21579_spain-invites-sephardic-jews-back-after-523-years_1_largeJews lived in the Iberian Peninsula (today Spain and Portugal) since Roman times, and possibly earlier. In the Middle Ages the territory was contested between northern Christians and southern Muslims. There were times when Jews lived in comfort and freedom and others when they faced severe persecution. Gradually the Christian kingdoms of Castile, Aragon and Portugal began to conquer territory from the Muslims. In 1391 Christians in Castile were incited against their Jewish neighbours, leading to massacres and forced conversions.

Over the next hundred years the situation of the Jewish community continued to deteriorate. There were both forced and voluntary conversions to Catholicism. The final Christian victory over the Muslims came in 1492. The Crowns of Castile and Aragon gave the remaining Jews the choice of conversion, expulsion or death.

Rylands Haggadah - Crossing the Red SeaMany Jews converted. Others travelled into the Mediterranean, often through Italy and into the territory of the Ottoman Empire (including Turkey, Greece and the Balkan countries). Their descendants are often known as Eastern Sephardim. They often speak Judeo-Spanish (incorrectly called Ladino).

Other Jews went to Portugal. A few years later they were forced to convert to Catholicism BUT were often not given religious instruction. Also, the Inquisition arrived late in Portugal. These New Christians often had complicated religious identities.


Recommended Reading

Obviously a little website can’t hope to scratch the surface.

Imperial Spain 1469-1716 by J H Elliot is an excellent overview from the Spanish perspective.

The History of the Inquisition of Spain by Juan Antonio Llorente (pictured right), published in English in 1826, is available free online. The book is written by an ex-employee of the Inquisition.


History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages and the four volume History of the Inquisition in Spain by Henry Charles Lea are available for free download. I have read all of the former and bits of the later. I think the ‘History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages’ is extremely helpful for putting the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions into their correct historic context. Lea was writing over a hundred years ago. It is impressive that his books are still useful.

The Trial of Gabriel de Granada, translated by David Fergusson, is available for free download. It is the complete translation of an Inquisition file on the trial of a Jewish boy in 17th Century Mexico.

Henry Kamen, author of The Spanish Inquisition is regarded as a leading authority in the English-speaking world. He was a professor at my university. I met him but, sadly, before I was interested in the subject.

Benzion Netanyahu (late father of the Israeli prime minister), Haim Beinart and Yitzhak Baer all give Judeo-centric accounts of the Inquisition. The former – who I once heard speak – sees the Inquisition as a bunch of anti-Semites, which is what I would expect a Revisionist Zionist to say. The other two see the Inquisition as punishing authentic judaisers, which is not the impression I get from my reading. Definitely read Lea’s ‘History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages’ before these guys. Once you’ve trawled through the Cathars, the Dominicans bashing the Franciscans, the Pope bashing the Emperor, the Hussites and all the rest, a Judeo-centric account makes little sense.

Empires and Entrepots: Dutch, the Spanish Monarchy and the Jews, 1585-1713 by Jonathan Israel

Reluctant Cosmopolitans – The Portuguese Jews of Seventeenth- Century Amsterdam by Daniel M. Swetschinski

The Other Within by Yirmiyahu Yovel, the Spinoza scholar, deals with Sephardic identity during the Early Modern (1492-1750) period. We tend to see our “New Christian” ancestors as persecuted Jews. Actually their identities were more complex. Some identified as Jews, some as Christians, others abandoned conventional religion, many had fluid beliefs.

Souls in Dispute by David L. Graizbord is another study that addresses the complexities of Sephardic identity.

Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History by D. B. Ruderman was, I found, an excellent introduction to Jewish Europe at that time. It includes the virtually forgotten Ashkenazi secular Council of the Four Lands, which disappeared during the partitions of Poland, to be replaced by Topol and Yentl.

There are a lot of excellent academics currently at work on the subject. I am a big fan of Francesca Trivellato.