Jews and the Reconquista
Iberian Jews Under Muslim Rule
Jews had lived in Iberia since ancient times. Beginning in 711 c.e., Muslims gained control of much of the peninsula. The Muslims were largely tolerant of both Christians and Jews. Under their rule, Jewish culture thrived. Cities like Cordoba, Granada, and Toledo had large and prosperous Jewish communities.
The Jews of Iberia were famed for their learning and wealth. Some were philosophers, mathematicians, and doctors. Others were skilled jewelers, mapmakers, and makers of fine scientific instruments. Still others worked as traders. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars worked together to advance the cause of knowledge. Jewish scholars helped translate ancient Greek and Roman texts into Arabic and into modern European languages.
Jews Come Under Christian Rule
Although Muslims ruled most of Iberia, Christian kingdoms remained in the north. By the 11th century, these states were sending armies south into central Iberia in an attempt to reclaim the peninsula from Muslims. In 1085, the important city of Toledo in central Iberia fell to a Christian army.
Jews were caught in the middle of the struggle. In central Iberia, more and more Jews came under Christian rule. In the south, new Muslim rulers from North Africa changed the old policy of tolerance toward Jews. They forced some Jews to become Muslims and to wear distinctive clothing. Jews were also forbidden to trade, except on a small scale. Some Jews fled north into Christian territory.
Gradually, Christian armies won back most of Iberia. In 1139, Portugal became an independent Christian kingdom. By 1248, only the southern kingdom of Granada remained in Muslim hands.
For a time, Jews continued to thrive in areas that were now ruled by Christians. During the 1300s, however, prejudice against Jews grew. Some Catholic monks stirred up hatred by preaching against Jews. In 1348, a terrible outbreak of the Black Death (plague) hit Iberia. Many people blamed Jews for the plague, whose true causes were unknown.
By the late 1300s, there were anti-Jewish riots in major cities as well as attacks on Jewish communities. To escape being killed, some Jews agreed to be baptized as Catholics. Some freely accepted baptism. Others held fast to their Jewish faith.
Jews who converted to Catholicism were called conversos and “New Christians.” Being baptized did not win the acceptance of their Christian neighbors. Many conversos were resented for their wealth and success. Conversos were also suspected, sometimes rightly, of practicing their Jewish faith in secret.
By the mid 1400s, anti-converso riots were breaking out. Many conversos lost their homes and property. Some lost their lives.
The Spanish Inquisition
In the 1400s, Spain was not yet a single country. In 1479, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella brought the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon under their joint rule. The two monarchs were devout Catholics. They were also eager to strengthen their rule and to unify Spain as a Catholic country.
Ferdinand and Isabella worried about the loyalty of anyone who was not a sincere Catholic. Like other Catholic rulers in Europe, they claimed to be ruling in God’s name. They feared that Jews, Muslims, and “insincere” converts might not accept their “divine right” to rule. In addition, many people urged them to take action against the conversos.
The monarchs responded by setting up an Inquisition, a type of church court. Judges, called inquisitors, were told to expose and punish converts who were not sincere Catholics. Those found guilty could be burned at the stake.
Both Jewish and Muslim converts were hauled before the Inquisition. Many had, in fact, continued to practice their old faith. But whether or not converts were sincere Catholics, they were often helpless to defend themselves. They could not confront their accusers, whose names were kept secret. Worse, the inquisitors used torture to force people to confess.
During its first 12 years, the Inquisition killed perhaps 13,000 people accused of being “secret Jews.” Even the protests of popes in Rome failed to stop the violence.
Jews Are Forced to Leave Iberia
In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella’s armies captured Granada. The Reconquista was complete.
The conquest of Granada brought thousands more Jews under Spanish rule. At this point, Ferdinand and Isabella took a decisive step. They ordered all Jews to accept baptism or leave Spain.
Many Jews became converts, but more than 170,000 chose to leave their homes forever. Tens of thousands crossed the border to Portugal. This move brought only temporary relief. In 1497, Portugal, too, told Jews to become Catholics or to leave the country.
Once again, Jews had to find new homes. Many resettled in other parts of Europe. Others found refuge in Muslim lands in North Africa and the Middle East.
Thousands of Jews accepted baptism and remained in Portugal. As in Spain, however, New Christians faced prejudice, suspicion, and violence. By the mid 1500s, Portugal had established its own Inquisition. Once again, Jewish converts who were judged to be unfaithful Catholics were burned at the stake.
The Reconquista and its aftermath brought an end to some of the most successful and highly cultured Jewish communities in the world. The expulsion of the Jews also deprived Spain and Portugal of some of their most talented citizens.
But the history of the Iberian Jews was not over. The Jewish exiles, and their descendants, are known as Sephardic Jews. In their new homes, they kept alive the faith and practices of centuries past. Today, Sephardic Jews in many lands still preserve the ancient language and traditions of the Jews of Iberia.
Follow these steps to create a timeline.
|1.||Draw a timeline, and title it “Jews and the Reconquista.” Label the endpoints of your timeline “700 c.e.” and “1600 c.e.”|
|2.||Place the following events on the timeline. On your timeline, write the date and the label for each event. Then add a two- or three-sentence caption describing what effects the event had on the Jews of Iberia.|
- • 711 Muslims invade Iberia
- • 1085 Christian armies capture Toledo
- • 1348 An outbreak of the Black Death hits the Iberian Peninsula
- • 1479 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella unite kingdoms of Aragon and Castile
- • 1492 Spain conquers Granada
- • 1497 Portugal expels Jews
- • 1536 Portugal establishes the Inquisition