Conversos, Music, and the Spanish Inquisition

By Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez

The Spanish Inquisition was focused on a wide array of markers which may have indicated Judaizing among Conversos. Even music was cause for suspicion. In May 1489, Rabbi Simoel, the doctor to the Duke of Albuquerque, testified under oath that he had heard his father speak about a certain Diego Arias’ musical tastes. Diego Arias had apparently sung it to Rabbi Simoel’s father while the two were alone. In April 1486, another rabbi, David Gome had also testified that he heard a certain Jacob mention Diego Arias’ singing.[1] 

Secret Jews-3D

In this particular case, the incidence had occurred at a lodge in Medina del Campo. The Jacob in question, Jacob Castellano, a Jewish resident of the town related that around 1460, Diego Arias had associated with Jews. Another rabbi, Mosses aben Mayor also testified that he had heard Yuce Aben Major discuss Arias’ singing.  The issue was that Diego Arias was singing Jewish songs while he traveled, in Jewish households, in the privacy of his own home, and in various other locations. In addition, to his singing, another witness reported that Diego Arias had stated:

“If there was anything after this world for the soul…it was the voices of the prayers of the Jews which would do for him because behind the said monastery of La Merced there was a synagogue.”[2]

Eleazar Gutwirth states:”Music was not seen as divorced from the spaces of religious identity. “ Gurwirth further notes the extent of the relationships that Diego Arias maintained with Jews. Jacob Castellano was an official of the Jewish community; the others were rabbis and formed part of Diego Arias’ circle.[3]

The Tribunal of the Inquisition as illustrated...
The Tribunal of the Inquisition as illustrated by Francisco de Goya. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the importance of language as a characteristic of identity, Gutwirth also states, “One on occasion, for example, we are told that Diego Arias asked a Jew ‘whether he knew how to sing something in his Hebrew, and he answered that he did. Music is here not only a question of knowledge, ‘si sabia’, but also of ethnicity, ‘su hebrayco’, where the possessive pronoun indicates the converso’s perception of the Jews’ ‘possession ‘of Hebrew language, poetic texts and songs.”[4]

To view the excellent article by Eleazar Gurwirth, visit the following link:

Eleazar Gutwirth, “Music, Identity, and the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain,”

[1] Eleazar Gutwirth, “Music, Identity, and the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain,” Early Music History, Vol. 17 (1998): 165.

[2] Ibid., 166.

[3] Ibid., 167-168.

[4] Ibid., 169-170.

By Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and author of What is Kosher?

1 Comment

  1. I really loved this post. While difficult to confirm, it is believed that many of the (chant like) melodies still used used at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish & Portuguese synagogue of NY (founded by former Conversos), actually come from Spain (probably via Italy or Morocco). Indeed, they can transport you back to the profound world of Spanish Jewry. It is not surprising that some found it even more difficult to give up the melodies than some other aspects of Judaism ! Music plays such an inarticulate but powerful role in Jewish religious experience. The melody for Alenu comes to mind with its meditative quality. I’m now inspired to write my own blog entry on the music of Spanish Portuguese Jews :). Thanks for this write up!

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