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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 137-155

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Enmity and Assimilation
Jews, Christians, And Converts In Medieval Spain

David Nirenberg

In the year 1391, Christians in the lands we now call Spain witnessed a miracle so great that it seemed to some a harbinger of the messiah. 1 In town after town across the peninsula, mobs of rioters attacked the Jews. This was not in itself miraculous. The miracle resided in the fact that, although thousands of Jews were killed, many thousands more converted to Christianity. Their conversion, long a dream of Spanish Christians, had been equally long despaired of—and its miraculous nature was abundantly clear. In the city of Valencia, for example, so many Jews sought baptism that the clergy feared running out of chrism; then suddenly, the priests found their vessels so overflowing that they were able to resume their work. "Consider for yourself," the town council of Valencia wrote the king, "whether these things can have a natural cause. We believe that they cannot, but can only be the work of the Almighty." 2

If in the 1390s these conversions (the most extensive in the Middle Ages) were seen as miraculous, by the 1450s many Christians were beginning to consider them a disaster. The converts and their descendants were now seen as insincere [End Page 137] Christians, even as clandestine Jews. Their secret Judaizing was thought to be so extensive and dangerous as to require the establishment of institutions (such as the Inquisition) to identify those at risk and either reform or extirpate them. 3 Some went so far as to see this insincerity as a product of nature. Baptism could not alter the fact that the converts' blood was corrupted by millennia of mixture and debasement, indelibly saturated with a hatred of everything Christian. Hence laws mandating purity of blood were needed to bar the descendants of converts from any position of power or privilege, and "natural Christians" were encouraged not to intermarry with them. 4

The shift compressed within these sixty years is a massive one. It is as if an earthquake had jolted Christian religiosity out of its ancient Pauline course into a new channel, this one carved by nature rather than by grace. It is perhaps difficult for inhabitants of a less Catholic and more Darwinian world to recognize the magnitude of the change. But all of us can easily recognize the relevance of two broad sets of questions that the change poses. First, why do societies that struggle sincerely and mightily to assimilate their minorities ferociously resist that assimilation once they have succeeded? How do they justify that resistance in the face of the ideal of assimilation that they had earlier professed? Second, how and why do societies translate cultural differences into natural ones? How do they transform their social classifications and discriminations into products of nature, rather than of human or divine agency? In modern terms, we would ask: How and why do they create race?

Curiously enough, historians of Spain and its Jews have not favored these questions. Instead they have emphasized not transformation but continuity, insisting that there is no gap between sentiments of the earlier and later eras. Among historians, there are two dominant positions, each answering to an apologetic need. The first places the blame for the persistence of discrimination upon the unchanging nature of the discriminator, the second upon that of the discriminated.

Benzion Netanyahu's recent bestseller, The Origins of the Inquisition, represents an extreme example of the first position. He insists that the great majority of the converts and their descendants were devoted Christians, persecuted for no failing of their own but because they were the object of the ancient (from "about the opening of the sixth century B.C.E."), continuous, and relentless hatred of Jews to which Spain was heir. Spanish society was "sick with an all-pervading hatred [End Page 138] for the Jews," with a "deep-seated hatred—fierce, implacable, and infernal hatred —for everything related to anything Jewish...[a hatred] that stemmed from prejudice and a tradition rooted in...


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