A Review of Dying in the in Law of Moses: Crypto-Jewish Martyrdom in the Iberian World

In the aftermath of the explosive violence that began in 1391 and continued at various levels throughout the 15th century, many Conversos resigned themselves to their status as “New Christians.” Many abandoned Jewish praxis for practical reasons. Noting this, Don Isaac Abarbanel states:

 “They don’t observe G-d’s laws, rituals, and commandments for fear of the Gentiles. Lest they [the Christians] should say that since now they form part of them and their society, if they observe the laws of Israel they would be killed as sectarians and heretics.” [1]

But the fear of punishment by the Inquisition was insufficient for a select number of individuals who preferred to remain or even become faithful to the Law of Moses, regardless of what consequences they might encounter.

Dying in the in Law of Moses: Crypto-Jewish Martyrdom in the Iberian World is written by Miriam Bodian and reviews the cases of four such individuals: Luis Rodriguez de Carvajal, Diogo d’Asumpcao, Francisco Maldonado de Silva, and Lope de Vera y Alarcon who ultimately chose a road to martyrdom after being arrested by Spanish Inquisitional authorities. Bodian begins with a brief review of the concept of martyrdom as perceived in ancient and medieval Jewish sources. She also provides a review of the events which created the Converso phenomena in the 14th century.

But the heart of the book is focused on the analysis of the four martyrs. The four individuals in question were products of the late 16th and 17th centuries and reflected the Judaizing experience in both in the Iberian Peninsula and in Spanish holdings in the New World. Interestingly, Bodian reveals that d’Asumpcao was of limited Jewish ancestry and de Vera y Alarcon appears to not have been of Jewish ancestry. Both however opted for a path of spiritual discovery towards Judaism which ultimately led to their arrest and eventual martyrdom. This fact reveals the complex makeup of crypto Judaism and the diversity of Judaizing adherents.

What is most significant about these individuals and distinguishes these four martyrs is the nature of their confrontation and argumentation with inquisitors and surprising elements found in the interchanges with the Inquisitors. All were well educated and could count knowledge of Latin as a part of their intellectual repertoire. This knowledge as Bodian comments opened up sources otherwise inaccessible to the average crypto-Jew/Judaizer.

Once the die was cast, the four largely abandoned any notion of conciliation to the Church, even if only to preserve their lives, and instead opted to present their commitment to Judaism to the utmost. In fact,they did so with a zeal which must be characterized at times as almost evangelistic. Regarding a cellmate of Luis Carvajal, Bodian relates:

“The cellmates began to discuss theology. Presumably, they also pledged not to reveal each other’s beliefs to the inquisitors. Neither informed on the other and as a result,the friar was sentenced only for his unauthorized administering of sacraments- despite the fact that after his conversations with Luis he was actually converted  (in some fashion) to the Law of Moses.”[2]

Bodian also comments on the influence of Christian dissidents and martyrs on the mentality of Jewish or Judaizing martyrs. The willingness of Christians to suffer martyrdom challenged a group that survived by its very secrecy. If Christians were willing to suffer martyrdom, however, so should Jews.  As Bodian notes:

“One of the hallmarks of the great Judaizing martyrs was their readiness (and ability) to engage the inquisitors in disputations for months or years on end. Death at the stake was inevitable. But if the martyrs rejected a compromise and chose to be burned alive (rather than being garroted first), they achieved the crowning distinction.”[3]

In contrast to many other crypto-Jewish individuals who were tried and ultimately punished by the Inquisition over a period of several centuries, these individuals opted for a path characterized by a defiant defense of their own convictions and a fervent attack on Christianity itself. While crypto-Jews arrested by the Inquisition were often characterized by a rather minimal knowledge or simplistic understanding of the “Jewish” practices they observed or the beliefs they maintained, these individuals represented rather sophisticated and developed personal theologies.

The minimal level of Judaic knowledge found among most crypto-Jews was to be expected given the fact that Jewish educational resources were so limited in Spanish held areas even within two generations of the last openly practicing Jew having departed. In fact for many crypto-Jews, faith was typically an amalgamation of Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices. In light of this, Bodian emphasizes the intellectual and educational sophistication of the four eventual martyrs.

Bodian investigates a largely under-analyzed area in Crypto Jewish research. She argues that elements of Protestant belief appear to have influenced crypto Jewish religious thought. Bodian points out that contrary to popular opinion that Reformation theology had not penetrated Spanish culture, it indeed had and that it extended a surprising influence on the four. The most significant factor is the Reformation element emphasizing the authority of the Biblical text and the autonomy of the individual in approaching the Bible. In fact, the Alumbrado movement is noted specifically for its apparent influence on Luis Carvajal. Among its various tenets, the Alumbrado movement de-emphasized objects of worship and ultimately drew the attention of the Inquisition on suspicions that they embraced Protestant sentiments.

A number of works have been written on the Inquisition and on Crypto Judaism. Few however have delved so eloquently and readably into the unique elements that both explore the issue of martyrdom among crypto-Jews and Judaizers and distinguished also these individuals from the countless others who experienced the same fate. Dying in the Law of the Moses joins Miriam Bodian’s other work, Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam as a valuable contribution to the study of Conversos and Crypto-Judaism.

[1] Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity, (New York: SUNY, 1992), 50.

[2] Miriam Bodian, Dying in the in Law of Moses: Crypto-Jewish Martyrdom in the Iberian World, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 63.

[3] Ibid., xi.

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