In 1492, Jews in the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were given a stark choice: baptism or departure from a land where they had dwelt since the days when their ancestors had called it Sepharad. While Fernando of Aragon and Isabel of Castile are rightfully held accountable for decreeing the expulsion, events of the previous century created the conditions for this imprudent decision. By then, Jews had outlived their utility in a new state trying to consolidate its political authority through Catholicism. What factors overrode the important roles of Jews in Spain over the course of a millennium and a half, and what were the consequences of anti-Judaic sentiment for Jews who remained as New Christian converts, or conversos?
The fact that a people acculturated to Muslim and Christian societies gradually became expendable shows that for the Jewish people, seeds of trouble can exist in times of integration. Medieval Spain was divided into Christian kingdoms that since 711 had been controlled by Muslims from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Generally speaking, in Spain there was a convivencia (coexistence) between Muslims, Christians, and Jews that seems unfathomable today. Such were its conditions that Jews achieved a cultural renaissance unequaled until 19th-century Germany and 20th-century America.
By the 1200s, fundamentalist Berber Muslims from North Africa overran the unstable states of their brethren on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), and soon thereafter, Christian forces finished reconquering all but the Kingdom of Granada, in the far south. The presence and relative prosperity of Jews in these lands was wrongly regarded as a threat to the integrity of Christianity. Through a series of unfortunate coincidences, Ferrant Martínez, a fiery Jew-baiting cleric, preached his message of hate in Seville to crowds frustrated with their own lives. The pogrom that broke out there in 1391, partly due to his rabble rousing, consumed many juderías (Jewish quarters) of Andalusía, in southern Spain, and spread up the Mediterranean coast. Thousands.died and tens of thousands converted due to this violence, the worst of which occurred where Jews had achieved their golden age of the 900s and 1000s.
After 1391, Jews suffered confinement to ghettos, restricted opportunities for travel and work, and the wearing of identification badges. Another consequence of the violence was the emergence of New Christian converts, some of whom preached against their former coreligionaries. For example, Solomon Halevi, rabbi of Burgos, eventually became an anti-Jewish bishop of that city, while the physician Joshua Halorki turned his intellect against Judaism after baptism as Jerónimo de Santa Fe. He attacked Judaism during the Disputation of Tortosa of 1413-1415, a debate meant to compel Jews remaining in Iberia to convert.
While the lower classes of Old Christians resented the relative prosperity of New Christians, Old Christians of nobility, but without wealth to match their status, sought marriage alliances with prosperous converts. By these marriages of convenience, “the converso family was able to achieve the social respectability and the noble family the wealth that seemed otherwise to elude the grasp of each” (Gampel, “Convivencia,” 30). Many converts advanced more rapidly than Old Christians in the justice system, the universities, the Church, local politics, and royal financial administration.
A New Christian family that prospered in this era of popular suspicion of conversos was the Santángels from Aragon, later called “the Rothschilds of their time” (Keyserling, 60). Its members included lawyers, treasurers, judges, royal tax collectors, financiers, and even a bishop. In 1492, Luís de Santángel convinced Isabel and Ferdinand to endorse Columbus by scraping together loans necessary for the voyage. The Santángel family confirms that conversion did not prevent Jews from filling influential positions. However, while Luís was comptroller general of the Aragonese treasury, the Inquisition punished more than fifteen relatives for their real or suspected involvement in the murder of Aragonese inquisitor-general Pedro Arbués. Conversion could not erase differences between New and Old Christians, as long as the latter regarded converts as an “other.”
The hastily arranged marriage between Fernando of Aragon and Isabel of Castile in 1469 was of great importance to Spain and its Jewish inhabitants. The need of both spouses to consolidate their separate domains involved them in contradictory relationships with Spain’s remaining Jews. Catholicism shaped the politics of Isabel, who from her teens had been influenced by powerful religious authorities such as Tomás de Torquemada and Hernando de Talavera. Isabel emphasized order and justice, and while she ruled fairly, she did so with a heavy hand. She also recognized the importance of Jews and New Christians in her administration, which may partly explain her declaration, fifteen years before the expulsion, “All the Jews in my realm are mine and under my care and my protection, and it belongs to me to defend and aid them and keep justice” (quoted in Sachar, 63). She needed to defend Jews because they helped finance the ten-year war against Muslim Granada that was only completed on January 2, 1492. For example, the Jewish community paid a special tax, while community leaders such as trusted courtier Isaac Abravanel loaned large sums for the war, and later may have tried to bribe the monarchs to rescind the expulsion order.
. Isabel supported the Holy Office of the Inquisition as a way of lessening the ability of New Christians to practice Jewish rites secretly. The queen also recognized that an organization established for religion would strengthen royal political power. However, responsibility for the Inquisition cannot not be placed entirely on the shoulders of the monarchs and Old Christians, as faithful conversos in church and trade circles might have pushed for it to avoid association with crypto-Jews (Elliott, 95-96). Considering that Machiavelli used Fernando as a model for the absolutist ruler in The Prince, it is no surprise that politics rather than religion motivated the king’s interest in the tribunal. Fernando probably was not intrinsically anti-converso, because when he requested Pope Sixtus IV to establish the Inquisition, he employed converso administrators, financiers, secretaries, confessors, chroniclers, diplomats, and even his personal physician.
Fernando and Isabel’s power depended on their ability to maintain the masses as a check against the ambitions of the nobility for greater independence. Many urban-dwelling Old Christians wanted an inquisition more than the nobles, whose ranks included conversos. By supporting a papal inquisition, Fernando hoped to pacify anti-converso Old Christians and remove the threat of a noble uprising, which would not occur without popular support (Netanyahu, 1017-1018).
Fernando understood that papal recognition was necessary to the credibility of the Inquisition. Nevertheless, he and Isabel brought the tribunal under secular control by appointing inquisitors and supervising confiscations of wealth. The Inquisition was not uniquely Spanish, nor were suspected Judaizers its original victims; it had been used in medieval Christendom to reconcile non-Judaic heretics to the Church. At no time did the Holy Office (the Spanish Inquisition) have authority over Jews, but was charged with protecting Christianity from heresy within. The fame of the first inquisitor-general, the ascetic Dominican monk Tomás de Torquemada, owes partly to specious claims that he was of Jewish ancestry. It should rather derive from the determination with which he made the Inquisition so powerful in Spain at that time. During the course of its long history, the Inquisition also prosecuted bigamists, homosexuals, Lutherans, pseudo-holy women (beatas), and Christianized Muslims (moriscos).
Upon arrival in a town, inquisitors posted an edict of grace giving residents 30 days to confess un-Christian practices listed on the edict without fear of retribution. Most of these practices were based on such Jewish customs as lighting candles on Friday evenings, aversion to pork products, changing linens and clothes on Sabbath days, fasting at roughly the time of Yom Kippur, and eating unleavened bread in the spring. Confessions obtained during the grace period were valid only if accompanied by the names of other unfaithful converts. Edicts of grace, henceforth edicts of faith, ensured the survival of crypto-Judaism, since they described Jewish practices for a population that knew successively less about the religion.
The Inquisition relied on informers, including New Christians who bore grudges or wished to demonstrate their own religiosity. Although torture was used to coerce confessions, often the sight of its instruments compelled victims to admit to charges of which they were innocent. A confession obtained during torture had to be repeated afterwards to be valid. Since local constables, not inquisitors, carried out torture, the Holy Office kept its hands clean from the suffering of victims.
After a protracted and ruinous trial, sentencing was announced at an auto de fe (act of faith), a great public spectacle that showed the prestige of the Holy Office and humiliated its victims. The convicted, usually wearing a burlap sack (sambenito) painted with grotesque symbols of their heresies, were paraded before the crowd to hear their sentences. Punishments included public wearing of the sambenito, compulsory attendance at church, exclusion from certain professions, whipping, monastic imprisonment, or servitude on royal galleys. Often the sambenito, inscribed with the heretic’s name, was hung in the local church as a means to perpetuate the humiliation of the victim and his or her family. Unrepentant and backsliding heretics were “relaxed” to the secular authorities for burning at the stake.
The most troubling paradox about the Inquisition was the gap between its stated and actual purposes. Using the groundless or irrelevant testimony of anonymous witnesses, the tribunal came to exist for economic and racial rather than religious reasons: it wished “to totally eradicate the converso class from an ‘old Christian’ society, many of whose members considered competition from them too powerful to endure,” and also to enrich itself at the expense of these conversos (Roth, 222-223). This pattern was most evident during the 1600s, when the Holy Office, having finished with the majority of Spanish crypto-Jews, persecuted Portuguese New Christian families that had returned to Spain.
The principal reason for expulsion given in the edict was that Jews influenced New Christians to live as crypto-Jews despite the Inquisition’s best efforts to guard purity of the faith. A small number of Jews immigrated initially to Italy, and the kingdom of Navarre in northern Spain, but the majority fled to Portugal, whose king João II agreed to accept some of them for a fee and a period not supposed to exceed eight months. After living conditions in Portugal became insufferable, large numbers immigrated to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.
While João banished children to Christian families, monasteries, and remote Atlantic islands, his successor Manoel I decreed in 1496 that Portuguese Jews convert or leave within 10 months. This decision fulfilled a condition of Fernando, Isabel, and their daughter, Princess Isabel, for her marriage to Manoel. Then, having decided against losing such a useful group of people, Manoel baptized tens of thousands of Jews before the time had expired. Crypto-Judaism survived in Portugal more than Spain, as Manoel agreed to leave converts alone for 20 years and the Portuguese Inquisition was not established as an independent tribunal until 1547. The discovery of communities of secret Jews centuries after these events confirms the observation of Ferro Tavares that “neither the king nor his edicts were able to compel Portuguese and Castilian Jews to repudiate both their religion and history as the people of God” (7).
Eyewitness and current historians have not agreed on the exact number of Jews who left Spain in 1492, but the figure was likely between 40,000 and 100,000 out of a population of 200,000 to 300,000. The majority of Jews converted, but many of the exiles went to lands whose religions threatened Spanish Catholicism more than their Judaism had. To the south and east, Muslim Ottomans challenged Spain’s Mediterranean possessions and the security of the peninsula itself. In the Netherlands, the triumph of Protestantism contributed to a protracted war of religion that Spain eventually lost. During the 1600s and 1700s, the achievements of Sephardim in these places would remind Spain that religious intolerance produced consequences beyond religion.
Conversion did not lessen the extent to which Old Christians regarded conversos as a racial “other,” despite the Church’s policy that there should be no distinction between the two. Although crypto-Jews existed, over time the majority of converts became sincere Christians. As well, by the middle of the 1500s, most former Jews had passed away; those among their descendants who practiced Jewish rites “were often unrecognizable as Jews” (Kamen, 285). Racism against New Christians resulted in purity of limpieza de sangre, or pure blood statutes of the mid-1500s that denied to converts access to religious and military orders, university colleges, guilds, and ecclesiastical positions. Many conversos avoided the exclusions by concocting false family trees. Officially sanctioned racism was intolerable to New Christians who knew little or nothing of Jewish customs and considered themselves as Catholic as their Old Christian neighbors.
The history discussed here suggests that Jews integrated into mainstream society become expendable when their presence conflicts with an ideology that hitherto has protected them. Spanish monarchs watched over Jews until the final expulsion not because of affection, but due to Jewish contributions to successful government. Even more disturbing than the expendability of Jews is the conclusion these events suggest that Judaism implies a negative racial identity unrelated to religion. New Christians in post-1492 Spain endured two centuries of scorn, but not on account of normative Judaism. Finally, the past century has shown one of the enduring lessons of 1492: the positive roles of Jews in a society in which they are a minority do not guarantee their permanent security.