Visigothic Spain: The Jews.
For a 1000 years or more, until 1492 –when they were forced to chose exile or conversion to Christianity– the Jews figured prominently in the history of Spain (or Sepharad**, as they called it).
**Medieval tradition identified the biblical Sepharad (Obadiah v. 20) with the Iberian Peninsula. Hence Jews living in Spain were called Sephardic Jews, a term still used with reference to the descendants of those Jews exiled in 1492. Although the reference iObadiah is vague, it has also been argued that Sepharad was identified with Sardis (modern Sart) in east central Turkey.
The Jewish community had been subject to exile or forced conversion before, but thanks to half-hearted enforcement, bribery, or protection by kings or powerful nobles, they survived the Middle Ages (i.e. roughly from 500 to 1500).
It’s a very complicated history, Spain in the Middle Ages. To generalise … first the Visigothic period from roughly 500 to 700, and then two specific chronological markers that loom large in Spain’s history: 711 and 1492. In 711 Muslim forces crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and swept northward through the peninsula; the land they occupied they called al-Andalus. Several Christian kingdoms sprung up in opposition in the north of the peninsula, and slowly pushed their way south until, in 1492, the last Muslim remnant was defeated.
Under the Visigoths, the Jews jumped into prominence as being “different” following the political and religious unification of the peninsula in the late 6th century. From 711, they played an important role in bridging Christian and Muslim lands as e.g. translators, emissaries, trans Mediterranean merchants as well as fulfilling important functions within each of those communities.
They were active as doctors, scribes, tax collectors, shopkeepers, estate managers, lawyers, and merchants, in addition to more mundane work as shopkeepers, tailors, pedlars, smiths, shoemakers, tanners, weavers, builders, masons, carpenters, textile workers, potters, market gardeners, and so on.
The situation changed dramatically in the 14th and 15th centuries, however, culminating with a decree in 1492, whereby Jews were given a choice of conversion or exile**. Thousands left, but thousands were baptized and remained, although many secretly continued practising their religion despite the attention of the infamous Inquisition. But officially Spain was now Catholic; there were no Jews.
**The fate of the Muslims was similar. In 1501 they faced the same choice as the Jews: exile or conversion. Only the Muslims of Aragon escaped the edict, but in the 1525 they too met the same fate.
Very little is known of the life of the Jews in the early years of Visigothic rule in Spain, but it seems that they were tolerated. The Visigoths had enough on their hands with the Hispano-Roman majority –not to mention rival Gothic tribes (e.g. the Sueves and Alani), stubborn Basques in the north, and a Byzantine enclave in the south east– to be concerned about the Jews.
Generally speaking, the Visigoths used earlier Roman laws in their dealings with the Jews, e.g. the Theodosian Code of 438, which excluded Jews from governmental and military positions, put limitations on the ownership of Christian slaves, restricted the expansion of Judaism (no construction of new synagogues), and prohibited intermarriage between Jews and Christians.
The earliest Visigothic code that addressed the Jewish matter is the Breviary of Alaric II, issued in 506, which does little more than repeat the restrictions already outlined in the Theodosian Code.
The situation deteriorated for the Jews following the conversion of King Reccared (r. 586-601) from Arianism to Catholicism in 587. Two years later, at the third Council of Toledo (Toledo III), he declared his kingdom to be officially Catholic. From this moment, the Jews represented the only group that did not subscribe to the religious unity of the country.
Nevertheless, the edicts of Toledo III did not differ substantially from the earlier Roman and Breviary laws: e.g. marriage between Jews and Christians was disallowed; Jews could not hold public offices and thus wield power over Christians; Jews could not buy Christian slaves, and those slaves in their employ who had been obliged to convert to Judaism were to be freed without having to pay indemnity.
It was at the beginning of the 7th century that the Jews really began to feel the weight of their “otherness.” It started with a decree issued by King Sisebut (r. 611-20) who ordered all Jews to undergo baptism.
To escape the pressure many emigrated, but many also remained who nominally became Christians but who in secret continued practising their faith. This did not, however, resolve the Jewish problem, and not all Jews who remained converted either, as is evidenced by the number of further decrees directed at Jews during the 7th century. Evidently enforcement was not rigorous, and generous protection payments undoubtedly oiled the wheels of “tolerance,” which may also explain why not all kings or nobles were uniformly ill-disposed towards the Jews either.
Still, the pressure on the Jews during the 7th century was constant, and not only in Spain; it was part of a general trend in the Christian communities of the Mediterranean at the time. In Spain, the most eloquent adversary of the Jews was the learned St Isidore (ca 560-636), author of On the Christian Faith against the Jews. However, while St Isidore disagreed emphatically with forced conversions, he argued equally strongly that the Jews were misguided in failing to recognise that the Messiah (i.e. Jesus) had been proclaimed.
During the second half of the 7th century the intensity of the decrees issued by different church councils against the Jews increased:
1. They were prohibited from celebrating Passover, or observing their dietary laws or conducting their own weddings.
2. They were offered the dubious choice between baptism and enslavement, their property was confiscated and they were prohibited from practising foreign trade.
3. Jewish communities were dispersed throughout the kingdom,
4. Jewish children over seven years were delivered to Christian families to be brought up as Christians.
Towards the end of the 7th century, the Jews were also accused of trying to subvert Christianity and of being involved in conspiracies with their coreligionists in North Africa against the state.
The lot of the Jewish communities in the 7th century in Spain was aggravated by the rapid turnover of rulers (14 different kings in that period) and the increased powers of the church, thanks to its symbiotic relationship with the crown.
The repressive injunctions against the Jews clearly made for a miserable life, and news that a new religion –Islam–was spreading rapidly across the north of Africa and extending favourable treatment to Jews would not have gone unnoticed. After all, commercial contacts between Jews dispersed throughout the Mediterranean were commonplace, despite restrictions. In 711, Islam crossed the straits of Gibraltar.
Were the Muslim invaders encouraged by the Jews of Spain? We don’t know, but it is highly likely that they did not oppose it.
For Jews in Medieval Spain, see Jews in Spain to 13th Century; Jews in 14th-Century Spain; Jews in Early 15th-Century Spain; Jews and Conversos in 15th-Century Spain.
Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire & New York 2004.
Carr, Raymond ed. Spain: A History Oxford 2000
Collins, Roger Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity, 400-1000 London 1983
Flannery, Edward The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-three Centuries of Antisemitism Mahwah, New Jersey 2004
Gerber, Jane The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience Toronto 1992
Katz, Steven ed. The Cambridge History of Judaism. Vol IV The Late Roman Rabbinic Period Cambridge 2006.
Marias, Julian Understanding Spain Ann Arbor, Michigan 1992
Patai, Raphael, Patai, Jennifer The Myth of the Jewish Race New York 1975 rev’d 1989
Roth, Norman Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in Medieval Spain: Cooperation and Conflict Leiden, New York 1994.