Written by Vladimir Moss



     The Spanish re-conquest of Muslim Spain, which was completed in 1492, brought in its train a large number of Jews who had obtained important posts under the Moors. The Spanish conquerors were much less tolerant of the Jews than the Moors had been. Thus in 1391, during a civil war in Castile, both sides had accused the Jews, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed. During this period many Jews converted to Christianity to avoid persecution. Many of these conversos – or, as they were less politely known, marranos (“pigs”) - did well under their new rulers. One became Bishop of Burgos; three were secretaries of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella; another was King Ferdinand’s treasurer; the five top administrative posts in Aragon were occupied by them. However, these converts were suspected by many of continuing to practise the Jewish faith in secret, which led to riots by the “old” Christians against the “new”.

     Also, it came to be thought that a Jew by race could never really become a Christian. As Andrew Wheatcroft writes: “During the fifteenth century, the dominant Christian states in Spain began to develop a new theory of the infidel. In this view, Judaism and, by extension, Islam, carried a genetic taint and thus no convert of Jewish or Muslim stock could ever carry the True Faith purely, as could someone of ‘untainted’ Christian descent…

     “This latent tendency within Hispanic society was elaborated into a body of law from the mid fifteenth century, but emerging from below rather than by royal decree. The first instance was in 1449, when Pero Sarmiento – the leader of a rebellion in Toledo against royal support for Jewish converts – issued a declaration that no one except an Old Christian of untainted blood could ever hold public office… Over the next forty years, more and more institutions adopted requirements that ‘purity of blood’ (limpieza de sangre) should be a prerequisite for membership of a guild or any similar body. The vocabulary that was used is particularly significant: the ‘Old Christians’ described themselves as the ‘pure’ (limpios); they were ‘fine Christians’, and the assumption was that the converts were impure and coarse.” [1]

     In 1480 the Papal institution of the Inquisition was called in by Queen Isabella of Castile, with the approval of her husband, King Ferdinand of Aragon, to determine the truth of an individual’s convictions by means of torture. The notorious Spanish Inquisition, “the first institution of united Spain”[2], while officially an ecclesiastical institution, served the desire of the Spanish state for uniformity within its dominions so well that “henceforth treason and heresy were virtually indistinguishable"[3].

     Some 13,000 conversos were killed by the Inquisition during the first twelve years of its existence.[4] Ironically, the first inspector-general of the Inquisition in Spain, the notorious Tomas de Torquemado, was himself of Jewish descent – his grandmother was a converso.[5] He became the model for Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor…

     Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh write: “From the outset of its creation, the Spanish Inquisition had cast covetous eyes on Judaic wealth. It also regarded Jews themselves with implacable antipathy, simply because they lay outside its official legal jurisdiction. According to its original brief, the Inquisition was authorised to deal with heretics – that is, with Christians who had deviated from orthodox formulations of the faith. It had no powers, however, over adherents of altogether different religions, such as Jews and Muslims. Judaic and Islamic communities in Spain were large. In consequence, a considerable portion of the population remained exempt from the Inquisition’s control; and for an institution that sought to exercise total control, such a situation was deemed intolerable.

     “The Inquisition’s first step was to act against so-called ‘Judaizers’. A converso who returned to Judaism after having embraced Christianity could conveniently be labelled a heretic. By extension, so could anyone who encouraged him in his heresy – and this transgression could be further extended to include, by implication, all Jews. But the Inquisition was still handicapped because it had to produce – or concoct – evidence for each case it sought to prosecute; and this was not always easy to do.

     “The Inquisition enthusiastically endorsed the virulent anti-Semitism already being promulgated by a notorious preacher, Alonso de Espina, who hated both Jews and conversos alike. Mobilising popular support behind him, Alonso had advocated the complete extirpation of Judaism from Spain – either by expulsion or by extermination. Embracing Alonso’s programme, the Inquisition embarked on its own assiduous anti-Semitic propaganda… Citing the anti-Semitism it had thus contrived to provoke in the populace at large, the Inquisition petitioned the Crown to adopt ‘appropriate’ measures. The proposal to expel all Jews from Spain stemmed directly from the Inquisition [specifically, from Torquemada]…

     “King Ferdinand recognised that persecution of Jews and conversos would inevitably have adverse economic repercussions for the country. Neither he nor Queen Isabella, however, could resist the combined pressure of the Inquisition and the popular sentiment it had invoked. In a letter to his most influential nobles and courtiers, the king wrote: ‘The Holy Office of the Inquisition, seeing how some Christians are endangered by contact and communication with the Jews, has provided that the Jews be expelled from all our realms and territories, and has persuaded us to give our support and agreement to this… we do so despite the great harm to ourselves, seeking and preferring the salvation of our souls above our own profit…’

     “On 1 January 1483, the monarchs wrote to appease the Inquisition in Andalucia, announcing that all Jews living in the region were to be expelled. On 12 May 1486, all Jews were driven from large tracts of Aragon. But wholesale expulsion had to be deferred for the moment because money and other forms of support from Jews and conversos were urgently needed for the ongoing campaign against the Muslims, pushed back into their ever-contracting Kingdom of Granada.”[6]

     In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella, having united Aragon and Castile by their marriage, conquered Granada in the south to complete the reconquest of Spain for the Cross. “With deep emotion,” writes Karen Armstrong, “the crowd watched the Christian banner raised ceremonially upon the city walls and, as the news broke, bells pealed triumphantly all over Europe, for Granada was the last Muslim stronghold in [Western] Christendom. The Crusades against Islam in the Middle East had failed, but at least the Muslims had been flushed out of Europe. In 1499, the Muslim inhabitants of Spain were given the option of conversion to Christianity or deportation, after which, for a few centuries, Europe would become Muslim-free.”[7]

     Three months after the conquest of Granada the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews was issued. “Spanish Jewry was destroyed,” writes Armstrong. “About 70,000 Jews converted to Christianity, and stayed on to be plagued by the Inquisition; the remaining 130,000… went into exile.”[8]

     The Jews who were expelled – called the Sephardic Jews after their word for Spain, “Sepharad” – spread throughout the West, especially Portugal and Amsterdam (then in the Spanish Netherlands); a substantial minority migrated to the Ottoman empire, to Constantinople, Smyrna and Thessalonica. They brought with them ideas and influences that were to be of enormous importance in the development of the West and in the eventual destruction of its Christian character. The influence of Greco-Latin paganism on the West in the Renaissance has been well documented and recognized, largely because it came from above, with the official sanction of leaders in both Church and State. The influence of Jewish paganism in the form, especially, of the Kabbala, has been less recognized, largely because it came from below, from the underground, against the commands of the authorities.

     Many of the conversos who remained in Spain voluntarily accepted Catholicism – for example, Teresa of Avila. “It is not an exaggeration,” writes Cantor, “to see the role of scions of converted Jewish families as central to the Spanish Renaissance of the early sixteenth century, as were Jews in the modernist cultural revolution of the early twentieth century. In both cases complete access to general culture induced an explosion of intellectual creativity.” [9] 

     However, there were many who both lost touch with Judaism and could not adapt to Catholicism. “In consequence,” writes Armstrong, “they had no real allegiance to any faith. Long before secularism, atheism, and religious indifference became common in the rest of Europe, we find instances of these essentially modern attitudes among the Marrano Jews of the Iberian peninsula”.[10]

     As Cantor writes, “a rationalist, scientific, antitraditional frame of mind, sceptical about the core of religious culture, arose among some Marrano families in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The emergence of a post-Christian commonwealth secular mentality can be traced to a handful of Marrano families who found themselves caught between Judaism and Christianity, bouncing back and forth between the two faiths and cultures, until they became disoriented and disenchanted equally with priests and rabbis.

     “We can see this secularisation with the Spanish New Christian Fernando de Rojas, the creator of the subversive picaresque novel (La Celestina) in the early sixteenth century, and the forerunner of Cervantes’s critique of decaying medieval culture. We can see it in the sceptical humanism of the French humanist Montaigne, who was also of Marrano lineage. We can see it in the writings of two Dutch Jews of Portuguese extraction in the third quarter of the seventeenth century – Uriel de Costa, who condemned rabbinical Judaism and was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam, and Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza, who turned away from the whole theistic tradition toward a new kind of scientific naturalism and universalism and was also excommunicated from the Jewish community.

     “The Marrano descendants who were buffeted about in the sixteenth century from one religion to another became alienated from both, and turned first to money-making in international mercantilist capitalism and then secular, scientific rationalism. They were immensely successful in these endeavours…”[11]

     Of these Marrano rationalists, probably the most important was Spinoza, who was excommunicated by the rabbis of Amsterdam in 1656. “Like many modern people,” writes Armstrong, “Spinoza regarded religion with distaste. Given his experience of excommunication, this was hardly surprising. He dismissed the revealed faiths as a ‘compound of credulity and prejudices’, and ‘a tissue of meaningless mysteries’. He had found ecstasy in the untrammelled use of reason, not by immersing himself in the biblical text, and as a result, he viewed Scripture in an entirely objective way [sic!]. Instead of experiencing it as a revelation of the divine, Spinoza insisted that the Bible be read like any other text. He was one of the first to study the Bible scientifically, examining the historical background, the literary genres, and the question of authorship. He also used the Bible to explore his philosophical ideas. Spinoza was one of the first people in Europe to promote the ideal of a secular, democratic state which would become one of the hallmarks of Western modernity. He argued that once the priests had acquired more power than the kings of Israel, the laws of the state became punitive and restrictive. Originally, the kingdom of Israel had been theocratic but because, in Spinoza’s view, God and the people were one and the same, the voice of the people had been supreme. Once the priests seized control, the voice of God could no longer be heard. But Spinoza was no populist. Like most pre-modern philosophers, he was an elitist who believed the masses to be incapable of rational thought. They would need some form of religion to give them a modicum of enlightenment, but this religion must be reformed, based not on so-called revealed law but on the natural principles of justice, fraternity, and liberty…”[12]

     In 1605 Miguel de Cervantes published his famous novel Don Quixote. As Miranda France notes, in the novel “compassion [is] shown towards a Muslim character who has been first made to convert by the Inquisition, and then expelled from Spain – as all Muslim converts were, in 1609. Last year [2015], Spain offered citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492, but the offer wasn’t extended to the descendants of expelled Muslims. Meanwhile, residents of the village Castrillo Matajudios (‘Kill Jews Camp’) voted to change the name, but Valle de Matamoros (‘Kill Moors Valley’) has yet to follow suit. What would Cervantes say?”[13]

[1] Wheatcroft, Infidels, London: Penguin Books, 2004, pp. 104-105.

[2] Norman Davies, Europe, London: Pimlico, 1996, p. 453. United, also, with the people; for “throughout the history of the Inquisition, commentators agreed on the impressive support given to it by the people” (Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition, London: The Folio Society, 1998, p. 69).

[3]Davies, op. cit., p. 453.

[4] Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, New York: Ballantine Books, 2001, p. 7. William Winsham gives the lower figure of 3000 in the reign of Isabella (“Isabella of Castile’s Spanish Inquisition”, All About History, p. 37).

[5]Simon Sebag Montefiore, Titans of History, London: Quercus, 2012, p. 170.

[6] Baigent and Leigh, The Inquisition, London: Penguin Books, 2000, pp. 76-78.

[7] Armstrong, The Battle for God, pp. 3-4.

[8] Armstrong, op. cit., p. 7. However the Jewish Professor Norman Cantor disputes this, giving the true figure as “only around forty thousand, about half the practicing Jews left the country in 1492” (The Sacred Chain, London: Fontana, 1996, pp. 189-190). Another Jewish professor, Montefiore (op. cit., p. 173) gives 30-80,000.

[9] Cantor, op. cit., p. 189.

[10] Armstrong, op. cit., p. 15.

[11] Cantor, op. cit., pp. 192-193.

[12] Armstrong, op. cit., pp. 23-24.

[13]France, “Nothing is What it Seems”, Prospect, April, 2016, p. 68.

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