Forced Conversions under the Visigoths Part 1

By Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez

As Norman Roth notes, perhaps one of the greatest oddities regarding the history of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula is that Jewish life there existed for a longer period than even in the land of Israel, if one assumes continual settlement.[1] While archaeological evidence verifies the existence of Jewish settlement in Hispania (the name given to the Peninsula as a Roman province) from the third and fourth centuries CE, there is little doubt that a Jewish presence existed there during earlier Roman rule. During the prior periods of Jewish and Roman interaction, Jews enjoyed some special measures under Roman rule in part due to the historic relationship between the Hasmonean dynasty and Roman Republic as well as a favorable disposition by Julius Caesar due to support he received from Jewish soldiers during the Roman civil war.[2]

The multiple rebellions against Rome in the 1st and 2nd centuries of the Common Era would ultimately bring about harsh Roman decrees on Jewish practice, but they were generally localized by the geographical nature of the rebellions.[3] The transformation of the Roman Empire from paganism to Christianity would permanently alter its attitude towards Jews and influence the successor states which followed its demise.

The Familiarity of Forced Conversions

 Despite the tragedy of forced conversions in the 14th and 15th centuries, they were not new to Iberian Jewry. In fact, Jews of the Iberian Peninsula and its surrounding environs were quite familiar with the phenomena of compulsory or coerced conversions. In the 5th century CE, Jews of the island of Minorca off the eastern coast of Spain were subject to forced conversion to Christianity.[4] The earliest account of forced conversions in Spanish environs occurs in the island of Minorca in the year 418. Severus the bishop of Majorca relates this occurrence in a letter. While the details are not extensive, violence erupted between Jews and Christians at the instigation of the local bishop.

According to Yitzhak Baer, Jews encouraged each other to remember the Maccabean martyrs and hold steadfast. The steadfast nature of many women is also highlighted. The romantic imagery aside, the highest echelon of the community succumbed to pressure, however. According to Severus, five hundred and forty Jews converted.[5] According to E.H. Lindo, they returned to Judaism after the Muslim conquest which would indicate, for lack of a better term a sufficient crypto-Jewish identity capable of withstanding hundreds of years of suppression of open Jewish identity.[6]

Catherine Navarro argues that the case of the forced conversion of Minorca is subject to controversy. This is based on her contention that this story may have been redacted quite later in the seventh century. Navarro points to previous occurrences of forced conversion of Jews such as the case of the Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius in 632 CE.[7] She also pointed to the Council of Galia (Clichy) in 615 and King Dagobert in 632-635 CE.[8] In 629 CE, Dagobert the King of all the Franks ordered all the Jews of his kingdom to convert or leave his domains. The same policy was followed by the Kingdom of Lombardy shortly after.


The motivation behind this may have also been linked to the influence of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. Navarro asserts that converts of Jewish origin were effectively characterized as second class citizens. This was based in part on the ongoing suspected nature of the ongoing fidelity to Jewish practices among Jewish converts reinforced by the recapitulation of this in various councils.[9]

[1] Norman Roth, Jews, Visigoths, and Muslims in Medieval Spain: Cooperation and Conflict, (E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1994), p. 9.

[2] Mark. R. Cohen, Under Crescent & Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994), p. 31.

[3] Ibid. 31.

[4] Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain: Volume 1, (Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia: 1961), p. 17.

[5] Ibid.16.

[6] E.H. Lindo, The Jews of Spain and Portugal (London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1848), p. 11. A similar case of forced conversion occurred in Clermont in Auvergne on the day following Ascension Day, 576 CE. Cecil Roth, A History of the Marranos, (Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1947), p. 7.

[7] Catherine Cordero Navarro, “El Problema Judio Como Vision de “Otro” en el reino visigodo de Toledo. Revisiones Historiograficas,” En La Espana Medieval, 23 (2000):12.

[8] Catherine Cordero Navarro, “El Problema Judio Como Vision de “Otro” en el reino visigodo de Toledo. Revisiones Historiograficas,” En La Espana Medieval, 23 (2000):19.

[9] Catherine Cordero Navarro, “El Problema Judio Como Vision de “Otro” en el reino visigodo de Toledo. Revisiones Historiograficas,” En La Espana Medieval, 23 (2000): 36.

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

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