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Conversos in Catholic Spain

From Women in European History

Additional Information: Conversos in Spain in the Medieval Period

Asha Woodall- Teresa de Cartagena

Painting by Goya of Jews, marked by special hats made to wear by Catholics during the Spanish Inquisition. Image can be accessed at http://jameswagner.com/cults/2008/04/

The term converso, mainly serves to refer to those who converted to Catholicism in Spain, and to some extent Portugal, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Most of these conversions were a result of the Spanish Inquisition [1] and because of the recurring views of the common people of Spain to blame the Jews for their problems. For example, when a large bout of the Black Death hit Spain in the fourteenth century, Jews were accused of poisoning wells to start the illness [2]. This was one of the main impetus' of the harsher treatment they were soon to encounter. Jews were given basically three options; convert, leave, or suffer. These were the conditions in which the massive conversions of Spanish Jews took place. After 1493, conversion became the only option [3] if Jews wanted to stay Spanish citizens- one identity had to be renounced either way.

The converso in Spain did not have a care free existence. They were tainted with their status, being labeled as 'coversos'- converts. Many still did not trust them, did not fully include them, and did not believe that they were genuinely loyal to the Catholic interests of Spain [4]. However, many saw that as preferable to the much bleaker alternative. Toleration for Jews and Muslims in Spain had virtually disappeared during this time, and so to maintain the old religion also meant immediately acknowledging an upward battle for the most basic existence. This led to the enormous rate of conversions that took place. However, we know that “While the openly professing Jews were thereby eliminated from Spanish society, many of the conversos secretly remained Jewish believers” [5]

But because of the increasing state of religious conformity, conversion to Christianity in this time became a more and more attractive alternative to maintaining minority religious views. If one became a Catholic, their status in society was restored or heightened , which led to much discontent as Jewish conversos often attained high positions within the structure of Spain [6].

However, the fate of one's family was a large factor in the numerous conversions that took place in this era [7] . People did not want their children to later be persecuted for their beliefs in an increasingly hostile environment, and so it is a natural assumption that they converted to protect them in the future, and to safeguard the family in general so that they would not be ripped apart due to religious problems or differences.

Lastly, although the above reasons are the most often talked about when discussing the status of conversos in Catholic Spain, there is one last reason for conversion- belief. The Catholic tradition of piety, spiritualism, and mysticism was strong in Spain and so was the number of believers . This is especially relevant when thinking of Teresa de Cartagena. She came from a family of highly educated and fairly wealthy conversos [8], but was very clear in her absolute devotion to Christ. However, many still considered the conversos as Jews even after many years of faithful adhesion to their new religion [9] . Because of this, we cannot ignore the possibility that it was exactly because Teresa realized how fragile her status within the Catholic church was that she worked so hard to express all of her viewpoints within the greater framework of the ideals of Christianity and the Bible as given to her directly by God [10].

Links

Teresa de Cartagena


Notes

  1. "Spain." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 26 May. 2009<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/557573/Spain>. The Spanish Inquisition was a process in which the lifestyles and beliefs of many Spaniards was closely examined- sometimes resulting in expulsion, death, or forced conversion.
  2. Kearny, Milo and Medrano, Manuel. Medieval culture and the Mexican American borderlands. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002. (pg. 14)
  3. Castro, Americo. The Structure of Spanish History. Trans. Edmund L King. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954. (pg. 95) The expulsion of all Jews from Spain occurred in this year.
  4. "Spain." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 26 May. 2009<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/557573/Spain>. Distrust of Jewish heritage did not end with conversion
  5. Kearny, Milo and Medrano, Manuel. Medieval culture and the Mexican American borderlands. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002. (pg. 14)
  6. Castro, Americo. The Structure of Spanish History. Trans. Edmund L King. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954. (pg. 95)
  7. "Spain." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 26 May. 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/557573/Spain>. Many whole families were killed because of the beliefs of one prominent family member
  8. The Writings of Teresa de Cartagena (Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 1998) (pg. 4)
  9. "converso." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia. Britannica Online. 26 May. 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/135817/converso>.
  10. The Writings of Teresa de Cartagena (Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 1998).

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