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.

The ambiguities of outward appearances, and the desire to discern the truth behind the mask of the converso, dogged both faithful Jew and hereditary Christian alike. Many Jews, both on the peninsula and in other parts of Europe, considered their brethren to be forced converts, and referred to them as anusim (literally "forced ones").

Among Christians, a new label was devised to describe those converts to Christianity who were suspected of maintaining their former Jewish practices: marrano. Literally meaning "swine," this term of opprobrium came to serve as a reference to any sort of crypto-Jewish activity, such as lighting special lamps on Friday night, avoiding forbidden foods, or abstaining from work on the Jewish Sabbath. 

Modern descriptions of this phenomenon are faced with similar difficulties in labeling. Both converso and New Christian offer value-neutral designations, since neither presumes to know whether people who behaved as Christians were secretly practicing or believing as Jews. In both Jewish and Spanish historical writing, the term marrano is emptied of any swinish connotation and refers only to the phenomenon of some form of crypto-Judaism or the ambiguities therein. Marrano suggests that an outwardly Catholic persona was really something in disguise--a historical fact that, by its secret nature, was difficult both for contemporaries to identify, and for historians to uncover. 

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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.