Do not grieve over your departure, for you have to drink down your death in one gulp, whereas we have to stay behind among these wicked people, receiving death from them every day.


With the passage of time, the Inquisition that Ferdinand and Isabella set up a decade after the beginning of their reign came to play a significant part in national life, but at the beginning its horizons were limited and regional. The primary concern was with a tiny fragment of the population, the Christians of Jewish origin who lived in the southern corner of the peninsula. Many people in those years, among them officials of the royal court, wondered whether the creation of the new tribunal was much ado over nothing. The Jews of Spain, on the other hand, with their long experience of persecution by both Muslims and Christians, had every reason to be wary.

Jews had been in the peninsula from at least the third century, and in medieval Spain they constituted the single largest Jewish community in the world. “The kings and lords of Castile have had this advantage, that their Jewish subjects, reflecting the magnificence of their lords, have been the most learned, the most distinguished Jews that there have been in all the realms of the dispersion. They are distinguished in four ways: in lineage, in wealth, in virtues, in science.”1 Penned by a fifteenth-century Castilian rabbi, the claim was a frankly starry-eyed vision of the past. Even had it been true once, by the time he wrote it was barely more than a memory.

Compared to Christians and Muslims, the Jews were few in number. In the thirteenth century they very likely formed just under 2 percent of Spain’s population, maybe some one hundred thousand persons.2 Many preferred to live in towns that, by modern standards, were small. The Jewish presence created, at least in Christian minds, a stereotype of rich town dwellers. Most Jews, in fact, lived in the small villages that were typical of the medieval countryside. There they farmed, bred sheep, kept vineyards and orchards, and lived for the most part peacefully with their Christian neighbors. In the towns they often occupied professions which involved daily contact with Christians: as shopkeepers, grocers, dyers, weavers. Sometimes they made a profession their own: in Murcia in 1407 there were thirty Jewish tailors.3

This regular contact of coexistence was typical of the medieval period,4 and encouraged Jews to choose their own criteria for social success, even when it clashed with the preferences of their spiritual leaders.5 It enabled Christians, Jews and Muslims to understand and respect, but not necessarily love, each other. Spaniards of different faiths were able to pursue their daily tasks together. “In the commercial sphere, no visible barriers separated Jewish, Christian and Muslim merchants during the major period of Jewish life in Spain. Christian contractors built Jewish houses and Jewish craftsmen worked for Christian employers. Jewish advocates represented gentile clients in the secular courts. Jewish brokers acted as intermediaries between Christian and Muslim principals. As a by-product, such continuous daily contacts inevitably fostered tolerance and friendly relationships, despite the irritations kept alive in the name of religion.”6 Christians could accept Jewish physicians without prejudice. “I, Miguel de Pertusa,” runs a private contract in Aragon in 1406, “make this contract with you Isaac Abenforma son of don Salomon” to treat his son of a head wound; “and I promise that even if he dies I shall satisfy and pay you” the fee due.7

The communities lived, for the most part, separate existences. Jews had different food requirements and religious observances, and did not normally intermarry with Christians. The separateness was, in time, made firmer by sporadic persecution. The first great Christian persecution of Jews occurred in the seventh century, making the latter greet with relief the invasions by Muslims from North Africa. Under the subsequent Muslim caliphate of Córdoba, Jews prospered socially and economically. This came to an end in the twelfth century with the overthrow of the caliphate by the invading Almorávides, who persecuted Christian and Jew alike and destroyed their places of worship. Many Jews fled to Christian territory and under the tolerant eye of Christian rulers continued to prosper in their new surroundings. They were not, like Muslims, obviously at war against Christians, and were therefore looked on more favorably. Christian laws ordered that specific areas of the towns be set aside for Jewish and Muslim minorities, but in practice there was freedom to choose. In many medieval towns in Castile, Jewish shops and residences could be found even within Christian and Muslim neighborhoods.8

Social and religious rivalry helped to break down the security of the minorities. From the thirteenth century onwards, anti-Jewish legislation became common in Europe. The Fourth Lateran Council of the Church in 1215 recommended that religious minorities dress differently. The Church council at Arles (France) in 1235 ordered all Jews to wear a round yellow patch, four fingers in width, over their hearts as a mark of identification. The decrees were never enforced in the Spanish kingdoms, though successive Cortes continued to call for action—in 1371 at Toro and 1405 at Madrid. In most towns Jews began to be restricted to their own quarter (called an aljama when it was organized as a corporate body). Each aljama was a separate society within the towns, with its own officials and its own taxes. It was exempt from most municipal obligations except the duty to defend the town, and paid taxes only to the crown, under whose direct control it came. In practice, the crown had few resources with which to protect the aljamas against hostile municipalities.

In time the Jewish situation worsened throughout Europe. State and Church authorities began to take a more aggressive attitude towards their minorities. In 1290 England expelled the few Jews in its territory, and in 1306 the French crown followed suit, with further expulsions in other states during that century. In Spain the pattern of coexistence managed to hold out. Hostility continued, however, to come from different groups: from urban elites who owed money to the Jews, from the ordinary Christian population who lived beside the Jews but resented their separateness, and from some rural communities that considered the urban Jews as their exploiters.

In the mid-fourteenth century the civil wars in Castile gave rise to excesses against the Jewish community in some towns. Religious fanaticism, stirred up in southern Spain in the 1370s and 1380s by Ferrant Martínez, archdeacon of Ecija, lit the spark to this powder keg. In June 1391, during a hot summer made worse by economic distress, urban mobs rioted, directing their anger against the privileged classes and against the Jews.9 In Seville hundreds of Jews were murdered and the aljama was destroyed. Within days, in July and August, the fury spread across the peninsula. Those who were not murdered were compelled to accept baptism. In Córdoba, wrote a Hebrew poet, “there was not one, great or small, who did not apostatize.” In Valencia during the month of July, some 250 were murdered; in Barcelona during August, some 400. The major aljamas of Spain were wiped out. Royal authorities in both Castile and Aragon denounced the excesses and tried, in the major cities, to protect the Jews. A Jewish contemporary, Reuben ben Nissim, reported that in the crown of Aragon “many of the governors of the cities, and the ministers and nobles, defended us, and many of our brethren took refuge in castles, where they provided us with food.”10 In many places it was not the mob but the upper classes who were the perpetrators. The city of Valencia blamed “men both of the country and the town, knights and friars, nobles.”11 Many unprotected Jews were forced to become Christians. From this time the conversos came into existence on a grand scale.

Converso (or New Christian) was the term applied to one who had converted from Judaism or Islam. Their descendants were also referred to as conversos. Given the forced nature of the mass conversions of 1391, it was obvious that many could not have been genuine Christians. At least in the crown of Aragon, royal decrees made it plain that the forced conversions were unacceptable. Jews could, if they wished, return to their own religion.12 But circumstances had changed and in many places, such as Barcelona and Mallorca, the converted felt it safer to remain in their new religion. Their adherence to Christianity was, within this context, voluntary. It posed problems, as we shall see, both for their former coreligionists and for the Christians. The conversos were inevitably regarded with suspicion as a fifth column within the Church. Terms of opprobrium were applied to them, the most common being marrano, a word of obscure origin.13 Though no longer Jews in religion, they continued to suffer the rigors of anti-Semitism.

Even in the pluralist society of medieval Spain, Jews had always suffered discrimination. Like any other unprivileged minority they were excluded from jobs and professions exercising authority (for example, in town government or in the army), but served in a broad range of middling and lesser callings.14 They still managed to play a role in public life in two main areas: medicine and financial administration. They also on occasion occupied a significant cultural role as translators from Arabic, a tongue the Christians had difficulty in learning. If doctors were in short supply, Jews stepped in to meet the demand. Royal and aristocratic circles relied heavily on them as physicians. In the kingdom of Aragon “there was not a noble or prelate in the land who did not keep a Jewish physician,”15 and a similar situation existed in Castile. In many towns the only practicing doctors were Jews, who received correspondingly favorable treatment. In Madrid in the 1480s one of the Jewish doctors was exempted by the grateful town council from certain laws and taxes.16

Popular hostility to Jews was based in some measure on their financial activities.17 In specific times and places their role could be important. In the thirteenth century, under Jaime I of Aragon, some bailiffs of royal revenues in the major cities were Jews. Henry II of Castile told the Cortes of Burgos in 1367 that “we farmed out the collection of the revenue to Jews because we found no others to bid for it.”18 In 1369 a Jew, Joseph Picho, was “chief treasurer and manager of the revenues of the realm.” In 1469 the Cortes of Ocaña complained to Henry IV that “many prelates and other ecclesiastics farm to Jews and Moors the revenue and tithes that belong to them; and they enter churches to apportion the tithe among the contributors, to the great offense and injury of the Church.”19

The number of Jewish tax officials was, in proportion to Christians, always small. By the fifteenth century they served in the lower grades of the fiscal system, as tax gatherers rather than as treasurers. In the period 1440–69 only 15 percent (seventy-two persons) of tax-farmers serving the crown of Castile were Jews.20 But a few Jews also played a significant role at the apex of the financial structure. Under Ferdinand and Isabella, Abraham Seneor was treasurer of the Santa Hermandad, David Abulafia was in charge of supplies for the troops at Granada, and Isaac Abravanel administered the tax on sheep, the servicio y montazgo. The tax-farming company headed by the converso Luis de Alcalá, which included among its members Seneor, rabbi Mair Melamed, the Bien-veniste brothers and other Jews, played a prominent role in Castilian finance for some twenty years of this reign.21 Not surprisingly, a foreign traveler commented on Isabella that “her subjects say publicly that the queen is a protector of Jews.”

In size and numbers the aljamas shrank dramatically after the massacres of 1391, and indeed in some cities they no longer existed. In Barcelona, the medieval Jewish call (street) was abolished in 1424 because it was deemed unnecessary. In Toledo, the ancient aljama consisted by 1492 of possibly only forty houses. It appears that by the end of the fifteenth century Jews were no longer a significant middle class.22 They were not, on the whole, rich (their annual tax contribution to the Castilian royal treasury in 1480 represented only 0.33 percent of its ordinary revenue), and had negligible social status. Their great days were undeniably long past. Within the changed circumstances, however, Jewish life maintained its equilibrium. In some fortunate towns, such as Murviedro on the coast of Valencia, the resident Jews escaped violence and their numbers were indeed augmented by refugees from other areas, principally the capital city, Valencia.23

Living in a region where the Jews had preferred the protection of the big towns, the chronicler Andrés Bernáldez commented later that they were

merchants, salesmen, tax gatherers, retailers, stewards of nobility, officials, tailors, shoemakers, tanners, weavers, grocers, peddlers, silk mercers, smiths, jewelers, and other like trades: none broke the earth or became a farmer, carpenter or builder, but all sought after comfortable posts and ways of making profits without much labor. . . . They never wanted to take jobs in plowing or digging, nor would they go through the fields tending cattle, nor would they teach their children to do so: all their wish was a job in the town, and earning their living without much labor while sitting on their bottoms.24

This picture, sometimes used to set a contrast between rural Christians and urban money-lending Jews, was not entirely true. Jews certainly lived in towns, where they shared much the same professions as Christians. In fourteenth-century Saragossa they were traders, shopkeepers, artisans, jewelers, tailors, shoemakers.25 But there is ample evidence that from the fourteenth century the Jews had put less confidence in the cities and had moved out into the villages, where their relationship with Christians was normal and peaceful. By the late fifteenth century, contrary to what Bernáldez asserts, Jewish farmers and peasants could be found throughout Spain, but above all in the provinces of Castile. In Toledo, a considerable proportion of Jews seem to have worked their own lands, mainly growing wheat and producing olives and wine. In Máqueda (Toledo) there were 281 Jewish families to only 50 Christian.26 Even when they had lands and cattle, however, for practical reasons of religious observance and security the Jews tended to live together, usually in a town or village environment. In Buitrago (Guadalajara), members of the prosperous Jewish community (which in 1492 boasted six rabbis and even a town councilor) owned 165 fields of flax, 102 meadows, 18 market gardens, a large amount of pasture and a few water rights.27 In Hita, in the same region, they had two synagogues and nine rabbis; the major investment was in wine, with Jews owning 396 vineyards totaling no fewer than 66,400 vines.28 Even in the Andalucian countryside, from which Bernáldez came, there were Jewish farmers owning lands, vineyards and herds of cattle.29

In the crown of Aragon the Jews also engaged in agriculture, but on a much smaller scale. The lands they possessed were smallholdings rather than big fields. For reasons of security, they lived in and limited their activity to the towns.30 In some areas their holdings may have been more ambitious. In Sos in Upper Aragon, birthplace of King Ferdinand himself, Jews were “cultivators of vines, flax and cereals, and their business relations with Christians contributed to fraternal amity,” their main callings being as peasants or as moneylenders.31

There was considerable variety in the social position of Jews in the peninsula. In Avila, which was untouched by the fury of 1391, the Jews survived as perhaps the biggest aljama in Castile, constituting nearly half the city’s population of seven thousand.32 In Zamora, also untouched in 1391, the small Jewish population actually grew in size. On the eve of the expulsion the three hundred Jewish families represented one-fifth of the population.33 In general, it has been argued, “relations between Jews and Christians remained extremely cordial throughout the century” in many parts of Castile.34

The reduced number of Jews after 1391 did not necessarily imply a cultural decline. The communities preserved their identity, legislated for their people (a comprehensive law was drawn up by them in 1432 in Valladolid), enjoyed the protection of leading nobles as well as of the crown, and coexisted pacifically with Christians.35 In Aragon the crown itself, first with Alfonso V and then with Juan II, favored the recovery of the aljamas, which paid taxes directly to the royal treasury. In 1479 Ferdinand expressly confirmed the autonomy of the Jewish community in Saragossa.36 There were also many rich Jews, among them the financiers who enjoyed royal favor. Seneor in 1490 had a good fortune worth some 6 million maravedis (16,000 ducats), which included wheat fields, vineyards and a dozen houses in Segovia and Andalucia; Melamed had property worth over half that, including houses and lands in Segovia and Avila.37

Pressures and tensions were, inevitably, also present. In Castile a 1412 decree, inspired in part by the zealous Valencian saint, Vincent Ferrer (who shares some responsibility for the events of 1391), and the converso chancellor, Bishop Pablo de Santa María, deprived Jews of the right to hold office or possess titles, and prevented them changing their domicile. They were also excluded from various trades such as those of grocer, carpenter, tailor and butcher; they could not bear arms or hire Christians to work for them; they were not allowed to eat, drink, bathe or even talk with Christians; and they were forbidden to wear any but coarse clothes. In practice, extreme legislation of this type was unenforceable, and either ignored or revoked.

In Catalonia in 1413–14 Vincent Ferrer helped to organize a top-level debate between Christian and Jewish scholars, which Pope Benedict XIII ordered to be held in his presence at Tortosa. At this famous Disputation of Tortosa38 the chief star on the Christian side was the recently converted papal physician Joshua Halorqui, who now took the name Jerónimo de Santa Fe. The Disputation brought about more conversions, including members of the prominent Aragonese family de la Caballería and entire aljamas in Aragon.

Though the Disputation had threatened to extinguish the Jewish community in Aragon (some three thousand were baptized), it also had a favorable sequel. Vincent Ferrer took his campaign north to France in 1416. In Aragon a new king, Alfonso V, guided by the now Christian members of the Caballería family, reversed all the anti-Jewish legislation of the Ferrer epoch. From 1416 onwards the Aragonese crown protected the Jews and conversos firmly, rejecting all attacks on them.39 In Tortosa in 1438 the crown insisted, against the protests of the bishop, that Jewish and Muslim doctors could visit Christian patients if the latter wished.40 Restrictions on the movements and rights of Jews were lifted.

A policy of separating Jews from Christians had frequently been attempted. But the Castilian legislation of 1412, which required separation, was never enforced; and in Aragon the crown under King Alfonso refused to sanction ghettos. Subsequent local measures met the same fate. In Seville in 1437 Jews were ordered to live only in their quarter, but by 1450 they could be found in different parts of the city.41 Separation orders in Soria in 1412 and 1477 were never observed.42 From the 1460s Christian spokesmen in Castile—among them the general of the Jeronimite order, Alonso de Oropesa—returned to the theme, arguing that the conversos would be less tempted to maintain their Jewish links if Jews were clearly separated. In the 1480 Cortes at Toledo, the crown agreed to decree a general enforcement of separation in Castile. Jews were to remain in their ghettos, if necessary separated by a wall. This went the way of previous laws. In Soria in 1489 the richer Jews still had their houses outside the ghetto. In Orense the city authorities solemnly met in the synagogue in 1484 and ordered the Jewish community to “observe the laws of Toledo,” giving them three days in which to do so. In practice, on neither side were any steps made to observe the law. Four years later, in 1488, vain efforts were still being made in Orense to enforce separation.43 In the crown of Aragon at the same period some cities, such as Saragossa, attempted to enclose the Jews, but both Isabella and Ferdinand came out firmly against such measures.44 We should remember, in parentheses, that separation was sometimes in the interests of Jews themselves, to protect them from harassment and to save the public authorities from the cost of repressing community riots.

In the century after the 1391 riots, therefore, there is ambiguous evidence of pressure on Jews. In many areas their situation was difficult, but this was nothing new. Repressive legislation, though decreed, was regularly unenforced. In 1483 Ferdinand ordered Jews in Saragossa to wear distinguishing symbols (a red patch), but there is no evidence it was observed. Moreover, the crown actively favored Jews and former Jews. The reign was one in which the Jewish financiers Seneor and Abravanel flourished, and in which the Caballería family dominated politics in Saragossa.

The fall in numbers, all the same, left its mark. The mass conversions of 1391 depleted many communities. In the crown of Aragon, by 1492 there remained only one-fourth of the Jews of a century before.45 The rich aljamas of Barcelona, Valencia and Mallorca, the biggest cities in these realms, had disappeared altogether; in smaller towns they either disappeared or were reduced to tiny numbers. The famous community of Girona was, with only twenty-four taxpayers left, now a shadow of its former self.46 In the realms of Castile, there was a mixture of survival and attrition. Seville had around five hundred Jewish families prior to the riots; a half century later it had only fifty. By the time Isabella succeeded to the throne, Jews in Castile totaled fewer than eighty thousand.47 In 1492 the communities were scattered through some two hundred centers of population, but in some former centers, such as Cuenca, there was no Jewish presence at all.

From the beginning of their reign in 1474, Ferdinand and Isabella determined to maintain between Jews and Christians the same peace that they were trying to establish in the cities and among the nobility. The monarchs were never personally anti-Semitic. As early as 1468 Ferdinand had a Catalan Jew from Tárrega, David Abenasaya, as his physician, and both he and Isabella continued to have Jewish doctors and financiers as their closest collaborators. In both Aragon and Castile they followed the policy of their predecessors: taking the Jews under their direct personal control on the same terms as other Christian and Muslim communities which were in the royal jurisdiction. “All the Jews in my realms,” Isabella declared in 1477 when extending her protection to the community in Trujillo, “are mine and under my care and protection and it is my duty to defend and aid them and keep justice.” Likewise in 1479 she gave her protection to the fragile Jewish community in Cáceres.48 Given that Jews were constantly on the defensive against powerful municipal interests, the interventions of the crown in local politics present an impressive picture of the monarchy protecting its Jews. In 1475, for example, the city of Bilbao was ordered by the crown to revoke commercial restrictions it had placed on Jews in the town of Medina de Pomar; in 1480 the town of Olmedo was ordered to construct a gate in the wall of the judería to give Jews access to the town square.49 The monarchs intervened repeatedly against municipalities that tried to eliminate the commercial activity of the Jews.

Royal policy, however, had to contend with social tensions. In 1476 the Cortes of Madrigal, on the initiative not of the crown but of the towns, passed sumptuary laws against Jews and Mudéjares, enforcing the wearing of a distinctive symbol and restricting the practice of usury. Jews were inevitably unhappy (in Avila they refused to lend any money until the regulations on usury were clarified), but it was not until the legislation of the 1480 Cortes of Toledo, which tried to put into effect a policy of separation and restricted Jews to aljamas, that real hardships were suffered. There is no doubt that anti-Jewish groups in the municipalities were responsible for such measures. In Burgos in 1484 Jews were not allowed to sell food; in 1485 they were ordered to shut the aljama on all Christian feast days; in 1486 a limit was put on the number of Jews in the ghetto (the order was subsequently annulled by the crown).50 In Saragossa during the late fifteenth century there was an unmistakable rise in anti-Jewish pressure, fomented by the clergy. The penalties against Jews for not paying respect to the religious procession on the day of Corpus Christi increased threefold within the short period of ten years.51

The anti-Jewish measures of the period did not represent any qualitative worsening of the position of Jews. In fact, the totality of existing legislation in Castile, had it been put into practice, was already highly prejudicial to them.52 We need to look beyond the laws. Only then, in the realm of what really happened, is it possible to appreciate the extent to which community tolerance, administrative laxity and royal policy combined to guarantee the survival and viability of the minority faiths.

The position of Jews was undoubtedly affected by religious hostility to conversos, who as converts were entitled to the same civil privileges as Christians but who were repeatedly seen to be practicing their former faith. The monarchs became firmly convinced that a separation of Jews from Christians was the most effective answer to the situation, and in 1478 they set in motion a body whose entire concern was with judaizers: the Inquisition. Though the Inquisition had authority only over Christians, Jews quickly realized that they too were in the line of fire and all their worst travails date from those years.

The existence of the Inquisition—whose activities will concern us presently—forced Jews to revise their attitude to conversos. When the great conversions took place at the end of the fourteenth century, Jews may have felt that the neophytes were still their brethren. A century later, the perspective was somewhat different. Jewish dignitaries, scholars and leaders had, not always under active persecution, voluntarily embraced the Catholic faith. The poet Selomoh Bonafed, writing in the wake of the Disputation of Tortosa, lamented how “many of the most respected leaders of our aljamas abandoned them.”53 Some converts, especially those who entered the clergy, became bitter persecutors of the Jews. The Jews of Burgos in 1392 complained that “the Jews who recently turned Christian oppress them and do them much harm.”54 A visible gap opened up in some communities between Jews and ex-Jews. In the early fifteenth century rabbis were still expressing the view that most of the conversos were unwilling converts (anusim). By mid-century they took the view that most were meshumadim (renegades), real and voluntary Christians. Normal, friendly social relations between conversos and Jews could still be found at all levels.55 But there were also ominous signs of tension.56

When the Inquisition began its operations many Jews found no difficulty in cooperating with it against the conversos. They themselves were, as non-Christians, exempt from its jurisdiction. By contrast, they could now pay off old scores. In small communities, the coexistence of Jews and conversos concealed long-standing tensions, even among those with close and apparently friendly family ties. In the town of Calatayud (Aragon) in 1488 one of the Jews, Acach de Funes, was scorned by both Jews and Christians as a liar and a cheat. He lived up to his reputation by bearing false witness before the Inquisition against several conversos of the town, who, he claimed, were practicing Jews.57 In Aranda in the 1480s a Jewish resident went around “looking for Jewish witnesses to testify before the Inquisition” against a local converso. The same Jew admitted confidentially to a Christian friend that “it was all false” and that he was doing it out of personal enmity.58

False witness by Jews in Toledo was reported by Hernando de Pulgar. They were, wrote the royal secretary, “poor and vile men who from enmity or malice gave false testimony against some conversos saying that they judaized. Knowing the truth, the queen ordered them arrested and tortured.”59 In Soria in 1490 a Jewish doctor testified freely against several conversos. He said that one converso, a legal official, had called Torquemada “the most accursed man in the world.” “It really grieves me,” the doctor told the inquisitors contritely, “to say these things against him, but everything I have said has been the unvarnished truth.”60 In the town of Uclés in 1491, a dozen Jews spoke freely to the inquisitor about conversos they knew to have observed Jewish customs.61 The Inquisition itself, according to Rabbi Capsali, demanded that the synagogues should impose an obligation on Jews to denounce conversos.62 It seems, in any case, that Jews frequently told the inquisitors what they knew about the religious practices of their converso neighbors.63

Cooperation with the Inquisition was not a tactic that brought any benefits. From the 1460s, as we have seen, some Church leaders had begun to advocate the separation of Jews from Christians. This policy, as adopted by the Inquisition, took the form of a partial expulsion of Jews, in order to minimize the contact with conversos. At the end of 1482, a partial expulsion of the Jews of Andalucia was ordered.64 The exiles were free to go to other provinces of Spain. In January 1483 Jews were ordered to be expelled from the dioceses of Seville, Córdoba and Cadiz. The crown delayed implementation and they were not actually driven out from Seville until summer 1484. It is possible that the expulsions were in part motivated by fear of Jewish collaboration with the Muslim kingdom of Granada, then under attack by Ferdinand’s forces; but the role of the Inquisition was paramount. In the event, the expulsions of these years were never fully carried out. A few years later, Jews were living without any problems in Cadiz and Córdoba.65 In 1486 in Aragon the Inquisition issued an order expelling Jews from the dioceses of Saragossa, Albarracín and Teruel. The order was postponed, and later cancelled; no expulsions took place.66 Meanwhile some towns carried out their own unauthorized expulsions, ignoring the protests of the crown.67

Though Ferdinand and Isabella intervened repeatedly to protect their Jews from excesses (as late as 1490 they began an enquiry into Medina del Campo’s ban on Jews setting up shops in the main square), the monarchs appear to have been thoroughly convinced by Inquisitor General Torquemada of the need for a separation of Jews. When the local expulsions had failed, after ten long years, to stem the alleged heresies of the conversos, the crown decided on the most drastic measure of all—a total expulsion of Jews.

Jews expelled by other countries in medieval times had been tiny minorities.68 In Spain, by contrast, they had for centuries been a significant, prosperous and integral part of society. Their fate was now in the balance in a country where there was growing pressure against the other cultural minority, the Muslims. Since 1480 the whole economy of the state was geared to the war against Granada. There was also less tolerance of Islam. In 1490 the Muslims of Guadalajara were accused of converting a Jewish boy to Islam. Though they claimed in defense that such conversions “had been the custom in these realms,” the royal council ruled that “hereafter no Jew may turn Moor”; nor indeed could Moors turn Jew.69 It had, of course, long been illegal (since at least 1255) for Christians to turn Jew or Muslim. When during the Granada war groups of ex-Christians were captured after the fall of Málaga, they were immediately put to death.70 By contrast, after the fall of Granada several ex-Christians there who had turned Muslim were accepted back into the Church.71

Ferdinand and Isabella hesitated for some time over the idea of expulsion. The crown stood to lose revenue from the disappearance of a community whose taxes were paid directly to the crown, and which moreover had helped to finance the war in Granada. Many people in Spain may have been anxious to get rid of the Jews for social and economic reasons: the Old Christian elites and several municipalities saw in them a source of conflict and competition.72 The decision to expel, however, was the crown’s alone, and it appears to have been taken exclusively for religious reasons. There are no grounds for maintaining that the government stood to profit, and Ferdinand himself admitted that the measure hurt his finances.73 The king and queen were undoubtedly encouraged in their policy by the fall of Granada in January 1492, which seemed a signal of divine favor. On 31 March, while they were in the city, they issued the edict of expulsion, giving the Jews of both Castile and Aragon until 31 July to accept baptism or leave the country.

The decree gave as its main justification “the great harm suffered by Christians [i.e., conversos] from the contact, intercourse and communication which they have with the Jews, who always attempt in various ways to seduce faithful Christians from our Holy Catholic Faith.” “Over twelve years” of Inquisition had failed to solve the problem, nor had the recent expulsions from Andalucia been sufficient. It was now decided that “the only solution to all these ills is to separate the said Jews completely from contact with Christians, and expel them from all our realms.”74

When the news broke, a deputation of Jews led by Isaac Abravanel went to see the king. Their pleas failed, and at a second meeting they offered the king a large sum of money if he would reconsider his decision. There is a story that when Torquemada heard of the offer he burst into the monarchs’ presence and threw thirty pieces of silver on the table, demanding to know for what price Christ was to be sold again to the Jews. At a third meeting which Abravanel, Seneor and the Jewish leaders had with the king, it became clear that Ferdinand was determined to go ahead. In despair they turned to the queen. She, however, explained that the decision, which she firmly supported, came from Ferdinand: “the Lord has put this thing into the heart of the king.”75

The proposal to expel came in fact from the Inquisition. There can be no doubt about this because the king said so clearly in the text of the edict issued in Aragon, a ferocious document that was obviously drawn up by the inquisitors and reeks of a virulent anti-Semitism not present in the Castilian text.76 There was more than a grain of truth in the story of Torquemada and the pieces of silver. The general expulsion was an extension of the regional expulsions that the Inquisition had been carrying out, with Ferdinand’s support, since 1481. The king also confirmed the key role of the Inquisition in a letter that he sent to the principal nobles of the realm. The copy sent to the count of Aranda on the same day as the edict explained the circumstances concisely:

The Holy Office of the Inquisition, seeing how some Christians are endangered by contact and communication with the Jews, has provided that the Jews be expelled from all our realms and territories, and has persuaded us to give our support and agreement to this, which we now do, because of our debts and obligations to the said Holy Office: and we do so despite the great harm to ourselves, seeking and preferring the salvation of souls above our own profit and that of individuals.77

Similar confirmation of the Inquisition’s role was made by the king in other letters sent the same day. The inquisitors of Saragossa, for example, were informed that the prior of Santa Cruz (that is, Torquemada) had been consulted and that “it has been decided by me and by him that the Jews be expelled.”78

Though most Jews in Spain were under royal jurisdiction, a few were not. The local expulsions in Andalucia in the 1480s, for example, had not been applicable to Jews living on the territories of the duke of Medinaceli. In 1492, therefore, the crown had to explain to the nobles, such as the Catalan duke of Cardona who had assumed that “his” Jews were not affected, that the edict was universal. However, nobles were granted the property of their expelled Jews as compensation. In Salamanca the royal officials were ordered not to touch the effects of Jews who lived on the estates of the duke of Alba.79

It is possible that the monarchs thought mass conversions would be more likely than mass emigration. In that sense, the 1492 edict may not have intended expulsion. The rabbi of Córdoba was baptized in May, with Cardinal Mendoza and the papal nuncio as sponsors. In June the eighty-year-old Abraham Seneor, chief judge of the Jewish aljamas of Castile80 and principal treasurer of the crown, was baptized in Guadalupe with the king and queen as his sponsors. Seneor, a prototype “court Jew,” was a striking example of the way in which some Jews rendered faithful service to the crown and in the process managed to protect their community. He and his family adopted the surname Pérez Coronel; a week later he was nominated city councilor (regidor) of his hometown of Segovia and member of the royal council. His colleague Abravanel took over as spokesman for the Jews and began to negotiate terms for the emigration.

The edict may have come as a shock to communities where Jews lived tranquilly. In some Christian areas, however, public opinion was well prepared for it. Stories of Jewish atrocities had been circulating for years. One concerned an alleged ritual murder performed on a Christian child at Sepúlveda (Segovia) in 1468. The converso bishop of Segovia, Juan Arias Dávila, is reported to have punished sixteen Jews for the crime. The most famous of all the cases concerned the alleged ritual murder of a Christian infant at La Guardia in the province of Toledo in 1491. Six conversos and as many Jews were said to have been implicated in the crime, in which a Christian child was apparently crucified and had its heart cut out in an attempt to create a magical spell to destroy Christians. Such, at least, was the story pieced together from confessions extracted under torture, the culprits being executed publicly at Avila in November 1491.81 The affair received wide publicity: we find a printed account of it circulating in Barcelona shortly after. The timing was ominous, and there can be little doubt that it helped prepare many to accept the expulsion of the Jews. Atrocity stories of this sort, common in Europe both before and since—in England there were the cases of William of Norwich in 1144 and Hugh of Lincoln in 1255—served to feed popular anti-Semitism.

Spanish Jews could not have been unaware of the expulsions recently put into effect in neighboring states. In Provence, soon to be part of France, an anti-Jewish movement was growing and led soon to expulsions; in the Italian duchies of Parma and Milan Jews were expelled in 1488 and 1490.82 Farther away, in Poland, Jews were expelled from Warsaw in 1483, and partially from Cracow two years later.83 There was therefore nothing exceptional about the case of Spain. In any case, the Spanish decree was not strictly one of expulsion, for (as we have seen) in practice the authorities throughout Spain offered Jews a firm choice between conversion and emigration. Some Jewish communities actually received official invitations, which survive in manuscript, that “those who become Christians will be given aid and be well treated.”84 The edict did not seek to expel a people, but to eliminate a religion.85 This was demonstrated by the efforts of clergy in those weeks to convert the Jews, and by the satisfaction with which converts were accepted into the Church. It is interesting to observe that the king stated expressly to Torquemada two months after issuing the edict: “many wish to become Christians, but are afraid to do so because of the Inquisition.” Accordingly, the king continued, “you will write to the inquisitors, ordering them that even if something is proved against those persons who become Christians after the decree of expulsion, no steps be taken against them, at least for small matters.”86

The expulsion was a traumatic experience that left its mark for centuries on the Western mind. In that decade there were already prophetic voices which seemed to implicate the fate of the Jews in some greater destiny.87 Among some conversos, and presumably some Jews as well, there emerged a dream of leaving Sepharad (the Hebrew name for Spain) for the Promised Land and Jerusalem.88 Among the Christians, the fall of Granada seemed to be (as it became) the omen for the conversion of the Jews. Was Ferdinand—always a firm believer in his own destiny—influenced by these voices? Was he influenced by the strong Catalan mystical tradition that identified the defeat of Islam in Spain with the destruction of the Jews?89

In giving the event its due importance, however, historians then and later exaggerated many of its aspects. They measured its significance in terms of immense numbers. The Jesuit Juan de Mariana, writing over a century later, stated that “the number of Jews who left Castile and Aragon is unknown; most authors say they were up to 170,000 families, but some even say they were as many as 800,000 souls: certainly a great number.”90 Jews who took part in the emigration had no doubt of the dimensions of the tragedy. Isaac Abravanel wrote that “there left 300,000 people on foot from all the provinces of the king.”91 For Jewish commentators, inflating the figures was a way of expressing solidarity with the victims.

In fact, few reliable statistics exist for the expulsion. Those given in standard histories are based on pure speculation. Our first care must be to estimate the possible Jewish population of Spain in 1492. A judicious analysis based on the tax returns of the communities in Castile gives us a fairly reliable total of around seventy thousand Jews in the crown of Castile at this date.92 This accords with the estimate of under eighty thousand already mentioned above. The great days of a large and prosperous community were truly past. The situation was worse in the crown of Aragon, where Jews were reduced to one-fourth of their numbers as a result of the fateful year 1391.93 In these realms, they numbered by the late fifteenth century some nine thousand.94 In the whole of the kingdom of Valencia the Jews numbered probably only one thousand, most of them in the town of Murviedro.95 In Navarre, there were some 250 families of Jews. In total, then, the Jews of Spain on the eve of the expulsion in 1492 numbered just over eighty thousand souls, a far cry from the totals offered by their own leaders or by most subsequent scholars.

The sufferings of those forced into exile for the sake of religion are vividly detailed by Bernáldez, in a picture that has become all too familiar since the fifteenth century.96 The richer Jews out of charity helped to pay the costs of the poorer exiles, while the very poor managed to help themselves in no other way but by accepting baptism. Many were unable to sell their possessions for gold or silver, for the export of these metals from Castile was forbidden; so they sold houses and property for the most desperate substitutes. “They went round asking for buyers and found none to buy, some sold a house for an ass, and a vineyard for a little cloth or linen, since they could not take away gold or silver,” Bernáldez reported. The ships that met them at the ports were overcrowded and ill managed. Once they had put out to sea, storms drove them back, forcing hundreds to reconcile themselves to Spain and baptism. Others, not more fortunate, reached their desired haven in North Africa only to be pillaged and murdered. Hundreds of others staggered back to Spain by every available route, preferring familiar sufferings to those of the open sea and road. One of the exiles wrote:

Some traveled through the ocean but God’s hand was against them, and many were seized and sold as slaves, while many others drowned in the sea. Others were burned alive as the ships on which they were sailing were engulfed by flames. In the end, all suffered: some by the sword and some by captivity and some by disease, until but a few remained of the many.97

Without minimizing the transcendence of the expulsion decree, it must be emphasized that only a proportion of the Jews of Spain were affected by it. There were several reasons for this. Aware that a choice of conversion was offered, a great many took the option. It was one that their people had endured through the ages, and there seemed little reason not to accept it now. Chroniclers then and later lamented the rapidity with which their people went to be baptized. “Many remained in Spain who had not the strength to emigrate and whose hearts were not filled with God,” reported one Jewish contemporary. “In those terrible days,” reported another, “thousands and tens of thousands of Jews converted.”98 The evidence suggests that possibly half of all the Jews of Spain preferred conversion to expulsion. Their motives were comprehensible. The majority in Aragon and possibly in Castile as well entered the Christian fold.99 A potent motive was the fear of losing homes and livelihood. A converso woman resident in Almazán some years later observed that “those who remained behind did so in order not to lose their property.”100

Many others went into exile. Possibly a third of the nine thousand Jews of the crown of Aragon emigrated.101 They went in their entirety to adjacent Christian lands, mainly to Italy. The exiles from Castile went mostly to neighboring lands where their faith was tolerated, such as Navarre and Portugal. For many the journey to Portugal ended in 1497, when all Jews there were ordered to become Christian as a condition of the marriage between King Manoel and Isabel, daughter of the Catholic monarchs. Several exiles, particularly from Andalucia, crossed over to North Africa. Others did so years later, after the Portuguese conversions of 1497. Navarre shut a door when it required its Jews to convert in 1498. Shem Tov ben Jamil, a refugee from Navarre who finally found shelter in Fez, at the end of his life looked back on the terrible events he had experienced. His account began with the words: “I have decided, with a broken heart, to write about” what transpired during the exile.102

We should not limit our gaze only to the peninsula, for Ferdinand was also directly king of Sicily, where the edict of expulsion was published on 18 June.103 The viceroy of Sicily issued an order a month afterwards encouraging conversion and ordered it read in synagogues; at the same time he promised that converts would be well treated. The measure was not received favorably by all Christians: some of the nobility protested against the expulsion, and in Palermo so did the city councilors.104 Conversions were slow to take place, so that the definitive enforcement of the order kept being put back repeatedly and was finalized only the following January. Those who decided to go into exile did not have to go far; some went to North Africa but most went to the neighboring kingdom of Naples, where the edict of expulsion was not in force, and from Naples many eventually returned a while later, fleeing in particular from the wars in that realm. There are no reliable figures for the number of Sicilian Jews who went into exile. The Italian peninsula, in any case, was a mosaic of states and jurisdictions that sometimes persecuted Jews and sometimes tolerated them. Sephardic Jews were well received, for example, in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, where the dukes issued special permissions and thereby enabled the port of Livorno to develop subsequently into the second biggest center of western Jewry after Amsterdam.105

Despite a persistent but misinformed tradition to that effect, no Jews are known to have gone to Turkey until very much later.106 They had no ships to transport them, and no reliable documents attest their presence there. It was probably over half a century before the first refugees reached the Middle East, for they went initially to other lands that were easier to reach and where their religion was tolerated, such as Portugal and Naples. Christian travelers around the year 1550 reported meeting peninsular Jews in Egypt, in Palestine and even farther east, in Goa in India, but there is nothing to identify them with the exiles of 1492. Asia had its own Jews, of remote and undocumented origin.

All these emigrations shared one thing in common: suffering. A Genoese diplomat, seeing the refugees who arrived in the port there, commented that “no one could witness the sufferings of the Jews without being moved. . . . They could have been mistaken for wraiths, so haggard and emaciated did they look, undistinguishable from dead men.”107 Wherever they went the refugees were exploited or mistreated. Inevitably, many attempted to return. In their exile in Africa, reported a rabbi from Málaga, “many could not take it any more and returned to Castile. Likewise this occurred to those who came to Portugal and the kingdom of Fez. And it was the same wherever one went.”108 Between those who converted and those who returned, the total of those who left Spain forever was relatively small, possibly no more than forty thousand. The figures place many of the historical issues in a clearer perspective.

Many writers have assumed that the expulsion was motivated by greed and a wish to rob the Jews. There is little evidence of this, and it is highly improbable. The crown did not profit and had no intention of profiting. No one knew better than the king that Spain’s Jews were a dwindling minority with few resources. By Ferdinand’s own admission, he stood to lose some tax revenue; but the sum realized by the authorities from the sale of goods was negligible. Though Jewish communal property (mainly the synagogues and cemeteries) was seized by the crown,109 it was in most cases handed over to local communities. The exiles were given the right to take permitted wealth with them. Aragonese Jews, for example, were “expressly permitted to take all their possessions, including gold, silver, animals and clothing, and were guaranteed that their property could not be appropriated for debt.”110 Embarkation lists for the ports of Málaga and Almería, in Andalucia, show that many took substantial sums out of the country.111 Several fortunate individuals were allowed to take most of their goods and jewels. One such was Isaac Perdoniel, granted the favor at the direct request of the last Muslim king of Granada, Boabdil.112 Abravanel and his family were also given a special privilege to take their personal wealth with them. Others bribed officials to let them take treasure. In 1494 an official of Ciudad Real was prosecuted by the government for levying extortionate charges on Jews crossing to Portugal, and for “allowing through many persons and Jews from these realms [i.e., Castile] who were taking gold and silver and other forbidden items.”113 Many individuals and corporations that had owed money to the Jews clearly benefited from the expulsion, but this was an incidental consequence of a measure that was primarily religious in motivation.

The effects on Spain were, beyond all doubt, smaller than is often claimed in popular literature. The sultan of Turkey is reported to have said at a later date that he “marveled greatly at expelling the Jews from Spain, since this was to expel its wealth.” The statement is completely apocryphal, and comes from a later, uncorroborated Jewish source.114 The Jews had played only a small part in the country’s economy, and their loss had a similarly small impact.115 In any case, in practice Jews had been allowed to transfer many assets to those who converted. In the village of Buitrago116 there had been around one hundred Jewish families before the expulsion; only a few chose to leave, and there were seventy “converso” families there shortly after, so that the real transfer of property was probably minimal. Those exiles who returned, such as Samuel Abolafia of Toledo,117 were immediately given back their property. In Ciudad Real an official was obliged to give back to Fernán Pérez, “formerly named Jacob de Medina,” “some houses that he sold to him at below their fair price, at the time that the Jews had to leave the kingdom.”118 In Madrid in 1494 several expelled Jewish doctors who returned (as Christians) were welcomed back with open arms by the town council, which commented that “the more doctors there are, the better for the town, for all of them are good doctors.”119

No less mistaken is the claim that the crown’s purpose was to achieve unity of faith.120 The king and queen were neither personally nor in their politics anti-Jewish. They had always protected and favored Jews and conversos. They might be accused of many things, but not of anti-Semitism.121 Nor were they anti-Muslim. Ferdinand and Isabella made no move, until several years later, to disturb the faith of the enormous Muslim population of Spain, which in political terms was a far graver danger than the tiny Jewish minority.

Although the terms of the edict issued in Aragon were unmistakably anti-Semitic, the warm welcome given to returnees confirms that the expulsion was not motivated simply by racialism.122 Jews who returned as Christians were welcomed, and the proportion of those who returned was high. They were, the evidence suggests, given back their jobs, property and houses. Those who had converted were protected against popular anti-Semitism. In 1493 the monarchs ordered people in the dioceses of Cuenca and Osma not to call baptized Jews tornadizos (turncoats).123 The new converts and the old conversos continued to function in the trades and professions in which the Jews had distinguished themselves. The purely economic impact of the expulsion was thereby softened.

The diaspora (which was extended when the Jews in Naples, who by now included many émigrés from Spain, were ordered to convert or leave that territory in 1508) continued to be seen by some Jews in wholly somber hues.124 Among them, Rabbi Elijah Capsali of Crete, a contemporary of these events, described how the Christians made the Jews suffer, “killing them by the sword, by starvation and by plague, selling them into captivity and forcing them to convert.”125 Because of that suffering, the events of 1492 came much later to be seen by some as a reference point, a pre-figuring of the Holocaust of the twentieth century.

Not all who left, however, were interested in conserving the role of being victims. Though thrown into strange lands, they often turned defeat into success. As Rabbi Capsali prophesied, “the exile which appears so terrible to the eye will be the cause of the growth of our salvation.” The end of Iberian Jewry represented the closing of one chapter in history, but it also ushered in an age of activity for the Jews in Western Europe, as those from Spain went to other parts of the continent and contributed to their host societies with their knowledge and skills. Venice was the city where the great figure among the first exiles, Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508), settled and wrote (in Hebrew) his chief philosophical works. Abravanel’s family came originally from Spain, but he was born in and spent half his adult life in Portugal, moving in 1483 to Castile, where he became one of the chief financiers of Ferdinand and Isabella. “I served them for eight years,” he testified later. “I also acquired great wealth and honor.” But as a result he found little time for what chiefly concerned him, reflecting on the scriptures. “In order to work for a non-Jewish king, I abandoned my inheritance.” When the expulsion was decreed he refused to convert (unlike his distinguished colleague, eighty-year-old Abraham Seneor), and left with all his family for Naples. In recognition of his outstanding services to the crown the king allowed him to emigrate with his gold and valuables, but his remembrance years later was only of “the bitter and hasty exile and forced conversions when we were exiled from Spain.”126 After some uneasy years in Naples, he moved to Sicily and Corfu, then to the Adriatic coast, settling finally at Venice in 1503.

During these last years he devoted himself to messianic reflections (in a trilogy written from 1496 onwards) on the historic vocation of the persecuted Jews, asserting forcefully that his people still had a God-given destiny. Even those who had “betrayed our religion” by embracing Christianity and attaining wealth and honor among the nations would not be able to escape the same destiny, “for God will separate them and keep them distinct and apart.”127 His published writings, infused by a profound rejection of the violence of his time, looked forward to an eventual liberation and may have helped to nurture the messianic tendencies that had already been present among Jews before 1492 but became more pronounced among the leaders of the Sephardic dispersion.128 He felt that the Jews’ current wanderings among “the wilderness of the peoples” would shortly come to an end with the arrival of the Messiah.129

Contemporaries in Europe who heard of the expulsions reacted according to the information they received. Leaders of Church and state congratulated the Spanish king on his action. The movement of refugees from the peninsula was associated by Italians with a new sexual disease (syphilis), which was identified during those months in Italy and dubbed by some “the Jewish disease.”130 Maybe in part as a consequence of the expulsions in the Mediterranean, there grew up among Europeans the legend of a Wandering Jew who had to atone for his offenses to Christ by being condemned to wander the world until the Second Coming.131 The legend had little impact in Spain, where the removal of the Jews was decisive.132

Perhaps the most surprising reaction of all and one too often forgotten when we consider what happened in those years is that many Christians in Spain both then and later thought the expulsion to be wrong. Rabbi Capsali reported that after Ferdinand’s death several Spanish officials criticized the king for banishing the Jews.133 His information is supported by that of Ferdinand’s subsequent biographer, the sixteenth-century Aragonese inquisitor and chronicler Jerónimo de Zurita, who tells us that “many were of the opinion that the king was making a mistake.”134 The first historian of the Inquisition, the inquisitor Luis de Páramo, writing a century after the expulsion, was also firm on this point. “I cannot omit to mention,” he stated, “that there were learned men who did not feel that the edict was justified.”135 He adds that there were those who felt that the expulsion was in effect an invitation to kill Jews, which was contrary to Holy Scripture’s requirement that Jews not be killed but rather converted.

In retrospect, there is every reason to criticize the curiously ambivalent policy of the crown after 1492. The practice of Judaism was forbidden in Spain, its adjacent kingdoms (such as Navarre and Sicily) and its colonies. But historians usually forget to mention that it was permitted in every other territory ruled by the Spanish crown in the early years of the sixteenth century. Jews flourished in Spanish Naples for another quarter of a century. Not until a century after 1492 was Judaism prohibited in Milan (under Spanish control from the mid-sixteenth century). Not until nearly two centuries later was it prohibited in Spanish Oran, in North Africa.136 This tacit acceptance meant that the Jewish religion continued to have some role in the consciousness of Spaniards who traveled through the empire, long after it had officially ceased to exist in Spain. We can rule out, however, the fanciful idea that Jews made it to the New World. In time, those who were converts to Christianity certainly went to America, but there they faced problems with the new Inquisition.137

What Spain lost was neither wealth, for the Jews had not been rich, nor population, for few left. Some later commentators, writing at a time of economic difficulty, imagined that loss of wealth was the main consequence of 1492, and down to the nineteenth century their writings reflect this quaint obsession. But Spaniards who reflected on such things felt that the real loss was the failure of the rulers to protect their own people. The crown turned its back on the plural society of the past, cut off an entire community that had been a historic part of the nation, and intensified the converso problem without solving it. The Jews had finally been driven into the Christian fold. “In this way,” wrote the curate of Los Palacios, Andrés Bernáldez, “was fulfilled the prophecy of David in the psalm Eripe me, which says: Convertentur ad vesperam, et famen patientur, ut canes; et circuibunt civitatem. Which is to say: ‘They shall return at evening, and shall suffer hunger like dogs, and shall prowl round the city.’ Thus these were converted at a late hour and by force and after great suffering.”138

In the end, however, it was a mitigated loss. The expulsion did not destroy the profound links between the Jewish people and Spain. They had lived together for centuries and in reality would continue to do so, since tens of thousands converted and stayed on. Those who left took Spain with them. They took with them some of the cultural heritage of language, music, food and clothing, but above all it was the culture of their faith that endured. The principal language they had spoken was Castilian, which consequently became an important element in books they published outside Spain, as well as in everyday social discourse. Exiles and their descendants continued to speak Castilian in many communities in Italy and the Middle East. A Spanish traveler in Salonika in 1600 reported that Jews he met there spoke a language as fine as that spoken in Toledo.

At the same time the rabbis who ministered to the exiles tried to close the gates on the past by consigning Sepharad to oblivion. The country was treated by them officially as accursed, “a land of idolatry,” and Jews were discouraged from going back to it. Despite the prohibitions, many continued to feel a profound kinship with the land that had rejected them, and held it their chief pride to have come from Spain. Deprivation compelled them to redefine their attitude to their origins. It was not merely a question of looking backwards. In a sense, the land they had lost was also the promised land of the future. In a telling phrase, some of the chronicles refer to “Jerusalem which is in Sepharad,” meaning that Jerusalem was the real home and Spain simply a manifestation of that home. Spain, or at least an imagined Spain, continued to be a focus of attention. At the same time that their rabbis forbade them to go back, therefore, many Jews made an effort to do so (see chapter 14 below), thereby placing themselves at risk from the attention of the Inquisition.

As in other European countries, they managed to return. During the nineteenth century a few Jews visited Spain and lived there without problems, despite being officially prohibited. The Cortes in 1855 sanctioned their presence by voting that no Spaniard or foreigner be harassed for religious beliefs. This affected only private belief. In 1868 the government of General Prim went a step further, abrogating the 1492 expulsion decree and allowing the return of Jews (as well as of Protestants). The ban on the public exercise of other religions was eventually removed by article 21 of the Constitution of 1869, which established religious freedom for the first time.

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