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Conversos in the Inquisition
Spain had an enormous Jewish community in the middle ages and toward the end of the fourteenth century large numbers of them were converted to Catholicism. A “converso” is a person who converted to Catholicism, under either duress or out of social convenience, and was suspected of secretly practicing the Jewish faith. These individuals converted for a variety of reasons. Some of them were forced while some of them went willingly into Catholicism. The term converso was applied not only to the generation that converted but also to their children and their grandchildren and on down through the generations. People often question whether or not the intensions of coversos was correct because of the danger they put themselves and their families in. This proposes the issue of why society creates such violent circumstances in which individuals must lie about private matters, like religion, in order to save their lives.
In 1391 there were terrible riots sweeping across southern Spain. People were offered the choice of converting or being killed. Some 20,000 Jews converted under those circumstances. They had no intention of becoming Catholic. They were not educated in Catholicism and they went on living their Jewish lives as they had previously done.
Twenty years later there were a series of preaching campaigns run by the Dominicans, which converted many tens of thousands of Jews, largely by persuasion. These people were interested in becoming Catholic, of joining the mainstream Catholic society, and they were given open access to jobs and to possibilities that they’d never had before. By the time the Inquisition was founded, a couple of generations later, there were the children and grandchildren of people who had been converted with no intention of becoming Catholics and others who had; who were the grandchildren of people who were trying very hard to put their Jewish past behind them - all of them in extended families with people who were still Jewish. They attended Bar Mitzvahs, they attended circumcisions, they attended Passover holiday processions and these different groups co-mingled in ways that were very complex in Spain. These complications troubled the Spanish governments who favored Christianity and wanted to control the religion of the people they governed.
Founded in 1478 by Queen Isabel II of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, the Spanish Inquisition was created to ensure that Catholicism maintained its status as the dominant religion throughout Spain. It did so by holding a series of trials where the Inquisition would interrogate individuals accused of heresy, typically resulting from accusations that the accused, though claiming to have converted to Catholicism, were actually continuing to practice their original religion of choice. When an individual was accused they were given a “term of grace.” This term was a thirty to forty day period in which they could voluntarily confess their sin and atone for it. Following this grace period the individual would be put on trial then imprisoned if found guilty. But more often they, and their family, were killed for their sins, not imprisoned. This was the ultimate sacrifice. Some people went to extreme circumstances to maintain their normal lives in Spain while also maintain their religion of choice. Unfortunately these people were the most severely punished when discovered by the government. In the end was in worth it to die in order to stay Jewish? Was it better to leave the country and leave your life behind so that one could remain a Jew? Or was the decision to superficially convert the correct choice? This decision was a difficult one especially when there was an entire family involved.
Though the Spanish Inquisition stood in opposition to any religion besides that of Christian Catholicism, it only had jurisdiction in cases involving people who had publically declared themselves Catholic. In 1492, as an attempt to cleanse Spain of any non-Catholics and to establish Catholicism as the sole religion of their kingdom, Isabel and Ferdinand ordered with the Alhambra Decree that all Jews were to convert to Christianity, leave the kingdom of Spain, or face severe punishment. Following this order and the second Edict of Expulsion in 1502, the Inquisition saw a marked increase in the number of cases it heard, as well as in the severity with which it punished those who they deemed guilty of heresy. The Jews who chose to convert faced continued scrutiny, prejudice, and punishment from both the Jewish and Christian communities, despite their decision to convert to Christianity. While it is true the Inquisition persecuted Muslims, Protestants, and committers of various so-called sins–such as bigamy, blasphemy, and witchcraft– between the years of 1478 and 1530 the Inquisition targeted almost exclusively the Jewish conversos.
Fully aware that admitting to continuing the religious practice of Judaism would most likely result in their execution, many Jews who found themselves before the Inquisition either lied or neglected to give a full account of their religious practices out of self-preservation. As a result, primary source documents dealing directly with the interrogation of conversos by the Inquisition are difficult to obtain. However, the few who did give truthful accounts of their personal lives have left behind an invaluable record in the form of the transcripts taken of their accounts during their interrogations. Such accounts have been compiled into collections such as Richard L. Kagan and Abigail Dyer’s Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews and Other Heretics (2004), and Jon Cowans’ Early Modern Spain: A documentary History. Such accounts will provide a first-hand account of what exactly the conversos were being accused of and how they were tried by the Inquisition. They also provide primary source documents pertaining to the events that surrounded the relentless persecution of the conversos. Second, a collection of portraits depicting the Catholic Monarchs as well as the Inquisitor General Tomás de Torquemada will help to both give a face to these famous—or infamous—historical characters, and show how these people wished for themselves to be depicted to posterity in a portrait that would outlive themselves.
Although some people superficially converted, Spain made convincing arguments causing many people to fully convert. One of the things that encouraged people to convert was the fact that, as Christians, they would have access to parts of society which had previously been denied to them. By the 1450’s, the converts had become the new urban middle class. They were dominant in business. The “old Christians” were individuals who had been Christian for many generations and the “new Christians” were the new and recent converts. The Spaniards felt it was important to make this crucial distinction between old Christians and new Christians because they were afraid that the new Christians were taking over certain key middle class positions in society and that troubled them greatly.
Some people converted because they had swords to their throats and they had a choice of converting or dying. These people often continued their original religious practices within their homes but made sure to make a point of being Christian when in public.
Others were offered the opportunity of social or economic mobility. Many converted because they fell in love with someone who was Catholic and the only way they could marry them was to convert to Catholicism, there were dozens of these cases. Laws during that time prohibited interfaith marriages, just another example of how the government tried to control religion.
Many people bought the argument of the Dominican preachers who said, believe in a God who is all powerful, all-knowing, and is just. All you had to do was look at the soaring cathedrals and the squalid Jewish synagogues to know that while God once favored the Jews he had changed sides. Many of the converts joined the Church as monks, as priests, some of them even rose to positions of great power. Some of them even became Inquisitors because they believed in their heart of hearts that Christianity was now the true religion.
The effort to convert people was designed by the Church to promote unity but the society was not willing to accept this and certain groups within the church were not willing to accept it either. They were not willing to accept the converts as fully equally participating Christians and, increasingly, barriers were erected to try to keep them separate. Rather than decreasing the number of categories in society it actually increased them over the long haul and produced incredible tensions. This also created tensions in the Jewish community as many felt betrayed by their peers and had become outcasts. The Spaniards officially tried to get the converts to assimilate. They passed laws prohibiting them from following their former Jewish customs or from fraternizing with their former Jewish friends and relatives. Since there was no way to enforce them, these laws had very little effect. They tried separating the Jewish community from the convert community by ghettoizing the cities for the first time in serious forced ways and that did not succeed either. They expelled the Jews from cities like Seville to try to isolate the converso community from contact with the Jews and that did not promote assimilation either. Increasingly there were voices that said Spain was in need of an enforcement mechanism, a policing mechanism to ensure that the converts do not continue to identify as Jews and to practice as Jews. The only way to do that was to separate them from the Jews and to punish them or coerce them from continuing their Jewish practices in any way.
The Spanish Inquisition officially had no jurisdiction over Jews, and was limited in this sense. They only had jurisdiction over Catholics. Once a Jew had converted and accepted the waters of baptism then they were officially Catholic and it was the job of the Church to ensure that they were full believers, fully practicing Catholics, and that they would shed their Jewish beliefs and customs.
Due to its historical significance and controversial nature, the Spanish Inquisition has received much attention from the academic community and, as such, has had a plethora of secondary source materials written about it. One such article, written by Miriam Bodian titled “‘Men of the Nation’: The Shaping of Conversos Identity in Early Modern Europe” (1994), goes into great depth about how Spaniards perceived conversos during the fifteenth century, and will be extremely useful in determining why the Jews were stigmatized during the early years of the Inquisition. While it is true that the conversos found themselves persecuted time and time again due to their religious beliefs, in her article “Popular Movements and Pogroms in Fifteenth-Century Castile” (1972), Agnus Mckay argues that economic, not solely religious, factors played an extremely significant role in turning Spaniards against the local Jewish population. In his book Frontiers of Heresy (1990), William Monter focuses his work primarily on the shift away from targeting conversos, and on to targeting Moriscos and others dubbed heretical by the Inquisition. Though the focus of his book deals with the latter two of the aforementioned groups, he spends a good deal of time talking about why the Jews were persecuted in the first place and what changes occurred to shift that focus, thus perfectly contextualizing both the Bodian and Mckay articles.

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