The Perils of Living the Good and True Law: Iberian Crypto-Jews in the Shadow of the Inquisition of Colonial Hispanic America by Matthew D. Warshawsky
The Perils of Living the Good and True Law explores the diversity of religious practices and lived experiences among crypto-Jewish families caught up in waves of inquisitorial persecution in mid-seventeenth century Spanish America. It focuses on five individuals tried before the inquisitorial tribunals of Peru and Mexico City in the 1630s and 1640s, [End Page 170] a period of heightened suspicion toward the Portuguese merchants who had settled in Spanish territories during the union of the two crowns between 1580 and 1640. Many of these Portuguese merchants were also New Christians, and local officials became concerned about their loyalty to Spain during and after Portugal's struggles to regain independence. Known as the "Great Conspiracy," public paranoia surrounding conversos surged alongside current political and economic tensions, resulting in waves of denunciations, inquisitorial trials, autos de fe and executions.
Matthew D. Warshawsky's contribution lies in tracing the complex religious choices made by individuals who struggled to maintain their faith in an atmosphere of heightened suspicion, often without access to rabbinical guidance and the sacred texts. For some, this meant assuming a "chameleon-like identity" that allowed them to "live as Jews and Catholics at once" (16). Warshawsky analyzes crypto-Jewish practices on their own terms, by tracing both their "variance from normative Judaism" and the influences of Catholicism (16). Maintaining Judaism privately at home was often an interrupted and intermittent endeavor due to the imperative for secrecy to ensure survival. In this context, fasting emerges in a number of the trials analyzed as central to crypto-Jewish identities. Fasting provided a hidden means for observing important holidays including the "Great Day," or Yom Kippur, and the Fast of Esther that preceded Purim. Warshawsky notes the improvised nature of religious observance and obstacles such as the difficulty of dating Yom Kippur that led Tomás Treviño de Sobremonte to fast twice in one year. Jewish and Catholic rituals and the meanings ascribed to them could often blend together. Treviño described praying not only while standing but also while kneeling, a Christian practice. Other testimonies described Moses and Esther as saints and expressed how belief in Judaism could lead to personal salvation, a Catholic concept. Warshawsky's close analysis of the trial transcripts reveals the ambivalence and emotional struggles that many conversos faced. Often instructed in Catholicism from childhood and living amidst Catholics, crypto-Jews could simultaneously value elements of Catholic teachings and express rejection of Catholicism through the desecration of crucifixes.
Warshawsky rightly emphasizes the multiplicity of lived experiences of individual conversos, whose knowledge about Judaism varied depending on whether their childhoods were spent residing in communities across the Mediterranean or in the Dutch Republic, where Jews could practice openly, or whether they were raised in Spain or Portugal within families that had to conceal their faith. Warshawsky touches upon the issue of racism, noting how Spanish authorities conflated conversos from such different backgrounds. The Spanish Crown perceived conversos as useful [End Page 171] in pursuing its interests overseas but also as potentially subversive, placing them in a precarious status vulnerable to inquisitorial prosecution. Warshawsky examines the tensions by noting they held both "relative economic prestige and imputed racial otherness, conversos felt both 'in and out'" (16). A fascinating point, this might have been teased out further in some of the trial analyses to examine not only tensions among conversos but also deeper contextualization of the interests of both the Spanish Crown and local officials in the viceroyalties.
Regrettably, there are occasional errors that might have been remedied with careful editing. For example, the author refers to the establishment of the inquisitorial tribunal at Cartagena de Indias in 1610 as connected to its status as the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, which was not established until the eighteenth century. Furthermore, with the exception of the Gilcrease Museum records in Tulsa pertaining to the case of Duarte de León Jaramillo and the trial of Manuel Bautista Pérez digitized and made available online by Spain's Ministry of Culture, the author analyzes published editions of the inquisitorial trials rather than the archival sources directly, which can sometimes affect their reliability. These issues aside, the author presents a valuable contribution to the scholarship examining the diversity of crypto-Jewish religiosity in seventeenth-century Spanish America. [End Page 172]
Karoline P. Cook is Lecturer in the History of the Atlantic World at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Forbidden Passages: Muslims and Moriscos in Colonial Spanish America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).