Conversos Conference Aims at Shedding New Light on a Polemical Subject

The three-day event brought together U.S. and European scholars to exchange ideas and discuss recent research on the perennially provocative and controversial topic of the 15th-century conversion of Jews to Christianity.

Madrid’s Casa de América was the venue last June of Saint Louis University’s International Conference on Converso and Morisco Studies. The event, held in collaboration with Spain’s Consejo Superior de Ciencias Sociales, assembled fifty-two scholars from eight countries to present papers on a variety of subjects, from “Morisco Devotion, Old-Christian Cult: The Immaculate Conception and the Lead Books of Granada” to “Seeking the Messiah: Converso Emigration from Valencia after the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople.”

The first issue of Converso and Morisco Studies will be published in November 2006.

In an interview published in the Spanish newspaper El País before the first conference, in 2004, Kevin Ingram, the conference organizer, spoke in some detail of the position of the converso in Spanish history and his reasons for organizing the event. The following is an extract from that interview.

Who were the conversos?

The conversos were men and women whose recent ancestors had converted from Judaism to Christianity. In Spain there were two major waves of conversion, first in the period from 1391 to around 1420 and then in the months following the Jewish expulsion order of 1492. In both cases the Jews converted under duress. In 1391 as a result of popular uprisings throughout Spain against the Jews, they were forced into converting en masse. It’s estimated that as a result of this pogrom a third of the Jewish population was killed and another third was pressured into becoming Christian. Spain’s Christian majority may have regarded this as a victory—but it turned out to be a pyrrhic one. The New Christians thrived in an atmosphere where there were no longer any restraints on them socially. Many became enormously rich merchants and financiers. They used their wealth to make important marriage alliances with Spain’s leading noble families. They began to monopolize town councils, and they dominated administrative positions at court. You see the conversos were naturally equipped to take advantage of an increasing demand for middle class professionals. For one thing they were literate. Literacy was deemed important by Jews and conversos alike; in this they differed from Christian Spain that was more interested in the martial arts than the liberal arts. Second, they were, again like their Jewish ancestors, men of business and finance. Both their business skills and financial resources were needed by the Monarchy in its final Reconquest drive. In short, many of them thrived.

Why do you think the Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand established the Inquisition?

The Catholic monarchs established the Inquisition in 1480, right at the beginning of their reign. They had just come out of a long civil war and were interested in establishing their authority as quickly as possible. They wanted to impose central authority on a fractious country full of rebellious nobles, insolent provincial governments and problematical minority groups. The Inquisition was I believe an agency for this centralization process—a sort of politburo, or ministry of correct thinking. I think Ferdinand and Isabel were swayed by certain clerics into believing that the majority of conversos were secret Judaizers and that this clandestine activity represented a threat to the smooth running of their state. Isabel may have been more sensitive to these arguments than her husband. After all, Ferdinand himself was a converso—his mother was a member of the Enriquez family, Jewish converts to Christianity.

What effect did the Inquisition have on the conversos?

A tremendous effect, especially initially. Probably three thousand or more conversos were burnt at the stake in the first twenty years of its existence. Many, many thousands lost their wealth to avaricious Inquisition officials. It had a tremendous psychological effect. Conversos were often prosecuted for judaizing on the flimsiest of evidence. One of the problems was that the conversos formed a discreet social group within their towns. They often lived in the same neighborhood and formed marriage alliances with other conversos. And while many did not consider themselves Jewish in a religious sense, they were influenced by their Sephardic cultural heritage. For example, many continued to bathe regularly and change their linen—acts the Inquisition associated with Judaizing. The fact that they were separate socially gave them a subversive aura. However, it is important to place converso persecution in perspective. They were attacked often mercilessly in the first half century of the Inquisition’s existence. But the conversos, like the Jews, were a very resourceful group. Many used their wealth to bribe their way out of difficulties. They also created elaborate false genealogies for themselves, indicating Old-Christian backgrounds. In the limpieza de sangre investigations for entry into the church, university, local government, and the military noble orders they bribed witnesses to say they were without taint. Although they now had to spend a fortune for the privilege, they continued to dominate Middle Class society. The major cost, however, was the psychological one. How do you deal with the moral majority in a society continually treating you like a pariah? This led to an immense feeling of resentment, and this is evident when you start prying into the works of some of the Golden-Age figures.

What do think the long-term economic and cultural impact of the Inquisition was?

Well this is the debate that led ultimately to Americo Castro’s España en su historia. At the end of the 19th century, certain intellectuals were looking into reasons for why Spain was an economic backwater when France and England were doing so well. One school of thought was that the Inquisition was responsible for this situation. The feeling was that Spain had stagnated because this institutional watchdog—which, remember, had existed until 1834—had created an atmosphere in which it was impossible to discuss new ideas, to broach new theories and practices. Scholars are still debating this issue.

What do you hope to achieve by organizing the converso conference?

Well I would like to make this an annual event in which an international group of scholars from several disciplines, not only history, get together to discuss their work on conversos and moriscos (Muslim converts to Christianity), and their ideas on minority groups in general. I would also like to create an annual journal that examines these issues.