B'nei Anusim Center for Education

Bringing Together and Educating Descendants of Sephardic Conversos

The Jewish Communities of the Iberian Peninsula

By Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez

The Edict of Expulsion issued by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella on March 31st, 1492 gave Jews the choice between coerced conversion and exile from the Spanish Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The edict was the culmination of a long and bitter process which had started violently a century before. In 1497 and in 1498, the Kingdom of Portugal and the Kingdom of Navarre also followed suit with their own expulsion decrees.[1] As devastating as they were, the expulsion orders were not without precedent. A few of the more prominent medieval expulsions included that of England, which expelled Jews at the end of the 13th century.[2] Jews in the Kingdom of Naples were similarly expelled in 1294 and ejected from the city of Milan in 1320. The Jews of France were also banished several times including in 1306 and again in 1394. Jews were similarly exiled from significant German regions in the 15th century.[3]

The situation in the Iberian kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Portugal and their associated territories were a different matter, however, in terms of the sheer numbers involved and in the complicated history that lay behind these pronouncements. In the violent turbulence of 1391 which the historian Salo Wittmayer Baron would characterize as a “holy war” by Christianity against Judaism, approximately a third of the Jewish population of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon may have been massacred; a third escaped its attackers by temporarily fleeing their homes, and a third possibly converted to Christianity.[4]

Medieval Spain

Jews as a Religious Category

In the middle ages, Jews had largely been regarded as adherents to the Law of Moses in contrast to a focus on their different ethnic or linguistic origins. Their faith distinguished them from Christians who expressed faith in Christ or in Muslims who followed the teachings of Mohammed.[5] While there were exceptions, a Jewish convert to Christianity regardless of Levitical or priestly lineage was theoretically viewed simply as a Christian after their religious transformation.[6] A notable exception is the case of Pope Anacletus II (1130-1138) whose great grandfather was Jewish. Anacletus served as a cardinal for years without any disapproval because of his Jewish ancestry. When he was elected by a majority of the College of Cardinals to serve as Pope however, Bernard of Clairvaux, a prominent preacher raised Anacletus’ Jewish background as a reason to oppose him.[7]

The violent attacks on the Jewish communities of Castile and Aragon in 1391 were to definitively change this view in the Iberian Peninsula. Communities which had existed for centuries were decimated and tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered.[8] Thousands of Jews opted for or were forced to convert as a means to save their lives and the lives of their families. The decision to convert to escape death was often adopted by a number of prominent individuals which likely led many in their respective communities to follow their example.[9]

Among Jews, these individuals who converted under coercion or threat were known as anusim meaning “forced ones.” Those who converted wholeheartedly and typically independent of any persecution were known as meshudamim, meaning “he who destroys.”[10] In contrast to past views, the nature of the conversions produced an aura of suspicion by the established Christian community. These recently converted Jews, known as Conversos or New Christians by Old Christians (i.e. Christians prior to the violence of 1391 and effectively Gentile Christians) were suspected of continuing to practice Judaism secretly.[11] Many of those who did convert did observe Judaism clandestinely and in the parlance of the day were derogatorily known as Judaizers or Marranos meaning swine.[12] The term Conversos was eventually applied to their descendants as well who were not first generation converts but rather the descendants of practicing Jews (i.e. children, grandchildren, etc.) who had converted to Christianity in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.[13] This term was generally used in official correspondence.[14] By the middle of the sixteenth century, other terms were used to designate Conversos. These terms included gente del linaje (those of this lineage), esta gente (this people), esta generacion (this generation or this lineage), esta raza (this race), and los de la nacion (those of the nation). As these terms reveal, an increasing emphasis was given to the perceived ethnic or racial characteristics of Conversos.[15]


[1] Yolanda Quesada Morillas “La expulsión de los judíos andaluces a finales del siglo xv y su prohibición de pase a Indias” Actas del I Congreso Internacional sobre Migraciones en Andalucía (2011): 2099. On the 5th of September 1499, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the following proclamation: “Cualquier Judio de cualquier origen, que fuere hallado en Espana, seria condenado a muerte y ejecutado, a menosque previamente hubiese dado a conocer su intention de convertirse al Cristianismo.” “Any Jew from any place, as may be found in Spain, would be sentenced to death and executed, unless he had previously indicated its intention to convert to Christianity.” ibid. 2101. Interestingly, Jews were to be found in various Spanish holdings in North Africa in the 17th century. Jewish communities existed in at least five Spanish North African strongholds under Spanish control. These included Oran, Cueta, Tangiers, LArache (Al-Araish), and Mazagan. In 1669, an edict of expulsion was issued to the Jews of Oran. Jonathan Israel, “The Jews of Spanish North Africa, 1600-1669,” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England xxvi (1979):71.

[2] While the primary motivations for expelling Jews from England was economic, objections were also raised as to the influence they had over Jewish converts to Christianity who were returning to, or continuing to practice Jewish rites. Cecil Roth notes: “Among the reasons given for the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 was that they persisted in seducing recent converts to return to the ‘vomit of Judaism.’ Ancient Jewish authorities add that many children were kidnapped and sent to the north part of the country, where they long continued their ancestral religious practices.” Another example of Jewish converts clandestinely observing Jewish rites is found in the neofiti (neophytes) of Apulia. At the end of the thirteenth century, the Angevin rulers of Naples forcibly converted Jews in their domain particularly in the city of Trani. These neofiti continued their crypto Jewish practices for three or more centuries. Cecil Roth also pointed to the Daggatun of the Sahara. The Daggatun of the Moroccan Sahara were subjected to exile to the desert to Ajaj when they refused to convert to Islam. Some of them became nominal Muslims but apparently retained Jewish practices for quite some time. Roth also points to the Donmeh of Salonica who though having converted to Islam after the apostasy of Sabbatai Zevi continued to practice Judaism secretly for centuries. Cecil Roth, A History of the Marranos, (Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1947), p. 8-9.

[3] During the medieval period, Jews were sporadically expelled from various regions, sometimes repeatedly. In France, Jews were expelled multiple times i.e. 1182, 1306, 1311, 1327, and 1394. Jews were also expelled from Gascony in 1287, from Anjou in 1289, from Maine in 1289, and from England in 1290.In the 15th century, Jews were banished from various German-speaking areas including Linz in 1421, Vienna in 1421, Cologne in 1424, Dresden in 1430, Speyer in 1435, Augsburg in 1440, Bavaria in 1442 and 1450, Erfurt in 1458, Mainz in 1470, from Bamberg in 1478, Würzburg in 1488, from Heilbronn in 1490, Mecklenburg in 1492, from Pomerania in 1492, Halle in 1493, Magdeburg in 1493, from Lower Austria in 1496, in Carinthia in 1496, from Styria in 1496, Nuremberg in 1499, and Ulm in 1499. In Swiss regions, Jews were expelled from Geneva in 1490. In the Italian Peninsula, Jews were expelled from Perugia in 1485, from Vicenza in 1486, Parma in 1488, from Lucca in 1489, Milan in 1489, from Florence in 1494, and from Naples in 1496. The islands of the Mediterranean also saw expulsions do their relationship with the kingdom of Aragon. Sardinia expelled Jews in 1492 and Sicily expelled Jews in 1492.

[4] Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and the Religious History of the Jews: Volume XI (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1967), p.232. Kevin Ingram, “Secret lives, public lies: the conversos and socio-religious non-conformism in the Spanish Golden Age.” (PhD diss., UC San Diego, 2006), http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6270j25z. : 43-44.

[5] Las Siete Partidas is a law code written in Castilian and was compiled around 1265, under the direction of King Alfonso X, the Wise (1252-1284) of Castile. It did not go into effect until 1348, however. Laws on Jews, 1265 Title XXIV: Concerning the Jews states, “Jews are a people, who, although they do not believe in the religion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, yet, the great Christian sovereigns have always permitted them to live among them….LAW I. What The Word Jew Means, and Whence This Term is Derived.” A party who believes in, and adheres to the law of Moses is called a Jew, according to the strict signification of the term, as well as one who is circumcised, and observes the other precepts commanded by his religion. This name is derived from the tribe of Judah which was nobler and more powerful than the others, and, also possessed any other advantage, because the king of the Jews had to be selected from that tribe, and its members always received the first wounds in battle. The reason that the church, emperors, kings and princes permitted the Jews to dwell among them and with Christians, is because they always lived, as it were, in captivity, as it was constantly La token] in the minds of men that they were descended from those who crucified Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 34-42. See also Fernando Suárez Bilbao, Cristianos Contra Judíos y Conversos, (Universidad «Rey Juan Carlos», Madrid, 2004), p. 446.

[6] Fernando Suárez Bilbao, Cristianos Contra Judíos y Conversos, (Universidad «Rey Juan Carlos», Madrid, 2004), p. 446. An example of an exception can be found in the requirement that Jewish converts to Christianity from the Barcelona Jewish community were obligated to provide Jewish witnesses in lawsuits that involved Christians and Jews. As Alexandra Guerson notes, “Baptism had not as Christian teaching says, made of the convert truly a ‘new man,’ even in the king’s own perception, not to mention that of his legal advisors. Alexandra Guerson “Seeking Remission: Jewish Conversion in the Crown of Aragon, c. 1378-1391” Jewish History (2010): 38. In the aftermath of the violence in 1391, the Crown continued to deal with Conversos of the island of Majorca in a manner that was similar to how the king had treated Jews. This reality, in addition to other fiscal obligations of the Converso community, reinforced the connections Conversos maintained with one another and insured that they remain rooted in the same social and economic condition they had when they were officially Jewish. As a consequence, this helped to insure that the identity of the Conversos in Majorca would be attachedto their past as a Jewish community. This would in turn foster continued aspects and characteristics of Jewish identity. Natalie Oeltjen, “Crisis and Regeneration: The Conversos of Majorca, 1391 – 1416.”(PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2012), https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/32784/3/Oeltjen_Natalie_B_201206_PhD_thesis.pdf. p.41.

[7] Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and the Religious History of the Jews: Volume IV ( Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1957), pp. 10-11.

[8] Cecil Roth estimates that up to 50,000 were killed. Cecil Roth, A History of the Marranos, (Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1947), p. 12.

[9] Among them was Samuel Abravanel, the advisor of Henry Trastamara. Abravanel’s conversion was followed by the majority of the community. In Valencia, Joseph Abarim and Samuel Abravalla, both influential and very wealthy were among those who converted. With few exceptions, the majority of the aljama converted as well. Cecil Roth, A History of the Marranos, (Jewish Publication Society: Philadelphia, 1947), p. 13. The number of the conversions is difficult to gauge. In Valencia the number of converts was stated to be eleven thousand, a number which is typically regarded as too high. Regarding the fear caused by the violence, Cecil Roth notes that Jews often preempted compulsion. “In some places, the Jews did not wait for the application of compulsion, but anticipated the popular attack by coming forward spontaneously, clamoring for admission to the Church. All told, the total number of conversions, in the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile was reckoned at the improbably figure of two hundred thousand.” ibid. 13. Lea estimates the conversions to have been in the hundreds of thousands. “In Aragon the total number of conversions was not reckoned at a hundred thousand and in Castile at as many more; nor is this probably an exaggeration. Henry Charles Lea, “Ferrand Martinez and the Massacres of 1391,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 1. No. 2 (1896):218.

[10] A collection of rabbinic responsa known as Yakhin u-Boaz (2:31) refers to a question posed to Rabbi Simeon ben Zemah Duran.   The inquirer used the term Meshumammad to denote forced converts which was highly unusual and may have reflected the confusion of the inquirer. See also Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain Volume II, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1961), p. 270.

[11]The 15th Century polemical work titled El Alborayque provides a definition of the term Converso: “Deos tales neophitos o conuersos judayzantes es el presente tratado, y por este vocabo conersos no se entiendad todos aquellos que descienden de la generacion delos judios:alos quales el vulgo impropriamente llama conuersos: mas entiend<n> se solame<n>te los judios q<ue> se co<n>uertiero<n> xp<ist>ianos los q<ua>les conuersos judayza<n>tes como fuessen conuertidos mas por fuerca q<ue> de buena voluntad. (Fols 1v-2r).” According to this statement, only those Jews who sincerely converted to Christianity should be deemed Conversos and not those who were converted by force. Dwayne E. Carpenter From Al-Burak to Alboraycos: The Art of Transformation on the Eve of the Expulsion. Jews and Conversos at the Time of the Expulsion. Edited by Yom Tov Assis, Yosef Kaplan. (Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1999), p. 32. Regarding the definition of Old Christians, Kevin Ingram defined Old Christian as follows: “While there were no studies available on the subject, Salucio observes, the obvious answer to the question is that an ‘Old Christian’ was the person who converted to Christianity before the ‘New Christian.’ However, to appreciate fully the term ‘Old Christian,’ it was necessary to understand that Spaniards of his own day stemmed from four different social groups: the conquerors, the conquered, those who were neither conquerors or conquered, and a mixture of some or all of the above. The conquerors were those people who initially fled north during the Moors’invasion of Spain in 711, preferring to live in the Asturian and Vizcayan mountains than to exist under the yoke of Muslim rule. The second group of Spaniards, ‘the conquered,’ were those Moors and Jews who, reluctant to abandon their farms and businesses after the northern Christian forces had reconquered the southern territory (from the twelfth century onward), remained in Christian Spain. These base (vil) individuals later converted to Christianity, preferring apostasy to the constant attacks from their Christian neighbors. These were known as ‘New Christians,’ resisting the call of their coreligionists in the north, these Christians—Mozarabs as they became known—preferred to cohabit with the Moor, whom they found much more acceptable than the tyrannical Visigoth king whom the invaders had deposed. Like the New Christians these were base (vil) people, who were referred to by their Arab hosts as marranos, a term meaning apostate or deserter (a jibe by Salucio at 16th-century Old-Christian society, who used the derrogatory term marrano, which they associated with swine, to refer to New Christians); the northern resistance movement referred to these Mozarabs as mixtos, in reference to their religion which was mixed with that of the Moors.” Kevin Ingram, “Secret lives, public lies: the conversos and socio-religious non-conformism in the Spanish Golden Age.” (PhD diss., UC San Diego, 2006), http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6270j25z. p. 1

[12] The term Marrano has often been used to designate Conversos who converted to Christianity for survival sake and continued to observe Jewish practices in some form. The exact origins of the term are disputed, however. The pejorative meaning of the term is generally understood today and despite this it has continued to be used in Jewish academic and religious circles without I believe any clear rationale. The famous Spanish dictionary of 1611 authored by Sebastián de Covarrubias defined the term Marrano as “Es el rezien convertido al christianismo, tenemos ruin concepto del por averse convertido fingidamente.” “The recent convert to Christianity, of whom we have a despicable opinion for having feigned his conversion.” Diego Velazquez, the author of the pamphlet Defensio Statuti Toletani stated “Sed eos hispani marranos vocare solemus, qui ex iudaeis descendentes et baptizati ficti christiani.” “We call those Spaniards, Marranos, who descendants of Jews and were baptized fictitiously as Christians.” See Sebastian de Covarrubias Horozco, “Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana o Espanola [1611]” (Madrid: Ed. Turner, 1979). In the present day, the Royal Spanish Academy’s Diccionario de la Lengua Espanola relates that the term Marrano is derived from Arabic مُحَرّمٌ muḥarram meaning forbidden or anathematized. A commonly held alternative view was that the term was derived from the New Testament phrase “maran atha” (“our Lord hath come”). Various unlikely origins for the term have also been suggested. These include the Hebrew marit ayin “the appearance of the eye,” referring to the fact that the Marranos were superficially Christian but continued to practice Judaism. Other Hebrew phrases including the phrase mohoram attah “you are excommunicated”; mar anus- forced convert and the Hebrew term mumar for “apostate” with the Spanish ending ano added. A secondary Arabic word, mura’in meaning “hypocrite” has also been suggested. Jewish Virtual Library, “Marranos, Conversos, and New Christians.” Last modified 2012. Accessed November 24, 2012. In recent years scholars have largely opted to use the terms Conversos/Conversas and New Christians for general references and Crypto-Jews to connote those Conversos who remained loyal to Judaism. I have chosen to use the term Converso as a general rule as I believe it reflects the available material most accurately. See JOSPIC-J Staff “A List of 134 Books Containing Marrano, Converso, Crypto Jew, Secret Jew, Hidden Jew, New Christian, or Anusim in the Title or Subtitle: Changes in Usage Over 86 Years” Journal of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian Crypto Jews. Volume 3 (2011): 149-155. Salo Baron notes that it has also been suggested that the term may have originated from the form barrano. The term was a derivative of an Arabic noun meaning alien. Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and the Religious History of the Jews: Volume XIII (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1969), p.336.

[13] Kevin Ingram suggests that up to fifty percent of the Jewish population that survived the violence may have converted to Christianity Kevin Ingram, “Secret lives, public lies: the conversos and socio-religious non-conformism in the Spanish Golden Age.” (PhD diss., UC San Diego, 2006), http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6270j25z :1. Miriam Bodian also states:”The group was self-perpetuating, since descendants continued to be regarded as conversos, or converts, for many generations. And the ranks of this group grew… […] The status of Converso became, curiously, and inherited status- a fateful development.” Miriam Bodian, “‘Men of the Nation’: The Shaping of Converso Identity in Early Modern Europe,” Past and Present 143(1994): 48-76.Kevin Ingram also notes the powerful effects that Conversos and their descendants would have on Iberian culture. He states “However, as those of us who have studied converso involvement in Golden Age culture must now be well aware, “el hecho” is not that some of the most important writers, intellectuals, reformers and mystics were Conversos, “el hecho” is that almost all of them were. Spanish prose fiction was dominated by converso writers: Cervantes, Aleman, Rojas, Jorge Montemayor, Francisco Delicado, Luis Velez de Guevara were all from converso backgrounds. Spain’s great sixteenth-century mystics Teresa of Avila, Juan de Avila, Juan de la Cruz and Luis de Leon were also conversos, as were Spain’s foremost humanists, among who were Nebrija, Vives, the Valdes brothers, Juan de Vergara, Brocense, Ambrosio Morales, Arias Montano, and Pedro de Valencia. Conversos also predominated in early sixteenth-century theater; and there is some reason to believe that the later playwrights Tirso de Molina and Lope de Vega were also of Jewish provenance.”

[14] In 1380 King John of Castile as well as the Cortes of Soria banned the use of terms “turncoats” and Marranos. Those who used it were subject to a penalty of 300 maravedis and fifteen days in prison. Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and the Religious History of the Jews: Volume XIII (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1969), p.66.

[15] Miriam Bodian, Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 11. Portuguese terms corresponding to the Castilian terms used included: Cristãos Novos, gente da nação, and homens da nação.ibid. 12.


Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez, the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education, and author of What is Kosher?  Also, follow us on Crypto Jews in Dallas on Facebook.

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