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The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes

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Marianna D. Birnbaum

Chapter 2. A short history of the Conversos

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1The beginnings of Gracia’s story go back to Spain, to the times of the Expulsion, and even before.

  • 1 Ben-Zion Netanyahu estimates the number at 600,000 or as high as 1 million. See The Marranos of Sp (...)
  • 2 Of those thousands who, when forced to choose between conversion or flight, had chosen the latter, (...)

2Most of the ills of Spanish history, such as the lack of a bourgeoisie and industry, have been attributed to the expulsion of the Jews. Scholars have disagreed on the number of expellees from as few as 150,000 to a barely imaginable 1 million.1 More recent research contends that the urban population of Spanish cities had been smaller than previously considered and that prior to the Expulsion there were no more than 10,000 Jews living in Aragon. In 1492, the majority probably converted rather than left, and those who left chose Portugal or Italy as their new haven. Just a minority of the Jewish population fled to Muslim-ruled regions, and even those moved slowly, in well-prepared stages.2

3Shortly before his death in 1254, Pope Innocent IV established the Inquisition, an organization that from its beginnings until the Enlightenment was responsible for the torture and death of many thousands. As the Inquisition spread its power, conversions everywhere drew increasingly large numbers. However, those Jews who embraced the cross—the conversos, or New Christians—and who had chosen to stay on the Iberian Peninsula remained under constant suspicion and had to fear secret denunciation and the omnipresent spies of the Holy Office.

4In 1449, during the rule of João of Castile, the first outbreak of hostility was directed against the New Christians of Toledo, primarily because some of them had achieved high positions at the royal court. Among them was Don Alvaro de Luna, a financial advisor to the king. He was executed a few years later.

5The Christians referred to the newly converted Jews by many names. The terms used for the group, such as “conversos,” “confesos,” or “christianos nuevos,” underwent semantic changes during the decades after the Expulsion, and began to mark an “inherited status,” gaining a connotation of “suspect,” or a crypto-Jew. In Spain, but also in Italy, a Portuguese converso became virtually synonymous with “judaizer,” that is, one who practiced Mosaic rites in secret.

INQUISITION IN SPAIN AND PORTUGAL

6The organized beginnings of the Inquisition in Spain were directly connected with an event in Seville. During a royal visit in 1477, the hosting monks complained to the royal couple about the “conversos,” claiming that they judaized. Indeed, a year later, Sixtus IV agreed to set up the Inquisition in Spain. Established in 1478, the Holy Office began its work in 1480, in Seville, under the leadership of Frater Morillo and Frater San Martin. Ultimately it totaled fifteen tribunals, including one in Palma, Majorca. Madrid, Seville, and Toledo were the most active because the largest number of New Christians lived in those cities. Between 1481 and 1488, 700 people were burned at the stake.

  • 3 Robert Lemm, Die Spanische Inquisition: Geschichte und Legende, trans. Walter Kumpman (Munich, 196 (...)

7In 1484, Tomás de Torquemada became Grand Inquisitor of Spain, holding that position until his death in 1498. Torquemada, whose name has been identified with the essence of the Inquisition, belonged to the first seven Inquisitors appointed. But at that stage in the history of the Holy Office, the pope still had the last word and could extend his mercy.3

8In 1488, the Inquisition moved south, to Toledo, Saragossa, and Valladolid where, especially in Toledo, Jews and Moslems were forced to inform on the New Christians. The “crypto-Jews” became the targets of the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Ironically, until 1492, the unconverted Jews of Spain enjoyed more freedoms than the conversos, or their coreligionists, living in continental Europe. Yet their importance to the Crown decreased when the New Christians began to perform the same functions and services that had been entrusted earlier to Jews.

9Also, after the fall of Granada, there was less need for Jewish capital to help wage the war. In 1492, all Jews had to choose either to convert or to leave Spain. Those who refused to convert, and had liquid assets, moved to Portugal, where they were permitted to stay, until the Inquisition began to operate there too. Gracia’s family belonged to that group.

10Already the 1391 pogrom in Sevilla’s Jewish quarter had forced many survivors to escape to Portugal. Some remained but others later returned to Spain. For example, Isaac Abrabanel’s grandfather escaped, but his grand-son returned in 1485, and became the financial advisor of Ferdinand and Isabel.

11When Manuel married the Spanish princess Isabella in 1497, he promised his bride to clear Portugal of Jews. Although the wealthy could resist the edict for a while, the plague of 1506, for which the mob blamed the Jews, led to a bloodbath in Lisbon.

12Faced with the choice, more Jews chose conversion.

13The number of conversions was higher in Portugal even than in Spain, since Portugal had been the last refuge for Jews on the Iberian Peninsula. Compelled to seek exile rather than undergo the forced conversion, on March 19, 1497, about 700 Jews fled to Morocco and other parts of North Africa. An even larger number of Jews emigrated to Italy, and some moved to Avignon. The Holy Land, conquered by the Turks (1517), also attracted them, especially Salonika, where each immigrant group had its congregation, its “Kahal Kadosh.”

14Portugal was eager to copy Spain. Thus, owing to the mass conversions, the Inquisition, activated in Portugal 40 years after that of Spain, had many more thousands of suspects to investigate among the New Christians.

THE ASSIMILATION OF CONVERSOS

  • 4 Lemm, p. 47. See also Y. Baer, History of the Jews in Spain (Philadelphia, 1961), originally Juden (...)

15Christian attitudes underwent major changes during the fifteenth century. Before the activation of the Inquisition, the sincere convert was distinguished from the “crypto-Jew,” and the distinction was made along religious lines only. Just before the introduction of the Inquisition in Spain, however, a virulent attack, the work of Alonso de Espina (1412–1495) appeared by the title Fortalitium fidei contra judeos, sarracenos aliosque christianae fidei inimicos, calling them beasts endangering the Faith. This work, primarily anti-Jewish, also repeated the charge of deicide and helped to whip up violent sentiments against the New Christians.4

16The conversos, who in many cases had successfully penetrated the highest echelons of society, shared the lives of the social and economic elite. But by holding important offices in the government, they crossed a set of social boundaries that provoked hostile responses. Excesses such as the 1449 Toledo riots against the conversos became common in the decades preceding the Edict of Expulsion.

  • 5 This charge was not entirely wrong. Secret family transmission created a subculture of extraordina (...)

17The Spanish Inquisition is entirely intertwined with the politics and religion of the country. It protected Roman Catholics. With the expulsion or conversion of many Jews, and the conversion of others as well as the forced baptism of the Muslims, the Inquisition relied on the surviving dream of the Spanish nobility to live in a purely Christian country. In 1492, the Reconquista promised to fulfill those dreams. However, the end result was precisely the opposite: the many conversions made Spain a suspect country for the Inquisition. To the Church, Spain seemed to be crawling with crypto-Jews and fake Christians.5

18There was also a slow but continuous change in the conversos’ self-image. By the end of the fourteenth century, the new converts began to turn away from Judaism and ceased to observe Jewish laws. It is a persistent yet highly romanticized view to claim either that most converts were forced to embrace Catholicism or that they remained secret Jews. The majority of them, in fact, did not feel guilty of having committed a disgraceful act. As the number of converts grew, it became ever easier to join their ranks, and feel comfortable about having done so.

  • 6 15 Jerome Reznik, Le Duc Joseph de Naxos (Paris, 1936), p. 28. It is possible that scholars, among (...)

19By the mid-fifteenth century, there were relatively few crypto-Jews; rather there were small groups or families secretly practicing some Jewish rites. Converso medical doctors were permitted to study scientific books in Hebrew, and some of those also studied the Talmud, since the gentiles did not distinguish between the two kinds of literature.6 The fact that the Inquisition questioned many conversos about a large number of secret practices (about which our knowledge comes mainly from the Inquisition’s own records) does not mean that the secret Jews practiced all or even some of them. The New Christians were mostly ignorant of what to practice and mainly of the accusations leveled against them

  • 7 Netanyahu, p. 207.

20The overwhelming majority of converts did not want to return to their previous religion. Most conversos were not only not Jewish in their faith or in their deeds but by and large assimilated and alienated from Judaism: “semi-gentilized.”7 Therefore it is impossible to speculate as to what percentage of the New Christians could still be considered Jewish, according to Mosaic laws.

  • 8 For more on this designation, see chapter 7, “The Ottoman Empire and the Jews.”

21Uncircumcised conversos were eo ipso sons of apostates. The rabbis considered such a male a “gentile proselyte,” misled by his parents, “born in heresy,” who had to be discounted as a Jew.8 It was the Inquisition in Aragon that judaized the conversos and brought them closer to the self-declared Jews, who had at that point little sympathy for them. In fact, the Jews were better off during the first decades of the fifteenth century than the conversos whose situation deteriorated after 1449 because of the Inquisition. The Church persecuted the New Christians for those “transgressions” that the Jews could openly practice as part of their faith. Some Jewish preachers regarded that as divine justice.

  • 9 Lemm, p. 75, and passim.

22In Portugal too, the Inquisition soon developed from a religious into a political institution, supporting the Habsburg state. Philip II, the son of Charles V, made the Inquisition into an independent ministry, and the inquisitors, earlier theologians, were from then on, mostly lawyers.9

NEW ATTITUDES TOWARD CONVERSOS

  • 10 Bodian, p. 52. I have culled much of the following from Bodian’s study.
  • 11 Professor Moshe Lazar’s verbal communication. Professor Lazar—of The University of Southern Califo (...)

23Many Catholic authors distinguished between New Christians and Marranos, always considering the latter crypto-Jews. The term “Marrano” was usually applied to Spanish and Portuguese Jews as well as to Italian converts.10 The New Christians never used the epithet “Marrano” as a self-definition. There are a few exceptions from the fifteenth century, when in Spanish poetry, written by forced converts competing for jobs and favors at the Court, one convert in referring to another would claim that although he pretended and ate a lot of pork, he still remained a “Marrano.”11 In any such combination, the converso was called dishonest and duplicitous.

24There was some truth in that charge, since his experiences had taught the converso that, footless in his surroundings, for the sake of his survival, each thought had to be followed by a second, each plan had to be backed up by an alternative.

25The lives of most conversos between 1391, when the first wave of forced conversions commenced, and the latter part of the sixteenth century were as varied and changing as the world around them. The manner in which shortly after 1391 the converts mixed with the local, gentile population was different from what came to pass a century later, and again different in Spain or Portugal from what it was in Italy or the Low Countries.

  • 12 Bodian, p. 52.
  • 13 This law was a sixteenth-century precursor to the infamous Nuremberg Laws, introduced by the Nazis (...)
  • 14 Quoted by Prinz, p. 17.

26By the mid-sixteenth century, new terms were coined in Spain: gente de linaje, esta gente, esta generacion, esta raza. By then the estatutos de limpieze de sangre, statutes on racial grounds, were ubiquitous.12 Limpieza, the pure blood statute, was first introduced in 1449. By the second half of the sixteenth century, Toledo had blood statutes in two important institutions: in the cathedral chapter, imposed by the archbishop in 1547, and in the City Council, so ordered by the Crown, in 1560.13 Cervantes has Sancho Panza boast that he has neither Jewish nor Moorish blood.14

  • 15 Bodian, p. 57.
  • 16 Quoted by Yizhak Almeid. Les juifs et la vie économique, 72, and note 17, respectively. Almeid dem (...)

27In Portugal, too, the “purity blood statute” was adopted. Soon such phrases gente da naçao or homens da naçao, even without the adjective “Hebrew” were used in reference to the conversos.15 For many decades in international business, homens de negoçios (men of commerce) meant con-versos. By the seventeenth century, homens de negoçios was a synonym for Jews, but the phrase was recorded as early as 1516.16

  • 17 Lemm, p. 42.
  • 18 John 15: 6–7. The auto-da-fé could be either “particular,” (i.e., one person burned), or “general. (...)

28During the first years of the Inquisition, the Church did not torture its victims. It actually took over the torture from the secular authorities because of the excesses they committed. However, burning the guilty at the stake was considered to follow the teachings of Christ.17 According to John 15: 6–7, Christ had said: ”Whoever does not remain in Me is thrown away as a branch and withers; people gather such branches, throw them into the fire and they are burned.” The guilty that were brought before the Inquisition were considered heretics, and heresy, according to the Church, destroyed the individual and society. The soul could still be redeemed if the person admitted his or her guilt before death, but if the defendant refused, the Church “washed its hands in innocence.”18

  • 19 William Monter, The Spanish Inquisition from the Basque Lands to Sicily (Cambridge, 1990), p. 27.

29It should be remembered that the defendants could choose a lawyer only from among those appointed by the Inquisition, and they were never permitted to learn the names of their accusers or meet them face-to-face. Since the Church’s task was to win souls, to attack the Church was considered a crime greater than murder. In 1528, Charles V became the first Spanish ruler to attend an auto-da-fé, which was staged in his honor in Valencia.19

30The Inquisition spied on its victims and nurtured a matching mentality on the side of the lay population. Denunciations and anonymous incriminations became virtues. Marginalized by society, most conversos carried a stigma of disrepute and social inferiority. At each encounter with the “old” Christian population, their honor was questioned.

31If Jews were not “grounded” in the social and cultural life of any of the Western countries, which here and there temporarily tolerated them, the crypto-Jews became even more footloose. The outward guise got reversed: rather than looking like a “Jew” whose cloak disguised the “person” for the uninformed, the converso looked like a “person” for the uninformed, but under his cloak of “gentility,” he himself knew that he was an unprotected, trembling Jew, whom any accuser could incriminate and destroy.

32The conversos were frequently charged with having amassed fortunes at the expense of the Christians. Even those accusations carried a grain of truth, because money was the only tool of empowerment, for Jews and con-versos alike. With money they could bribe officials and save themselves. Without the possible clout of money, nothing in their existence was determined on an individual basis, not to mention their chances to prove their innocence in the face of vicious, anonymous accusations. The story of Gracia Luna unfolds against such a background.

THE SPECIAL STATUS OF THE RICH

33Although the general climate of fear and uncertainty affected everyone, a more nuanced portrait must be drawn in the case of Gracia Mendes (Luna). The small, and exceptionally opulent class of Portuguese Jews and New Christians to whom Gracia belonged constituted a special entity. Her social equals never behaved as uprooted and lonely; they always and everywhere remained a tightly cohesive group.

34The fact that in Portugal even the wealthy conversos were excluded from honors and public offices generated not just resentment but also a separate identity, a caste within the system, which remained with the New Christians even after they had left Portugal. Thus these prosperous conversos from the Iberian Peninsula, instead of having no identity, had a sense of dual commitment. In addition to their shared religion, there was their own concept of the “naçion,” always meaning the descendants of baptized Jews from that particular region. This denotation was later expanded to include all Mediterranean Jews: “He hates our sacred nation,” says Shylock about Antonio in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (I.iii.48).

  • 20 Brian Pullan, Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice: The Social Institutions of a Catholic State to (...)
  • 21 Bodian, p. 59.

35The Portuguese emigrants frequently clung more to their nationalities than to their creed. Gracia Mendes too chose to remain a Portuguese subject, not just for the sake of moving her fortune in greater security. It is not an accident that in Turkey, where Jews from each region of Europe could freely practice their religion, the various national groups remained separated. Not just the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi Jews kept to themselves; there were separate Portuguese and Spanish synagogues, although the ancestors of the Portuguese congregation had arrived in Portugal from Spain. The conversos remained loyal to their Iberian roots to the point that even in Salonika they called their synagogues Castile, Aragon, Portugal, Catalonia, Evora, or Lisbon, and their tombstones were embellished with the arms of “hidalgos.”20 When in the seventeenth century, as some of them returned to Castile, they were distinguished from the native conversos as “portuguese de la naçion (hebrea).”21

  • 22 The only similar mass emigration of Jews had been from the Soviet Union to Israel where, by the st (...)

36While they suffered from discrimination by the Christians, the wealthy Iberian conversos considered themselves the nobility of commerce and banking. Persecution held them together, but even more so, their shared cultural experience created a profound bond. In Turkey, there was an emigration of unprecedented numbers, and they aspired to stay together, live and worship together, and aid their less fortunate fellow Jews.22

  • 23 Bodian, p. 66.

37Unlike the Ashkenazim, the Iberian Jews did not mingle with Jews from different countries. They considered their encounters with non-Iberian Jews as strange as their meetings with non-Iberian Gentiles. The Iberian immigrants in Turkey were different from the Levantine Jews, not just in terms of wealth, but also of superior education, custom, and ritual. They were, in fact, alien to traditional Judaism as practiced in western and northern Europe. “A new, collective, ethos emerged” under the pressure of those encounters.23 The Spanish and Portuguese Jews tightened their ranks and segregated themselves from the Ashkenazim, in their living quarters, synagogues, even in their cemeteries.

CHANGING PLACES—CHANGING NAMES

38During the sixteenth century, being Jewish or New Christian entailed a multiplicity of behaviors, which determined people’s creeds, nationalities, and even their choices of names for themselves. Depending on where they lived, the New Christians used different names, and in the process of their adjustment to a new place of exile, they often had to create entirely new identities and personalities for themselves. At different stages of their lives, and in the various countries they lived, Gracia Mendes and her relatives used a variety of names not merely in their business ventures, but also in their private lives.

39Because of her immense wealth and her influence, Gracia’s life story cannot be raised to general significance. Therefore, her life story remains a peerless episode, even within the Portuguese converso experience of the rich, which by its own example illuminates a short and extraordinary period of Jewish history.

40Gracia’s achievements are unique: she was a widow, a secret Jew, living in a violently anti-Jewish century, who overcame every imaginable obstacle contemporary society imposed on her, and successfully met every challenge, every boundary, her gender and religion forced upon her. Having crossed the Continent, escaping the wrath of the Habsburgs against all odds, she reached safety in Turkey. There she became a powerful leader of her community and helped create a new haven for Jews, practically the only refuge they found in those turbulent decades.

Notes

1 Ben-Zion Netanyahu estimates the number at 600,000 or as high as 1 million. See The Marranos of Spain from the Late xivth to the Early xvith Century (New York, 1966). Salo W. Baron claims that between 1391 and 1412 about 200,000 Jews were baptized. See The Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2nd ed. (New York, 1952–80), esp. vols. 9-10. For more on this issue, see Henry Kamen, “The Mediterranean and the Expulsion of Spanish Jews in 1492,” Past and Present, 119 (1988): 30–55. The majority of Spanish Jews lived in Castile. Some scholars have estimated 30,000 families, which would mean approximately 130,000 people. More realistic scholars believe that the kingdom’s total population, Jewish and non-Jewish, was about 200,000 (see Haim Beinart, Atlas of Medieval Jewish History (New York, 1992).

2 Of those thousands who, when forced to choose between conversion or flight, had chosen the latter, a large number perished during the flight. Later about 70,000 were forcibly baptized in Portugal. See Jonathan I. Israel, European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism: 1550–1750 (Oxford, 1985), p. 7, note 1. By 1552, in addition to the Italian and the Levantine Jews, there were about 100 Portuguese Jewish families living in Ancona on the Adriatic Sea (Israel, p. 17). Since the Vatican has recently opened up its holdings of material pertaining to the Inquisition for the perusal of scholars, more precise figures may be available in the near future.

3 Robert Lemm, Die Spanische Inquisition: Geschichte und Legende, trans. Walter Kumpman (Munich, 1966), pp. 66–7. Diego de Deza, who followed Torquemada, introduced further rules, as well as the censorship of books.

4 Lemm, p. 47. See also Y. Baer, History of the Jews in Spain (Philadelphia, 1961), originally Juden im Christlichen Spanien (Berlin, 1929–36), vol. 1, trans. Louis Schoffman. See also Netanyahu’s work in note 1.

5 This charge was not entirely wrong. Secret family transmission created a subculture of extraordinary longevity.

6 15 Jerome Reznik, Le Duc Joseph de Naxos (Paris, 1936), p. 28. It is possible that scholars, among them Amatus Lusitanus, acquired their knowledge of Hebrew that way. Joachim Prinz assumes that the prayer “Kol Nidre” was possibly written for the conversos. See The Secret Jews (New York, 1973), p. 171. Carl Gebhard defined the converso as a “Catholic without belief and a Jew without knowledge, but in will a Jew.” See Die Schriften des Uriel da Costa (Amsterdam, 1922), xix, quoted by Miriam Bodian, “Men of the Nation: the Shaping of the Identity in Early Modern Europe,” Past and Present 143 (May, 1994): 50. The New Christian communities, mostly merchant colonies “were unique in one respect. They were established as Jewish communities of earlier ‘conversos,’ seeking to re-attach themselves to the world of rabbinical Judaism” (Bodian, p. 49).

7 Netanyahu, p. 207.

8 For more on this designation, see chapter 7, “The Ottoman Empire and the Jews.”

9 Lemm, p. 75, and passim.

10 Bodian, p. 52. I have culled much of the following from Bodian’s study.

11 Professor Moshe Lazar’s verbal communication. Professor Lazar—of The University of Southern California—is an internationally known expert on the Sefardim.

12 Bodian, p. 52.

13 This law was a sixteenth-century precursor to the infamous Nuremberg Laws, introduced by the Nazis. For more of its implementation, see Linda Martz, “Pure Blood Statutes in Sixteenth-Century Toledo: Implementation as Opposed to Adaptation,” Sefarad 54.1 (1994): 83–107.

14 Quoted by Prinz, p. 17.

15 Bodian, p. 57.

16 Quoted by Yizhak Almeid. Les juifs et la vie économique, 72, and note 17, respectively. Almeid demonstrates that, from Amsterdam to New York, the actual founders of the commercial metropolises were conversos or Jews.

17 Lemm, p. 42.

18 John 15: 6–7. The auto-da-fé could be either “particular,” (i.e., one person burned), or “general.” Several of the latter were “publico,” held in public squares. Although the Moriscos too were persecuted, at the 1529 auto-da-fé of Granada, only three were sentenced, against the 78 New Christians accused (see also Inquisicion Española y mentalidad inquisitorial, ed. A. Alcalà et al. (Barcelona, 1984).

19 William Monter, The Spanish Inquisition from the Basque Lands to Sicily (Cambridge, 1990), p. 27.

20 Brian Pullan, Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice: The Social Institutions of a Catholic State to 1620 (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1971), p. 205.

21 Bodian, p. 59.

22 The only similar mass emigration of Jews had been from the Soviet Union to Israel where, by the strength of numbers and shared cultural ties, they too remained together, and recently founded a political party to represent their interests.

23 Bodian, p. 66.

© Central European University Press, 2003

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