A Review of The Perils of Living the Good and True Law

Oliver Cromwell became the Lord Protector of England following the Parlimentarian victory over the Royalist forces during the English Civil War of the 17th century.

Cromwell requested a portrait of himself and instructed the artist to be realistic. He did not want any blemishes or warts covered over. Cromwell was adamant. If the artist was not true to Cromwell’s flaws, he would not pay for the portrait. Cromwell wanted the artist to preserve his image as realistically as possible. Whatever criticisms can be levied at him, Cromwell favored reality over idealism.

This principle can be applied to Matthew D. Warshawsky’s recently published book titled The Perils of Living the Good and True Law. The book highlights the case of Iberian Crypto-Jews living the New World during the reign of the Inquisition. Dr. Warshawsky focuses on the lives of five individuals, i.e., Manuel Bautista Perez, Tomas Trevino de Sobremonte, Duarte de Leon Jaramillo, Juan Pacheco de Leon, and Maria de Zarate to illustrate the Crypto-Jewish experience in the New World holdings of the Spanish Empire.

Warshawsky seeks to paint a realistic understanding of these individuals which neither idolizes nor romanticizes their lives. Despite the real suffering they experienced by the Inquisition, these individuals were human and expressed the full range of emotions, frailties, and even vices which challenge humanity.  In choosing not to ignore the darker side of certain individuals, Warshawsky actually humanizes these Crypto-Jews in a way that makes the Crypto-Jewish experience even more interesting, appealing, and perhaps even more revelant.

Warshawsky highlights the complex nature of Conversos by stressing the important point that “Secret Jews were baptized Catholics able to function in both religions.”[1] They were not, for the lack of a better term, Orthodox Jews living clandestinely in Spanish territory. They were individuals who lived out a hybridized faith. This does not undermine their identity, but reminds us of the complexity of these secret Jews.

Perils of Living the Good Law

Warshawsky’s attempt to understand these five Crypto-Jews in a manner that sees them honestly, is also applied to the Inquisition. Those familiar with the skewed writings and assertions of Benzion Netanyahu and Norman Roth among others, will appreciate Warshawsky’s approach to the Inquisition. Warshawsky writes a “nuanced approach that neither demonizes the Inquisition nor depicts the tribunal’s victims as unblemished heroes.” [2]

This approach allows the author correctly note the “Conversophobia” that followed many Conversos in Spain and abroad as well as the economic and political elements that were often part of Inquisitorial strategy. At the same time, he rightly acknowledges the unique position of the Inquisition and why its records cannot be easily dismissed and many have done. Warshawky states:

“Despite the problematic fact that the principal source of information regarding crypto-Jews is the court itself that prosecuted them as heretics, the analyses of the various individuals in the book paint a picture of Inquisition procedure as paintstakingly deliberate, orderly, and thorough.”[3]

Despite its power, the Inquisition could not compel those accused to confess to Judaizing. In spite of the torture they were subjected to, Manual Bautista Perez and Maria de Zarate refused to acknowledge they had observed Jewish practices. Here Warshawsky provides an important reflection on the limits of Inquisitional power:

“These examples of the limits of inquisitorial power authenticate the reliability of the tribunal regarding crypto-Jewish practices because they show that it was not a monolithic, implacable bureaucracy that fabricated outcomes corroborating its version of ideological truth.”[4]

Maria de Zarate’s inclusion in this book is especially noteworthy. Zarate appears not to have been descended from Conversos. Her great great uncle, Juan Martinez de Siliceo actually authored a purity of blood statute in 1547 in Toledo. Her marriage to Francisco Botello, a Converso provided the connection.

While the circumstances are different, the incident bears some similarity to the case of the Converso Guillem Ramon Splugues. Splugues was romantically involved with various Christian women  and even sought to proselytize them to Jewish observance, with various degrees of success.[5]

The Perils of Living the Good and True Law is published by Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs. Anyone interested in the study of Crypto-Judaism, especially in the Americas should add this title to their collection. While it is ideally intended for the scholar, the work is accessible for the laymen. The book is available at Amazon at the following link.

The Perils of Living the Good and True Law: Iberian Crypto-Jews in the Shadow of the Inquisition of Colonial Hispanic America


[1] Matthew D. Warshawsky, The Perils of Living the Good and True Law (Newark, Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 2016), 16.

[2] Matthew D. Warshawsky, The Perils of Living the Good and True Law (Newark, Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 2016), 17.

[3] Ibid., 156.

[4] Ibid., 157.

[5] Mark D. Meyerson, A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth-Century Spain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004),  216.


Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and the author of Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism

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