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.”

His thesis seems to me to raise some serious problems. In the first place it is curious that an author who is rightly determined, in my view, to demonstrate the diversity of Marrano experience and to rescue the New Christians from essentialist categories should then proceed to produce, in “Marranism,” an essentialism of his own, with “otherness” and split identities being transmitted from one generation to the next. While his book shows that he is well aware of the variety of the conditions under which the conversos lived and the fluctuations in their circumstances that occurred over time, this does not appear to have affected his belief in the existence of a quintessential and enduring Marrano attitude toward life. But does the history of the conversos over three centuries or more really support his argument?

The first decades of the sixteenth century, following the establishment of the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews, were undoubtedly a terrifying moment for the conversos of Spain, who were understandably haunted by fears that the Inquisition would secure evidence of their open or tacit adherence to Judaic modes of thought and practice. But by the middle of the century crypto-Judaism seems to have been largely eradicated in Spain, although not in Portugal, where an even harsher Inquisition was only then getting into its stride. To some extent the fear of exposure for Judaic practices came to be replaced by the fear of exposure of “impure” ancestry, as “purity of blood” statutes came to be adopted by many institutions and corporate bodies, and informers made a living by scouring genealogies in the hope of revealing skeletons hidden in the closets of leading families.

But there is plentiful evidence that these families found innumerable, and often ingenious, ways of escaping from beneath the shadow of the statutes. Bribes were offered and genealogies fabricated, and New Christian families were miraculously transformed into Old Christian families of impeccable ancestry. The success of such maneuvers is demonstrated by the continuing prominence of conversos and their descendants in public life, and not least in the municipal, economic, and cultural life of Toledo itself, the city in which the statutes had originated.9

No doubt numerous families still lived with the fear of exposure, although those conversos sufficiently skillful or well placed to secure entry into the ranks of the nobility or into one of Spain’s prestigious military orders, or even to become “familiars” (lay officials) of the Inquisition, were effectively home and dry. But the general picture is one of gradual assimilation, rather than of marginalization, in Castilian society. In such circumstances, does a “dual identity” really remain the order of the day? Yovel wants us to believe in the continuing “otherness” of the conversos and their descendants in an apparently monolithic Catholic Spain. But this is to ignore not only those who embraced Catholicism with every appearance of genuine devotion, but the contribution made by the conversos themselves in shaping the peculiar characteristics of Spanish Catholicism as it developed in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

A striking example of this process is provided by Las imágenes de la discordia, a pioneering study by a Spanish art historian, Felipe Pereda, which was probably published too late for Yovel to be able to take it into consideration. Pereda’s book, a dense and complicated but brilliant piece of work, available only in Spanish, shows how the nature and use of religious images became a central topic of debate in Spain during the fifteenth century, not only between Old Christians and New Christians, but also among the New Christians themselves. Coming from a religion that, along with Islam, condemned images as idols, the conversos were faced with accommodating themselves to a Western form of Christianity in which visual representations and carved and sculpted images possessed an accepted, if still somewhat indeterminate, place.

One way in which new conversos sought to prove the genuineness of their conversion was to buy crucifixes and other images to place in their houses. With images assuming an enhanced importance in fifteenth-century Spanish devotional life, their exact status became a major source of conflict. Were they to be adored in themselves, or simply venerated? While those who were determined to extirpate Judaism saw them as potent weapons in the struggle, the conversos themselves were split, with at least a number of them enthusiastically embracing, and arguing for, the cult of images.

It fell to Isabella’s confessor, Fray Hernando de Talavera, himself of Jewish origin, to introduce legislation and practices that, for all his own natural caution, were to establish the cult of images firmly at the heart of Spanish devotional life. “The Sacred Made Real,” the deeply impressive exhibition of Spanish religious images recently on view at the National Gallery in London, testifies to the strength and rich creativity of a tradition that developed so vigorously in Spain because of the need to draw clear dividing lines between Catholicism on the one hand and Judaism and Islam on the other. This tradition was shaped, at least in part, by the efforts of conversos to incorporate Roman Catholic images into their new devotional landscape.10

If Yovel’s claims about the “duality” of Marranos raises questions about the central thesis of his book, so too does his representation of them as harbingers of “modernity.” The entire thrust of the book is to underline and emphasize the extent of their contribution to the creation of the modern world. Take, for instance, the question of individualism. The growing emphasis on what has been seen as the rise of modern-style individualism in later medieval Europe has long been a topic of historical debate, with Petrarch in particular being singled out as an emblematic individualist. For Yovel, the conversos, because they were caught between two worlds and belonged fully to neither, were pioneers of self-awareness and subjectivity. But if, in consequence, as has often been suggested, they naturally gravitated to personalized and internalized forms of religion at the expense of external practice, they were hardly alone in this. Society around them was moving in a similar direction.

The new spiritual currents in fifteenth-century Christianity, as exemplified by the devotio moderna that developed in the Netherlands, placed a similar emphasis on internalized religion; and Castile, which had close commercial connections with Flanders, was strongly exposed to the spiritual and cultural winds that were blowing from northern Europe. It is, of course, entirely plausible that the nature of their own religious experience predisposed the conversos to favor this style of personalized devotion, just as they and their sixteenth-century descendants would seem to have been particularly attracted by the internalized religion of Erasmus, as Marcel Bataillon demonstrated many years ago in his classic work on Spanish Erasmianism.11 But it is very difficult to determine the extent to which the conversos were causative agents, or were simply conforming to contemporary trends.

This problem becomes even more apparent when Yovel turns to literary works like La Celestina, a novel in dialogue form, and the Spanish picaresque novel. Here again he is traversing well-trodden terrain. The case for the converso origins and character of Fernando de Rojas’s Celestina was long ago laid out.12 In rehearsing the argument, Yovel writes that “the work culminates in a harsh secular metaphysics almost anticipating Nietzsche’s: there is only this world, which is meaningless in itself,” and he asks whether it is accidental that the author’s converso father-in-law had been overheard declaring that “there is only life in this world.” But in order to explain LaCelestina, first published in 1499, is it really necessary to detect in it a typically converso existential anguish?

LaCelestina was written at a time of great social change and upheaval in Castile, with traditional values, based on lineage and honor, being challenged by the rise of new social forces. The wool trade had brought new wealth; the population was growing and cities expanding; the new money generated by a buoyant economy was bringing about upward social mobility on an unprecedented scale. This was an increasingly urbanized society in which Old and New Christians were intermarrying, and in which the preoccupation with purity of blood was not yet the obsession that it would become half a century later. The social dislocations and conflicting values of the period provided an ideal background for the creation of a work of this kind, irrespective of the religious or ethnic origins of the author.

Similar doubts arise when Yovel moves from Spain to southern France, where he turns to the case of Montaigne, whose mother came from a line of Aragonese conversos who had settled in Bordeaux. In a France torn in half by the wars of religion, and in which Montaigne’s own family was divided between Catholics and Protestants, how much, if any, weight should be given to his Marrano origins as an explanation of his “individualism and worldly search for wisdom, his early, and dangerous, preaching of tolerance, his opposition to forced conversions and torture (and hence to the Inquisition)”? Yovel concludes that it is “hard to prove” that the New Christian ancestry of the author of the Essays was “causally responsible for these positions…, but its relevance is even harder to dismiss.”

Here, as elsewhere, such arguments tend to circularity: authors of Marrano origin reveal alleged Marrano traits; alleged Marrano traits point to the Marrano origin of the authors and its influence on their work. This is a game that lends itself to endless repetition, although one that would be harder to play with artists than with writers. Evidence has recently been uncovered to suggest that Velázquez was of Portuguese Marrano descent.13 Will Marrano characteristics come to be found in his paintings?

Velázquez’s family history draws attention to a phenomenon of great importance, on which Yovel rightly dwells: the New Christian diaspora, and in particular that of the Portuguese Marranos. When Philip II secured the crown of Portugal in 1580 and the entire Iberian peninsula was united beneath his rule, many Portuguese New Christians, some of them genuine Catholics and others less so, seized the chance to cross the border into Spain, which offered greater commercial and financial opportunities than they could find at home. As they settled in Seville, Madrid, and other Spanish cities—and some made use of their trading opportunities to cross the Atlantic and take up residence not only in Portuguese Brazil, but also in the Spanish viceroyalties of Mexico and Peru—they unwittingly changed the nature and scale of the converso question, and endowed it with a fresh lease on life.

The Inquisition once again became agitated about the presence of “Judaizers” in Spain and its overseas possessions. The Spanish crown badly needed the services of these Portuguese Marranos, but as they moved to win control over the commanding heights of the Spanish economy, and in the process showed little compunction about flaunting their wealth, suspicions intensified that they were all crypto-Jews and turned them into targets of general obloquy.

In recent years both the religious life and the commercial activities of these Marranos of the diaspora have been the focus of much scholarly attention, for the most part duly acknowledged in Yovel’s book. Outside the Iberian peninsula there were a number of major cities—Livorno, Venice, Amsterdam—in which Jews had been permitted to settle and practice their religion relatively unconstrained. Portuguese and Spanish Marranos kept in touch with relatives and business partners in these Jewish communities, which acted as a natural magnet to Marranos who conformed reluctantly to the observance of Catholicism or developed hankerings for a return to the Jewish fold. The roll call of Marranos who decided to leave their homes in the Iberian peninsula and embark on new lives in an authentically Jewish environment included such distinguished figures as Isaac Cardoso, a learned physician at the court of Philip IV who found refuge in Venice, and Isaac Orobio de Castro, also a scholar and physician, who, after imprisonment by the Inquisition, eventually professed his Judaism and took up residence in Amsterdam.14

As the Israeli scholar Yosef Kaplan has made clear in a number of important investigations into the religious and intellectual life of its Jewish community, numbering some two thousand souls, Amsterdam held many attractions for uprooted Iberian Marranos. Not only could they worship in synagogues with their fellow Jews, but they could also take advantage of the relative openness of the religiously pluralist society of the Dutch Republic, with its invitation to freedom of thought and intellectual inquiry.15

Some of those Marranos who had been brought up in Catholic Spain and Portugal, and whose families had clandestinely continued to observe Jewish rites and teachings that had tended to become distorted with the passage of time and the fading of memory, found it difficult to adjust to the normative Judaism of the Amsterdam Jewish community. In spite of the risk of new encounters with the Inquisition, some of them, after rancorous confrontations with their fellow Jews, chose to return to the Iberian peninsula and revert to Catholicism. Others also chose to return, either for family or business reasons, or because they could not throw off the feeling that their true home lay in Spain. Perhaps the notion of a “dual identity” is most applicable to these wanderers who, while uncomfortable with aspects of Spanish Catholicism, found themselves equally uncomfortable with the Judaism they found in Jewish communities abroad.

If a search for identity drew a number of Marranos to foreign parts, many more traveled or settled abroad in order to make their careers in commerce and finance. Again, much work has been done in recent years on the Marranos as businessmen, and a useful sampling can be found in the volume of essays edited by Richard Kagan and Philip Morgan of Johns Hopkins University under the title Atlantic Diasporas. This volume includes pieces by such scholars as Jonathan Israel and Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert, who have made outstanding contributions to our knowledge of the international activities, and the social and mental worlds, of the Marrano mercantile community.16

The “Marranos Globalized,” as Yovel calls them in one of his chapter headings, were, in Jonathan Israel’s words, simultaneously “agents and victims of empire.” Members of “the Nation,” whether Jews, crypto-Jews, or Catholics, ran the transatlantic slave trade for the crowns of Spain and Portugal, and had a significant part in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century launching of a global economy. They linked together the different commercial centers of an expanding world, and when life became too threatening for many of them—as it did in central and southern America after Portugal recovered its independence from Spain in 1640 and then went on to expel the Dutch from Brazil—they scattered through the Caribbean and into North America, carrying with them their business acumen and entrepreneurial expertise.

Religious allegiances and family connections helped the Marranos to establish and maintain their international trading networks, as also did their shared Iberian background. But they were not the only minority group to have had an important part in European overseas expansion. As contributors to Atlantic Diasporas point out, Huguenots and Quakers, and, in due course, Presbyterian Scots, were also significant actors on the global stage, and they too relied heavily on kinship and mutual trust, based on shared experience and values, to promote their overseas activities. While ultimately they faced fewer impediments than the Iberian Marranos, minority status, whatever its exact cause and character, undoubtedly served as an effective stimulus to group solidarity, which was itself essential for successful long-distance trading and business activities in the early modern centuries. Yet group solidarity could well come into conflict with the individualism that Yovel sees as a distinguishing Marrano trait, prefiguring modern ways of living and thinking.

The origins of so-called “modernity,” and indeed the very notion of what constitutes modernity, remain, as always, an elusive quarry. Yovel thinks he has found it in the Marranos, and advances some good arguments in support of his belief. But his arguments seem to me to be overstated and his claims excessive. Wisely, toward the end of the book, he issues a disclaimer. After arguing that modernization and secularization were prefigured by the Marrano experience, he goes on to ask whether the Marranos can be said to have generated these trends. “Here,” he writes,

the answer is more difficult…. But it may not be excessive to assume that, at certain junctures, Marranos served as catalysts in modernizing trends that had already begun without them, or joined the process as a contributing factor, or helped prepare the ground by undermining the solidity of the existing state of affairs and pointing to its possible mutation. Historical transformations are intricate enough to allow for more complex kinds of participating agents than simple linear causes and effects suggest.

This recognition of the complexity of the historical process is welcome. By lifting something of the historical burden of modernity that he has imposed on the Marranos, the author leaves us free to consider in the setting of its times the complex religious life and the rich and varied achievements of the extraordinary Iberian community whose experiences he evokes with such feeling.

This Issue

March 11, 2010