Modernizing the Marranos

Las imágenes de la discordia: Política y poética de la imagen sagrada en la España del cuatrocientos

by Felipe Pereda
Marcial Pons, 430 pp., €32.00

The year 1391 marked the opening of a new and terrible chapter in the history of the Jewish population of the Iberian peninsula. A tide of popular hatred, whipped up by Ferrán Martínez, archdeacon of Écija and a canon of Seville cathedral, engulfed one after another of the Jewish communities of the towns of Andalusia, beginning with Seville and then spreading northward to the cities of central and northeastern Spain. There had been anti-Jewish riots and massacres before, not least in 1348, the year of the arrival of the Black Death on the peninsula, but nothing on this scale. Thousands of Jews were slaughtered, and thousands more converted to Christianity to save themselves and their families.

They, and in due course their descendants, came to be known as “converts”—conversos—or, pejoratively, as marranos, a word of uncertain origin but popularly believed to mean “pig.” The famous Spanish dictionary of 1611 by Sebastián de Covarrubias is revealing, about both the use of the word and its etymology:

MARRANO. The recent convert to Christianity, of whom we have a despicable opinion for having feigned his conversion…. The Moors call a one-year-old pig a marrano, and it may be that the new convert is called marrano…because of not eating pork.

The word might also, he suggested, derive from the “Syrian or Chaldean” phrase maran-atha, meaning “Our Lord is come.” Modern discussions of its origins do not seem to have progressed much further.

In creating a large new class of conversos, the mass conversions in the aftermath of the 1391 pogrom transformed the Spanish religious landscape. By around 1410 a considerable body of Jews, perhaps numbering as many as 100,000, had been baptized into the Roman Church. This meant that the Jewish community, which had played such a creative part in the life of medieval Spain, was now split in two. On one side were those who remained true to the faith of their fathers. On the other were those who, through fear, self-interest, or genuine conviction, had become “New Christians,” nuevos cristianos, and joined the ranks of more or less practicing Catholics at a time when Western Catholicism was in a state of evolution.

The incorporation into Christian Spain of these numerous new converts inevitably upset the delicate balance in a peninsula whose religious life had traditionally been characterized by an uneasy coexistence among the peoples of three faiths: Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Could the “Old Christians” really trust the sincerity of the converts, or would they soon backslide into their old Jewish practices? On the other side of the religious divide, the Jewish community saw the conversions as a gross act of betrayal. Might it, however, still be possible to win the converts back through influence and example?

The drama, or more properly the tragedy, was played out over the course of the fifteenth century, a century in which Christian Spain increasingly held the upper hand, now that practicing Jews had become a much-reduced minority and the …

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