Keep yourself from the flames! The reverend fathers are coming!


The expulsions of 1492 solved no problems, and only aggravated an old one. Those who converted and stayed were able to retain their property, but could hardly expect to be favorably accepted in communities where anti-Semitism had been stirred up. Emigrants were allowed to transfer their property to New Christians, so that assets often continued to remain in the same family. In post-1492 Christian society, the new conversos occupied exactly the same social position as the Jews. As before the expulsion, they continued to work as traders, tax gatherers, moneylenders, farmers, tailors and cobblers. The populace found it easy enough to identify them with the old Jews, both socially and religiously. The process was helped by the conservative habits of the conversos, the survival of Jewish practices and the difficulty many converts found in adapting themselves to Christian usage (particularly in diet). They had to merge into an already existing converso society with which they did not necessarily have much in common.

Who were the conversos?1 At the upper social level, they played a significant role in some towns of Castile and the crown of Aragon.2 By changing their religion after 1391, successful Jewish families became qualified to hold public office in the towns, with a consequent growth of rivalry between newcomers and the older oligarchies. In some areas of Castile, such as Burgos (where ex-Jewish families such as the Cartagenas and Maluendas were prominent) and Toledo, conversos were influential on the city council. In others they used their tenure of public office to band together, contributing to the bitter and sometimes bloody clan rivalry that characterized Castilian political life in the late fifteenth century. The converso historian Diego de Valera reports that in Córdoba on thecity council “there was great enmity and rivalry, since the New Christians were very rich and kept buying public offices, which they made use of so arrogantly that the Old Christians would not put up with it.” In Segovia, according to the chronicler Alonso de Palencia, the conversos “shamelessly took over all the public posts and discharged them with extreme contempt of the nobility and with grave harm to the state.”3 In the city of Palencia in 1465 “there were great factions of Old Christians and of conversos,” with the principal families of the city supporting the conversos.4 The political role of conversos was evidently limited only to a handful of towns where Jews had been numerous, but in those few it could be significant. In Cuenca, converso families in the late fifteenth century occupied 85 percent of the posts on the city council.5 In Guadalajara the powerful patronage of the duke of Infantado gave them a similar advantage.

Conversions became significant from the end of the fourteenth century and were substantial during the fifteenth. Converts from the Jewish and Islamic elites had the advantage of being accepted on equal terms into the Christian elite. In particular, the laws recognized no blood obstacle to Jews or Muslims being considered noble. A decree of Juan II of Castile in 1415, addressed to his converso treasurer, states: “Whereas I have been informed that members of your family were, when Jews, considered to be noble, it is right that you should be held in even more honor now that you are Christians. Therefore it is my decision that you be treated as nobles.”6 Among the earlier converts at this period was Salomon Halevi, rabbi of Burgos, who was converted along with his brothers in 1390, adopted the name Pablo de Santa María, took holy orders and eventually became bishop of Cartagena and then of Burgos, tutor to the son of Henry III, and papal legate. His eldest son, Gonzalo, became bishop successively of Astorga, Plasencia and Sigüenza. His second son, Alonso de Cartagena, succeeded his father in the see of Burgos.7 In Castile the finance minister of Henry IV, Diego Arias Dávila (d. 1466), was a converted Jew who founded a powerful dynasty that produced one of the conquistadors of central America, Pedrarias Dávila. One of Diego’s sons became bishop of Segovia, and a grandson became first count of Puñonrostro.

In Aragon members of the powerful de la Caballería family converted in the wake of the Disputation of Tortosa. Other important first-generation converts were leading government officials belonging to the Santa Fe and Sánchez families. Of particular importance was the Santangel family, Christians since 1415 and employed as high officials of the crown of Aragon. At the end of the fifteenth century some of the principal administrators of Aragon were conversos. At the very moment that the Inquisition began to function, five conversos—Luis de Santangel, Gabriel Sánchez, Sancho de Paternoy, Felipe Climent and Alfonso de la Caballería—held the five most important posts in the kingdom. Some also played a prominent part at the court of Castile. Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, uncle of the first inquisitor general, was of known converso blood,8 as were at least four bishops. Three secretaries of the queen—Fernando Alvarez, Alfonso de Avila and Hernando del Pulgar—were New Christians, as was one of her chaplains, Alonso de Burgos. Several other officials at court were known conversos, among them the official chroniclers Diego de Valera and Alonso de Palencia. Isabella’s employment of both conversos and Jews was commented upon with surprise by foreign visitors.

Inevitably, many converso families continued in professions that they had previously exercised as Jews. The majority lived in urban centers rather than in the countryside. But many also lived in the country, disproving the common assumption that Jews were exclusively town dwellers. In the Seville-Cadiz area in the 1480s, about half of a sample of sixty-two hundred conversos lived in the rural areas, where they were under the direct jurisdiction of the great nobles, who were more capable of defending their interests.9 In the countryside, they worked the land. In Aguilar de la Frontera, near Córdoba, of the sixty sanbenitos (penitential garments of the Inquisition) hung up in local churches in the late sixteenth century, about nineteen belonged to converso peasant farmers (labradores).10 In the towns, small independent callings attracted them. Of a sample of 1,641 Toledo conversos who were involved with the Inquisition in 1495, the majority were in modest urban occupations, but there was a significant number of jewelers and silversmiths (59), traders (38), tax-farmers (15) and money changers (12).11 The example of Badajoz, in Extremadura, shows that all the 231 conversos penalized by the Inquisition between 1493 and 1599 came from the professional and commercial classes. They held posts ranging from that of mayor and municipal official to the lesser occupations of physician, lawyer, trader, shopkeeper and manufacturer.12 The same is true of Saragossa and other principal cities for which we have details. In Barcelona, out of a sample of 223 tried during these years, one-fourth were traders and another fourth in the textile industry.13 In Andalucia, a sample for the year 1495 shows that nearly half were occupied in textiles and about a sixth in leather.14

Finance was an area in which conversos are known to have been active. Since medieval times, Jews were often restricted by the law over where they could invest their money, so they preferred to make the money work for itself in the market of loans. It is memorable that Columbus’s first voyage in 1492 was made possible thanks to converso finance. The Aragonese conversos Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sánchez protected and financed the expedition; Jews and conversos, including a Jewish interpreter, formed part of the crew; and it has been argued (on little secure evidence) that Columbus himself was descended from a family of Catalan conversos.15 The role of Jews in the finance market, small but significant, was exaggerated in the nineteenth century by Jewish writers and even by some Spaniards, who suggested that the expulsion of 1492 was responsible for ruining the nation’s economy. In the seventeenth century some Spanish writers claimed that the growing wealth of countries like Holland was due in great measure to the help of converso capital flowing into Amsterdam. The reverse image, of Jews not as a benefit to Spain but as plotters against its well-being, also came into being. The mythical decline of Spain and the consequent triumph of its enemies were blamed on the international Jewish conspiracy. Among the first writers to take this line was the seventeenth-century poet Francisco de Quevedo, who claimed that Jewish elders from all over Europe had held a meeting at Salonika, where they drew up secret plans directed against Christendom. Quevedo went so far as to accuse the count duke of Olivares of planning to invite the Jews back into the country in order to undo all the harm of the expulsion of 1492.16

Conversos, like Jews before them, were also active in medicine.17 As with the financiers, their numbers and importance in the profession should not be exaggerated. The Inquisition in Logroño (Navarre) at the end of the sixteenth century found itself in need of a doctor, but could find no Old Christian with the necessary qualifications; finally it had to appoint a converso. The Inquisition in Madrid was consulted and decreed that the tribunal should keep him but give him no official status, in the hope that an Old Christian might someday be found. An equally embarrassing case occurred in Llerena, where the Inquisition in 1579 reported that for lack of Old Christian doctors the town authorities had appointed as their official doctor “a man who was imprisoned by this Inquisition as a judaizer for three and a half years.”18 The crown regularly employed converso doctors. Francisco López Villalobos was court physician to both Ferdinand the Catholic and Charles V. Among other famous conversos we should mention doctor Andrés Laguna (1499–1560), naturalist, botanist and physician, a native of Segovia and one of the great luminaries of Spanish science. The services of conversos to medicine are amply illustrated by the number of doctors who appear in the records of the Inquisition during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Following a long tradition, converso families gave many sons and daughters into the hands of the Church, to be brought up in the religious orders. Converso students were also to be found in the universities of Spain. By the mid-sixteenth century it was maliciously reported that most of the Spanish clergy resident in Rome in search of preferment were of Jewish origin. Anti-converso publicists in the mid-fifteenth century had already suggested that New Christians were infiltrating the Church and threatening to take it over. Conversos, it was argued, had worked their way into the heart of Christian society, into the ranks of the aristocracy and the Church, and were planning to destroy it from within.

Infiltration of the aristocracy was, already in the fifteenth century, a known and accepted fact. In the wake of the anti-converso riots in Toledo in 1449, a royal secretary, Fernán Díaz de Toledo, wrote a report or Instruction for the bishop of Cuenca, in which he argued that all the leading noble lineages of Castile, including the Henríquez (from whom Ferdinand the Catholic descended), could trace their descent from conversos. The issue had, as we shall see (see chapter 12 below), considerable repercussions on Spanish society. Two sixteenth-century publications continued the controversy. In Aragon an assessor of the Inquisition of Saragossa drew up what became known as the Green Book (Libro verde) of Aragon,19 a genealogical table tracing the origins of the nobility, from which it became clear that the most prominent families in the kingdom had not escaped converso infiltration. The document, set down in manuscript in the first decade of the sixteenth century, became a source of major scandal, for copies were passed from hand to hand, added to and distorted, until the government decided it could not tolerate the slander. In 1623, all available copies of the Libro verde were ordered to be burnt.

But already a far more powerful libel had been circulating in secret. In 1560 Cardinal Francisco Mendoza y Bobadilla, angered by a refusal to admit two members of his family into a military order, presented to Philip II a memorandum, later to be known asTizón de la nobleza de España (Blot on the Nobility of Spain), in which he claimed to prove that virtually the whole of the nobility was of Jewish descent.20 The proofs he offered were so incontrovertible that the Tizón was reprinted many times down to the nineteenth century, almost always as a tract against the power and influence of the nobility. At no time was even the slightest attempt at a rejoinder to these two publications made.

Questions of genealogy and blood could come to the fore in political life, where it was common to seek reasons for discrediting rivals. In an important memoir presented by the historian Lorenzo Galíndez de Carvajal to the emperor Charles V, it was reported that several of the most important members of the royal council were of converso origin. Among the exceptions, however, was Dr. Palacios Rubios, “a man of pure blood because he is of laboring descent.”21 Purity (limpieza) from Jewish origins became, in a few towns of central Castile and Andalucia, an issue on which status struggles often chose to focus.

The controversies over genealogy in the fifteenth century highlight the prominent role in Castile of converso intellectuals.22 A handful of upper-class Jewish converts made, by the quality of their writing, a contribution to intellectual life out of all proportion to their numbers. Converso officials who wrote histories included Alvar García de Santa María (d. 1460), Diego de Valera (d. 1488), and Alonso de Palencia (d. 1492). Other conversos were well-known poets, among them Juan de Mena (d. 1456) and Juan del Encina (d. 1529). Several of the converso writers entered into the controversy over blood origins, but their purpose was to defend genuine converts against Jews who refused to change their faith. Among them was Bishop Pablo de Santa María, with hisScrutinium scripturarum, written in 1432 but published posthumously. Another was the former rabbi Joshua Halorqui, who adopted the name Jerónimo de Santa Fe, founded a powerful converso family and produced his anti-Jewish polemics in the form of a work calledHebraeomastix. A member of a third great converso family, Pedro de la Caballería, wrote in 1450 the treatise Zelus Christi contra Judaeos. These three converso productions, based on a solid knowledge of Jewish culture, resorted to polemic at a learned level. The anti-Jewish strain could, of course, also be found in the writings of many who were not of converso origin.

By contrast, there were polemics that appealed to popular prejudices. The most significant of these was the Fortalitium fidei contra Judaeos, published in 1460, of Alonso de Espina. Espina, a well-known Franciscan friar and confessor to Henry IV of Castile, used his position to stir up hatred against Jews and conversos. Though described by most historians as a converso, he was almost certainly not one,23 since the deliberate distortions and fabrications in his work betray a complete ignorance of Semitic society. In the 1450s he was exceptionally busy in a campaign to bring about the forced conversion of the Jews, and his tract helped by its themes and language to contribute to race hatred. For Espina, the crimes of Jews against Christians were all too well known: they were traitors, homosexuals, blasphemers, child murderers, assassins (in the guise of doctors), poisoners and usurers. What differentiates Espina from the converso apologists is the fact that his accusations were clearly racialist in character and purpose, whereas the anger of Santa María and the others was more explicitly directed against the stubborn unbelief of their unconverted brethren. Espina’s tract has been viewed as a draft proposal which influenced the structure of the Spanish Inquisition,24 but in reality his ideas had no part to play. The Spanish Holy Office, when eventually founded, was based—as we shall see—on the concept of the medieval French Inquisition.

Though there was a generally peaceful coexistence between Old Christians and Jews during the fifteenth century, in some townships the presence of powerful converso families gave rise to struggles for power between Old Christians and conversos. Jews, normally incapacitated from office, did not feature directly. The first significant explosion of power struggles was in Toledo, ancient center of Castilian Jewry and Castile’s leading city. In 1449 there were serious disturbances here, directed in part against the minister of King Juan II, Alvaro de Luna, who was accused of favoring Jews. The Old Christian factions held court to determine whether conversos should be allowed to continue holding public office. Their leader, Pero Sarmiento, proposed a special statute (known as the Sentencia-Estatuto) which, despite opposition, was approved by the city council in June 1449. In this it was resolved “that no converso of Jewish descent may have or hold any office or benefice in the said city of Toledo, or in its territory and jurisdiction,” and that the testimony of conversos against Old Christians was not to be accepted in the courts.25

An immediate result was a bull issued by Pope Nicholas on 24 September 1449 under the significant title Humani generis enemicus (Enemy of the Human Race), in which he denounced the idea of excluding Christians from office simply because of their blood origins. “We decree and declare,” the pope went on, “that all Catholics are one body in Christ according to the teaching of our faith.” Another bull of the same date excommunicated Sarmiento and his colleagues for alleged rebellion against the Spanish crown. Other Spanish ecclesiastical authorities followed the pope in declaring that baptized converts were entitled to all the privileges of the Christian community. But the Sentencia-Estatuto represented powerful forces which could not easily be suppressed. The state of civil war then reigning in Castile made the crown all too willing to win friends by conciliation, and in 1450 the pope was asked by Juan II to suspend his excommunication of those practicing racialism. A year later, on 13 August 1451, the king formally gave his approval to the Sentencia-Estatuto. This meant a victory for the Old Christian party—a victory repeated once more when, on 16 June 1468, in the year after the Toledo riots of 1467, King Henry IV confirmed in office in the city all holders of posts formerly held by conversos. The same king, on 14 July of the same year, conceded to the city of Ciudad Real the privilege of excluding conversos from all municipal office.26

It was an issue affecting a limited area of Castile, and in each case the conflict was purely local, reflecting faction rivalries. There had been virtually no agitation since the great riots of 1391, and little outside central Castile. In other cities where conversos were powerful, such as Burgos and Avila, there were for the moment no riots. No immediate danger to the peace of the realm existed. The fact, however, that two Castilian cities tried to exclude conversos from public office was ominous. So was the fact that Old Christian oligarchies deliberately used anti-Semitic feeling to arouse the populace against their enemies. Some clergy were also worried about the effect on the unity of the Christian body. It was after some deliberation, therefore, that in about 1468 the archbishop of Toledo, Alonso Carrillo, condemned the existence in his diocese of guilds organized on racial lines, some of them excluding conversos and others excluding Old Christians. The archbishop stated:

Divisions bring great scandal and schism and divide the seamless garment of Christ who, as the Good Shepherd, gave us a command to love one another in unity and obedience to Holy Mother Church, under one Pontiff and Vicar of Christ, under one baptism, formed under the law into one body, so that whether Jew, Greek or Gentile we are regenerated by baptism and made into new men. From which it is obvious how culpable are those who, forgetting the purity of the law of the gospel, create different lineages, some calling themselves Old Christians and others calling themselves New Christians or conversos. . . . What is evil is that in the city of Toledo, as in the other cities, towns and places of our see, there are many guilds and fraternities of which some under pretence of piety do not receive conversos and others do not receive Old Christians.27

The archbishop therefore ordered the dissolution of the said guilds and forbade any similar racial associations under pain of excommunication. His good intentions bore little fruit, though it is true that for a quarter of a century after the Sentencia-Estatuto controversy died down and little evidence emerged of heresy among the conversos. A problem may certainly have existed, but there was little perception of it.

The issue raised its head again in the next round of anti-converso struggles, when the triggers to conflict were never exclusively religious. Disturbances were also aggravated during the later years of the fifteenth century by more frequent economic difficulties. In 1463 a converso in Andalucia commented that “here, thank God, there are disturbances but not directed against us.”28 There were problems, however, in other parts of Castile, and in 1467 anti-converso riots occurred in Toledo and Ciudad Real. In Seville the aristocracy kept the troublemakers under control, and (reported an official) “the conversos were unharmed.”29 The worst incidents came in 1473, with anti-converso riots and killings in several towns of Andalucia, notably Córdoba.30 In Jaén that year one of the victims was the converso Constable of Castile, Miguel Lucas de Iranzo, cut down at the high altar of the cathedral as he attempted to defend the conversos. These events demonstrated the very serious political situation in the south of the peninsula, and how readily the finger was being pointed at New Christians. In many cases, it has been argued, it was the Old Christian oligarchies who were manipulating the situation against both conversos and Jews.31

It was arguably the political events of those years rather than any perceived heresy that eventually brought an Inquisition into existence. The stage upon which the drama was played was central and southern Castile, roughly defined by the realms of Old and New Castile, and Andalucia. This area, the effective frontier of the medieval anti-Muslim Reconquest, was also that in which the majority of Spain’s Jews lived. Home still to the precarious coexistence of three faiths, it was potentially the zone of greatest social conflict in the peninsula.

The ambiguous religion of conversos raised a crucial question. Were the conversos Jews?32 It is an issue that has concerned and inspired many modern scholars, who have been haunted by the specter of Christians of Jewish origin suffering persecution and holding fast to some elements of the culture of their Jewish ancestors.

The question was inevitably also raised at the relevant time, after the mass conversions of 1391. Of the thousands of Jews who in the course of the preceding century had been forced by persecution and pressure to accept baptism, few could have embraced Catholicism sincerely. Over time, however, the converts settled into their new religion without problems. When the great controversies broke out in Toledo, half a century after the 1391 riots, not a single Christian writer doubted that the New Christians were for the most part orthodox in belief and intention. Claims to the contrary were made at the height of the civic troubles, but never substantiated.

Those who remained in their Jewish faith, however, wanted to know how to coexist with those who had become Christians. In the fifteenth century, long before the great expulsion, the rabbis in North Africa were frequently asked for their judgments on the matter. Their opinions, or responsa, were unequivocal. The conversos must be regarded not as unwilling converts (anusim) but as real and voluntary converts (meshumadim).33 It may have been a hard-line attitude and not necessarily shared by all Jewish leaders at the time, but there was ample evidence to back up the judgments. In many parts of Spain the conversos continued living in some measure as Jews, but with the advantage now of enjoying rights accorded to Christians. In Mallorca, a rabbi commented, the authorities “are lenient with the conversos and allow them to do as they will.”34 From the Christian point of view, the conversos here seemed to be practicing Jews. In practice, however, they were legally Christians. And it was their voluntary Christianity which marked them out in Jewish eyes as renegades, meshumadim.

The spate of conversions throughout Spain during the fifteenth century intensified the controversy. Easygoing Jews who converted for convenience became, naturally, easygoing Christians. In an anti-Jewish polemic of the 1480s, the Alborayco,35 the author described the conversos as being neither practicing Jews nor practicing Christians. Being neither one thing nor the other, they were known in some places as alboraycos, after the fabled animal of Mohammed which was neither horse nor mule (al-buraq). Anti-Semitic writers at the time of the Inquisition were, for their part, unanimous that conversos were secret Jews and must be dealt with firmly.

Many modern writers, in no way anti-Semitic, have consistently identified the conversos as Jews. An influential school in modern Jewish historiography has likewise ironically insisted that the Inquisition was right to consider all conversos aspiring Jews. Yitzhak Baer stated uncompromisingly that “the conversos and Jews were one people, united by destiny.”36 “Every converso,” writes another historian, “did his best to fulfil Mosaic precepts, and one should regard as sincere the aim they all set themselves: to live as Jews.”37 The main evidence used by these scholars who call in doubt the Christianity of the conversos, is—curiously enough—the documentation of the Holy Office, a huge mass of apparently damning testimony to the errors of thousands of conversos. If this view is accepted, not only does it appear to justify the establishment of the Inquisition but it also contradicts the testimony of many conversos of the late fifteenth century. Unsurprisingly, some other scholars refuse to accept the reliability of the Inquisition’s documents, on the grounds that they are a contaminated source.38 Why, in other words, should the evidence gathered by the accusers be the principal basis for assessing the accused? It is a good question, which makes the religious status of converted Jews an issue of primary importance.

The two conflicting points of view we have mentioned share one clear weakness, a propensity to assume that—a few exceptions aside—all conversos were Jews, or all were Christians. Both approaches appear to be motivated by a deeply rooted conviction that authentic Jews would never make compromises about their faith and culture.39 As it happens, there is abundant evidence that compromises were made, in every epoch, among all social classes and in all generations. There are three principal groups of witnesses to converso religion: the Jews, the conversos themselves and the enemies of the conversos. Nearly all their testimony comes down to us through the Inquisition. As a consequence, the debate has usually been presented to us through the perspective of the Inquisition papers, which should not be unconditionally ruled out of order, since a great deal of their affirmations seems sensible and convincing.40

The question of Jewish identity had been in doubt long before the birth of the Inquisition, and in lands far from Spain. Jews who converted under Muslim rule but remained secretly wedded to their old beliefs could be found in several parts of the Mediterranean.41 In some areas they were known as New Muslims, suggesting that the Muslim authorities were aware they were not true converts. The neo-converts managed to survive for centuries, thanks in part to the benign policy of the Islamic authorities in certain territories. In Christian Spain, it was the pressure from a special institution, the Inquisition, that brought hidden doubts to the surface. Conversos who hitherto had been satisfied with mere “adhesion” to the official faith were now obliged to consider the option of full “conversion.” In the period before the year 1492, in short, there were from the standpoint of religious belief probably four broad categories among conversos: those who were practicing Christians, those who were nominal Christians but active judaizers, those who were syncretic and mixed both beliefs and those who were skeptical of both faiths.42

Among the Jews there appear to have been few doubts about the Christianity of the conversos. The opinions of religious leaders, cited above, are unequivocal. Jews and conversos might come together for family and social reunions, but always with the consciousness that they belonged to different streams of belief and practice. The most convincing testimony of all can be found after the establishment of the Inquisition. The failure of Jews in those years to make any significant move to help conversos shows that they were conscious of the gap between them.

The converso apologists of 1449, anxious to defend themselves against their critics, insisted on their own unquestionable Christianity. Fernán Díaz asserted that if there were any judaizers in Toledo they could be counted on the fingers of two hands. He pointed out that even the term “converts” was meaningless: “how can one call conversos those who are children and grandchildren of Christians, were born in Christianity and know nothing about Judaism or its rites?”43 Later converso leaders, more realistically, were willing to admit the existence of religious confusion. The chronicler and royal secretary Hernando del Pulgar, a prominent converso, vouched for the existence of judaizers among the New Christians of Toledo. But he also pinpointed a cause: no attempts had ever been made to deal with the problem by missionary preaching rather than persecution. Despised by Old Christians for their race, scorned by the Jews for their apostasy, the conversos lived in a social atmosphere they had never willingly chosen. Many of them lived close to the Jewish quarter, to which they still felt a cultural affinity. They retained traditional characteristics in dress and especially in food that were difficult to shake off. A man named Mayor González in Ciudad Real in 1511 admitted that he “never ate eel nor octopus nor hare nor rabbit . . . until the inquisitors came to town.”44 Several had vivid memories of the persecutions that in the 1440s and then in the 1470s had forced them to abandon their culture. A Jewish doctor in Soria in 1491 recalled an old converso who “told him, weeping, how much he repented having turned Christian.” Speaking of another converso, the doctor communicated the information that “he believed in neither the Christian nor the Jewish faith.”45

Pulgar reports that within the same converso household some members might be sincere Christians and others active Jews. His experience was that many “lived neither in one law nor the other,” retaining key Jewish customs while practicing formal Christianity. None of this altered the essentially Christian culture of most conversos. The syncretic nature of much of their religious practice left their faith unaffected. Like the Malabar and Chinese Christians of later centuries, who combined aspects of hereditary culture with their faith, they were believing Christians and proud of it.46 The converso family of the bishop of Segovia, Diego Arias Dávila (1436–97), is a case in point. His still-Jewish sister lived in the household. Members of the family attended weddings in the Jewish quarter, and occasionally gave gifts to the synagogue.47 In Saragossa in the 1480s, Jews and Christians ate in each other’s homes despite official disapproval. “Jews ate in converso homes as freely as conversos ate in the Jewish quarter.”48

Those among the Christians who criticized the conversos were their enemies. From the anti-Jewish propaganda of the 1440s to the polemics of half a century later, their anti-converso theme was constant. All conversos, went the refrain, are secret Jews. All of them are a threat to our society and our religion. It was alleged that they continued to practice the Jewish rites both secretly and openly, presenting the authorities with a large minority of pseudo-Christians who had neither respect nor love for their new faith. Was there in reality a “converso danger”? Were thousands of converso Christians all over Spain secretly observing Jewish practice? There is, as we shall see, good reason to doubt it.49

Writing several years later, when so much blood had been spilt that it would have been intolerable to deny the justice of what had happened, the anti-Jewish chronicler Bernáldez declared unhesitatingly that the conversos were secret heretics. Throughout the provinces of the south, according to the author of the Alborayco, of all the conversos “hardly any are true Christians, as is well known in all Spain.”50 Written a decade after the birth of the Inquisition, it was a clear case of post hoc ergo. By contrast, ten years previously the hard evidence for the claim would have been difficult to find. Prosecutions of judaizers in the bishops’ courts were to be counted on the fingers of one hand. What, in any case, did “judaizing” imply? Even when the inquisitors started their work, they had no clear view of the offense. The basic ignorance of Jewish law shown by the inquisitors meant that by default they accused people of offenses which were cultural rather than religious. When in 1484 Inés de Belmonte admitted that she had habitually observed Saturday as a day of rest, she was condemned as a heretic, apostate and observer of the Jewish law, even though no evidence existed that she subscribed to any Jewish beliefs.51 With time, the inquisitors defined the offense more clearly; but in doing so they were in effect bringing a crime into existence. People were consequently accused for what they were supposed to have done, rather than for what they really did. “I know very well of others who have erred much more than I,” complained a woman of Cuenca in 1489 who felt that her offense was negligible.52

There was another important aspect to the problem. New Christians who shared day-to-day doubts and unbelief were treated as heretics, whereas the very same doubts could be found everywhere among the non-Semitic Christian population. Popular skepticism about an afterlife persisted, we have had occasion to observe (chapter 1), among Spain’s population. “There is only birth and death, nothing more” or “you’ll not see me do badly in this life nor will you see me suffer in the next”53 were affirmations, however, that in the mouths of conversos seemed to the inquisitors in the 1480s to be particularly suspicious. Blasphemies against Christ, the Virgin and the mass, were (as the inquisitors knew very well) commonplace among Old Christians.54 Yet in the anti-converso trials they carried a mortally heavy assumption of guilt. For a converso to say: “I swear to God it’s all a joke, from the pope to the cope” or to suggest that “I can’t swallow the words of the holy gospels”55 invited denunciation, even though they were sentiments that could be found anywhere in the Old Christian countryside. It was thanks in part to her advocate arguing that “to say such things does not necessarily imply unbelief in the faith” that Catalina de Zamora, who had insulted the Virgin publicly, was in 1484 acquitted of judaizing.56 Ignorant witnesses contributed to the confusion of criteria: in 1492 not knowing the creed, or eating meat in Lent, were seen as signs of Judaism.57 Anyone who did not conform to the rest of the community was looked upon as a “Jew.” Manuel Rodríguez, alchemist of Soria in the 1470s, treated official religion with disdain but was described by the parish priest as “among the most learned men in the world in just about everything.” Common repute consequently (according to the testimony of an official) held him to be a “Jew.”58

We may conclude that in the late 1470s very many conversos continued to practice their traditional culture but were not significantly defecting from their Christian religion. Among practicing Jews there were signs of a consciousness of the importance of prophecy and millenarianism,59 and even among Christians there was a new eschatological perception of the future,60 but there is no evidence of any significant pro-Jewish movement among conversos in the late fifteenth century.

However, even if there was little active judaizing, those who influenced crown policy thought they perceived it. They observed what certainly existed in many households: vestigial Jewish practices in matters of family habits and cuisine, residual Jewish culture in vocabulary, kinship links between Jews and conversos. These remnants were identifiably Jewish. They were not, however—and on this all those arrested by the Inquisition were adamant—proof of judaizing. The existence of a “converso danger,” it can be argued on this evidence, was invented for motives that may have had little to do with religion.

The harvest of heretics reaped by the early Inquisition owed its success to deliberate falsification or to the completely indiscriminate way in which residual Jewish customs were interpreted as being heretical. Though it can certainly be identified in the period after the forced conversions of 1492, there was no systematic “converso religion” in the 1480s to justify the creation of an inquisition.61 Much of the evidence for judaizing was thin, if not false. In 1484 in Ciudad Real five witnesses were used by the prosecution against a converso. Four of them testified to events they claimed to remember from twelve, thirty-five and forty years before.62 Not one offered evidence from the previous few months. One may reasonably doubt whether the accused was an active judaizer.

Logically, conversos never ceased to protest that false witness and greed were the driving forces of the Inquisition. Wherever possible, they attempted to clamp down on the voices alleging that there was heresy. In Aragon in 1484 the authorities, hostile to the new tribunal and favorably disposed to the conversos, claimed that there was no heresy anywhere in the realm. In Segovia in 1485 a group of conversos went “threatening anyone who said anything about there being heretics in this city.”63 “Most of those burnt by the Inquisition,” a converso of Aranda said in 1501, “were burnt because of false witness.” “There’s no reason for them to come here,” another said, with reference to the inquisitors, “there are no heretics to burn.” “Very many of those arrested and burnt by the reverend fathers were arrested and burnt only because of their property.” “Of all those burnt in Aranda,” a resident stated in 1502, “not one was a heretic.”64 The outright denial that there was any heresy was not necessarily an attempt to cover up by those who were guilty. The claim may have been, and shows every sign of having been, true.

The differing opinions among scholars in our day are testimony to the highly confusing nature of converso culture. The most plausible view of the matter is probably that held by very many at the time, namely, that most were practicing Christians, but that some were sympathetic to Judaism. Simply to be of Jewish origin did not mean that one shared Jewish beliefs. The consellers (city councilors) of Barcelona expressed this opinion forcefully to their new inquisitor in 1486: “We do not believe that all the conversos are heretics, or that to be a converso makes one a heretic.”65 It was not the last time in history that a dispassionate view would be offered against the judgment of those who insisted that a specific race or religion carried the implication of guilt. A prosecution witness in Toledo in 1483, by contrast, expressed a view that was more congenial to the inquisitors: “all the conversos of this city were Jews.”66 The “all,” commonplace in anti-Semitic polemic of the time and in writers like Andrés Bernáldez, was the big lie that justified the Inquisition.67

A factor that undoubtedly contributed to tension, over and above anti-converso feeling, was the conversos’ own sense of a separate identity.68 Already a powerful minority by the mid-fifteenth century, conversos were secure of their social position and proud to be both Christian and of Jewish descent. They did not, as is sometimes thought, attempt to disguise their origins. As many of their own writers affirmed clearly, they were a nation. They had their own identity and took pride in it. Andrés Bernáldez reported that “they entertained the arrogant claim that there was no better people in the world than they.” Alonso de Palencia reported complaints by Old Christians that the conversos acted “as a nation apart, and nowhere would they agree to act together with the Old Christians; indeed, as though they were a people of totally opposed ideas, they openly and brazenly favored whatever was contrary to the Old Christians, as could be seen by the bitter fruit sown throughout the cities of the realm.” Implicit in the converso attitude was the claim that they were even better than Old Christians, because together with Christian faith they combined direct descent from the lineage (linaje) of Christ. It was said that Alonso de Cartagena when he recited the Hail Mary used to end with the words, “Holy Mary, Mother of God and my blood-relative, pray for us.” Converso nobles were considered to be even better than Old Christian nobles, because they were of Jewish origin. “Is there another nation so noble [as the Jews]?” asked Diego de Valera, quoting the Bible directly.

Converso separateness had a certain logic. The large number of converts after 1391 could not be easily fitted into existing social structures. In Barcelona and Valencia in the 1390s they were given their own churches, in each case a former synagogue. They also set up their own converso confraternities.69 In the crown of Aragon they called themselves proudly “Christians of Israel.”70 They had their own social life and intermarried among themselves. Palencia observed that they were “puffed-up, insolent and arrogant”; Bernáldez criticized their “haughty ostentation of great wealth and pride.”71 These converso attitudes were probably created by self-defensiveness rather than arrogance. But they contributed to the wall of distrust between Old and New Christians. In particular, the idea of a converso nation, which rooted itself irrevocably in the mind of Jewish Christians (see chapter 14 below), made them appear as a separate, alien and enemy entity. This had fateful consequences.

A number of factors, religious as well as social and political, therefore contributed to the tensions experienced in the south of Spain. They were circumstances rooted in the everyday experience of people, and by no means imposed from above. On the religious front, however, the initiatives came from the top. Fears about an alleged converso heresy were being expressed by some clergy, and because of it there were demands for a special “inquisition” well before the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. In 1461 a group of Franciscans led by Alonso de Espina approached the general of the Jeronimite Order with a view to “setting up in this realm an inquisition into heretics such as they have in France.”72 The general, Alonso de Oropesa, supported the move warmly, and Henry IV of Castile appealed to Rome for an inquisition to be set up.73 Nothing more was heard of the proposal. Another attempt was made by Oropesa some time later, in 1465, but it was an inopportune moment. Henry IV was faced by a serious rebellion against his crown that very year. Riots against the conversos broke out shortly after, notably in Toledo in 1467 and Segovia in 1473.

The Inquisition was not unknown in the territories that later formed a united Spain. Since 1232, papal commissions for inquisitors had been issued in the crown of Aragon, as part of the campaign against the Cathars then being conducted in the French areas of Languedoc.74 This was the period when the Church for the first time began to think seriously about what the concept of heresy was, and with what means it could be combated.75 Theologians tried to define what it was that Catholics shared in terms of belief, worship and loyalty, and by the same token what it was that could represent a threat to the three. Catalans such as the Dominican friars Ramon Penyafort in the thirteenth and Nicolau Eimeric in the fourteenth century were active in the medieval Inquisition, which was not directly concerned with Jews, though there was a distinct anti-Jewish tendency in its thinking. Jews, in any case, were only one example of the various groups and minorities that political interests and social pressures might seek to crush. The word “heresy” was a term that became applied to any attitude of such groups perceived to be out of step with the thinking of those who controlled power.

By the fifteenth century, when Catharism was a thing of the past, the papal Inquisition in the Aragonese territories had lapsed into virtual inactivity. Only a handful of trials took place in the late century.76 Castile, on the other hand, had never known the existence of an inquisition. The bishops and their Church courts had so far sufficed to deal with the punishment of heretics, and they were active in the few prosecutions of the period. The discovery (and immediate burning) at Llerena in September 1467 of two conversos for practicing Judaism seemed to confirm the religious insincerity of New Christians, but it was an isolated incident with no repercussions.77 Anti-Semitic preachers of course made the most of such cases. Among them was Alonso de Hojeda, a Dominican prior of Seville, who devoted all his energies to making the crown aware of the reality of the danger from Jews and false converts.78

In 1474 Isabella succeeded her brother Henry on the throne. Hojeda’s opportunity came when the queen visited Seville in July 1477 and stayed there for fifteen months. Historians are unanimous in citing Hojeda’s preaching as one of the immediate influences on the queen in her final decision about the conversos. Soon after Isabella’s departure from Seville, Hojeda claimed to have uncovered evidence of a secret meeting of judaizing conversos in the city. With this in hand he went to demand the institution of measures against the heretics.

The evidence seems to have impressed the crown, which asked for information on the situation in Seville. The report, supported by the authority of Pedro González de Mendoza, archbishop of Seville, and of Tomás de Torquemada, prior of a Dominican monastery in Segovia, suggested that not only in Seville but throughout Andalucia and Castile the conversos were practicing Jewish rites in secret. Accepting this testimony, Ferdinand and Isabella consented to introduce the machinery of a Church inquisition into Castile, and sent a request to Rome for the bull of institution.

The controversy over the conversos broke out at a time when the monarchs were fully occupied in the pacification of a realm that had been laid waste by the turmoil of civil war. They were threatened on all sides by continuing conflicts at local level, threats by dissident nobles and clergy, and a breakdown of law and order everywhere. With no civil service or permanent army at their command, they were unable to control events in the way they might have wished, and were obliged to make compromises with the political elites that ran the country. From 1476 onwards they encouraged the creation of local police forces known as the Hermandad. At the same time they attempted through the handful of civil governors (corregidores) to enforce the peace, punish and execute criminals and thieves, and in general restore public confidence in the crown.79 In the midst of these measures of “pacification,” which inevitably had a high cost in money and lives, they were drawn from 1482 onwards into a long and expensive war against the Muslim kingdom of Granada.

The converso problem, when brought to the queen’s attention during her stay in Seville, may at the time have seemed a small matter of detail in the midst of her other commitments. The request for an inquisition was, likewise, not unusual. Royal officials had for some time now been authorized to make general “inquisitions” into crimes and offenses, and it was part of the pacification policy to make “inquisitions” into the activities of known or unknown delinquents.80 When the crown sanctioned an inquisition into the activities of alleged judaizers, it was a more or less routine measure. In the event, it soon turned into something much graver because it seriously implicated converso urban elites, who till that date had supported the crown without question.

According to Hojeda and others, the converso problem was so serious that only the introduction of a full-time “inquisition” would be adequate. Consequently, the bull which was finally issued by Pope Sixtus IV on 1 November 1478 provided for the appointment of two or three priests over forty years of age as inquisitors. Powers of appointment and dismissal were granted to the Spanish crown.81 After this, no further steps were taken for two years. This long interlude would seem to contradict Hojeda’s argument about the urgency of the converso danger. What seems a likely explanation is that the crown favored a cautious period of leniency before going on to severe measures, and that this policy may have been influenced in part by the large number of conversos in prominent positions at court. Finally, Ferdinand grew convinced of the need. As he explained several years later: “We could do no less, because we were told so many things about Andalucia.” In a letter to the pope in 1483 he was more specific: “In recent times, when neither we nor our predecessors took any measures, there was a great increase in heresy and in the risk of its spread, and many who seemed to be Christians were found to be living not simply not as Christians but even as godless persons.”82

On 27 September 1480 at Medina del Campo, commissions as inquisitors in accordance with the papal bull were issued to the Dominicans Juan de San Martín and Miguel de Morillo, with Juan Ruiz de Medina as their assessor or adviser. With these appointments the Spanish Inquisition came into definitive existence.

In historical perspective it may appear to have been an ominous and terrible event, yet it is easy to forget that in the same generation there were similar and no less ominous developments about the prosecution of heresy elsewhere in Europe. From the year 1401 a special new law in England permitted the execution of heretics. Between 1423 and 1522 in England over five hundred heresy trials took place, resulting in the burning of an estimated thirty people.83 Shortly after 1500, the bishop of Lincoln set up an inquisition to enquire into the heretics of his diocese. Within a few years no fewer than 342 persons were denounced to the bishop as suspected heretics. “Wives and husbands denounced each other, and children accused their parents.”84 In country after country of northern Europe—notably, for example, in the Czech lands—there were persons, movements and ideas that appeared subversive and that the authorities bestirred themselves to control. The circumstances of each case were different, but the threat of repression was never far distant. There were “inquisitions” developing in many parts of Europe, not only in Spain.

In Andalucia, the new body had clearly been set up as the result of agitation against the New Christians. This fact alone does not suffice to answer some fundamental questions. Of these, the most crucial is: on what evidence did the tribunal justify its existence? Historians have tended to accept without question the reason given by the Inquisition, namely, that an inquiry had to be made into conversos who were judaizing. The fact is that apart from a handful of scattered cases there was (we have suggested) no systematic evidence of judaizing. New Christian writers in mid-century had firmly denied such accusations. Zealots such as Espina could point only to unsubstantiated rumors and allegations. Nowhere in Spain, outside of the handful of cities in the center and south where political riots had taken place, was there pressure for an inquiry. The Cortes of Castile never asked for an inquisition.85 Moreover, the book of the Alborayco, written in these years, expressly claimed that, unlike the south of the country, there were virtually no heretics among conversos in northern Spain.86 If the Inquisition claimed to have religious motives, those motives were difficult to justify by the evidence. It would appear that community hostility, no less than religious suspicion, had an undeniable part in the move to set up a tribunal of inquiry.87

What did the monarchs hope to gain by agreeing to its foundation? It is a fundamental question that appears to have divided historians. One cannot rule out completely the possibility that the crown, in the person above all of Ferdinand, who was the guiding force in its establishment and who continued his efforts after the death of Isabella, wished to use it to consolidate his power. There is absolutely no evidence, however, that he did so; and in any case the new tribunal was most active in a region, Andalucia, where he was not king. Nor is it possible to document the view that Ferdinand was hoping to consolidate his power by directing opposition against the converso elite in Spain.88 Further definition of Ferdinand’s intentions may be difficult to arrive at, but there can be no doubt of his religious position. He and Isabella were zealous Catholics, yet by no means anti-Jewish or even anti-converso. To the end of their lifetimes they always worked closely with converso advisers, as Ferdinand himself testified publicly many times. Finally, though a long historical tradition asserts it (and always without evidence), it is wholly unlikely that he established the Inquisition in order to augment his revenues. The tribunal, as we shall see later, never in those early years gained any lasting profit from the conversos. Money that came in, through fines and confiscations, was usually spent on the running costs of the tribunal (see chapter 8).

Was there a long-term strategy, or was the tribunal intended to be purely local and temporary? Neither the crown nor the early supporters of the Inquisition were looking, around 1480, much farther than the frontiers of Andalucia. The immediate purpose was to ensure religious orthodoxy solely in that region. For the first five years of its existence the tribunal (still exclusively Castilian) limited its activity to the south, particularly to the sees of Seville and Córdoba. It was the area where the social conflicts of the preceding century had concentrated. There was, as yet, no thought of a nation-wide or “Spanish” Inquisition. No firm arrangements for financing the tribunal were made, and no fixed centers of action were decided upon.

By mid-October 1480, operations had begun in Seville. In Andalucia, as in the rest of Castile, these had been years of political conflict. The appearance of the inquisitors was made possible because Isabella’s supporters in the civil wars imposed their authority on the local elite. The opposition, many of them conversos and supporters of rebel nobles, were pushed out. This background affected events in Seville. One of the city councilors there was the converso Diego de Susán—father to Susanna, famous as the comely maid, the fermosa fembra—who was connected with a group of merchants and political figures opposed to Isabella’s supporters.89 A subsequent local chronicler put together a largely fictitious narrative in which Susán was presented as the center of a plot to stage a rising against the Inquisition. According to this account, he called a meeting of Seville dignitaries and of

many other rich and powerful men from the towns of Utrera and Carmona. These said to one another, “What do you think of them acting thus against us? Are we not the most propertied members of this city, and well loved by the people? Let us collect men together. . . .” And thus between them they assigned the raising of arms, men, money and other necessities. “And if they come to take us, we, together with armed men and the people will rise up and slay them and so be revenged on our enemies.”90

The narrative goes on to say that the rising might well have succeeded but for the fermosa fembra who, anxious about the possible fate of her Old Christian lover, betrayed the plot to the authorities. All those implicated were arrested and the occasion was made the excuse for detaining the richest and most powerful conversos of Seville. According to Bernáldez:

A few days after this they burnt three of the richest leaders of the city, namely Diego de Susán, who was said to be worth 10 million maravedis and was a chief rabbi, and who apparently died as a Christian; Manuel Sauli; and Bartolomé de Torralva. They also arrested Pedro Fernández Benadeba, who was one of the ringleaders and had in his house weapons to arm a hundred men, and Juan Fernández Abolafia, who had often been chief magistrate and was a great lawyer; and many other leading and very rich citizens, who were also burnt.91

When Susanna saw the result of her betrayal, she is said to have first retired to a convent, and then to have taken to the streets, remorse eating into her soul until she died in poverty and shame, her last wishes being that her skull should be placed over the door of her house as a warning and example to others. The whole story about the plot and betrayal was in reality a myth: Susán had died before 1479, the plot is undocumented and there was no daughter Susanna.92

The first auto de fe of the new Inquisition was celebrated on 6 February 1481, when six people were burnt at the stake and the sermon at the ceremony was preached by Fray Alonso de Hojeda. Hojeda’s triumph was short-lived, for within a few days the plague which was just beginning to ravage Seville numbered him among its first victims.

There was as yet little, in the spring of 1481, to cause alarm among conversos. No more than a handful of people had been executed. Many, however, did not trust the motives or the mercy of the inquisitors. They may or may not have been judaizers; in any case, they preferred to absent themselves. Over the next few months throughout Andalucia, according to the chronicler Hernando del Pulgar, thousands of households took flight, women and children included:

and since the absence of these people depopulated a large part of the country, the queen was informed that commerce was declining; but setting little importance on the decline in her revenue, and prizing highly the cleansing of her lands, she said that the essential thing was to purify the country of that sin of heresy, for she understood it to be in God’s service and her own. And the representations which were made to her about this matter did not alter her decision.93

The scale of operations created an enormous amount of work. More inquisitors were obviously needed. Accordingly, a papal brief of 11 February 1482 appointed seven more, all Dominican friars. One of them was the prior of the friary of Santa Cruz in Segovia, Tomás de Torquemada. New tribunals were set up at Córdoba in 1482, and at Ciudad Real and Jaén in 1483. The tribunal at Ciudad Real was only temporary, and was permanently transferred to Toledo in 1485. By 1492 the kingdom of Castile had tribunals at Avila, Córdoba, Jaén, Medina del Campo, Segovia, Sigüenza, Toledo and Valladolid. Not all these had a permanent existence, and the southern tribunals were far more active than those in the north.

The story of a plot in Seville looks suspiciously like an attempt to find good reasons for a subsequent repression. Doubts may similarly be expressed about a plot that was supposed to have occurred in Toledo, apparently planned for the feast of Corpus Christi 1485. The outcome, say the sources, followed the pattern of Seville, with betrayal, arrest and execution. All the relevant circumstances, however, suggest that the plot was spurious, an invented story embroidered upon by subsequent commentators.94

The machinery of the Inquisition was regulated in accordance with the needs of the administration. Isabella was at this time engaged in reforming the organs that controlled central government in Castile. When in 1480 at the Cortes of Toledo it was decided to reform the governing councils, it seemed natural to follow this up with a separate council for the increasingly important affairs of the Inquisition. A few years later, in 1488, this new council (known as the Suprema for short) came into existence (for the date 1488, see chapter 8 below). It consisted initially of three ecclesiastical members, and a fourth person as president of the council with the title of inquisitor general, a post given to Fray Tomás de Torquemada. The problem now was whether the Castilian Inquisition should be extended to the crown of Aragon, a completely autonomous state with its own laws, institutions and—as it happened—Inquisition.

Resistance to the introduction of the Inquisition into southern Castile had been meager and abortive. Popular opinion had been prepared for it and community rivalry welcomed it. The only serious setback to royal policy occurred on 29 January 1482 when Pope Sixtus IV, responding to protests from Spanish clergy about abuses committed by the inquisitors of Seville, revoked the powers granted by the bull of foundation and allowed the Seville inquisitors to continue only if subjected to their bishop. The appointment of the seven new inquisitors in 1482, far from being a surrender by the pope to the king, was accompanied by firm gestures by the pontiff in favor of the conversos. Ferdinand in May 1482 protested bitterly to Rome, particularly since a further conflict had now arisen over the introduction of the new Inquisition into Aragon.

As part of his vigorous new policy, Ferdinand took steps in 1481 and 1482 to assert royal control over the appointment and payment of the existing inquisitors in Aragon.95 His aim was to resurrect the old papal Inquisition but also to subject it to his own control so as to come into line with practice in Castile. In Aragon, therefore, the reformed Inquisition was simply a continuance of the old tribunal, with the difference that the crown now controlled appointments and salaries, so that the tribunal—not yet “Spanish” but still medieval—became effectively more dependent on Ferdinand than on the pope.

The first activities of the reformed tribunal, with its main centers in the cities of Barcelona, Saragossa and Valencia, were directed against the conversos, who took alarm at developments and prepared for mass emigration. Differences with the pope, supplemented no doubt by pressure on Rome from conversos, brought the work of the inquisitors to a temporary stop. On 18 April 1482 Sixtus IV issued what Lea calls “the most extraordinary bull in the history of the Inquisition.” In this document the pope protested

that in Aragon, Valencia, Mallorca and Catalonia the Inquisition has for some time been moved not by zeal for the faith and the salvation of souls, but by lust for wealth, and that many true and faithful Christians, on the testimony of enemies, rivals, slaves and other lower and even less proper persons, have without any legitimate proof been thrust into secular prisons, tortured and condemned as relapsed heretics, deprived of their goods and property and handed over to the secular arm to be executed, to the peril of souls, setting a pernicious example, and causing disgust to many.96

Accordingly, in future all episcopal officers should act with the inquisitors; the names and testimony of accusers should be given to the accused, who should be allowed counsel; episcopal jails should be the only ones used; and appeals should be allowed to Rome. The bull was extraordinary because, in Lea’s words, “for the first time heresy was declared to be, like any other crime, entitled to a fair trial and simple justice.”97 Besides, there is little doubt that the pope welcomed the chance to assert his authority over an Inquisition that had once been papal and had now slipped entirely into the hands of the king of Aragon. So favorable was the bull to converso claims that their influence in obtaining it cannot be doubted.

Ferdinand was outraged by the papal action and pretended to disbelieve in the authenticity of the bull on the grounds that no sensible pontiff would have issued such a document. On 13 May 1482 he wrote to the pope:

Things have been told me, Holy Father which, if true, would seem to merit the greatest astonishment. It is said that Your Holiness has granted the conversos a general pardon for all the errors and offenses they have committed. . . . To these rumors, however, we have given no credence because they seem to be things which would in no way have been conceded by Your Holiness, who have a duty to the Inquisition. But if by chance concessions have been made through the persistent and cunning persuasion of the said conversos, I intend never to let them take effect. Take care therefore not to let the matter go further, and to revoke any concessions and entrust us with the care of this question.98

Before this resolution, Sixtus IV wavered, and on 14 October announced that he had suspended the bull. The way lay completely open to Ferdinand. Papal cooperation was definitively secured by the bull of 17 October 1483, which appointed Torquemada as inquisitor general of Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia, thus uniting the Inquisitions of the Spanish crown under a single head. The new tribunal came directly under the control of the crown and was the only institution whose authority over heresy ran in all the territories of Spain, replacing the powers formerly exercised in the matter by bishops. This was not the end of papal interference. The next half century or so witnessed several attempts by Rome to interfere in questions of jurisdiction and to reform abuses that might give the Inquisition a bad name. Besides this, the conversos in Spain never gave up their struggle to modify the practices of the tribunal, which they rightly considered a threat not just to judaizers, but to the whole body of New Christians. Because of their representations to Rome, papal intervention was continued on their behalf, leading to several minor quarrels between crown and papacy.

Within the crown of Aragon there was bitter opposition to the introduction of the Castilian tribunal. Though Castile and Aragon had been joined by the marriage of the Catholic monarchs, they remained politically separate and each kingdom preserved its individual administration and liberties. In the eastern realms the fueros (laws) vested supreme authority less in the king alone, as was the case in Castile, than in the king acting together with the Cortes. When the latter was not in session its standing committee, the Diputación of each realm, watched over the laws. The resurrection of the old papal Inquisition posed a threat to the conversos but was no innovation and aroused little criticism. It was a different matter when Castilian inquisitors were appointed to realms where the fueros stipulated that senior officials must be native-born. The converso elite found that they had a constitutional argument to support their hostility.

In the kingdom of Aragon, with its capital in Saragossa, converso families had long played a prominent role in politics and finance. Regardless of inevitable opposition, on 4 May 1484 Torquemada appointed the first two inquisitors for Aragon, Gaspar Juglar and Pedro Arbués de Epila. According to Lea, the inquisitors set to work immediately, holding small autos de fe in the premises of the cathedral on 10 May and 3 June 1484.99 This activity deeply disturbed not only conversos but all those whose loyalty was to the fueros of Aragon. The chronicler of Aragon, Jerónimo de Zurita, reported: “Those newly converted from the Jewish race, and many other leaders and gentry, claimed that the procedure was against the liberties of the realm, because for this offense [of heresy] their goods were confiscated and they were not given the names of witnesses who testified against them.” As a result, continued Zurita, the conversos had all the kingdom on their side, “including persons of the highest consideration, among them Old Christians and gentry.”100

When public opposition in Saragossa grew so great that there was a move to summon the four estates of the realm, Ferdinand hastily sent a circular letter to the chief nobles and deputies, justifying his position:

There is no intention of infringing the fueros but rather of enforcing their observance. It is not to be imagined that vassals so Catholic as those of Aragon would have demanded, or that kings so Catholic would have granted, fueros and liberties adverse to the faith and favorable to heresy. If the old inquisitors had acted conscientiously in accordance with the rules there would have been no cause for bringing in new ones, but they were without conscience and corrupted with bribes.

If there are so few heretics as is now asserted, there should not be such dread of the Inquisition. It is not to be impeded in sequestrating and confiscating and other necessary acts, for be assured that no cause or interest, however great, shall be allowed to interfere with its proceeding in future as it is now doing.101

Whatever the motives among Aragonese, whether personal dread or constitutional opposition, resistance continued. The most remarkable case of resistance occurred in 1484 in the city of Teruel, a hundred miles to the south of Saragossa.102 In that year the tribunal of Saragossa sent two inquisitors to the city to establish the tribunal, but the magistrates refused them permission to enter. The inquisitors thereupon withdrew to the neighboring town of Cella, from which they issued an excommunication and interdict against the city and its magistrates. The clergy of Teruel promptly obtained papal letters releasing the city from the censures. The city authorities wrote to the king protesting that “they were coming to set up an Inquisition, which will cause the disorders that have happened in Castile.” The Inquisition then decreed in October 1484 that all the public offices in Teruel were confiscated to the crown and their present holders deprived of them. This was followed by an appeal to the king to carry out the decree. It was now the turn of the representatives of Aragon in Saragossa to protest to the king that “this is a kingdom of Christians,” that there were no heretics in the realm, and that heretics in any case should be opposed “with warnings and persuasion,” not force.103 Ferdinand replied with an order in February 1485 to all his officials in Aragon, asking them to raise arms and help the inquisitors. The response to this was not adequate, so Ferdinand also called on troops from the borders of Castile to help in the enterprise. Faced with such massive coercion the city was easily reduced to obedience. With its submission in the spring of 1485 the Inquisition seemed to have triumphed everywhere in Aragon. Teruel’s resistance did not arise exclusively from the great influence exercised there by conversos. The city had good political reasons, as head of the only region inside Aragon with wholly autonomous laws.104 Both it and Saragossa had to be brought to heel if the new Holy Office were to survive.

There were comparable problems in the Mediterranean realms of the crown of Aragon. Although the medieval Inquisition was moribund in Catalonia, the city of Barcelona had in 1461 received papal approval to have its own local inquisitor, Joan Comes. The Catalans therefore saw no need for a new tribunal. When the Cortes of the crown of Aragon met at Tarazona in April 1484, Catalonia refused to send deputies to approve the new Inquisition. In May Torquemada took the step of nominating two new inquisitors for Catalonia and at the same time revoked the commission held by Comes. The Catalans exploded into anger. The appointment of the new inquisitors, they wrote to Ferdinand, was “against the liberties, constitutions and agreements solemnly sworn by Your Majesty.” In Barcelona both legal and Church authorities ruled that Comes was the only rightful inquisitor of the city.105 In reply, Ferdinand affirmed that “no cause nor interest, however great, will make us suspend the Inquisition.”

The conflict dragged on, and conversos began to emigrate in large numbers from the city. Fearing for the economic life of Barcelona, the consellers complained to Ferdinand in December 1485 of the “losses and disorder caused in this land by the Inquisition that Your Highness wishes to introduce. . . . The few remaining merchants have ceased to trade. . . . Foreign realms are growing rich and glorious through the depopulation of this country.” In May 1486, they warned Ferdinand that the city would be “totally depopulated and ruined if the Inquisition were introduced.” The protests were in vain. In February 1486 Pope Innocent VIII found a way out of the dilemma by sacking all the existing papal inquisitors in the crown of Aragon and securing the simultaneous withdrawal of the Castilian nominees. The initiative was handed back to Torquemada, who appointed a new inquisitor for Catalonia, Alonso de Espina, a Dominican prior from Castile.106 Not until June 1487 did Espina succeed in entering the city, but his entry was boycotted by the Diputació and the consellers. Ferdinand therefore warned the city “to remember the example of Teruel, which was ruined because it did not obey the Inquisition.”107 The consellers protested in their turn that the inquisitors were acting “against the laws, practice, customs and liberties of this city.”

The Holy Office was now firmly implanted, but little fruit remained for it to pluck. Throughout 1488 it burnt only seven accused, and in 1489 only three. There was never any doubt as to whom the Inquisition was directed against. Of 1,199 people it investigated in Catalonia between 1488 and 1505—most in their absence since they had fled—all but eight were conversos.108 Among the distinguished refugees was the judge Antoni de Bardaxi, regent of the Chancillería, who ironically had given legal approval to the establishment of the Holy Office.

In the kingdom of Valencia, opposition was based similarly on the fueros. There were two existing inquisitors with papal commissions, the Dominicans Juan Cristóbal de Gualbes and Juan Orts, who from 1481 represented the revived medieval tribunal, but they seem to have done little. In March 1484 they were removed and Torquemada nominated, as representatives of the new Inquisition, the Aragonese Juan de Epila and the Valencian Martín Iñigo. Since the Cortes of Tarazona in 1484 had approved the new Inquisition, the nominees should have had no problems in Valencia. From July to October, however, the three estates of the Valencian Cortes kept up a stream of protests, asking “not that the Inquisition be suspended but that it be in the hands of natives of this realm,”109 and detailing other requests, such as an end to secret testimony. Opposition crumbled before the obduracy of Ferdinand, who recalled that no protest had been made by the Valencians at Tarazona, and that the fueros must never be used to shield heresy. Even after the inquisitors began work in November 1484, opposition continued and the king was obliged to alternate threats with arguments. “If there are so few heretics in the realm,” his representatives commented acidly, “one wonders why people should be afraid of the Inquisition.”110

Converso opposition had by no means been destroyed. On the one hand it was growing in strength with the active support of Old Christians who resented the introduction of the new tribunal into Aragon, and on the other it was becoming more desperate because of the obvious failure of resistance as shown by the example of Teruel. In the highest converso circles the idea of the assassination of an inquisitor gained currency. It was also supported by some Old Christians, and by conversos as eminent as Gabriel Sánchez, treasurer of the king, and Sancho Paternoy, the royal treasurer (maestre racional) in Aragon. The climax came on the night of 15/16 September 1485, as the inquisitor Pedro Arbués was kneeling in prayer before the high altar of Saragossa cathedral. Beneath his gown the inquisitor wore a coat of mail and on his head a steel cap, because of warnings about threats against his life. On the night in question, eight conspirators hired by conversos entered the cathedral by the chapter door and stole up behind the inquisitor. After verifying that this was indeed Arbués, one of them stabbed him in the back with a stroke that went through his neck and proved to be his death wound. As Arbués staggered away, two of the others also inflicted wounds on him. The murderers made their escape and the canons of the cathedral rushed in to find the inquisitor dying. Arbués expired twenty-four hours later, on 17 September.

The shock of this murder led to developments that the conversos should certainly have foreseen.111 When it was discovered that the assassins were conversos the whole mood of the city of Saragossa, and with it that of Aragon, changed. Arbués was declared a saint,112 miracles were worked with his blood, mobs roamed the streets in search of conversos and a national assembly voted to suspend the fueros while the search for the assassins went on. In this atmosphere the inquisitors came into their own. Autos of the reformed Inquisition were held on 28 December 1485, and the murderers of Arbués expiated their crime in successive autos de fe lasting from 30 June 1486 to 15 December the same year. One of them had his hands cut off and nailed to the door of the Diputación, after which he was dragged to the marketplace, beheaded and quartered, and the pieces of his body suspended in the streets of the city. Another committed suicide in his cell the day before his ordeal by breaking a glass lamp and swallowing the fragments; he too suffered the same punishment, which was inflicted on his dead body.

More than these initial measures was needed in order to uproot the whole conspiracy, which involved so many and such eminent people that individuals were being punished for it as late as 1492. The heads that now rolled came from the highest families in Aragon. Whether they were judaizers or not, members of the leading converso houses had connived (or so it was claimed) in the murder and were sooner or later destroyed by the Inquisition, which remained in full control of all the judicial measures taken. A study of the list of accused shows the constant appearance of the great names of Santa Fe, Santangel, Caballería, and Sánchez. Francisco de Santa Fe, son of the famous converso Jerónimo and a counselor of the governor of Aragon, committed suicide by jumping from a tower and his remains were burnt in the auto of 15 December 1486. Sancho Paternoy was tortured and imprisoned. A member of the Santangel family, Luis, who had been personally knighted by Juan II for his military prowess, was beheaded and burnt in the marketplace of Saragossa on 8 August 1487; his more famous cousin Luis, whose money loans made possible the voyages of Columbus, was made to do penance in July 1491. Altogether, over fifteen members of the Santangel family were punished by the Inquisition before 1499; and between 1486 and 1503 fourteen members of the Sánchez family suffered a similar fate. This substantial sweep of conversos into the nets of the tribunal was effective in shaking the grip of New Christians on the Aragonese administration. Not for the first time, a cause triumphed through one useful martyrdom. For the conversos one murder, cheaply achieved at a total cost of 600 gold florins (which included the wages of the assassins), turned out to be an act of mass suicide that annihilated all opposition to the Inquisition for the next hundred years. The foolishness of the conspiracy can, with reason, call in doubt whether the conversos were really implicated.113 But, in default of documentation to prove it, we may also doubt whether the murder was deliberately staged by the crown in order to smooth the way for the Inquisition.

Opportunely for Ferdinand, the crisis in Aragon coincided with his attempts to gain political control after the chaos of the civil wars. His constant emphasis on the need for the Inquisition was clear Realpolitik, but he was never in a position to use it to increase his power significantly, nor did he attempt to. Nor did he ever attempt to destroy the conversos as a political force. The king was wily enough to know that conversos in the crown of Aragon were a power network he could not trifle with. He had had their support from the beginning of his reign, and in return he gave his support to those not directly implicated in the troubles. Members of Luis de Santangel’s family were accused of Judaism, but the king protected them. Gabriel Sánchez’s case was particularly notable. Both his brother and his father-in-law were directly implicated in the Arbués murder. Accusations were made against both Sánchez and Alfonso de la Caballería. The king protected them firmly, and ordered the Inquisition to exempt them from its jurisdiction.114

In Mallorca, where the old Inquisition had already begun activities against judaizers in 1478, the new tribunal was introduced without incident in 1488 and began operations immediately. The inquisitors, Pedro Pérez de Munebrega and Sancho Marín, found enough work to keep them occupied in the hundreds of cases that filled the years 1488 to 1491. Politically, the island was undisturbed, though strong protests were made to the king in 1491 that “the inquisitors intrude into many matters, both criminal and civil, which are not their concern or jurisdiction; they try to take over all cases touching conversos even though no heresy is in question; they nominate as familiars many persons of bad reputation and let them carry arms day and night.”115 Despite the discontent, no outbreaks against the tribunal occurred until a generation later under Charles V, when a rising headed by the converso bishop of Elna in 1518 led to the temporary expulsion of the inquisitors from the city of Palma. In Mallorca, conversos formed a considerable part of the population, thanks to the riots of 1391 in Palma, the preaching of Vincent Ferrer in 1413 and 1414 and the final forcible conversion of Jews there in 1435. The large number of conversos who were either pardoned because they confessed voluntarily or condemned because they had fled demonstrates that the inquisitors in those first years of the new tribunal had managed to identify a problem.

The new Inquisition had begun its activity in the capital cities of the crown of Aragon, and in some of the cities of south and central Castile, several years before the final decision to expel the Jews. In those twelve terrible years, conversos and Jews alike suffered from the rising tide of anti-Semitism. While the latter were being harassed and then threatened with expulsion from dioceses in Aragon and Andalucia, the former were being purged of those who retained vestiges of their ancestral Judaism. Many conversos fled abroad without necessarily intending thereby to defect from the Catholic faith. Refugees feature prominently among those condemned in the early years. In the first two years of the tribunal at Ciudad Real fifty-two accused were burnt alive but 220 were condemned to death in their absence. In the Barcelona auto de fe of 10 June 1491, three persons were burnt alive but 139 were judged in their absence. In Mallorca the same process was repeated when at the auto of 11 May 1493 only three accused were burnt in person but there were forty-seven burnings of the effigies of absent fugitives.116 There was of course nothing exceptional in the phenomenon of escaping from the courts. At a very much later date a justice official in the kingdom of Valencia pointed out that among persons summoned to appear before the courts “three-fourths of those condemned are in fact absentees.”117 The vast majority of possible victims, in short, managed to escape the clutches of the Holy Office.

The figures, as we have seen, indicate clearly who bore the brunt of the persecution: 99.3 percent of those accused by the Barcelona tribunal between 1488 and 1505, and 91.6 percent of those accused by that of Valencia between 1484 and 1530, were conversos of Jewish origin.118 The tribunal, in other words, was not concerned with heresy in general. It was concerned with only one form of religious deviance: the apparently secret practice of Jewish rites. What appeared to be concern for religion was unmistakably racial in impact. Information about Jewish practices was gleaned through the edict of grace (for the edict in general, see chapter 9), a procedure modeled on that of the medieval Inquisition. The inquisitors would preach a sermon in the district they were visiting, recite a list of heresies, and invite those who wished to discharge their consciences to come forward and denounce themselves or others. If they came forward within the “period of grace”—usually thirty to forty days—they would be absolved and “reconciled” to the Church without suffering serious penalties. The benign terms encouraged self-denunciation. The edicts of grace, more than any other event, served to convince the inquisitors that a heresy problem existed. Before that period, there had been only polemics and rumors. Now the mass confessions, as Andrés Bernáldez was later to argue, demonstrated that “all of them were Jews.”

Hundreds of conversos, well aware that they had at some time been lax in observing the rules of their faith, came forward to admit their offenses and be reconciled. In Seville the prisons were filled to overflowing with conversos waiting to be interrogated as a result of their voluntary confessions. In Mallorca three hundred persons formed a procession during the first ceremony of contrition in 1488. The tribunal at Toledo initiated its career by reconciling an astonishing total of twenty-four hundred repentant conversos during the year 1486.119 This in no way implied (despite a common but mistaken assumption) that they were judaizers or had tendencies to Judaism. Fear alone was the spur. Faced by the activity of the inquisitors, who now identified as heresy what many converso Christians had accepted as normal practice within the framework of belief, they felt that it was safer to clear their record. There were very many others who did not trust the Inquisition and preferred flight. They wandered from one province to another, always one step ahead of the reverend fathers. The majority, it seems, preferred to take the risk. They confessed and put themselves in the hands of the inquisitors.

By its willingness to condone the confessions of those who came forward during periods of grace, the Inquisition was accepting that an offense had been committed but that no intended or hidden heresy was involved. Those who confessed and accepted the conditions of penitence were henceforward free of possible disabilities. This optimistic view was obviously not accepted by the conversos, who had been forced into a compromising position that, in the long run, brought them further miseries. “One day when some others and I were talking about the Holy Inquisition,” a resident of Sigüenza stated in 1492, “they said that in Toledo very many had come forward to be reconciled, out of fear that false testimony would be made against them. And I said: Who is there who has not gone to be reconciled out of fear, even though he has done nothing?”120 Some no doubt regretted bitterly that they had voluntarily joined the procession of penitents. “Did you see me yesterday in the procession of the reconciled?” a woman from Cuenca asked a friend in 1492. She burst out weeping: “and she wept a lot for having gone to be reconciled.” “God must be really put out that the reverend fathers do these things, they are devils and are not acting justly.”121 Those who came forward to confess, it appears, did not feel that they had strayed from the Catholic faith.

Between fear and humiliation, many conversos lived in constant dread. “I was concerned because the Inquisition was coming,” a tanner of Segovia said. “I would rather see all the Muslims of Granada enter this city,” a resident of Cuenca exclaimed in 1491, “than the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which takes away life and honor.”122

Punishment by the Inquisition brought with it a number of civil disabilities (see chapter 10 below). In principle this situation could be avoided. From an early period many who admitted their faults during an edict of grace were allowed to wipe the slate clean by making a cash payment to the inquisitors. It was a welcome source of income to the Holy Office. “Rehabilitation” by this means must have appeared to many conversos a worthwhile price to pay for security. A major advantage was that no confiscation of goods was exacted of those who confessed voluntarily.123 Thousands were “reconciled” to the Catholic faith, in Toledo alone some forty-three hundred persons in 1486–87.124 Though there is no evidence of how common it was to rehabilitate offenders, lists that survive from Toledo, Segovia and several Andalucian towns show that the inquisitors were quite happy to exact the cash payment from thousands. The details for some fifteen hundred persons who went through the process in the city of Toledo in 1495–97 show us a normal cross-section of Toledo professions, the largest in number being jewelers, followed by the legal profession, administrators and traders.125 There was, of course, no proof that those who paid for “rehabilitation” were in fact convinced judaizers. Moreover—and this was the sting in the tail of voluntary disclosure—it was a calculated risk whether the inquisitors would accept the repentance implied in confessions. Several persons were subsequently brought to trial for offenses committed after their rehabilitation.126

The determination of the tribunal to strike hard at supposed heresy was unmistakable. Because documentation for the early years has not usually survived, it is difficult to arrive at reliable figures for the activity of the Inquisition. The period of most intense persecution of conversos was between 1480 and 1530. In Aragon many who were not implicated in the murder of Inquisitor Arbués were drawn into the nets of the repression.127 Hernando del Pulgar estimated that up to 1490 the Inquisition in Andalucia had burnt two thousand people and reconciled fifteen thousand others under the “edicts of grace.”128 His contemporary Andrés Bernáldez estimated that in the diocese of Seville alone between 1480 and 1488 the tribunal had burnt over seven hundred people and reconciled more than five thousand, without counting all those who were sentenced to imprisonment.129 A later historian, the annalist Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga, claimed that in Seville between 1481 and 1524 over twenty thousand had abjured their errors, and over a thousand obstinate heretics had been sent to the stake.130

The figures for deaths are certainly exaggerated, but it cannot be doubted that the total number of persons passing through the hands of the inquisitors ran into the thousands. The Toledo tribunal may have dealt with over eight thousand cases in the period 1481–1530.131 The overwhelming majority of these were not in fact brought to trial; they were disciplined as a result of the edicts of grace, and had to undergo various penalties and penances, but escaped with their lives. Trial cases were very much fewer, and in them the penalty of death was pronounced for the most part against absent refugees. Effigies, which were burnt in the place of condemned absentees, may well form part of the total figures for executions given by early chroniclers. In reality, the extreme penalty of death for heresy was suffered by a very much smaller number than historians once thought. A recent carefully considered view is that in these years of the high tide of persecution, the tribunal of Saragossa had some 130 executions in person,132 that of Valencia possibly some 225,133 that of Barcelona some 34.134

In Castile the incidence of executions was certainly higher. In the auto de fe at Ciudad Real on 23 February 1484, 30 people were burnt alive and 40 in effigy; in the auto at Valladolid on 5 January 1492, 32 were burnt alive. The executions were, however, sporadic and concentrated only in the early years. In rounded terms, it is likely that over three-quarters of all those who perished under the Inquisition in the three centuries of its existence did so in the first thirty years. Lack of documentation, however, makes it impossible to arrive at totally reliable figures. One good estimate, based on documentation of the autos de fe, is that 250 persons were burnt in person in the Toledo tribunal between 1485 and 1501.135 Since this tribunal and that of Seville and Jaén were among the few in Castile to have had an intense level of activity, it would not be improbable to suggest a figure five times higher, around 1,000 persons, as a rough total for those executed in the tribunals of Castile in the early period. Taking into account all the tribunals of Spain up to about 1520, it is unlikely that more than 2,000 people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition.136

The final death toll may have been smaller than historians once believed, but the overall impact was certainly devastating for the cultural minority most directly affected. The reign of terror had an inevitable consequence. Conversos ceased to come forward to admit their errors. Instead, they were forced to take refuge in the very beliefs and practices that they and their parents had turned their backs on. Active Judaism, which existed among some conversos, seems to have been caused primarily by the awakening of their consciousness under persecution. Under pressure, they reverted to the faith of their ancestors. A Jewish lady living in Sigüenza was surprised in 1488 to encounter a man whom she had known previously in Valladolid as a Christian. He now professed to be a Jew,and was begging for charity among the Jews. “What are you doing over here?” she asked him, “The Inquisition is around and will burn you.” He answered: “I want to go to Portugal.”137 After no doubt equivocating for many years, he had made his decision and was going to risk all for it.

Since conversos occupied a significant place in administration, the professions and trade, diminishing numbers through persecution and emigration may have had an impact on the areas where they had been numerous. In Barcelona. according to the consellers in 1485, the refugees “have transferred to other realms all the money and goods they have in this city.”138 In 1510 the few conversos who remained there claimed that they had once been a flourishing group of “over six hundred families, of whom over two hundred were traders,” and that they now numbered only fifty-seven families, close to ruin.139 In Valencia, we know the professions of 736 conversos tried by the Inquisition: 34 percent were in commerce and 43 percent were artisans, principally in textiles.140 The conversos were—it should be stressed—in no way the cream of the population, but their ruin could not fail to cause concern to some civic authorities. This, indeed, together with defense of local independence, was among the main causes of nonconverso resistance to the Inquisition in Teruel. Persecution of conversos was far more damaging to the local economy than the later and more spectacular expulsion of the Jews. The latter, because of their marginal status, had played a smaller role in key sectors of public life and controlled fewer economic resources.

The wish to eliminate conversos from public life was, some have argued, the main reason for the establishment of the Inquisition, and religion was never a genuine motive. In the process, the tribunal and the crown would get rich on the proceeds from confiscations.141 The argument is plausible, particularly if we deny that there was any widespread judaizing movement among conversos. But, as we shall see, other issues were also involved, making it difficult to accept anti-converso greed as a significant motive. Moreover, the crucial fact is that Ferdinand, who vigorously denied any hostility to them, continued at all times to employ conversos in his service. “We have always had these people, like any others, in our service,” he declared in 1507, “and they have served us well. My intention always has been and still is that the good among them be rewarded and the bad punished, though charitably and not harshly.”142 There is ample evidence to support the truth of his words.

The founding of the Inquisition has often been cited as evidence that the Catholic monarchs desired to impose uniformity of religion on Spain. The expulsion of the Jews would seem to confirm it. The monarchs, as fervent Catholics, certainly wished the nation to be united in faith. But there is no evidence at all of a deliberate policy to impose uniformity. Throughout the first decade of the Inquisition’s career, Ferdinand and Isabella did not cease to protect their Jews while simultaneously trying to eliminate judaizing among the conversos. Even after the expulsion of the Jews, the Muslims remained in full enjoyment of their freedom of religion—in Castile for another decade, in Aragon for another thirty years. The ruthless drive against “heresy,” far from aiming at religious unification, was no more than the culmination of a long period of social and political pressure directed against a specific section of the conversos.

When official chroniclers of those years, most of them sympathetic to the Holy Office, came to give an account of events, they slipped all too easily into a standard version of what had happened. All those who had fled from the Inquisition were considered, by implication, guilty. All those who had come forward for rehabilitation were, equally, written off as guilty; their confessions were there as evidence. It went without saying that all those found guilty and condemned were deemed by the chroniclers to have been rightly judged. The Jewish religion of the conversos became accepted as historical fact.

Yet the trial documents of the Holy Office give little cause to accept such a verdict, and their testimony is no more reliable than that of hostile witnesses in a criminal trial today. Many of the accused undoubtedly had pro-Jewish tendencies, for they had lived their lives in an ambivalent Christian-Jewish environment. But very rarely did the Inquisition manage to find concrete evidence against conversos, of whom the majority seem to have been dragged before courts on the basis of the gossip of neighbors, personal malice, communal prejudice and simple hearsay. According to a Jewish chronicler, conversos testified against conversos who would not pay them off.143 The prosecution papers are full of the type of oral evidence that normal courts would have thrown out.144Some of the practices denounced to the inquisitors, moreover, by no means implied Judaism. Was it only Jews who turned their heads to the wall when they died?145

Above all, the inquisitors seem to have accepted without question some wholly incredible feats of memory. They had no problem in accepting as reliable the testimony of witnesses who knew nothing of an accused’s present religious life but could testify that twenty or thirty years ago they had seen him change his sheets on a Friday, or nod his head as though praying in the Jewish manner. Sancho de Ciudad, a leading citizen of Ciudad Real, was accused of practicing Judaism on the basis of events allegedly remembered by witnesses from ten, twenty and nearly thirty years before.146 Juan de Chinchilla, tailor of Ciudad Real, made the mistake in 1483 of owning up to Jewish practices after the expiry of the edict of grace. All those who worked with him testified that he appeared to be a practicing Catholic. The only witnesses against him spoke of things they claimed to have seen sixteen and twenty years before. On their evidence he was burnt at the stake.147 In Soria in 1490 the inquisitors accepted the word of a witness who had seen an official say Jewish prayers “twenty years ago,” and that of another who had seen certain objects in a house “over thirty years ago.”148 A man in the same city recalled that a neighbor “forty years ago” never went to mass and an elderly woman reported hearing a specific phrase spoken “fifty years ago.”149 Very rarely indeed could witnesses say they had seen firm evidence of Jewish practices in the previous week or month or year, but their memory seemed to work very well when it concerned words and events of half a lifetime ago. In most cases, the prosecution in these years relied either on voluntary confessions or on fragments of hearsay evidence dredged out from long-range memory. When María González was brought before the inquisitors at Ciudad Real in 1511, the only firm evidence against her was her own confession during an edict of grace in 1483. “Since then,” her defense attorney argued (and there was no evidence to the contrary), “she has lived as a Catholic.” However, her husband had been burnt as a heretic at that time, and in subsequent years she never ceased to maintain that “they burnt him on false witness” and that “he went to heaven like a martyr.”150 On this flimsy evidence she too was sent to the stake.

When Juan González Pintado, a former secretary to the king and now city councilor of Ciudad Real, was tried by the Inquisition in 1484 for judaizing, the only detailed testimony against him dated from thirty-five years before.151 By contrast, many witnesses testified that he was at this moment an excellent believing Christian. In such cases, other motives for the prosecution may be suspected. González, indeed, had been implicated in a rebellion twenty years before,152 and echoes from that event may now have prejudiced his case.

If the idea that conversos were secret Jews is to be sustained principally by the evidence dug up by the Inquisition during the 1480s, there can be no doubt of the verdict. Very little convincing proof of Jewish belief or practice among the conversos can be found in the trials.153 There is no need to question the sincerity of the inquisitors, or to imagine that they maliciously fabricated evidence. It is true that, in the beginning at least, they were not trained lawyers (they had studied Church law but the science of criminal law did not yet exist), nor did they have a very clear idea of Jewish religious practice. But they themselves were instruments of a judicial system in which social pressures and prejudices, expressed through unsupported oral testimony, were given virtually unquestioned validity.

Those convicted of judaizing fall into three main categories. First, there were those condemned on the evidence of members of the same family. Where this happened, the charges often appear plausible, though personal quarrels were evidently involved. Second, there were those condemned in their absence. Here the automatic presumption of guilt, the lack of any defense, and the fact that property of the accused was confiscated tend to make the evidence unacceptable. Third, there were those condemned on the hearsay of often malicious neighbors, most of whom had to reach back in their memory between ten and fifty years in order to find incriminating evidence. The inevitable conflict between various testimonies can be seen in the trial of Catalina de Zamora in Ciudad Real in 1484. She was accused by a number of witnesses of being a convinced and practicing Jew, and thoroughly hostile to the Inquisition (which she evidently was). An equally convincing group of witnesses swore that she was a good Catholic, and that the prosecution witnesses were “vulgar women of low intelligence.”154 The inquisitors were convinced by this last group and threw the charges out, but imposed a punishment on her for having blasphemed against the Virgin.

In short, the trial papers leave no doubt that some conversos were addicted to Jewish practices and culture (like the converso of Soria who in the 1440s insisted on going into the synagogue and praying beside the Jews until one day they got fed up with him and threw him out into the street, despite his loud protests).155 But there is no systematic evidence that conversos as a group were secret Jews. Nor is it possible to build on this fragile evidence any picture of a converso consciousness whose principal feature was the secret practice of Judaism.156 In the perception of contemporary Jews who witnessed the persecution of the conversos, “only a few of them died as Jews, and of these most were women.”157 This testimony was repeated so often at the time by Jews that it is unsafe to call it in question. Isaac Abravanel stressed four times in his writings that the charges made against the conversos were false. Deeply concerned for the fate of his own people, he would hardly have written off the conversos had he felt they were of the same faith. “The people will always call them ‘Jews,’” he wrote about the conversos, “and brand them as Israelites and falsely accuse them of judaizing in secret, a crime for which they are paying with death by fire.”158 Another contemporary Jewish scholar, Isaac Arama, was no less explicit. “The Gentiles,” he wrote, “will always revile them, plot against them and falsely accuse them in matters of faith; they will always suspect them as judaizers, especially in our time, when the smoke of the autos de fe has risen towards the sky in all the realms of Spain.”159

This picture changed radically with the expulsion of 1492. To the large number of Jews who converted that year was soon added the very many who returned from exile and accepted baptism. Among both converts and returnees, few were happy with the situation. “If it were not for the debts owed to me,” said a man who came back from Portugal in 1494, “I would neither turn Christian nor return from Portugal.” “This is the real captivity,” another (reported in 1502) is said to have commented some years before, “when we were Jews we were lords, now we are slaves.”160 From 1492, accordingly, that is to say twelve years after the establishment of the Inquisition, a real problem of judaizing arose. These judaizers had lived all their lives as Jews and refused now to forgo their birthright.

The major qualitative change that took place in converso culture after 1492 has never been adequately analyzed.161 The new converts were decidedly not a part of the old “converso nation” of Christians. Whereas the older generation had been fundamentally Christian, the new converts were still consciously Jewish and yearned for their former culture.162 “I repent of having become a Christian,” a resident of Medinaceli claimed in 1504. “We were well off in the Jewish faith,” another stated in Sigüenza. The expulsion had taken place because they were not good Jews, said a man in Almazán: “if evil has befallen us we deserve it, for we did not observe the ceremonies nor the other things that we had to do, and so the expulsion came upon us.” The opinion reflects that of a later Jewish chronicler who took the moralistic view that “the exile which appears so terrible to the eye will be the cause of our salvation.”163 Speaking of a refugee who had gone to Portugal, another in Almazán in 1501 stated that “if I were now in that country I would not turn Christian.” “When we were Jews we never wanted for anything, and now we go in want of everything,” was the stated view of a new convert in 1505. “We were better off then and had much more than we now have.”

This attitude, evidently, continued to give the inquisitors much work to do. It is significant that in the 1480s their main hope of obtaining evidence had been through the edicts of grace and the spontaneous confessions of conversos. After the 1490s those edicts were almost superfluous, because the large number of accumulated testimonies was sufficient material from which to work. Moreover, the inquisitors could now count on the help of those conversos who, in revenge for denunciations made by Jews at that time, turned the tables on the ex-Jews and proffered evidence against them.

They happened to be difficult times for both Christians and former Jews, and both looked forward to new horizons. In Western Europe there were Christian leaders, among them Cardinal Cisneros, who entertained beliefs of a promised millennium, and King Ferdinand of Aragon shared the same outlook. Many conversos, hard pressed by the aftermath of 1492, put their faith in similar expectations. In Ciudad Real, in Córdoba and in Valencia, converso prophets expected the final coming of the Messiah.164 They would continue to hope, in the centuries that followed, but the promise never bore fruit and the shadow of the Inquisition continued to mark the sky over their heads.

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