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Marrano Diaspora

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 was always stimulated by the advent of new disasters, such as the introduction of the *Inquisition into Spain in 1481 and Portugal in 1536, and the recrudescence of intensive persecution of the Marranos, as in Portugal after 1630. To stem this 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, and these were frequently renewed. 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the New Christians purchased from Philip III in 1601, during the union of Spain and Portugal, was short-lived, being rescinded in 1610. However, these decrees were frequently evaded: Marranos regularly left the Peninsula clandestinely, or secured permission to take business trips abroad from which they never returned. There are even cases of their leaving for the ostensible purpose of making a pilgrimage to Rome. Once the authorities became aware of such stratagems 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 even instances where the highest authorities in the Peninsula closed their eyes to New Christian emigration, 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.

Not all the New Christians leaving the Peninsula were secret Jews. Many were devout Catholics and had no intention of changing their faith; others were religiously ambivalent or even apathetic. Some of these may have shared the general insecurity of all New Christians in the Peninsula; some may have feared implication in inquisitional proceedings because of the activities of their relatives or friends; some may have wished to hide their Jewish origins in foreign lands; and others may simply have been attracted by new challenges and opportunities. It was people like these who evoked apologies for Judaism such as Samuel *Usque's classic Consolaçam às tribulaçoens de Israel (1553; Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel, 1965), intended to persuade them to return to their ancestral religion. At the same time, considerable numbers of the New Christians were Marranos, or secret Jews, and were passionately dedicated to Judaism. This was particularly true of the Portuguese New Christians. By the 16th century the term "Portuguese" was already synonymous with the word "Jew" in much of Europe, Asia, and Latin America. During the Inquisition's extended sway over the Peninsula, the emigrating Marranos could plan to travel 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

These were the most natural places of refuge for Marranos seeking to live openly as Jews, for they were the archenemies of the Christians and Spain and Portugal were 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 Countries

Next to the Muslim countries the Protestant lands offered the best prospects, for here too the Catholics were detested, and the Inquisition was a hated institution because it was no more tolerant of Protestant heretics than Judaizers. In places like *England and *Hamburg and other German cities, 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, for the Protestant authorities were not eager to grant official acknowledgment to the presence of Jews in their midst. 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 settled originally in *London and *Bristol were never officially acknowledged as Jews. Spokesmen for the Marranos, both Christians and Jews, including Manasseh Ben *Israel, failed in their efforts to secure the formal recognition of Jewish resettlement. Rather than being officially granted, the resettlement was "connived at": the question was simply ignored and Marranos were allowed to live undisturbed as 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. Amsterdam was also a haven for oppressed Jews from other places, including France in 1615 and Eastern Europe after the *Chmielnicki massacres (from 1648). Erstwhile Marranos from Holland were among the first settlers in Surinam and Curaçao, 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.

Other Catholic Countries

The Catholic lands outside the control of Spain and Portugal did not offer so 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 time 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 molestations.

In the Papal States the Marranos' presence was noticeable in places like *Rome and even more so the seaport of *Ancona, where they thrived under benevolent popes like 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 Judaizers 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 even 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 sentto 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 Judaizers 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 a special privilege to induce Jews to settle in the duchy of Savoy, intending mainly to settle Marranos from Spain and Portugal in Nice in order 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 joint pressure of Spain and the Holy See 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. In the course of time they gradually reduced their Catholic practices and eventually abandoned Church marriage and even 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.

Other Territories

But in the far-flung Spanish and Portuguese possessions, in the Aragonese territories of *Sicily, *Sardinia and *Naples, in *Hapsburg territories like Flanders, or the colonial territories in the Far East or in the Americas, the situation of the Marranos was always precarious. There they lived continually under the shadow of the Inquisition; even where a tribunal of the Holy Office was not in operation, there were episcopal Inquisitions and occasional inquisitional "visitors" sent from the home countries to galvanize the search for heretics. Sicily and Sardinia, with Inquisitions introduced in 1487 and 1493 respectively, were practically free of Judaizers 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, frequently to begin a trek across Europe 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, Judaizing was strictly prohibited. With the decline of Antwerp, the center of Marrano life in the Low Countries shifted to Amsterdam.

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, 1570), Mexico City (1571), and Cartagena (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 possibility 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. On the other hand, these factors also facilitated the Marranos' practice of Judaism.

Activities of the Marranos

Religious considerations were important in determining the direction of the flight of many of the Marranos, but they were not the only ones. Of great and sometimes decisive 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 – or for that matter all New Christians – 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, and banking and finance. They helped to establish great national banks and were prominent on the stock exchanges. They played an important role in large trading companies, such as the Dutch East Indies and West Indies Companies, and even in the rival company established at Portugal to help oust the Dutch from Brazil. As well as insurance companies, they established manufacturing plants for soap, drugs, and other items, and made signal contributions in minting, handicrafts, armaments, and shipbuilding. In the area of international trade they assumed virtual dominance and controlled, frequently to the point of monopoly, the traffic in 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, like that founded by Francisco Mendes at Lisbon, had branches throughout Europe. 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. The Marranos also attained prominence in the professional life of the lands of their dispersion. From their midst came great diplomats like João 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 like 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 a foremost instrument in the development of this culture. Ferrara's press, which published the famous translation of the Bible into Spanish and Samuel Usque's Consolaçam as tribulaçoens 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 and in the next century it was situated in Amsterdam. Other cities, too, like Leghorn, Hamburg, and London, had important presses, and printing in numerous smaller places helped to spread further Jewish culture. Especially noteworthy is the extensive literature published by these presses. Including prayerbooks and sermons, books of precepts and customs, translations into Spanish and Portuguese of classics in Jewish philosophy and thought, apologetical works and polemics, and also novels, poetry, and plays, it was particularly directed toward the Marranos who had left the Iberian peninsula and sought to find themselves in Judaism, although still assailed by doubts.

Marrano writers of note are far too numerous to mention them all. Among the more important ones were such men as the apologists Immanuel *Aboab, Saul Levi *Morteira, Lorenzo *Escudero (Abraham Ger or Abraham Israel Peregrino), Isaac *Cardozo, Isaac Orobio de *Castro, and David *Nieto; poets like David Abenatar *Melo, Daniel Lopez *Laguna, Solomon Usque, João (Moses) Pinto *Delgado, and Daniel Levi (Miguel) de *Barrios; playwrights like Antonio Enriquez *Gomez and Antonio Jose da *Silva; and versatile writers like 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, like Benjamin *Disraeli, they attained the highest diplomatic, military, and administrative positions. Like their Jewish counterparts, they also made a name for themselves in the business and cultural world.

An authentic Marrano community was discovered by Samuel *Schwartz in Portugal in 1917; and from time to time there emerge individuals or even groups whose faith is not Jewish who have retained some of the practices and customs of the Marranos, at times even without awareness of their Jewish ancestry.


Roth, Marranos, 195–375; Roth, Italy; M.A. Cohen (translator), in: S. Usque, Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel (1965), 3ff.; idem, in: The Jewish Experience in Latin America (1971); idem, in: AJHSQ, 55 (1966), 277–318, 451–520; H. Kellenbenz, Sephardim an der unteren Elbe (1958); H.C. Lea, The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies (1908), esp. bibl.; H.J. Zimmels, Die Marranen in der rabbinischen Literatur (1932); Rosanes, Togarmah, 4–6 (1934–45 = Korot ha-Yehudim be-Arẓot ha-Kedem); S. Ullmann, Histoire des Juifs en Belgique, 2 vols. (1932–34); J.S. da Silva Rosa, Geschiedenis der portugeesche Joden te Amsterdam (1925); S. Assaf, in: Zion, 5 (1932); I.S. Revah, in: REJ, 118 (1959/60), 30–77; see also works by J.T. Medina in bibliography to *Inquisition.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.