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Reviewed by:
  • The Tribunal of Zaragoza and Crypto-Judaism, 1484–1515
  • Sybil Jack
D'Abrera, Anna Ysabel, The Tribunal of Zaragoza and Crypto-Judaism, 1484–1515 (Europa Sacra, 3), Turnhout, Brepols, 2008; hardback; pp. x, 242; 1 b/w line art; R.R.P. €60.00; ISBN 9782503524726.

In the ongoing argument about whether the records of the tribunals of the Inquisition are reliable evidence of the beliefs and practices of the accused, Dr D'Abrera comes firmly down in favour of their acceptability, rejecting arguments that they are unusable. Her discussion of the historiographical background to the debate, from the early argument of Llorente (1811), to the recent wholesale dismissal of their utility by Benzion Netanyahu (1995), is designed to emphasize the factual nature of the surviving documentation. [End Page 201] This is the territory of anti-Semitism where the historical examination of the delicate issue of whether the new Christians, conversos, were sincere converts or deceitful practisers of Crypto-Judaism becomes peculiarly difficult.

D'Abrera argues that the treatment of the New Christians must be seen in the context of a long period of plague and famine where minorities throughout Europe were blamed for the misery and natural disasters that were disrupting society. The New Christians, many of whom were prosperous and held prominent positions in Spanish society, were both envied and blamed.

Although some of her claims – such as that the Dominican Inquisitors were theologians rather than canon lawyers – are unsupported, she gives a useful summary of the background and major texts, such as those of Bernard Gui and Nicholas Eymerich, that Inquisitors would draw on to conduct their trials. Although she may not have studied the Inquisitors' Manuals (p. 192), she concludes they had a reasonable working knowledge of Judaism, presumably knowledge of their daily life rather than of the more religious understanding that Jews with access to rabbinical teaching might have.

Jews in Aragon before 1492 were compelled to answer the Inquisitors on an oath that they would regard as binding in return for complete anonymity. This is a critical issue in the debate over the utility of evidence that 'flouted inviolable judicial principles' (p. 65) but D'Abrera concludes that the Inquisitorial process was reasonable – the accused was permitted a defence lawyer and the Inquisitors appreciated the unreliability of confession under torture and required its ratification the following day. The notaries who recorded the proceedings were, she asserts, professionally impartial in their transcriptions. She presents a number of specific cases to demonstrate that the process gave the defendants some chance of acquittal and that the Inquisitors followed the judicial procedures laid down and did not impede 'the natural course of justice'.

She then uses the questions put by the Inquisitors, both before and after 1492, regarding observance of some known Jewish rituals, to investigate the extent to which Jewish ritual practices survived in some New Christian households, and the frequency of contact between New Christians and their Jewish relatives, friends and acquaintances. Since the Sabbath ritual was in the woman's domain many of those accused were women. She emphasizes the reluctance of women to work on Saturday and the willingness of the accused of both sexes to work on Sunday. She is also concerned with the examination of how far they were able to, and did, consume only kosher meat. [End Page 202]

It is understandable that the Inquisitors focused on household events since attendance at public religious places such as synagogues was not an essential part of a life of Jewish prayer and it is surprising that some New Christian men did visit synagogues rather than holding a minyan at home. Observing religious feasts, however, required knowledge of the Jewish lunar calendars and where this involved asking practising Jews it was clearly of value to the Inquisitors. Evidently longstanding prohibitions from both Christian and Jewish authorities on Christians and Jews eating together were frequently ignored, both groups regularly entertaining one another and even sleeping in one another's houses, apparently without scruple about the finer implications of such interaction.

What this tells us about the religious understanding of Jews in their interaction with non-kosher Christians deserves further scrutiny, as does the...


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