- Between Christian and Jew: Conversion and Inquisition in the Crown of Aragon, 1250–1391 by Paola Tartakoff
Historians have long been fascinated by the phenomenon of Jewish conversion to Christianity in Iberia. They have focused most of their attention, however, on the events and aftermath of the 1391 pogroms when tens of thousands of Jews throughout Castile and the Crown of Aragon were killed or forcibly converted. The present consensus is that this introduction of an unprecedentedly large mass of unwilling converts brought about an ambiguity of Christian and Jewish identity that helped usher in the infamous purity of blood legislation, the Spanish Inquisition, and ultimately the mass expulsion of Jews by the latter decades of the fifteenth century.
By contrast, the topic of Jewish conversion before 1391 has received considerably less attention. The understanding that the overall number of converts was low and that the majority of them had come to Christianity voluntarily has encouraged the view that converts’ relationship to Christian [End Page 341] society and their former co-religionists as well as the problems they presented to sustainable coexistence were fundamentally different from the climate engendered by the events of 1391. As a result, the prevailing view has been that, even though this earlier period may yield answers about the breakdown that motivated these mass forced conversions and this major watershed in Jewish history, it offers comparatively little for helping us understand the mounting dysfunction of Christian-converso-Jewish interaction over the course of the fifteenth century.
Of the many accomplishments of Paola Tartakoff’s elegantly crafted and beautifully written Between Christian and Jew, undermining the notion that the existences and inter-relationships of converts were fundamentally different before 1391 is arguably one of its most significant. Using an impressive assemblage of sources culled from a vast archival haystack, Tartakoff shows that even though few converts were forcibly converted in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they rarely came to Christianity without pressures and constraints. Diverse motivations, from love affairs to desires to escape punishment to conflicts with the Jewish community, nudged would-be converts to break with the Jewish community and informed the problematic relationships they maintained with each religious community. Although the economic and emotional hardship, isolation, and attendant crises of identity experienced by these new Christians often inspired them to lash out at their former coreligionists in opportunistic, punitive campaigns that made use of lay and religious Christian authorities—a dynamic Tartakoff explores using famous and less well known examples gleaned from diverse archives and source editions—the experience of living in a no-man’s land, rejected as an untrustworthy outsider by Jewish and Christian communities alike, could and did encourage many to regret their choice and court violent death by returning to the fold of Judaism. Situated as they were at the boundary between Christian and Jewish identity, converts thereby constituted a potent symbol in the mismatched struggle between Jews and Christians in Christian-ruled societies. They embodied the path ecclesiastical leaders since early Christian times had intended for the remaining Jewish population and broadcast the innate superiority of Christianity over Judaism. At the same time, their lingering Jewishness (both real and imagined by Christians), difficulty adapting to a Christian mode of living, and consequent susceptibility to relapse made them perennial targets for the ever-policing medieval inquisition and offered high-profile opportunities for Jewish leaders to challenge the dominant narrative of Christian sacred history and triumph over Judaism by encouraging (preferably public) apostasy.
Tartakoff cleverly partners her argument for the essential continuity of pre-and post-1391 conversion with another quite convincing one that has to do with the inter-relationship between modes of coexistence in Iberia and greater Europe during her period. Throughout the book, she pairs vivid local examples with evidence from England, France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere to reinforce the argument that the Iberian situation must not be relegated to the periphery as an anomalous case (as is customary among scholars of northern European ethno-religious relations) but instead should...