Crypto-Jews

A history of the marrano diaspora.

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Converso, Marrano, New Christian, Catholic, Crypto-Jew: these titles, amongst others, are intermittently applied to the men and women of 15th-17th century Spain and Portugal whose identities lingered somewhere between Jew and Christian. In most cases, multiple labels can be used to describe the same individuals, because the boundaries between their identities were porous. For both contemporary observers and for modern historians, the label used reveals more about the labeler than about the phenomenon described.

Historical Circumstances

For most of the Middle Ages, control of the Iberian Peninsula (the geographic entity comprising modern Spain and Portugal) alternated between Muslim and Christian hands. At times this meant a more tolerant society, from which Jews benefited in kind. By the 14th century, however, as the Christian Reconquista (reconquest) of Spain was in full swing, a crusading spirit permeated most levels of society. Compounded with the fear and desolation of the Black Death in the mid-14th century, the atmosphere was ripe for anti-Jewish sentiment.

the spanish inquisition

A Jew being persecuted in the Spanish Inquisition

Encouraged by a decade-long anti-Jewish campaign by the Sevillian preacher Ferrant Martinez, a rash of popular riots against Jews erupted across the peninsula in the year 1391. By the time the riots subsided, 100,000 Jews were dead, 100,000 had fled the peninsula, and another 100,000 had converted to Christianity. By the year 1415, another 50,000 Jews had converted to Christianity.

Suspicions and Hopes, Labels and Labelers

After the wave of conversions in 1391, three loose groups emerged: Jews who held fast to their faith and religious practice; Jews who converted to Christianity and were absorbed by Christian society; and those who existed outwardly as Christians but practiced Judaism in secret.

To outsiders, secret Jews were indistinguishable from those who had fully converted to Christianity. The titles converso (Spanish for “convert”) or cristianos nuevos (“New Christians”) were thus equally applied to the second and third of these groups–fully devout Christians who were once Jewish, and those secret, or crypto-Jews.

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Joshua Teplitsky is a doctoral candidate at New York University in the departments of History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies. His research focuses on the Jewish experience in early modern Prague, and the culture of Jews in early modern Europe more generally.

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