The Political Picture:
1492 looms large in Spanish history, often talked of as annus mirabilis with particular reference to the conquest of Granada, the last Islamic outpost of what had once been the powerful state of Muslim al-Andalus, and to the discovery of Las Indias (America).
But for the Jews of Spain and for the defeated Muslims, 1492 might more appropriately be called annus horribilis. Shortly after the surrender of Granada, the Jewish communities of Spain (the Sephardim, after Sepharad, the Hebrew word for Spain) were faced with an unpleasant choice offered to them by Ferdinand and Isabel, the Catholic Monarchs: either exile or conversion to Christianity. Thousands left and the remainder converted. But with this decree, the Catholic Monarchs brought to an end over 1000 years of Jewish life in the peninsula, and Sepharad** was no more.
Spain’s Jewish community in the Middle Ages (roughly 500 to 1500) was larger than that of all the other European countries combined, and by the end of the period was distributed fairly widely throughout the country, primarily in urban areas.
They were tolerated by the Visigoths until 589 when, following the religious unification of the country under the Catholic faith, they remained the only religious outsiders. A series of decrees in the 600s made life exceedingly difficult, and it is likely that the Jews viewed the arrival in Hispania of Muslim forces in 711 favourably, given the tolerance with which their co-religionists in North Africa were treated by the conquering Muslims.
Under Islamic rule, the Jews enjoyed relative stability and prosperity as dhimmis until the arrival of the fundamentalist Almoravids (1086-1145) and the even more zealous Almohads (1146-1212). Repression and persecution forced thousands to flee to the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragón, where they were welcome.
Following the defeat of the Almohads at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in the early 13th century (1212), al-Andalus was reduced to the taifa of Granada. With thousands of disaffected Muslims who fled there from the advancing Christians, Granada now had little tolerance for non-Muslims, and Jewish presence was limited to a few trading communities along the coast.
Little is known of the Sephardim in the Christian north in the early years when the emerging Christian kingdoms (Asturias, León, and the Spanish Marches south of the Pyrenees) were in a constant state of flux.
What appears to have happened is that as the Christians continued their southward march, Jews already living in the reconquered lands remained where they were, induced by certain privileges such as royal protection, land grants, and tax exemptions. Nevertheless, in spite of their privileges, they still suffered discrimination, especially amongst the masses, and they were excluded from positions of authority, e.g. in government or the army.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, they were joined by their co-religionists fleeing Almoravid and Almohad repression. The new arrivals were welcomed by Christian monarchs who needed to replace fleeing Muslims and to recolonize conquered territory. It was generally speaking a time of opportunity for the Jews, with some rising to prominence and influence in the courts of Castile and Aragón, especially as physicians or financial administrators. One such figure is Joseph ha-Nasi Ferrizuel, personal physician to the conqueror of Toledo, Alfonso VI of Castile (r. 1065-1109).
Christian attitude towards Jews in Spain generally continued to be tolerant in the 13th century despite the increased religious overtones of Christian expansionism. However, certain events north of the Pyrenees during this period signalled storm clouds of anti-Semitism that would soon cast their shadows over the peninsula: 1. The founding of the Dominican and Franciscan religious orders in Rome (1206 and 1209 respectively), the two mendicant/preaching orders most notoriously involved with religious debates to convert Jews to Christianity**;
in Barcelona between a former Jew, Pablo
Christiani and Rabbi Moses ben Nahman.
2. The Fourth Lateran Council, convoked by the Pope Innocent III in 1215, which promulgated the segregation of Jews into exclusive Jewish quarters and decreed that Jews had to wear distinctive, round yellow patches;
3. The creation of the Inquisition, ca 1231, intended initially to confront Albigensian or Cathar heresy in the south of France, but later indelibly linked with Spain;
4. The eviction in 1290 of Jews from England, to be followed shortly by expulsions from France (1306) and several other parts of northern Europe.
The storm clouds of anti-Semitism during the 13th century reflected a general hardening of attitudes in northern Europe. They mirrored the increasing religious fervour of Christians inflamed by the rhetoric of extremists urging crusades, which took off in the late 11th century (1096) and continued unabated in the 13th.
Hatred for Muslims in the Middle East was often conflated with hatred for the Jews living in Europe. Christians were reminded that the enemies of Christ were not only the Muslims in Jerusalem but also dwelt amongst them in the form of the Jews. There were outbreaks of violence spurred on by images of Jews as sinister figures inspired by the devil to seek the destruction of Christianity.
All kinds of fantastic crimes were attributed to the community, from the regular desecration of the Eucharist bread (believed by Catholics to be the body of Christ) to the killing of Christians to obtain their blood, which brewed together with spiders, lizards, frogs and human flesh formed a concoction guaranteed to disguise their distinctive odours.
Easter was a particularly harrowing period for it was a time –so rumour ran– when Jews murdered Christian children to re-enact the crucifixion or obtain their blood for ritual purposes. It was a rumour sufficiently established and widespread for the broad-minded Alfonso X of Castile (1221-1284) to include it in his famous code of laws (the Siete Partidas): And because we have heard it said in some places Jews celebrated and still celebrate Good Friday … by way of contempt: stealing children and fastening them to crosses, and making images of wax and crucifying them, when they cannot obtain children; we order that, hereafter, if in any part of our dominions anything like this is done, and can be proved, all persons who were present … shall … be brought before the king, and after the king ascertains that they are guilty, he shall cause them to be put to death in a disgraceful manner (Constable ed. 269-70).
The seeds for a change of attitude during the 14th century in Spain and beyond (15th century) were well and truly laid.
Role of the Jews in Christian Spain.
One of the consequences of the Moorish conquest of Hispania was that the Mediterranean became virtually an Islamic sea. Trade between Europe and the Orient was rendered difficult by hostility between Christians and Muslims.
It is here that the Jews, as commercial agents with contacts with fellow Jews dispersed throughout the Mediterranean and along the trade routes, played a vital role in maintaining an economic lifeline between East and West. And being multilingual, with a command of early Spanish as well as Arabic and Hebrew (the lingua franca amongst educated Jews), they moved easily across national boundaries.
For Christian Spain, the constant proximity of and the dangers posed by Islam was a daily reminder of deep rooted cultural differences between the two groups. Complicating the picture was the frequent hostility between the developing Christian kingdoms as they fought for dominance over each other and for expansion to the south. Castile and Aragón were especially aggressive. The point is that the Christian kingdoms, above all Castile, developed a highly militaristic spirit, shared too by the settlers required to repopulate the reconquered border forts, villages or towns.
As the Christians pursued the business of war against each other or against al-Andalus, they left the Jews to apply their particular skills in those areas vital to the well-being of a community: the organisation of a commercial and administrative infrastructure as part of the transition from Muslim to Christian rule.
Here the Jewish trade network was valuable for the transport of goods and commodities: food and clothes, military equipment etc. They also established trade fairs and carried out many of those professional jobs that help society run.
There were Jewish farmers, shopkeepers, tailors, peddlars, smiths, shoemakers, tanners, weavers, builders, masons, carpenters, textile workers, potters, market gardeners, and so on. This was especially so in Castile where –unlike in Aragón– there were far fewer Mudejars (Muslims who chose to remain in lands conquered by the Christians), traditionally associated with these pursuits.
What differentiates the Sephardim from the Mudejars and explains their greater impact is that they were also widely employed in public offices as administrators of estates, lawyers, scribes, physicians, translators, emissaries, tax collectors, the same influential positions that they had earlier occupied under the Moors.
It was these occupations that made them particularly valuable to the monarchs and the nobility, but it was these occupations too that made them objects of resentment among the commoners, and were to be instrumental in the explosion of anti-Semitism at the end of the 14th century.
Jewish expertise in the public service not only allowed the kings and nobles to pursue their military goals, it also ensured protection for the Jews at the highest level. Indeed, the favours and relative stability the Jews enjoyed in Christian Spain for some 300 years (approx. 1075-1350) were owed primarily to the protection of the monarchy and nobility.
As eternal strangers condemned to wander for having crucified Christ, they had no direct authority over Christians, and their legal status was that of property of the king. Legally, politically and physically, they were totally vulnerable. And yet thanks to their expertise as administrators of noble estates and royal courts, or physicians to the kings, or diplomats, the Jews acquired power and influence beyond their numbers.
The protection of the powerful, however, carried with it dangers. On the one hand it could wax and wane according to the rise and fall of kings. On the other, it made the Jews vulnerable to the resentment of the common people, because of their perceived influence and preferential treatment: the right to have legal disputes with Christians heard by special judges appointed by the king; collection of their own taxes which they paid directly to the king, exemption from most municipal obligations, and in particular because of their role as tax collectors or money lenders.
With the institution of the Cortes (i.e. Parliament) in León 1188, and in Castile in 1250, the voices of the common people were transmitted directly to the monarchs and their concerns about the influence of the Jews became part of an ongoing power struggle between the crown, the nobles and the cities. Representatives of the latter constantly petitioned the kings in several meetings of the Cortes to remove all Jews and other royal representatives from municipal appointments.
Nevertheless, daily contact between Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities, led to a substantial degree of tolerance and coexistence (convivencia is the much used term now) that marked the difference between Spain and the rest of Europe for much of the Medieval period.
Clearly the Jewish communities felt reasonably comfortable in the peninsula, although it is important to keep in mind that there were sporadic outbursts against minorities and that coexistence was in general one of expediency, based primarily on commerce or some other necessity (e.g. as administrators of estates, tax gatherers, physicians, diplomats, translators).
As long as the expanding Christian kingdoms needed the expertise and manpower of the Sephardim, they were tolerated. And the protection of kings and nobles was vital. The events of 1492 show what happened when that support was withdrawn.
Aguilar, M & Robertson, I Jewish Spain: A Guide Madrid 1986
Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke: Hampshire 2nd. ed. 2009
Constable, O R Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources Philadelphia 1997
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
Roth, Cecil “The European Age in Jewish History (to 1648)” in Finkelstein, Louis ed. The Jews: Their History New York 1970
For a summary of the Spanish government’s decision to grant automatic citizenship to the descendants of Jews who were exiled in 1492, see http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/3509/spanish-citizenship-jews
Three very interesting articles on Spain’s rediscovery of its Sephardic past: http://www.latimes.com/travel/la-trw-spain27may27,0,3961982.story; http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/05/world/europe/05spain.html?_r=0; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21631427