History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Maranos.

Forced Converts in Spain.

The golden age in Spain was now over; the iron age had set in. Perhaps the year 1391 may be regarded as the dividing line, the year when Christianity was forced upon so many of the Jews at the sword's point. That the Cross was not forced upon all the Jews of Spain is not to be put to the credit of their persecutors. A wild mob is hardly systematic. Doubtless as many homes were overlooked as were attacked. Before all communities were reached the storm may have spent itself. Yet for the thousands who had submitted to baptism under duress no return was permitted. This unnatural condition completely upset the Jewish status and partly affected their morale. Omitting those, perhaps the majority whom the fanatics did not reach, and who remained in statu quo, the rest, who had been forced into this unnatural status, fall into groups something like the following:

First, those loyal at all costs, who quietly but unflinchingly were staunch to the faith, undaunted by the suffering or the death it might entail. These were the martyrs. Some of these saved their religious integrity by escaping into Moorish lands—Granada, Morocco, Tunis.

Second, at the other extreme were the worldly and unbelieving. These met the proselytizing crusade halfway, content to throw off the hampering restrictions of the old religion in which as materialists they almost as little believed as in the new religion they now adopted, only because it gave unrestrained opportunity to ambition.

If these be compared with the extreme Hellenists of Maccabean days, sixteen hundred years before, then the staunch party deserve comparison with the chassidim of that same Greek-Syrian era.

Third, the bulk of those baptized by force stood between these extremes. They outwardly bowed to the formalities of the Church under priestly pressure. They were called by the Spanish Maranos, meaning "accursed." By their own brethren they were more justly styled Anusim (Hebrew "constrained"). But the former term has clung to them.

They were forced by this artificial status to live a double life. Outwardly they were Neo-Christians mumbling the Catholic ritual, bowing to the Cross, and baptizing their children in the name of the Trinity. But by conviction they were Jews, sharing its beliefs and hopes; in the secrecy of their homes keeping the Passover and the dietary laws, circumcising their sons and contributing towards the maintenance of the Synagogue by covert relations with the avowed Jews.

Their situation became daily more difficult. For while for the most part they intermarried among themselves and were thus able to transmit the Jewish tradition, alliances with them were sought by some impoverished Spanish grandees. Many again were high in the professions, their children in some instances even drawn into ecclesiastical life—for in those times of the all-pervading dominance of the Church, it was the surest path to distinction and a most naturally chosen career, and was regarded in a secular spirit even by Christians.

As in earlier instances where persecution forced Jews to wear a mask, they regarded it as a temporary ordeal Some of the monarchs tolerated or connived at the situation. But the masses hated the Maranos even more than they hated the avowed Jews because of the prominent posts many held.

Defenders of Judaism.

Almost the only literary activity in these difficult times consisted of polemic articles written in reply to attacks on Judaism by prelates or apostates. Among such defenders of the faith were Chasdai Crescas, who exposed the logical weakness of such Church doctrines as the Trinity, the Fall of Man, the Supernatural Conception and Transubstantiation. Profiat Duran, a Marano who openly returned to the Jewish fold, penned a satire against the Church, which the clergy considered strong enough to burn. This was not his only work. He has left us some religious commentaries, some scientific essays, a Hebrew Grammar and a history of the persecutions of his day.

Another definer and defender of Jewish theology was Joseph Ibn Shem Tob. These writers on theology were supplemented by pulpit teachings of the Jewish preachers of the day on the fundamentals of Judaism and its distinction from Christianity. This was not done for the purpose of bringing converts to the Jewish fold—that was perilous at best—but was only an earnest desire to preserve their own.

Anti-Jewish Laws Enforced.

So far the government of Castile had left the status of the Jews officially unchanged. For King Henry III had not openly countenanced the persecutions of 1391—those being individual and unauthorized. But such treatment almost condoned, reflected public opinion and led to the reshaping of government relations toward the Jews. So in the year 1408, in the regency of Juan II, the anti-Jewish code of Alphonso the Wise, drawn up in 1260 and so far allowed to remain a dead letter, was now for the first time put into practice. This removed the last favorable distinction between the Jews of Spain and those of German states. As most of the influential Jews were now Maranos, it was easier to put these laws into operation. Already in 1406 an expulsion from Castile was only staved off by a payment of 50,000 crowns. The quarrels of the four Christian kingdoms, Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Portugal, made the presence of wealth producing Jews still a necessity.

But darker days dawned for them in the appearance on the scene of the gloomy Dominican friar, San Vincent Ferrer. Surrounded by a band of Flagellants he preached against the degradations of the times. It was not to be denied that society was serried with corruption. The Church had become sadly demoralized. Dissolute men intrigued against each other for the papal chair. Unfortunately the heretic stirred the ire of Ferrer more than the sinner. He was particularly bitter against Maranos. Permitted by the sovereign to preach in the synagogue, crucifix in hand, the Jews feared that another forced conversion was impending.

As though that were not enough, the institution of the statutes of Alphonso was followed by a severer edict in 1412. This later anti-Jewish document was ingeniously devised to make their lives as Jews unsupportable. To summarize it:

First, it robbed the Jews of power by abolishing their judicial autonomy; barred them from public office; and forbade their carrying of weapons. Next it attacked their dignity and self-respect by imposing distinctive dress, the badge and the full beard; and, taking from them the title of "Don." Then it deprived them of freedom, by shutting them up in Juderias and forbidding travel or emigration. Lastly it robbed them of the bare means of subsistence by cutting them off from their relations with Christians and forbidding the practise of every handicraft.

Their salvation against this venomous document lay in its severity. It was impossible of fulfilment. Some of these restrictions were modified immediately on Ferrer's withdrawal. But he left Castile only to harass the Jews in Aragon. It is said that in both kingdoms under his terrible regime, some twenty thousand were forced into the Church, thus further swelling the ranks of the Maranos, though we learn elsewhere that his converts returned to Judaism. Portugal alone dared refuse him admission, the last Jewish refuge in the Peninsula.

Another "Disputation."

Not even yet were they to be left alone. Benedict XIII, one of two rival popes, aided by an apostate, Joshua Lorqui, planned the conversion of all the Jews of Spain as a political device to strengthen his hold on the papal chair. (The Pope might have profited by reading Hadrian's hopeless project to repress Judaism in the year 135.) For this purpose he arranged a Disputation between the Christian clergy and some Jewish rabbis at Tortosa (Aragon) 1412. Among the rabbis summoned to answer the Church's charges were Vidal Benveniste, who was able to make his plea in Latin; Astruc Levi, and the famous pupil of Crescas, Joseph Albo. As in a similar Disputation in Aragon, two hundred years earlier, when Nachmanides was the Jewish champion, an apostate was the chief opponent. Then it was Pablo Christiani, now it is Joshua Lorqui, but known among the Jews as Megadef, the Calumniator, for he furbished up every anti-Jewish slander. The Disputation lasted twenty-one months and from every possible biblical text either by mistranslation or allegorical interpretation, proofs of Christian doctrine were extorted. But the discussion was focused on the question whether the Talmud recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Like his predecessor, Nachmanides, Astruc Levi maintained that the Agada of the Talmud as distinct from the Halacha was in no sense authoritative, it was homiletic only.

Like all previous Disputations, it failed. Such controversies missing as they must the impalpable spirit of religion aided no creed while they only degraded religion itself. A further series of repressive laws, which the pope in chagrin was about to impose upon the Jews were prevented by his own deposition. At this moment, too, the bigoted Queen-regent Carolina died. So there was breathing space for a while. The friendly King Juan II even permitted the calling of a Jewish council at Avila to reorganize the demoralized communities and to reestablish Jewish schools and colleges. But it was not to be for long.


Just as the Jews were confined to Juderias, the Moors, residing in Christian Spain were confined to Morerias. Read Heine's satire on a mediaeval Disputation.

Theme for Discussion:—Contrast between modern Maranos, those who keep their Jewish faith in the background to escape prejudice and the call of Isaiah XLIII:10; XLI:6.