The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th-Century Spain 
by Benzion Netanyahu.
Random House, 1384 pp., $50, August 1995, 0 679 41065 1
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Marranos, Moriscos, Mudejars, Mozarabs, Muwallads; converted Jews, converted Muslims, Muslims under Christian rule, Christians under Muslim rule, Christian converts to Islam: the early history of Spain was to a large extent shaped by the relationship between the adherents of the three monotheistic religions, and in particular by the fierce debates aroused when one group fell under the dominion of another, and members of one or other faith converted to that of their rulers. From the 12th century onwards, rabbis denounced or on occasion sympathised with those who found themselves forced to accept first Islam and then Christianity, while Muslim lawyers expressed contempt for those who sought to continue to practise Islam under the unclean rule of Christian kings.

Such debates have not yet lost their force, as modern Jewish historians find themselves extolling the virtues of those Jews in medieval Europe (mainly in the Rhineland) who preferred death to baptism, while questioning the strength of faith of the many Sephardic, or Spanish, Jews who by contrast turned Christian during the pogroms of 1391. Particularly bitter is the debate about the converted Jews in Spain: whether they retained any allegiance to their old faith; whether they felt any sympathy for the fate of their Jewish relatives; whether the strident criticism they faced from ‘Old Christians’ resulted from genuine fears that they were Judaising heretics, or from a precocious form of racism that denied anyone of Jewish descent a right to take part in political and cultural life. These questions dominate Benzion Netanyahu’s long-awaited, and gigantic, book.

Netanyahu’s name at least will be familiar from the prominent public role of one of his sons and the heroism of another, killed leading the raid at Entebbe Airport (the book is dedicated to his memory). Born the son of Rabbi Nathan Mielkowsky in Warsaw in 1910, he was active from an early date in the Zionist Revisionist Party, serving on the Executive Committee, editing its newspaper and finally reaching America (where he pursued his academic career) with the Revisionist leader Jabotinsky in 1940. Consciously or otherwise, it is this background, the pedigree also of Begin and Shamir, that underlies many of the assumptions in his book, notably his powerful sense of the ‘national’ identity of Spain and of the dilemma faced by Jews even after they had converted, since (he argues) endemic anti-semitism prevented their true assimilation into the dominant culture. On the one hand, they wanted to be Christians, but on the other, they could never be accepted as Christians because the criteria defining Spanishness were racial and not religious, with no room for the Jews or those of Jewish blood, all of whom were seen as descendants of the original Christ-killers: ‘It was the antagonism to the Jewish-peoplehood that survived among the Marranos in the state of their conversion, and it is here that we find the point of affinity between the hatred of the Marranos by the Christian masses and the theoretical approaches of the racist movement.’

The analogy with Germany or Poland in the Thirties is clear, and though Netanyahu is well aware that historical events do not repeat themselves exactly, the book is pervaded by a sense that the Jewish nation will always find itself rejected when it resides on alien soil. Spain and the Jews are presented as fundamentally incompatible, and the whole country seen as having been a hotbed of hatred towards Jews since well before the great expulsion of 1492: ‘we may better understand the expansion of the Inquisition, and of the peculiar compound of feelings that impelled it, if we consider the case of Nazi Germany and the evolution of the movement that created it.’ Anti-semitism in both Spain and Germany is taken to be an essential element in the political programme of ruthless power-seekers: ‘persecution over-reached itself, so that from a means it became an end.’ ‘Torrents of hate’ were unleashed which moulded the later history of both Germany and Spain. In his earlier books on the Marranos Netanyahu insisted that the solution would have been massive migration to the Holy Land, but that even the great Jewish leader Isaac Abravanel failed to understand where the true destiny of Israel lay, leading his followers only as far as Naples.

For Netanyahu, the idea of the Jews as a raza was expounded with unprecedented vehemence and on a devastatingly wide scale in 15th-century Spain. The ‘Old Christian’, it might be said, defined him or herself in antithesis to the newcomer to the faith. Netanyahu’s failure to consider in parallel the fate of the Muslims in Spain is a grave omission, however: after all, while expelling the Jews, Ferdinand the Catholic permitted the Muslims to practise their religion in Aragon and Valencia – a puzzling fact which has been incisively analysed in recent years, notably by Mark Meyerson. Netanyahu seems unaware of this, and although he pays a great deal of attention to supposed antecedents, he ignores the history of the Jews in Muslim Spain and so fails to consider the period of forced conversions during the 12th century, under the fundamentalist Almohads, who even obliged Jewish converts to wear distinctive clothing on the grounds that their commitment to their new faith was doubtful and they needed to be watched – rightly, it seems, for the young Maimonides wrote a tract urging Jews to choose Islam rather than death, and argued that merit could still be earned by continuing surreptitiously to practise as much of Judaism as was possible. The example of these forced converts moulded the behaviour of later Spanish Jews, confronted with the choice between death and baptism.

While he shows deep sympathy for the Marranos as victims of anti-semitism, Netanyahu is contemptuous of the view that they practised a covert form of Judaism, as generations of historians have assumed. The prolific Haim Beinart is virtually never mentioned, for no one who used, as he did, the Inquisition’s own records is taken seriously by Netanyahu: these are seen as tainted documents, recording what the inquisitors wanted their victims to say in self-denunciation – a view that would disqualify a sizeable amount of what has been written on later medieval Europe, including such classics as Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou. As befits a writer who has always identified the Jews with peoplehood rather than religion, Netanyahu expresses no interest in the dilemma of those who had taken on a new religion about which they had often had little time to become properly informed, so creating willy-nilly a mélange of the two faiths. The implications are dramatic. Without the testimony of the polemicists against the crypto-Jews, and of the crypto-Jews who were literally placed on the rack, the presence of large numbers of secret Jews in 15th-century Spain becomes a myth. Netanyahu isn’t alone in this view: similar claims have been made recently by Norman Roth, who even, bizarrely, seeks to exculpate Ferdinand and Isabella from responsibility for the expulsion.

Far from being half-hearted converts, the Marranos of the period from 1391 to 1492 were, according to Netanyahu and Roth, virtually all sincere Christians, and those burned at the stake were victims of plans to wipe out the converso population, maybe in its entirety. Yet Christian conversos were often proud of their Jewish ancestry, and sought, in the face of racial hostility, to argue that special nobility was conferred on them as members of the same raza as Mary and Jesus. Such views were expressed by eminent figures with influence at court: Alonso de Cartagena, Bishop of Burgos, for example, born a Jew and converted as a child with his father, the famous Paul of Burgos; or, with variations, by Juan de Torquemada, uncle of the inquisitor, who came from what was quite probably a converso family. No one would seriously question the commitment to Christianity of this generation of converso Church leaders, nor that of a good many converts and their descendants who were greatly favoured by Ferdinand and Isabella. Such people were horrified at the thought that anyone doubted their Christianity or their contempt for the religion they had abandoned. Equally, they were often anxious to absolve the Marranos of any suspicion of ‘Judaising’, aware as they were that this would provide fuel for their critics. The evidence of this élite cannot be used to judge the commitment of vast numbers of conversos of more modest standing; nor can the views of rabbis across the water who had spurned the offer to turn Christian.

That Ferdinand and Isabella delighted in the company of conversos is hardly surprising: the leading New Christians provided the Crown with a noblesse de robe which provided essential administrative skills, notably in the delicate area of tax farming, which in past centuries had often, in both Castile and Aragon, been entrusted to court Jews. In decreeing the expulsion, they hoped to persuade most Jews to stay put as Christians. They wanted more conversos, not fewer.

One important question which Netanyahu fails to answer is why, if there was such contempt for those of Jewish descent, noble families kept intermarrying with leading converso ones. The conclusion must be that Ferdinand and Isabella were not alone in esteeming the New Christians: it is even possible that Spanish aristocrats took seriously converso claims that the Jewish élite constituted a true nobility. Though polemicists might inveigh against the smell of the Jew and the converso (attributable partly to bad breath after eating food fried in oil rather than lard or butter), the physical appearance of those of the Jewish raza seems to have been similar in all respects to that of most Spaniards: indeed, one reason for making Jews and Muslims wear distinctive garb was precisely the fact that they were not necessarily identifiable when they wore the same clothes as Christians.

Under the impact of plague and depopulation, the old social order came under enormous strain, and the pogroms of 1391 were not directed exclusively against the Jews: they were also a powerful protest from below (in Majorca, the mob turned against the Jews only after failing to capture the governor’s castle). The nobility in particular found their revenues falling and their status under siege, as new blood, in the form of New Christians, took office in government service, in the Church hierarchy and in city administration. This awareness of an outside threat generated among some a greater insistence on the honour and standing of those who claimed descent from the Visigothic lords of Spain, expressed in the return to traditional values, notably a revival in the courtly love lyric and those chivalric values which Cervantes was later to mock. The hidalgo was, etymologically, the fijo d’algo, ‘the son of someone who matters’.

Netanyahu may be right that by the middle of the 15th century, when the generation of conversos who had been baptised during the riots of 1391 was no longer alive, knowledge of Judaism among the conversos was declining, but the situation was quite different after 1492. There existed as late as the 17th century communities of Jewish descent whose members still recalled in fragmentary form the fasts and prayers of their ancestors. The reason is quite simply the massive number of converts who chose Christianity rather than exile. The Marranos were ‘re-seeded’ with unenthusiastic Christians; and growing racial criticism of the New Christians led them to reconsider their attachment to their new religion. It is possible to argue that, far from suppressing Judaism in Spain, the expulsion of 1492 strengthened its underground existence. By ignoring the Inquisition records for this while accepting the subjective testimony of rabbis, conversos and everyone else who, like the inquisitors, had an axe to grind, Netanyahu shows himself no more critical of his sources than the most romantic historian of the ‘secret’ Jews. For the numbers of crypto-Jews went up and down; Portugal showed greater loyalty to the old religion than Spain, with Marranos surviving there right up to the present day. It is a striking paradox that the Catholic Monarchs sought explicitly to justify expulsion on the grounds that close contact between Jews and New Christians was corrupting the faith of the conversos, while at the same time generating a vast number of insincere conversions. They did not expel the conversos from Spain, however, which is what one would have expected had the racial views Netanyahu describes been widespread in the top levels of government. His arguments create more problems than they solve.

From the 1480s, the Inquisition was present in Castile and Aragon as an instrument to purge the New Christian population (including converted Muslims) of their ‘unbelief’; and, as Netanyahu shows, there were enthusiasts who saw the exclusion of anyone of converso descent from public life, from the universities and from the monastic orders as the surest guarantee that the taint of Jewish beliefs would soon be extirpated. His account of the debate about Jewish blood is the best part of the book, and should probably have been separated from the prolix, out-of-date discussion of antecedents to form a respectable monograph on its own.

What is striking about medieval Spain is the massive number of religious conversions that took place and the way conversion was accompanied by a process of assimilation that often encompassed even those who refused to change faith. The Christian Mozarabs of ninth-century Córdoba had often practised circumcision and avoided pork, in imitation of their Muslim masters. The Sephardim who left Spain in 1492 rather than convert were still extraordinarily conscious of their Spanish identity, and sought to impose the Castilian language (in the form of Ladino or Judco-Spanish) on the communities among whom they settled along the shores of the Mediterranean. A century of dire persecution in Spain did not strip them of the sense that they, too, were hidalgos, with leaders who were more royal than any king or sultan; they were the nobility of Jerusalem ‘that is in Sepharad’, as the prophet Obadiah had said, and as Bishop Alonso de Cartagena reiterated; and their leaders were reputedly of the stock of King David.

To understand the fate of Jews and Muslims after 1250, in a period when virtually all of Spain except Granada was in Christian hands, it is essential to realise that there were two intellectual traditions at work, one home – grown, which tolerated the existence of subject communities of non-Christians and regarded them simply as part of the fabric of society; and one in large measure imported from Northern Europe, which was puzzled by the persistence of the Jew in the Christian world, and made little effort to penetrate the beliefs of Islam. How the many foreign princesses who were sent as brides to the Spanish courts viewed this exotic society, in which, as late as the 15th century, King John II of Castile had a Muslim bodyguard, and where, throughout the late Middle Ages, Spanish kings employed Jews as tax collectors and even confidential advisers, is an intriguing question. For by the end of the 14th century Spain was an anomaly in its treatment of Jews and Muslims. The late 13th century had seen a wave of expulsions and forced conversions in the French provinces, in England and in southern Italy; Jewish communities persisted in the Rhineland, but their conditions were often difficult. Not till the pogroms of 1391 did the Jews of Spain have to face mob violence on a massive scale.

By 1400, Spain consisted of five political entities, one of which, Aragon-Catalonia, was itself a congeries of different kingdoms and counties, with dependencies in Sicily and Sardinia. There is a venerable tradition, which hardened under Franco, of treating Castile as if it were the whole of Spain, and Netanyahu’s conception of ‘Spanish nationhood’ is very much centred on Toledo. But it is a fundamental mistake to suppose that the tone for Jewish-Muslim relations was set by the Christians of Castile. It was in Aragon-Catalonia that the impact of North European hostility to the Jews was most obvious, and it was here that the institution his book professes to study, the Inquisition, first took root, in the early 13th century. Netanyahu would have been far better advised to concentrate on the early development of preaching campaigns against the Jews in 13th and 14th-century Catalonia rather than indulge himself in either the history of Ptolemaic Egypt or the fine details of the political machinations at the court of Castile. It is extraordinary, for instance, that he devotes so little space to the famous public disputation held in Barcelona in 1263 under the auspices of King James I of Aragon, between the eminent Jewish sage Nahmanides and the convert Paul the Christian.

Despite its claim to be newly critical of the sources, this book is in fact a medley of suppositions and assumptions which even the author admits are sometimes barely warranted by the evidence. The conversion of Paul of Burgos to Christianity, as the Jews of Burgos faced attack in 1391, is explained in fantastic terms:

It would not, as we see it, be excessive to assume that Paul then called a general meeting of the [Jewish] community ... He must have painted a gloomy picture of the condition of the Jews in Spain, stressing the hopelessness of their situation. He may also have described the condition of the Jews in other countries of the West ... Whatever argument Paul used in that address which, as we conjecture, he most probably delivered, it was not received with general acclaim. In fact, it must have caused shock and consternation among many of those who attended that meeting, and arguments refuting his contentions and conclusions must have been voiced by some of them.

The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th-Century Spain is a big book making big assumptions, which goes to great lengths to suggest that the conversos of the mid-15th century had lost touch with Judaism, which proves nothing concerning later converts. It is a pity for Benzion Netanyahu to have written so much, in such a mannered style, and to have proved so little.

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