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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.”1 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.2 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 Moorish kingdom of Granada was being undermined by internecine strife. The story, which can be found in every survey of the history of late-medieval and early modern Spain, has frequently been told: the periodic outbreaks of violence against Jews and conversos in the cities of Castile and Aragon; the anti- converso rising in Toledo in 1449, followed by the city’s attempt to impose an order excluding those of “impure blood” from holding public office; the establishment between 1478 and 1481, under the aegis of the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, of a new-style Inquisition, designed to root out heresy, and in particular to deal with the problem of “Judaizing”—reversion to their old faith—by conversos; and the final, terrible act of the drama in the expulsion of the Jews in 1492—an action that, it was hoped, would remove the temptation among the converts to slide back into old ways.

In telling the story once again in the opening chapters of The Other Within, Yirmiyahu Yovel is therefore traversing well-trodden ground. Is there, then, a case for the retelling, and is there anything new that can be said? Yovel, a professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, believes that there is. A specialist in the study of Spinoza, he has set out, in his own words, to write “a historico-philosophical essay,” a “critical integrative study, intended for a broad intellectual audience and organized in view of the philosophical themes that the story suggests and brings forth.” His focus, as his subtitle makes clear, is specifically on the Marranos, as he tends to call the conversos, and on the nature of their “Marranism” and its consequences.

The story of the Marranos is indeed a dramatic one. It has been calculated that, with the addition of perhaps another twenty to thirty thousand new converts when the Jews found themselves threatened with expulsion in 1492, New Christians or their descendants numbered around 250,000 at the start of the sixteenth century, and made up about 4 percent of Spain’s population.3 This was therefore a sizable group, and its importance was increased by the fact that it included members of the professional classes, merchants, clerics, town councilors, and royal officials.

But it was far from being a clear-cut group. New Christians had intermarried with Old Christians, and quantities of Jewish blood ran in the veins of the Castilian elite. “Purity of blood”—limpieza de sangre—was to assume a growing importance in the course of the sixteenth century, as an increasing number of institutions and religious corporations, most notoriously the cathedral chapter of Toledo in 1547, barred entry to those who could not prove that they were of pure Christian ancestry. Yet religion, not race, was the determining element in the policies that had led to the establishment of the tribunals of the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews. In some areas of the peninsula there was strong popular sentiment against the New Christians, provoked by their social and economic preeminence. While this might assume racist forms, the overwhelming concern of Ferdinand and Isabella was with purity of the faith, not purity of blood.

How trustworthy was the faith of these New Christians? It was this that the Inquisition set out to discover, systematically tracking down real or alleged “Judaizers,” and no doubt creating more in the process. The significance of the conversos and the degree to which they remained Jews at heart has been the subject of increasing historical debate—a debate that Yovel briefly but lucidly discusses in his appendix on “Trends in the Literature.” On the one hand, there has been an internal Spanish debate, effectively launched by the famous Spanish scholar Américo Castro (1885–1972), whose great contribution was to break through many taboos in the writing of Spanish history by emphasizing the contribution of Jews and Muslims to the making of modern Spain. For Castro the New Christians, well integrated into Spanish society, made a central contribution to the life and culture of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain. Finding New Christians everywhere, he adduced numerous examples to support his thesis, from Fernando de Rojas, the converso author of the “tragi-comedy” La Celestina, to that great mystic, Saint Teresa of Ávila.4 Other historians of Spain believe that Castro overstated his case.

Running parallel to this Spanish debate there has also, as Yovel explains, been an internal Jewish debate, with such distinguished scholars as Yitzhak Baer and Haim Beinart seeing the conversos as “Jews severed from their main stock,” whereas Benzion Netanyahu (father of Israel’s current prime minister) has argued that “almost all Spanish Marranos assimilated into Christianity in the fifteenth century,” and that Judaizing was “a negligible phenomenon” until the advent of the Inquisition “reignited” it.5

Yovel does not claim to add new historical information to the story. Instead, he sets out to illustrate and analyze the Marrano historical experience as a means of arriving at what he calls “a critical reinterpretation.” Having set the scene, he makes extensive use of individual case studies in the form of mini-biographies of conversos, some of them well known, like the famous Salamanca theologian and scholar Fray Luis de León, and others less so. The stories he tells evoke with poignancy the dilemmas of men and women torn between the desire for acceptance in the society to which they belonged and a nostalgia for old ancestral traditions. Who could fail to be moved by the reply of a converso father to his Jewish son who was living with his mother and had asked to be converted to his father’s new Catholic faith? The father refused: “Go away, son, for I am lost, I wish I had not converted! But you, you [still] have a good religion, stick with your mother!”

Yovel’s case studies support one of the points he is most anxious to make: that a wide diversity is to be found in the behavior, reactions, and religion of the Marranos. “Actually,” as he writes, “there seem to have been several Marrano religions (in the plural), distinguished by local conditions and religious orientation.” He also, and rightly, draws distinctions between the Marranism of the New Christians in Spain and Portugal, where conditions, at least initially, were very different (as Cecil Roth emphasized as long ago as 1932 in his pioneering A History of the Marranos6).

Of the refugees from the Spanish expulsion in 1492, some 80,000 may have crossed the frontier into Portugal, where King João II offered them asylum. But in 1496, his successor, a vacillating King Manuel, who on the one hand wanted the skills the Jews could provide but on the other was anxious to remain on good terms with Ferdinand and Isabella, adopted a policy that he hoped would make the best of both worlds. He gave the new arrivals twenty years to adjust to Christianity, and ordered the expulsion of those who would not comply. But he then arranged for forcible baptisms and allowed very few Jews to leave the country.

Royal policy would fluctuate in the coming years, but as Yovel points out, Portugal became a kind of prison for a large New Christian community, which managed to maintain Jewish or crypto-Jewish practices longer than its Spanish counterpart, and had time to organize itself before the creation of a Portuguese Inquisition in 1536.7 As a result, the Portuguese Marranos developed a cohesion and sense of community absent among the New Christians of Spain. This was reflected in their collective denomination as the “Nation,” a self-conscious community that developed an impressive capacity for lobbying for concessions in Lisbon and in Rome.

Yovel’s insistence on the diversity to be found in the religious behavior and attitudes of the Marranos serves as a useful corrective to monolithic representations of them as either crypto-Jews or committed Catholics.8 But while this point is well taken, he has much grander ambitions in view. The principal purpose of his book is to demonstrate that the Marranos, being fully accepted by neither of the religions with which they were associated, developed a split identity, which, “far from being a marginal anomaly,” he sees as “a genuine and necessary form of human existence, which deserves recognition as a basic form of freedom, indeed a human right.” This duality, he claims, allowed them to blaze the trail that would lead to “Western modernity,” which he sees as characterized, among other things, by secularism and indifference to religion, the sense of subjectivity, and a rootless cosmopolitanism. “What took place,” he argues, “on the macro-European scale in the matter of modernization and secularization had been prefigured by microforms of life and mind that Marranos experienced in Iberia and exported into their Dispersion.”

  1. 1

    Sebastián de Covarrubias, Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana o Española, 1611 edition, edited by Martín de Riquer (1943; Barcelona: Alta Fulla, 1998), p. 791.

  2. 2

    For this coexistence and its limitations, see my “A Question of Coexistence,” The New York Review, August 13, 2009.

  3. 3

    Antonio Domínguez Ortiz, Los judeoconversos en la España moderna (Madrid: MAPFRE, 1992), p. 43.

  4. 4

    Among Castro’s many publications, perhaps the best known is España en su historia: cristianos, moros y judíos (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1948), translated into English by Edmund L. King as The Structure of Spanish History (Princeton University Press, 1954).

  5. 5

    See also the review by Henry Kamen of Netanyahu’s The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain (Random House, 1995), The New York Review, February 1, 1996.

  6. 6

    The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1932; second edition, Meridian, 1959, chapter 3.

  7. 7

    For a valuable comparative survey of the functioning of the Inquisition in the Iberian world and Italy, see the study by Francisco Bethencourt, originally published in French in 1995, and now available in English as The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478–1834 (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

  8. 8

    A similar challenge to the assumption of “absolute categories of identity” is mounted by David L. Graizbord in his Souls in Dispute: Converso Identities in Iberia and the Jewish Diaspora, 1580–1700 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), a study of converso “renegades” who chose to return to the Iberian peninsula and revert to Catholicism. Graizbord argues that “the question of ‘how Jewish or Catholic were the conversos?’…imposes an erroneous interpretive framework upon the phenomenon of renegade behavior.”

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