There were Inquisitions before the Spanish Inquisition, and there continue to be Inquisitions, although not as violent, today. The Spanish Inquisition was different in that it was targeting Jews, and in the level of violence seen. I intend to talk today a little about how we got to the Spanish Inquisition, the perpetrators, the victims, and the methods used, although I don’t plan to be any more graphic than the nightly news was when talking about torture in Guantanamo Bay. Along with specific perpetrators, I plan to discuss Spanish society and how it enabled the Inquisition and encouraged it against their neighbors.
The first inquisition came to exist under the Roman empire, and targeted the polytheists who, a mere generation before, represented the official religion of the Empire. The Inquisition under the Roman Empire and early middle ages dealt with heresy within the Church, rather than Judaism and Islam, and rather than other crimes such as sodomy, as were prosecuted under the Spanish Inquisition later. Despite the fact that “Inquisitor of the Faith” was already a title, and persecutions were ongoing, Pope Innocent III is considered the founder of the Holy Inquisition as an integral part of the Church (Sabatini 6%). This is because persecuting heretics moved from the secular arm to the church arm under his jurisdiction. Although executions were still left up to the secular arm, and “abandonment to the secular arm” became a euphemism for killing a person by fire, other punishments were undertaken by the Church, and within the walls of the physical church. In addition, the Church became the prosecutorial arm and the investigational arm.
Before we get started, let’s examine some of the history of Spain and Jews in Spain prior to The Inquisition. In 586 CE, Visigoth rule in Spain became increasingly prejudiced against Jews, and was characterized by anti Jewish legislation (Gutierrez 1973, 17). The Byzantine Empire took over large parts of Spain, and they were also anti-Jewish. Jews were forbidden from owning Christian slaves, which in practice meant any slaves since their slaves would merely convert to Christianity, and need to be freed. They also required that children born from intermarried couples were to be raised as Christians. The children of new Christians who were were deemed to have relapsed were removed from the home and raised as Christians by foster parents (Gutierrez 1973, 18).
In 613, there was the first round of forced conversions as King Sisebut demanded that all Jews in his realm convert. According to Christian sources 90,000 Jews converted (Gutierrez 1973, 18). Converts whose sincerity was in question were forbidden from giving testimony in a court of law. Forced converts known to perform Jewish rituals were given away as slaves (Gutierrez 1973, 19). So as you can see, things were already bad for crypto Jews, however they got a lot worse once the Europeans reconquered Spain.
Before that could happen, Arab rule dramatically improved the position of Jews, and they were largely not persecuted for hundreds of years. Spain was a sort of refuge for Jews from other parts of Europe to escape persecution (Gutierrez 2017, 4), until the Almohades dynasty, which again offered Jews the choice, “convert or die.” this time to Islam (Gutierrez 2017, 4). During this time, Spain became the largest population of Jews outside of the Holy Land. This would create major crisis when Jews were ordered to convert or die.
Although not specifically aimed at Jews, in 1215, Pope Innocent backed a bull that threatened excommunication towards any prince who failed to eliminate heresy from his Kingdom. This was an early attempt at denying liberty of conscience to princes, and came as a power play between Church and state, but many crowns would take it seriously. Excommunication meant that you could no longer receive the sacraments, which condemned your soul to hell because you couldn’t confess your sins or have communion, even on your deathbed. These heresies that were condemned were not other religions, but rather either believing humans to be too close to God, or too far from God, rather than the happy medium the Church had pretty arbitrarily decided upon centuries earlier. It was aimed at Christian sects, but was ultimately used against conversos.
In the 13th century, two men approached the Pope and asked to be allowed to create mendicant orders to remove heresy from Christian lands. One of these wanted to use force and the other persuasion. Both were permitted to exist, but the Dominicans, the order that believed in force, became the leaders of the Inquisition, and were much more successful and popular (Sabatini 8%).
By the same time period, there were laws both for and against forced converts. On one hand, it was illegal to forcibly baptize someone. On the other, if someone were forcibly baptized they were obligated to live as a Christian for the rest of their lives, as it was considered impossible to undo a baptism which was considered a sort of magical rite (Sabatini 17%). Jews could not acknowledge this magical aspect of baptism without acknowledging Christianity as a valid faith, so they were willing to accept forced converts back into the fold. However, this led many of them to their deaths.
In 1349 the Black Death came to Spain, and Jews were blamed for the outbreak because it affected them less than it did the Christians, largely because Jews bathed (Gutierrez 2017, 7). Laws were passed requiring Jews to dress differently than current fashion, and live apart in ghettos. They were forced to wear badges, and desist from using Christian names. They were not allowed to sell meat, bread, wine, or flour, which of course makes obtaining kosher meat or kosher for passover matzoh illegal. Mendicant orders were allowed to preach in synagogues, and Jews were required to listen patiently. The only good news was that Jews were allowed to pick their own judges in civil proceedings. Because they blamed the Jews for the black death, the Dominicans offered them the choice between baptism and death, once again, despite laws forbidding this. It was later considered that being given an option between baptism and death offered a legitimate choice, and these Jews would be required to keep the faith they had been forced to adopt (Gutierrez 2017, 12). Many tried to flee, though there weren’t many places that would take them. The exception to this was the Ottoman Empire, where the sultan welcomed them warmly (Gutierrez 2017, 72).
In 1391, violence erupted against Jewish communities throughout Spain. 30,000 to 50,000 Jews were murdered. Hundreds of thousands more converted to Christianity, in order to avoid being murdered. More converted when judges offered to pay 20,000 pounds of their collective debt (Gutierrez, 37). These Jews were not given any kind of education in Christian thought, practice, or religion. They were just expected to know it already. Most did not. Instead, they continued living as Jews who also happened to go to church on Sundays. However, they kept the Sabbath holy on Saturdays, did not eat pork, and circumcised their children.
Eventually, the Old Christians became jealous of the New Christians getting positions in the government and church. They instituted purity of blood laws that said that no one of Jewish heritage could take certain positions. There formed a more or less permanent underclass of Jewish Christians who weren’t considered Jewish by the Jews nor considered Christian by the Christians. This situation festered for about 100 years without a solution, until 1478, when the Catholic Church instituted the Spanish Inquisition, which tortured and killed people for participating in Jewish rites. At the same time, leaving the country was illegal, and punishable by becoming a slave, so people had no choice but to take their chances with the Inquisition.
In the early years of the Inquisition, it paid little attention to Jews who had not converted to Christianity, although it had the authority to force a Jew to testify against a converso. The exception to this was that it occasionally burned or banned books it deemed heretical to the Catholic Church.
Despite their best efforts, The Inquisition failed to maintain a separation between Jew and Converso, and conversos continued Judaizing. When there continued to be arrests for Judaizing amongst conversos, Torquemada and the Crown decided that they had to remove all the unbaptized Jews from the country in order to separate Jews from Christians physically, and make it impossible for Jews to teach conversos their religion, or provide them with matzoh, and kosher meats. In March 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella announced an edict effecting the removal of the Jews. Many more Jews converted rather than leave the only home they had ever known. This all happened in 1492, the same year that Ferdinand and Isabella finally managed to consolidate control of the peninsula. This was not a coincidence; Jews were largely responsible for financing the war against the moors, the reconquista. It wasn’t until this source of funding was no longer needed that it was convenient for the crown to get rid of the Jews. As we also know, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and made Spain the richest kingdom in the world, so the funding Jews provided was no longer necessary for the royal coffers.
By the 16th century, eating pork had become a sort of shibboleth to determine whether someone was a secret Jew. Despite being nauseated by the smell, conversos ate pork in public to make it known that they were Christians. Others pretended vegetarianism to avoid having to eat pork.
Another way Jews were found out was that people would climb to the rooftops on shabbat and look to see who had no fire going at their house, since a Jew will not light a fire on shabbat.
Another test was being circumcised, which seems particularly cruel, since it is a thing your parents would do to you before you could consent. If a child was found circumcised, both the parents and child were arrested by the inquisition. Other signs included changing linens on Friday before the Sabbath, buying vegetables before Passover, blessing children without making the sign of the cross, fasting on Yom Kippur, and refraining from work on the Sabbath, which Jews celebrate on Saturday rather than the Christian Sunday. In addition, working on Sunday was considered potentially Jewish.
One final test was pouring out water from the house in which someone has died, believing that the soul of the dead would bathe in it before setting out on its journey to the afterlife. This came from a medieval Jewish tradition of doing so which may have had several meanings, and actually was borrowed from French Christians, but was carried through the Jewish tradition to Spain and not followed by Christians there (Trachtenberg, 136). Anyone could accuse any converso of being a secret Jew and often accusations were made because two men happened to get angry at one another, and were made without any regard for the truth of the situation. Christian slaves of heretics were freed, giving the slaves an incentive to accuse any converso owners of heresy. Even if a full confession were made, and the person reconciled to the church, their slaves would be freed.
Because of the possibility for a condemned man to get revenge on his accusers, he was never told who his accusers were, nor what they had said. Instead he was asked “why do you think you’re here?” and led into confession. It was considered that someone accusing someone else must be saved at all costs, or else other people wouldn’t be willing to come forward and make accusations.
Inquisitors were warned not to be too precise in their questioning or else people may guess who had condemned them and they were not supposed to suggest answers to the accused, so that the accused could not confine himself to those answers the inquisitors already knew. By keeping things vague, he might give up persons previously unsuspected. They were promised pardon, but then told that it was pardon by God, not earthly authorities, and although they’d be killed, they’d go to heaven. It was considered that if torture were permitted certainly deceiving someone was permitted to extract a confession (Sabatini 44%).
At times, the inquisitors were gentle with a prisoner, offering him salvation, and grace, which turned out to mean death, if only he would confess and give them other names. An inquisitor was only allowed to torture a suspect under certain conditions. One of these was that the accused contradicted himself, and this was the most used since after weeks and months of repeating the same subjects it becomes almost impossible for even an innocent man not to contradict himself in some way.
Inquisitors also may send a supposed friend or rabbi or other seemingly beneficent person to talk to. Of course, these were always disguised inquisitors, and anything said to them would be reported to the inquisition. This person was not allowed to actually state that they were a friend because to do so would be to commit a sin. However, allowing the accused to believe anything they wished to believe was allowed.
People were tortured, but they were not supposed to die or bleed, and if they did the inquisitor was guilty of an irregularity and had to confess. The accused could demand an advocate, which would be provided, but was required to recuse himself if it became obvious the accused was guilty. The accused had to pay the advocate out of their own property. Torture could only legally be conducted once, but inquisitors regularly “took a break” over night, and continued, rather than repeated, it on the next day. This is a technicality without a difference, not forbidden because the men who formulated the law never imagined the distinction might be made (Sabatini 46%).
There are 5 types of torture, the first four of which are mental torture, and only the 5th is bodily torture. These are 1. The threat of torture. 2. Being conducted to the torture 3. Stripping and preparing for the ordeal. 4. Laying and binding upon the instrument. 5. The actual torture (Sabatini, 47%). There were at least 14 different types of physical torture, and others, such as sleep deprivation were imagined. As a rule, both in torture and punishment, the inquisitors avoided novel ideas. They usually resorted to three ideas for torture. These were 1. The rack. 2. Torture of the hoist which involved tying the arms behind the back and lifting and dropping the person using their body weight to dislocate their shoulders. And 3. Water torture, more recently called waterboarding. (Sabatini 47%).
The inquisitors assumed the guilt of anyone brought before them. There was no way to escape once you were arrested. It was assumed that if they burned an innocent man, which they almost certainly did regularly, that person would become a martyr and receive glory in heaven. It was considered a boon, a privilege, to be enjoyed with profound gratitude towards the inquisitors who allowed it (Sabatini 49%).
Those who admitted to Judaizing might survive, and might even get out of prison. This was done under an “Edict of Grace” which asked that anyone who was guilty of heresy come forward willingly and they would escape with their lives if they fully confessed and gave names of others who had committed heresy with them. At least 20,000 conversos came forward to make a confession (Sabatini 28%).
Most people who came before The Inquisition did not survive. They would be marched stripped to the waist and barefoot through the snow, in a yellow sack, holding a candle. At the head of the procession a black robed Dominican led holding the green cross of the Inquisition, followed by the doomed men, followed by the inquisitors. They were taken to church to hear a sermon. Then they were marched in procession to the stakes they would be tied to and burned alive. If they had confessed to Judaizing and asked to be brought back into the church, they would be strangled to death before the fires were lit. Otherwise, they would be burned alive. Burnings continued at such a pace once started in February that by November 298 people had been burned to death and 79 had been permitted to live with life in prison (Sabatini 30%).
Death was no escape. If someone thought a person had Judaized before his or her death, his or her bones could be exhumed and burned at the stake, and all property confiscated from the heirs even if a 3rd generation of heirs was currently in possession of it. This was by no means rare (Sabatini 40%).
Now we’re going to talk a bit about the perpetrators. These include the king and queen of Spain, the head Inquisitor, and finally, Spanish society itself. The king and queen who started the inquisition were Ferdinand and Isabella. These two married in 1469, which was a first step to unifying Spain. He was the heir to Aragon, and she the heir to Castile. When they came together the kingdom was officially unified, although they each kept their own bureaucracy and leaders throughout their reign.
Isabella’s life, with the exception of founding the Inquisition, appears to be one of an exemplary human being (Sabatini 12%). She allowed people to get important state positions without regard to birth, which before then had been the only qualification. Law was thrown open to the burgher class, and all offices were opened to all lawyers (Sabatini 12%).
Almost all historians of her life talk about her great piety despite her conflicts with the Pope. In fact, the term used for her and Ferdinand as a unit is "The Catholic Monarchs." This may have been because of her support for the Inquisition. However pious she was, she would not grant the Pope any power he did not already hold over her people, and fought him for powers she believed should be her own, such as appointing priests and cardinals. Like her opening of state positions to all lawyers, she opposed appointing anyone to church positions based on anything but merit. She won this argument, and was from there able to better curb some of the abuses of the church.
Justice became blind to position in life, or at least more egalitarian than it was anywhere else in Europe. There were no longer arbitrary imprisonments, and taxation was made more equal (Sabatini 15%). Of course, the exception to this was the Inquisition which regularly was responsible for arbitrary and permanent imprisonments and even burnings at the stake.
It was on her first visit to Seville that the Inquisition was first suggested to her. She had previously surrounded herself with new christians. 3 of her closest advisors and her treasurer were all new christians (Sabatini 22%).
Isabella died in 1504. Ferdinand remarried, but the second marriage produced no heir. Had there been one, it is almost certain Castile and Aragon would have separated on his death, but as it was, the union passed to Isabella's daughter Joanna. She was declared unfit to lead, and Ferdinand led until his death in 1516. Joanna's son, Charles I became the new king, and continued the Inquisition.
The head of the Inquisition was Torquemada. He came to power as the confessor to Isabella, and he quickly won her ear. Torquemada himself had Converso ancestors, and yet his hatred for Jews and Conversos was fanatical. He was born in 1420, either in Valladolid or nearby Torquemada. He entered the Dominican monastery at a young age and quickly created a name for himself. He feared Conversos largely for the same bigoted reasons that had alway plagued Jews - they were money lenders, and that gave them the ear of the crown and they might crucify Christian children on holidays. After 15 years as Inquisitor, he died at a monastery in Avila. In 1832 his bones were stolen and burned in an act apparently meant to mimic the autos de fe he was so fond of that dug up and burned people for Judaizing even after they were dead.
Lay people made accusations of ritual murder and host desecration, meaning desecrating the communion wafer thought to be Jesus’ literal body. Educated people largely argued that these things didn’t take place, but they were common rumors, and the average Spaniard probably believed them.
There were basically three responses to conversos and Jews. The first is that the average person regarded conversos as Jews, and not Christians. The second is general apathy for educating conversos in the Christian faith leading even those who wanted to be Christians without the knowledge and means to be so. The third is that conversos were not just failing to become Christians, but they were actively destroying the Christian faith. There was frequently public outcry against the conversos, and were demands that something be done, It also meant that the average Spaniard was willing and even eager to turn in any converso they suspected of Judaizing to the Inquisitiors, even knowing that the outcome was the inevitable death of the converso.
The lack of education may not have been intentional. During the middle ages, many priests were not very educated in their own religion themselves, and lacked the ability to engage with people who were used to the rich intellectual traditions that make up Judaism. One converso who had risen through the ranks of the church attempted to fix this. His name was Fray Hernando de Talavera. He preached the superiority of Christianity in the vernacular, and with an attempt at the academic rigor that Jews and descendants of Jews were used to. He believed that instruction, rather than Inquisition, was the way to bring Conversos into the Church. This was ultimately a failure, as most Conversos continued Judaizing.
Another attempt to reeducate the Conversos was to physically move them out of Jewish neighborhoods and into Old Christian neighborhoods. This was especially applied to former Rabbis, who were segregated to prevent them from having any influence over other converos. Jews and conversos were also forbidden to take conversos as apprentices so that these mentors were always Old Christians who would nurture Christian belief in the young. The concern was so strong that removal of non apprenticed children was also seriously considered (Gutierrez, 72). Despite moving Conversos into Old Christian neighborhoods, marrying them was forbidden, especially for Old Christian women. This led Conversos to largely marry each other, and raise their children how they, themselves, had been raised.
In theory, the conversos were equal to any Old Christian, and some even rose through the ranks of government and church. Pope Anacletus II served as a cardinal without anyone noting that his great grandfather was Jewish. It wasn’t until he was elected Pope that anyone protested that he had Jewish background. Despite exceptions, Judaism was, for the first time, considered an ethnic group rather than a religious group. It is possibly because of these exceptions that Old Christians came to believe that Conversos had converted in order to control or subvert Christian society (Gutierrez 1973, 69).
Christian identity was largely defined by what it was not. It was not Jewish. Jews were literally believed to be satanic, and evil. Converting thousands and later expelling thousands of Jews upset this balance and left Christians unsure of what they were when they no longer had something to oppose (Gutierrez, 74).
In addition, the government had levied huge fines on Jews for protecting their synagogues, and for damage done when those protections failed. Conversos were expected to take on their portion of this ethnic guilt and legal fines leading many of them to wonder what benefit they had received for converting. Eventually, people started making the same prejudiced statements that the Conversos stink because they use oil to cook rather than bacon fat, and even claim they are not baptized and baptism removes a physical stench.
Until 1471, no Converso was legally allowed to do anything that a Jew was not legally allowed to do. This was reversed by King Enrique IV in an attempt to lessen the acrimony between Conversos and Old Christians, and drive a wedge between Conversos and Jews. Later the law was reinstated, and remained in place until 1501 when King Ferdinand declared that sons and grandsons of those reconciled by the Inquisition were legally Christians, although they were not allowed to inherit anything from the Jewish family members. Both Jews and Muslims were supposed to wear identifying clothing, but the law was not enforced.
So thorough was the hatred against heretics that two generations later their grandchildren were still considered incapable of taking certain honorifics, or holding any public office (Sabatini 9%). Jews were required to listen to three sermons annually that basically heaped abuse on them, insulted them, and then asked them to convert to Christianity.
Despite all this, the Inquisition was not viewed favorably by average Spaniards (Sabatini 54%). This was true until 3 conversos attempted to murder the leaders of the Inquisition, and successfully did murder one of them. Then popular opinion turned in favor of the Inquisition. Some 200 men were killed in riots for the murder of this priest, even though most of them had nothing to do with it.
Now we’re going to talk about the victims. We’re going to talk about some general characteristics and then we’re going to talk about Conversos who left Spain, including those who became pirates.
Christians and Jews considered each other generations long enemies. Christians viewed Jews as the descendants of those who had crucified Jesus, and Jews saw Christians as people who had become polytheists while appropriating their Torah for their own purposes.
By the end of the 14th century, some 500,000 Jews lived in Spain. This represented half of the Jews of Europe, and was the largest population outside of Israel (Kritzler, 2). 100,000 Jews lived in Portugal, and represented 10% of Portugal’s population. (Kritzler, 64). After the 1300s, there were even more secret Jews in both places. These secret jews met to read Torah, and fasted twice a week to repent for their apostasy (Kritzler, 67). They adored Queen Esther as a covert Jew as themselves, and saw Haman as the Grand Inquisitor.
Eventually, Conversos were persecuted more so than Jews themselves. One could get out of the Inquisition’s grasp by proving that he or she had always been a Jew and had always been known as a Jew, and was unbaptized. Jews were technically excluded from Inquisitional harassment due to not being baptized, but the Inquisition often used allegations of magic and deals with the devil to get around this technicality (Trachtenberg, 1). If it were discovered that a person was still legally a Jew, the person would be forced to leave Spain, but they would escape with their lives. It is hardly any wonder that many conversos left Spain for Arab lands, and Holland, where they could live openly as Jews. Many conversos travelled to the new world, which was illegal, or other countries in Europe.
Overwhelmingly, Conversos were poor, but enough of them gained financial positions, government positions, and church positions that were not open to Jews to draw the ire of Old Christians, who largely believed that these advantages came at their own expense.
Eventually, even those conversos who wanted to remain Jewish found that their Jewish knowledge was lacking, and they did not know how to be either Jews or Christians (Guitierrez, 12). Conversos and Jews were not legally allowed to marry, and it was very dangerous for conversos to go to a synagogue or Jew’s home to receive education in Judaism, so eventually, even those who wanted to remain Jewish, over generations, lost the knowledge of how to be such.
Many conversos gave up physical characteristics of Judaism such as cleanliness, industrial drive, thriftiness, and intellectual activity in order to avoid being suspected of Judaism (Gutierrez, 69). Their Christian neighbors didn’t bathe, so neither did the Conversos.
There were some people who attempted to fight this lack of knowledge such as a Converso named Splugues and his wife Barbara. Barbara was an Old Christian, but she lived as a Jew while she was married to Splugues. Both of them were eventually killed by the Inquisition, proving that attempting to teach conversos was as dangerous as being a converso.
Judaizing conversos often followed a caricature of Judaism, and didn’t know Hebrew, nor any of the Jewish literature and thought of the time. This made it harder for them to return to Judaism if they were able to escape the peninsula.
Some Jews converted to Christianity sincerely. These people may have been convinced by the violence that their people’s luck was at an end, or they may have just simply believed in the messiah. Some believed that Jesus was a Jew, and Jewish heritage gave them a sort of regal role in Christianity. However, even sincere conviction was not enough to save some of these conversos from the Inquisition. These people were offered no training in Christianity, and maintained many Jewish practices. However, in many cases these seem to be more cultural than religious.
A letter between sincere convert Joshua Lorqui and Jew Ha-Levi lays out four reasons for possible conversion. Ha-Levi asks Lorqui if riches and honor motivated his conversion. A second guess was that the study of philosophy had convinced him against all faiths, and he therefore found it more expedient to side with the dominant faith. The recent devastation of the Jewish community was a third reason. And forth, he suggested an actual revelation that convinced Lorqui of the truth of Christianity. Lorqui rejected all but the last of these reasons, and suggested that sincere study of both Jewish and Christian texts could only lead one to embrace Christianity. Lorqui went on to debate leading Jewish scholars and write tracts against Judaism. Interestingly, however, his son died in an Inquisitional prison, and his body was burned.
One man named Esteban found himself excommunicated by the Jewish community in Amsterdam for two weeks before he acquiesced and underwent circumcision. However, he then later turned himself into the inquisition claiming it had never been his desire to convert back to Judaism (Gutierrez 1973 147).
Many conversos escaped to foreign countries where they could practice Judaism freely. However, in many cases, as stated, knowledge had declined, and they were unwilling to listen to rabbis and follow all of the laws of Judaism, finding them onerous or unimportant. This was especially true of third and later generation conversos. Baruch Spinoza’s grandfather was one of these. He lived in Amsterdam from 1590, but wasn’t circumcised until after his death when his wife had him circumcised in order to bury him in the Jewish cemetery.
By 1671, leaving was so common that people in Amsterdam condemned those who failed to leave as willing apostates. The most common destinations were Amsterdam and the New World. Nonetheless, many stayed, and many more converted in order to be able to stay, earning themselves the scorn of free Jewish populations around the world.
Those who left were often not considered “good” Jews. They didn’t see the value of rabbis, nor the Oral Torah, and often went about doing things incredibly wrong in the eyes of lifelong Jews, and thinking themselves capable of being Jewish without following any of the Jewish laws, as they had been considered Jews in Spain without even knowing these laws existed. They often resisted incorporation in the larger Jewish community, although declaring them outlaw for a short time usually worked. This is essentially what happened to Spinoza when he started espousing his ideas, which were not so unique for a Converso at the time. However, when they excommunicated him, he merely said that it was something he would have done anyway, and left which was unique.
Some Jews who left Spain traveled to Jamaica where they became pirates. In 1508, the mayor of Cuba complained that nearly every vessel coming to him was filled with Jews and conversos, who were all there illegally and thus subject to persecution (Kritzler, 47). The Inquisition soon followed them, but most of them escaped to Jamaica, or a city in Brazil which was under Dutch control and thus open to Jews.
Prior to the English capturing the island in 1655, Jamaica belonged to the Columbus family, and served as a haven for Jews who were able to leave Spain and get to the New World (Kritzler, 36). Jews were amongst the first settlers of nearly every New World colony, although they weren’t legally allowed to travel to the New World at all. Eventually, in 1528, the inquisition followed them. It’s possible that these people’s ultimate goal was the destruction of the Spanish Empire. They forged ties with the Dutch, the English, and ultimately the buccaneers who were successful in this endeavor. When the British took over Jamaica, the Jews convinced them that the best way to make the colony prosper was to invite the pirates to live there (Kritzler, 9). In 1657 Jewish Pirates moved into Jamaica, a territory where more people were dying than arriving each year. Beginning to sell their wares set up an economy and made the colony begin to prosper. Merchants began to move in, and made most of the profit from these pirates.
Every country had privateers out to loot other counties’ ships. The difference was the Jews were not licensed, and would target anybody. Still, they seemed to largely be after Spain, whether in retribution for the persecution or because Spain was the richest population in the New World, since they owned the vast majority of it.
From here, we turn our attention to Jewish responses to conversos. Jews who converted against their will were known as anusim by other Jews. This word meant “forced ones.” In contrast, those who intentionally converted without force were called meshumadim, or “he who destroys.” (Gutierrez 1973, 40). There was a difference between people who gave up certain commandments such as circumcision and eating pork versus those who actively worshipped idols, and Jesus was an idol. Only the latter were considered full apostates. Full apostates were condemned by the Torah, regardless of whether one was an apostate based on conviction or convenience (Gutierrez 1973, 108). In the 12th century, Maimonides ruled that Islam was not a pagan religion, but the question was more complex with Christianity since it embraced the trinity. Opinion was as varied as the number of Jews and how familiar they were with a converso themselves, such as whether they had one in the family. People with a Converso in the family were likely to continue to invite that person to celebrate holidays with them, and treat them as a Jew even if they went to mass on Sundays.
Many families were made up of both people who were forced to convert, and people who managed to escape without converting. These mixed families would define how the anusim were seen by Judaism for generations. Acknowledging that baptism changed a person into a Christian would be acknowledging that it had magical powers, and Jews could not do that, so they generally believed that a baptized Jew who continued following /Jewish law was still a Jew. In contrast, Maimonides said that the act of willingly converting made one no longer a Jew. It wasn’t the magic of baptism but the acceptance of a conversion. It was still possible for a jew to return to Judaism, though. He had to grieve 3 times a day, and fast for several years, and go through several other anguishing procedures, but it was possible to return.
There was considerable debate as to whether one required a beit dein or immersion in a mikveh as a convert to Judaism required. Largely it was thought that requiring these things would be to acknowledge that baptism changed something about a person. The Jews accepted the covenant at Sinai, and did not require immersion.
There was considerable debate as to whether the meat and wine in converso homes was kosher. Eventually, it was argued that a Jew who sinned was still a jew, and therefore, their meat and wine was kosher if they claimed it was (Gutierrez 2017, 12).
It was considered by Maimonides that someone who didn’t leave was almost a wanton sinner, but because they did not believe they were sinning, they were still considered a kosher witness (Gutierrez 2017, 14). This permitted them to witness a divorce decree and allow a woman to remarry.
Also related to marriage was the question of whether a converso brother in law was required to marry a woman whose husband died, as was required by Jews. Eventually it was decided that the woman was free to live her life anew as a Jew.
Rabbi Zimra decided that a Jew who was uncircumcised was still a Jew, and did count for a minyan, the 10 people required to say certain prayers. Some conversos did get circumcised as it became more important amongst them than it was amongst the Jews themselves. As knowledge of Jewish traditions and laws decreased, those symbols that they did know took on increased importance. Some started to think of it as a baptism, and believed that sins they committed before being circumcised didn’t count. Rabbis tried to argue against this view, particularly for those who continued to pretend to be Christians.
In 1496, the King of Portugal issued an edict of expulsion, but then, desperate to keep the Jews in his country, since they represented about 10% of his population, he ordered all Jewish children up to age 20 confiscated and raised by Christian families. The Jews who refused to leave their offspring were forcibly converted leading to a large Converso problem in Portugal as well as Spain.
In 1506, there was a massacre of New Christians in Lisbon on the first night of Passover. The perpetrators were released within a few days, and officially pardoned.
In 1521, Portugal and Spain were temporarily united, as King Manuel of Portugal married the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. The Spanish Crown agreed to this marriage only if King Manuel agreed to remove all of the Jews from his territory. In Portugal, there was an edict of expulsion offered, and many Jews tried to leave. However, the majority of them were caught at the border, forcibly converted to Christianity, and then forced to remain in Portugal. These people remained more Jewish than their Spanish counterparts, and indeed the term “Portuguese” was often used as code for “Jew” once the Portuguese came under the auspices of the Spanish Inquisition.
In 1531, the Pope introduced the Inquisition into Portugal. Some New Christians tried to leave, which they were only allowed to do after paying enormous sums of money. Conversos in Portugal had been subject to execution for Judaizing before the Inquisition. In 1533 the Pope issued a Bull of Pardon, claiming that Jews who had been forcibly converted were not Christians at all, and therefore it was not possible to be heretics. This didn’t last long, and by 1541, the first auto de fe was held in Lisbon. In Portugal, the head Inquisitor held a war against Conversos, even hiring criminals and prostitutes to testify against them if no legitimate witnesses could be found against a person.
In 1674, the Pope officially ended the Inquisition in Portugal, because it had gotten too violent. It prohibited any further confiscation of property. However, this proved so unpopular that the King reinstituted the Inquisition (Gutierrez 2017, 107).
By 1520, the focus changed from Judaizing Jews to protestants, muslims, witches, and bigamists. For example, bigamy and sodomy were both punishable by death under the Inquisition, although neither were against the secular law of Spain. Anyone accused of anything the Church frowned upon was up for grabs by the end, and they were treated just as the Conversos had been in the 15th century with no access to their accusers, and a lawyer who could not continue to represent them if he believed they were guilty. The punishments remained the same - public burning to death.
This change has led many to believe that Conversos were more or less integrated into the dominant Christian culture by then, however, others disagree and note that there were sporadic eruptions of anti converso violence by the Inquisition until it ended in 1834. It seems likely that Jews remained victims of the Inquisition, however, as time went on there were more, deeper threats to the Catholic Church because of the Enlightenment and free thinkers that weren’t possible in the middle ages.
King Joseph Bonaparte ended the Inquisition in 1808, but, to universal surprise, Ferdinand VII reinstituted it. It wasn’t until 1834 that the tribunals officially and permanently disappeared from Spain (Gutierrez 2017, 92).
There are basically two main debates by historians about the Inquisition. The first is whether conversos were Jews or Christians and the second is whether the true purpose of the Inquisition was religious or monetary.
By the end of the 16th century, many terms were used for Conversos that indicated the problem was racial rather than religious. This included “those of the line” “this people” and “this generation.” Because of these terms, Benzion Netanyahu, father of the Netanyahu you know, claimed that it was always a racial, and not a religious distinction. He claimed that the Conversos were loyal Christians. Likewise, Don Diego claims that 90% of the conversos who were killed were good Christians based on the fact that they would not confess to being Jews even to avoid being burned alive. However, this opens the question to what sort of evidence Netanyahu would have accepted as evidence the Conversos were actually Jews. Certainly it would be deadly to leave any kind of paper record attesting to their Judaism anywhere it could be found, so they almost certainly wouldn’t have been stupid enough to do this. It seems likely, based on their confessions and their actions upon leaving Spain, that Judaizing was common amongst Conversos. It is possible there was also a racial component, however, as we have seen amongst more modern anti-semites.
It seems obvious that the true reason for the inquisition was racism, however, some arguments have been made for it really being greed. The ability to confiscate wealth and some debates about where that wealth would go feeds into this argument. However, if the truth were simply greed, a much more efficient method of grabbing wealth could have been invented, and lands confiscated would not have been salted. Also, it seems that allowing the Jews to remain to encourage Judaizing would have been done, since as people lost Jewish traditions, they couldn’t be persecuted as much.