The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, by B. Netanyahu
In 1391, the prosperous, confident, acculturated Jewish community in Christian Spain was rocked by a series of pogroms; thus was inaugurated a century of travails that culminated in the expulsion of 1492. Intense missionary efforts on the part of Christian authorities—including a seemingly endless public disputation between representatives of the two faiths in 1413-14 at Tortosa—combined with episodes of violence to produce a situation unprecedented in Jewish history: an officially tolerated community living side by side with a large community of newly baptized Jews.
It is hardly surprising that “Old Christians” did not embrace these conversos—or Marranos, or “New Christians”—with unambivalent fervor. Mass conversion poses a psychological dilemma quite different from the conversion of individuals; the majority’s attitude toward an entire group cannot be expected to undergo a radical transformation virtually overnight. Although significant segments of Spanish society did welcome the newcomers, in many circles hostility to Jews in general was extended to the New Christians, and by the middle of the 15th century, massive anti-converso rioting began to erupt. For several decades, it was safer to be an overt Jew in Spain than a recent convert to Christianity. Finally, in the last quarter of the century, the accusation that the conversos were still practicing Judaism in secret served as the basis for establishing a formal Inquisition, designed to ferret out “judaizers.”
About the Author
David Berger is Broeklundian professor of history at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.