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Reviewed by:
  • Toward the Inquisition: Essays on Jewish and Converso History in Late Medieval Spain
  • Thomas F. Glick
Toward the Inquisition: Essays on Jewish and Converso History in Late Medieval Spain. By B. Netanyahu (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1998) 267 pp. $32.50

Netanyahu is known for his two seminal works on Jews, conversos, and the Spanish Inquisition, the first (1966) based on Hebrew sources, the more recent (1995) on mainly Christian materials. The present book is a collection of historiographical essays illuminating different approaches to Jewish and converso history, aimed in particular at what he calls “dubious theories” of modern Inquisition historiography.

Netanyahu deems the stances of both Castro and Sánchez-Albornoz, the warring patriarchs of twentieth-century medieval Spanish historiography, as racist or racialist. 1 Castro argued that the evidential system of the Inquisition had its origins in Jewish notions of religious exclusivity that were brought into Spanish jurisprudence by conversos. But Netanyahu convincingly demonstrates both Castro’s misreading of Biblical evidence and his ignorance of post-Biblical Judaism on that score. He also argues that Castro had misread Santob of Carrion as projecting “Jewish” values, when, in fact, that author’s work was based on the Bocados de Oro, one of a number of Arabized literary melanges of Eastern origin, perhaps known to Samtob in a version by ibn Gabirol. Netanyahu is insistent on the distinction between purity of religion and purity of race, but offers no convincing case that religion was not viewed as conterminous with race by medieval people.

He begins his discussion of Sánchez-Albornoz by expressing incredulity that such a paragon of positivist history could offer such aprioristic hypotheses regarding Jews. Netanyahu is gilding the lily here: Apriorism was pervasive throughout Sánchez-Albornoz’s work. But he is very effective in identifying Don Claudio’s malevolently ingenuous appropriation of certain conceits of medieval anti-Semitism—for example, that Jews used Aristotelian philosophy to confound Christians and that they cultivated medicine and science to dominate them. Since this collection reflects debates of a generation or more ago, the essays now seem dated, inasmuch as the research front (pushed in part by Netanyahu himself) has moved well beyond the idiosyncratic bounds of the Castro/Sánchez-Albornoz polemic.

Netanyahu also attacks Cohen’s contention that self-identification is a valid criterion for Marrano definition, insisting that markers of group boundaries must have a religious criterion because medieval and early modern Jews would not accept any solely ethnic one. 2 Yet, in the symbolically and ideologically confused and confusing mental world of conversos and Marranos, self-identification is a sufficient ethnic marker. [End Page 325] In any case, he seemingly contradicts himself later when he observes that rabbis stretched the definitions of Jewishness to regard even the most Christianized Marranos as Jews for a long time after their conversion.

In an essay about Alonso de Espina, a Franciscan anti-Jewish propagandist, Netanyahu examines the case study of a prominent Spaniard who is presumed (in this case, by Jews and non-Jews alike) to be a converso in the absence of any external evidence at all. Netanyahu concludes that Espina’s rabbinical sources are all derivative and that, therefore, the inferential case that he was a converso is weak.

Netanyahu agrees with many other historians that the cause of the establishment of the Inquisition could not have been a realistic fear of crypto-Jews (Jews converted forcibly during the pogroms of 1391 but who continued the secret practice of Judaism); they were practically extinct by the late 1470s. Thus, the campaign against conversos could only have been an extension of the campaign already in progress against Jews extended to conversos under racialist presuppositions.

Thomas F. Glick
Boston University


1. Américo Castro, The Structure of Spanish History (Princeton, 1954); Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, España: Un enigma histórico (Buenos Aires, 1956).

2. Gerson D. Cohen, review of Netanyahu, The Marranos of Spain (Ithaca, 1999; orig. pub. 1966), in Jewish Social Studies, XXIX (1967), 178–184.


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