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Christian-Jewish Relations:
Marranos, Conversos & New Christians


Christian-Jewish Relations: Table of Contents | History & Overview | Martin Luther


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Conversos and Marranos

The terms “Marrano” and “converso” were applied in Spain and Portugal to the descendants of baptized Jews suspected of secret adherence to Judaism. Converso, from the Latin conversus, meant literally the converted. Various origins for the term “marrano” have been suggested, which include the Hebrew marit ayin ("the appearance of the eye"), referring to the fact that the Marranos were ostensibly Christian but actually Jews; mohoram attah ("you are excommunicated"); the Aramaic-Hebrew Mar Anus ("forced convert"); the Hebrew mumar ("apostate") with the Spanish ending ano; the Arabic mura'in ("hypocrite"); and the second word of the ecclesiastical imprecation anathema maranatha. All such derivations, however, are unlikely. The most probable is from the Spanish word meaning swine or pig, derived from the Latin verres "wild boar." The term probably did not originally refer to the Jews' reluctance to eat pork, as some scholars hold; from its earliest use, it was intended to impart the sense of loathing conveyed by the word. Although romanticized and regarded by later Jewry as a badge of honor, the term was not as widely used, especially in official circles, as is often believed. In Latin America, as a rule, it is not found in official documents, and there is little evidence of its unofficial use in most places. It is not clear if the "Old Christians" only, or the secretly practicing Jews also called themselves "marrano."

“Marranos” started appearing with the first riots in the Juderias of Spain. Many were forced to convert to Christianity to save their lives. The laws in 14th and 15th century Spain became increasingly oppressive toward practicing Jews, and conversion was provded as an alternative to death. Large numbers of middle class Jews outwardly adopting Christianity to avoid the laws, while secretly practicing Judaism.

“New Christians”

"New Christians" is a term applied specifically to three groups of Jewish converts to Christianity and their descendants in the Iberian Peninsula. The first group converted in the wake of the massacres in Spain in 1391 and the proselytizing fervor of the subsequent decades. The second, also in Spain, were baptized following the decree of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 expelling all Jews who refused to accept Christianity. The third group, in Portugal, was converted by force and royal fiat in 1497. Like the word Conversos, but unlike Marranos, the term New Christian carried no intrinsic pejorative connotation, but with the increasing power of the Inquisition and the growth of the concept of "limpieza de sangre," cleansing the blood, the name signaled the disabilities inevitably heaped on those who bore it.

The New Christians who continued secretly to observe the precepts of Judaism as much as possible after their conversion were not regarded as voluntary apostates. The basis of this decision was the statement by Maimonides that although one should allow oneself to be put to death rather than abandon one's faith in times of persecution, "nevertheless, if he transgressed and did not choose the death of a martyr, even though he has annulled the positive precept of sanctifying the Name and transgressed the injunction not to desecrate the Name, since he transgressed under duress and could not escape, he is exempted from punishment." In accordance with this ruling, other rabbis ruled that those New Christians who remained in their countries because they were unable to escape and flee, if they conducted themselves in accordance with the precepts of Judaism, even if only privately, were full Jews; their shehitah could be relied upon, their testimony in law cases accepted, and their wine was considered kosher.

Some authorities ruled, however, that if the Marranos of a certain locality succeeded in fleeing to a country where they could return to Judaism, while others remained there in order to retain their material possessions, the latter were no longer presumed to have the privilege of being regarded as valid witnesses or even Jews. Other rabbis expressed more lenient views, and held that no one was to be deprived of their rights as a Jew as long as they were not seen to transgress the precepts of Judaism when there was no longer danger involved. Talmudic scholar Moses Isserles, too, ruled that even those Marranos who are able to flee but delay because of material considerations and transgress Judaism publicly out of compulsion while remaining observant privately, still are reliable Jews. The Marranos who had lived among gentiles for more than a century usually assimilated and intermarried, with the result that their children were presumed to be non-Jewish unless it could be proven that their mothers were Jewish.

The scholars of Safed headed by Jacob Berab imposed flagellation upon Marranos who returned to Judaism as a punishment for transgressing the prohibitions that rendered them liable to karet, excommunication, in their previous condition. Yet, since flagellation can be imposed only by ordained dayyanim (judges). Jacob Berab and his colleagues wanted to enforce punishment when ordination was renewed (see semikhah). A Marrano who escaped from his native land, but was not circumcised through neglect, was prevented from participating in the services in the synagogue until he was circumcised.

Movement From Spain

New Christians began to leave Spain in the wake of the mass conversions of 1391, and Portugal after the forced conversions in 1497. The tide of emigration ebbed and flowed, but heightened during the Inquisition in Spain in 1481, and Portugal in 1536 and after 1630. To slow the continuing exodus, as early as the last decade of the 15th century, the authorities in both countries issued decrees prohibiting the emigration of New Christians. Even the so-called irrevocable permission to emigrate which the New Christians purchased from Philip III in 1601, during the union of Spain and Portugal, was short-lived, and rescinded in 1610. These decrees were frequently evaded, however, and Marranos regularly left the Peninsula clandestinely, or secured permission to take business trips abroad from which they never returned. There were even cases of Marranos leaving for the ostensible purpose of making a pilgrimage to Rome. Once the authorities became aware of such stratagies they tried to intercept Marranos as they moved through Europe to places where they could practice Judaism openly, and men like Jean de la Foix in Lombardy acquired notoriety for his inhuman treatment of those who fell into his hands. There were instances where the highest authorities in the Peninsula closed their eyes to New Christian emigration, however, particularly when it involved their settling in Latin America, where their skills and enterprise were desperately needed. Furtively and openly, in trickles and in torrents, thousands of New Christians left the Iberian Peninsula during the nearly three and a half centuries of the Inquisition's power.

In Majorca, Spain, the community was converted in the 1430's and called Chuetas, from "pork lard" since they regularly kept pork lard boiling in cauldrons on their porches. They still called themselves "Israelitas" in private, and families typically gave their first born son to the Catholic priesthood as a means of gaining protection from Church persecution. As a result, many of the priests from across the Baleiric Islands are from Marrano families.

During the Inquisition's extended sway over the Peninsula, the emigrating Marranos could flee to four different kinds of countries: Muslim lands, Protestant territories as they came into being, Catholic countries outside the jurisdiction of Spain and Portugal, and Catholic countries within the peninsular orbit.

Muslim countries were the most natural places of refuge for Marranos seeking to live openly as Jews, for they were the archenemies of the Christians, with Spain and Portugal being particularly hated. Morocco had already become a haven of refuge for both Jews and Conversos at the end of the 14th century, but many more Jews and Marranos were attracted to the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 15th century and during the 16th. Sultan Bayazid II (Bajazet II; 1481–1512) mocked King Ferdinand for impoverishing Spain and enriching the Ottoman Empire through his expulsion of the Jews. In the 16th century, numerous cities in the Ottoman Empire had Jewish settlements, among them Cairo, Jerusalem, Safed, Damascus, Constantinople with some 50,000 Jews, and Salonika where the population of the Marranos exceeded that of the other Jews and the non-Jews as well.

Protestant Lands

Next to the Muslim countries, the Protestant lands offered the best prospects for Morranos, for here too the Catholics were detested, and the Inquisition was a hated institution because it was no more tolerant of Protestants than Jews. In places like England and Germany, Marranos began their existence as titular Catholics and secret Jews before the Reformation. They continued in this double life long after those areas had broken with Rome, since the Protestant authorities were not eager to grant official acknowledgment to the Jews.

In Hamburg, destined to become one of the wealthiest and most productive Marrano centers, the settlement of Jews was not officially authorized until 1612 and Jewish public worship not until 1650. In England, where Jews had been expelled in 1290, the Marranos who originally settled in London and Bristol were never officially acknowledged as Jews, the question was simply ignored and Marranos were allowed to live undisturbed as practicing Jews. Actually this connivance, or de facto resettlement through official silence, proved salutary for the Jews, since the failure to grant official permission for their presence made it impossible to impose particular disabilities on them. From the middle of the 17th century at least, the Marranos were treated like all other nonconformist citizens. In 1664, the crown granted Jews an official charter of protection, thus further facilitating the development of the Marrano community. The ex-Marranos and their descendants continued to be the dominant element in British Jewry until the 19th century.

In Amsterdam, the Marranos did not arrive until around 1590, some 11 years after the Union of Utrecht (1579) and the birth of the United Provinces of the Netherlands as a Protestant state. Here, too, they had to wait until 1615 before Jewish settlement was officially authorized, but the Marranos in Amsterdam differed from those in other Protestant countries in that they openly practiced Judaism almost from the moment of their arrival. Thanks to the Marranos, Amsterdam became one of the greatest Jewish centers in the world in the 17th century; it had some of the finest academies and produced some of the greatest Jewish thinkers. During this time, Amsterdam even became known as "the Dutch Jerusalem." The city was also a haven for oppressed Jews from places other than Spain and Portugal, including France in 1615 and Eastern Europe after the Chmielnicki massacres in 1648.

Marranos from Holland were among the first settlers in Surinam and Curacao, where a substantial Sephardi community came into being after 1650. Other former Marranos were also found in Barbados and in other parts of the West Indies, including Martinique and the Leeward Islands.

The Catholic lands outside the control of Spain and Portugal did not offer as secure a haven as the Ottoman Empire or the Protestant countries, but they had the advantage of being outside the orbit of the peninsular Inquisitions. At the same tim,e these areas were not without their inherent dangers, in the form of envy or rooted prejudice on the part of the local population, pressures from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions upon the local authorities, and even the possibility of persecution galvanized by local initiative, and, in the case of the Papal States, an indigenous Inquisition. As a result, the existence of many of these Marrano communities, even if unclouded and prosperous for a time, was seldom free from molestation.

Jews And Popes

In the Papal States, the Marranos' presence was noticeable in Rome and, even more so, the seaport of Ancona, where they thrived under benevolent popes Clement VII (1523–34), Paul III (1534–49), and Julius III (1550–55). They even received a guarantee that if accused of apostasy they would be subject only to papal authority. But Paul IV (1555–59), the voice of the Counter-Reformation, dealt them an irreparable blow when he withdrew all protection previously given the Marranos and initiated a fierce persecution against them. As a result of the anti-Marrano campaign, 25 Jews were burned alive in the spring of 1556, 26 others were condemned to the galleys, and 30 more who had been arrested were liberated only after they had paid a substantial bribe. Thanks to the intervention of the Marrano patroness, Gracia Mendes Nasi, the sultan at Constantinople secured the release of all Marranos who were his subjects. Plans were laid to boycott Ancona and transfer all the Marranos' former business to neighboring Pesaro, in the friendlier territory of the duke of Urbino, but the project failed, and the duke expelled the Marranos from his territory.

A document of 1550 indicates that there were some Marranos among the Spanish and Portuguese merchants in Florence who traded on a large scale with Spain and her colonies. In Ferrara, under the house of Este, the Marranos formed a large and thriving community by the middle of the 16th century, one of the most notable in their entire Diaspora. The dukes protected them until 1581, when Duke Alfonso II, bowing to ecclesiastical pressure, allowed many of them to be arrested. Three were eventually sent to Rome to be burned at the stake in February 1583. Marranos settled in Venice in the 15th and early 16th centuries but were subjected to decrees of expulsion in 1497 and again in 1550. Thereafter the city policy began to change. Venice not only welcomed Marranos but kept the Inquisition at bay. Theologians like Paolo Sarpi even claimed that the Jews were outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition because they had been baptized by force.

Equally fortunate was the situation in the grand duchy of Tuscany. In an attempt to woo the Marranos to Pisa and Leghorn, Ferdinand II issued a charter in 1593 granting them protection against harassment in matters of faith. As it was in decline at the time, Pisa did not attract many Marranos, but Leghorn did: the community there thrived and by the end of the 18th century its population approached 5,000. Emmanuel Philbert granted special privileges to induce Jews to settle in the duchy of Savoy, intending mainly to settle Marranos from Spain and Portugal in Nice to develop the city into a central trading port with the East. The privilege enraged Philip II of Spain, who considered the whole plan as seriously damaging Spain's interests in the Mediterranean as well as an incitement to Marranos to return to Judaism. The pressure of Spain led to the rescinding of the privilege and, on Nov. 22, 1573, the duke ordered a group of Marranos who had returned to Judaism to leave his territory within six months. This decree was probably not put into effect until 1581 when Charles Emmanuel I ordered the expulsion of all Portuguese Jews from the duchy.

In France the Marranos had to maintain some semblance of Catholicism for more than two centuries, but they were seldom molested in their secret practice of Judaism. Though they were called "New Christians" or "Portuguese merchants," their Jewishness was an open secret. In the large settlements they lived in their own quarters, had their own burial grounds, developed their own schools and communal institutions, and even trained their own rabbis after first importing them from abroad. They gradually reduced their Catholic practices and eventually abandoned Church marriage and baptism. In 1730, they were officially recognized as Jews. Their more formal communities were situated at Bordeaux and Bayonne and there were numerous lesser settlements in such places as Toulouse, Lyons, Montpellier, La Rochelle, Nantes, and Rouen. Bayonne was the center of a cluster of communities, including Biarritz, Bidache, Peyrehorade, and Saint-Jean-de-Luz. In this last town, the Marranos had the misfortune of being expelled in 1619, and then, after a partial return, seeing the town captured by the Spaniards in 1636.

In the far-flung Spanish and Portuguese possessions, in the Aragonese territories of Sicily, Sardinia and Naples, in Hapsburg territories such as Flanders, or the colonial territories in the Far East and the Americas, the situation of the Marranos was always precarious. They lived continually under the shadow of the Inquisition; even where a tribunal of the Holy Office was not in operation, episcopal Inquisitions and occasional inquisitional "visitors" were sent from the home countries to galvanize the search for heretics. Sicily and Sardinia, with Inquisitions introduced in 1487 and 1493 respectively, had no Jews living in them by the middle of the 16th century. There was opposition to introducing the Spanish Inquisition into Naples, but the papal Inquisition took over and managed to destroy most of the Marrano community by the middle of the 17th century.

The situation of the Marranos was no less precarious in Antwerp, where they began to arrive early in the 16th century, often before moving to the Ottoman Empire. In 1526, New Christians' stay in the city was restricted to a 30-day period and, though settlement was fully authorized 11 years later, Judaism was strictly prohibited. With the decline of Antwerp, the center of Marrano life shifted to Amsterdam.

The Colonies

In their colonies the Portuguese set up an Inquisition at Goa and the Spaniards established one in the Philippines. Episcopal Inquisitions were always present in Latin America: Brazil never had a formal tribunal, but tribunals were established in the Spanish colonies at Lima, Peru in 1570, Mexico City, Mexico in 1571, and Cartagena in 1610. Latin America in particular attracted considerable numbers of New Christians. The advantage of these territories was that they offered the New Christians a familiar culture and the possiblity of direct — even if infrequent — contact with the mother countries. For New Christians wishing to live fully as Catholics, the distances from the Peninsula and the sparseness of the population of most of the territories aided in the obliteration of the record of their Jewish origins. These factors also helped permit the Marranos to practice Judaism.

Religious tolerance was important in determining the direction of the flight of many of the Marranos, but also of great importance were the economic and social opportunities available in the various lands open to them at the time of their escape. These opportunities often made it more desirable for Marranos to continue living as secret Jews in Catholic lands, even those under Spanish and Portuguese domination, than to seek a refuge where they could practice Judaism openly. Conversely, in each of the territories where the Marranos appeared, they were allowed to enter and remain because they served definite economic, social, and political ends. In almost every one of their new homes they quickly rose to prominence in international and domestic trade, banking and finance. They helped to establish great national banks and were prominent on the stock exchanges.

Marranos played an important role in large trading companies, such as the Dutch East Indies and West Indies Companies. They worked in the traffic of such commodities as coral, sugar, tobacco, and precious stones. The Marranos' common background and culture, their presence in the leading commercial centers, and often their ties of kinship, enabled them to establish an efficient and closely knit international trading organization. Great banking and trading families, such as that founded by Francisco Mendes at Lisbon, had branches throughout Europe. Marranos established manufacturing plants for soap, drugs, and other items, and made signal contributions in minting, handicrafts, armaments, and shipbuilding. The Marranos' international connections served to stimulate communications between nations and their separate competitive development. In this way the activities of the New Christians fostered the stability of their countries of settlement and facilitated their transition from a medieval to a modern economy.

Jewish Professionals

The Marranos also attained prominence in the professional life of the lands of their dispersion. From their midst came great diplomats like JoCo Miguez, the duke of Naxos (Joseph Nasi), and his mother-in-law, Gracia Mendes Nasi (Beatriz de Luna), who also distinguished herself as a great philanthropist and patron of the Jewish arts, as well as the equally colorful Diego Texeira de Sampaio (Abraham Senior Texeira). The Marranos produced scientists such as Immanuel Bocarro Frances, distinguished physicians like Amatus Lusitanus (Juan Rodrigo), Elijah Montalto (Felipo Rodrigues), and Antonio Ribeiro Sanchez, and a host of other distinguished names in secular literature, theater, and music.

Reciprocally, many of the states and nations in their diaspora gave the Marranos an opportunity to develop their own institutions and culture; the printing press became an important instrument in the development of this culture. Ferrara's press, which published a famous translation of the Bible into Spanish, and Samuel Usque's Consolaam as tribulaoens de Israel in Portuguese, in addition to liturgical and other works, was the center of Marrano culture in the middle of the 16th century. By the end of the 16th century, Venice had the leading press. Other cities, too, like Leghorn, Hamburg, and London, had important presses, and printing in numerous smaller places helped to further spread Jewish culture.

A number of Marrano writers became well-known including apologists such as Immanuel Aboab, Saul Levi Morteira, Lorenzo Escudero (Abraham Ger or Abraham Israel Peregrino), Isaac Cardozo, Isaac Orobio de Castro, and David Nieto; poets such as David Abenatar Melo, Daniel Lopez Laguna, Solomon Usque, JoCo (Moses) Pinto Delgado, and Daniel Levi (Miguel) de Barrios; playwrights such as Antonio Enriquez Gomez and Antonio Jose da Silva; and versatile writers such as the prolific Joseph Penso de la Vega, writer of plays, short stories, and one of the earliest and most comprehensive treatises on the stock exchange.

Many Marranos also attained fame outside the Jewish fold. The aristocracy of many societies in Europe and the Americas was enriched by these people and their descendants. Frequently, as was the case with Benjamin Disraeli, they attained the highest diplomatic, military, and administrative positions.

In Portugal, the Marquis de Pombal officially abolished all legal distinctions between Old and New Christians in May 1773. Comparable measures were not enacted in Spain until 1860, by which time much of the distinction had been eroded by assimilation and inquisitorial repression. Pockets of social discrimination against New Christians continued, for example, against the "chuetas" of the Balearic Isles.

A Marrano community was discovered by Samuel Schwartz in Portugal in 1917, and from time to time there emerge individuals or even groups who do not identify as Jews, but who have retained some of the practices and customs of the Marranos while unaware of their Jewish ancestry. The most active Marranos are in the mountainous border areas of the Iberian peninsula between Spain and Portugal, in towns such as Belmonte. Jewish outreach in these areas is achieving success in bringing them forward and restoring full Judaic practice, but many still fear burning or other persecution if they go public with their practices.

"Crypto-Jew" has now become the more politically correct term, as opposed to Marrano, and refers to all Jews forced to adopt a certain religion and political philosophy while maintaining Jewish practices in secret. In modern times, outwardly Muslim Crypto-Jews are known to be in Iran, and Turkey. Some Hispanics and Latinos, such as Rita Moreno and Fidel Castro, have acknowledged their Marrano ancestry.


Sources: Internet FAQ Archives; Encyclopedia Judaica; Mystica Encyclopedia; Wigoder, Geoffrey. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. Facts on File, New York, 1992.

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