391 still fresh (Ferrer was largely responsible for the attacks of 1391 in Valencia), the eloquent but blistering sermons of Maestre Vicens, which all Jews over 14 were obliged to attend, had the desired effect.

Wherever he went, Jews –huddled behind the altar or close to the pulpit– were urged to see the light of truth and convert. And large numbers did. In Toledo in 1405, the centre of what was left of Sephardic life at that time in Spain, there was some resistance and an angry Vicente Ferrer marched into the judería, entered one of the main synagogues and promptly reconsecrated it to the Virgin Mary, Sta María la Blanca**.

**Although later put to a variety of uses, including a refuge for reformed prostitutes, a barracks and a carpenter’s workshop, the building still stands as one of the two synagogues remaining from a rich past.

Like Martínez and Ferrer, Pablo de Santa María, a learned bishop from Burgos was also fanatical in his zeal to convert Jews, but unlike them he had a much more intimate knowledge of his enemies’ culture: he was himself not only a converted Jew (a Converso) but a former chief rabbi of Burgos!

Born Solomon Halevi (1352-1435) of a wealthy Sephardic family, he was a leading intellectual and defender of the Jewish faith in his disputes with Christian scholars.  But he was no stranger to the aristocratic court of Juan/ John I (ruled 1379-90) of Castile either, which may help to explain his decision to convert –together with his family, with the exception of his wife, whom he later divorced– during the pogrom of 1391.

As Pablo de Santa María, he quickly rose through the ecclesiastical ranks, becoming eventually the bishop of Cartagena and finally of the very town where he had served as chief rabbi. The conversion of such an esteemed figure undoubtedly had a profound impact on the Sephardic community, but even more upsetting must have been the hatred Santa María subsequently displayed to those who remained loyal to their faith.

With access to the highest ranks, Pablo de Santa María was instrumental, with Vicente Ferrer, in the passage of the infamous Laws of Valladolid of 1412 that were designed not only to marginalise and demoralise the Sephardic communities totally but also to humiliate them at the same time.

Besides complete segregation –which was to be completed within eight days on the pain of loss of all possessions– there could be no more friendships between members of the different faiths, no eating together, no business or commercial/ trading contacts. Jewish doctors could no longer attend sick Christians or give them medicines, or talk idly to them.  They could no longer serve Christians as smiths, carpenters, tailors, shoemakers, butchers, carriers or clothiers and were prohibited from attending Christian weddings or funerals, or any ceremony honouring Christians. 

Even the time-honoured tradition of allowing Jewish law to be applied by Jewish judges in internal disputes was denied. And finally, all Jewish males were forbidden to shave their beards or trim their hair, a humiliating decree to make them look as dirty or unattractive as possible to the Christians. These detailed prohibitions paradoxically give an idea of the normal social relationship between Sephardim and Christians; their enactment aimed at the total exclusion of Jews from Spanish life, a truly isolated ghetto experience.

What then was left for the Jews?  They could, of course, hope for some protection from the nobility, as had happened on numerous occasions or there was emigration. But the authors of the Laws of Valladolid had anticipated such possibilities, for nobles were prohibited from offering shelter, and any attempt at emigration would entail the loss of all goods and enslavement to the monarch “forever.”  The Sephardim, then, were caught in an ugly trap, the only “escape” being conversion, which was probably the real intention of the Laws of Valladolid in the first place.

Although the Jews were targets for conversion everywhere, the Laws of Valladolid had particular application for Castile. A modified version was passed in Aragón, also in 1412, shortly after the Castilian regent, Fernando, became king of Aragón.

But the Jews of Aragón were also unwilling witnesses to one of the most celebrated debates of the Middle Ages, a debate that was fired ironically as much by the greatest crisis that the Christian church had found itself in up to that moment as by religious fervour.

The Great Schism of 1409 threatened to tear the Church apart as three “popes” claimed the supreme title. One was Benedict XIII, friend of Vicente Ferrer. It was Benedict who initiated the famous debate –known as the Disputation of Tortosa, 1413– as part of his general campaign to convert the Jews of Spain and so demonstrate to all his worthiness and credentials as a pope by completing what others had failed to do.

It was, in effect, a crusade, a word that still resonated in Europe and one that harmonised perfectly with the conversionist activities of Martínez, Ferrer and Pablo de Santa María.

The debate was not to discuss the relative merits of Christianity and Judaism but to demonstrate to the Jews that the promised Messiah had come in Jesus Christ and that the Talmud –the authoritative body of Jewish tradition– in fact confirmed His coming. 

The disputation dragged on well over a year and the result for Benedict and his main spokesman, Jerónimo de Santa Fe –a former physician to Benedict, and recently converted by none other than Vicente Ferrer!– was a decisive victory. This might be expected given who it was who produced the “official” verdict, and the restrictions placed on the Sephardic representatives**.

**For example, Jerónimo de Santa Fe cited texts from the Talmud which the rabbis defending Judaism claimed did not exist, but they were not allowed to see those texts.The rabbis also laboured to counteract the “indisputable truth” that Jesus was the Messiah based on the false syllogism: “He who fulfils the prophesies is the Messiah,/ The prophesies were fulfilled by Jesus,/ Therefore Jesus is the Messiah” (Paris 106).

But what could not be overlooked was the unpleasant fact that numerous members of distinguished Sephardic families, including scholars, were baptised during the debates. As a result, thousands of disheartened Jews followed their leaders and whole juderías throughout Castile and Aragón disappeared completely. These mass conversions were debilitating blows that seemed to give theological proof that the Messiah had indeed come, and that to oppose such evidence was no more than wilful refusal to accept the truth.

With so many conversions, the Christian assault on Jewish beliefs in Castile and Aragón seemed highly successful, but the consequences carried an unexpected and deep sting that poisoned Spanish society for generations.

Although Jews continued to make valuable contributions to their country, they continued under pressure in the second half of the 15th century, but the situation of those who converted and their descendants (Conversos) turned out to be far more problematic than could have been imagined!

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Carr, Matthew Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain  New York 2009
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Kamen, Henry  The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision London 1997
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Paris, Erna  The End of Days  Toronto 1995