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Anti-Judaism and a Hermeneutic of the Flesh. A Converso Debate in Fifteenth-Century Spain

Erika Tritle

In the year 1391 waves of violence against Jews spread through the kingdoms of Spain. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Jews were killed, while the majority of Jews were baptized1. Oppressive legislation, preaching tours conducted by the Dominican friar Vincent Ferrer, and the twenty-one-month Disputation of Tortosa (1413-14) contributed to further Jewish conversions. By 1415 the dramatically altered religious landscape of the Iberian Peninsula included a substantial number of converts to Christianity, or conversos2, leading many to reframe ancient questions about who was a Jew and who a Christian. In the years immediately following the mass conversions, secular and ecclesiastical leaders directed their attention at the Jews who continued to resist baptism. These leaders sought measures to encourage or enforce the separation of Jews from the converts lest the neophytes, still shaky in their new faith, backslide into old ways3. A generation after the 1391 conversions, however, we witness attention turning from the Jews to the conversos. The many royal, conciliar, and papal decrees proclaimed over the course of the 1430s that denounce distinctions between so-called «natural» Christians and conversos suggest growing efforts to the contrary in both Castile and Aragon, the primary Christian kingdoms of Spain at this time4. In the city of Toledo, anti-converso ideology achieved such force that insurgents angry with the king and his constable directed the brunt of their violence against the city's converso population. On June 5, 1449, the rebel government holding council in Toledo drafted a statute against all conversos who were «descendants of the lineage and breed of the Jews». The «Sentencia-Estatuto» of Pero Sarmiento declared all conversos unfit to hold any secular or ecclesiastical office or benefice, public or private, in the city of Toledo or its environs. These restrictions applied to all conversos «past, present, and future». The newly vacated offices would be filled by «fine old Christians [christianos viejos lindos5. The historian Albert Sicroff considered this document a prototype of the purity of blood laws that would proliferate in Spain over the course of the sixteenth century6. Indeed, although the converso debate that is preserved in the documents under investigation in this essay responds to the particular crisis in Toledo, its ramifications extended to the kingdom of Castile as a whole and ultimately to the kingdom Aragon under the combined rule of Isabella and Ferdinand7.

When scholars have studied the theological arguments waged in the debate that arose from the rebellion at Toledo, they have tended to focus on the theology of the conversos' defenders and to treat the religious claims of the conversos' opponents as means to political, economic, or social ends8. The replacement of conversos with «fine, old Christians» in any public or private office of the city would seem to support this position. We need not dismiss religious conviction or justifications founded in theology on this score, however. As Bruce Lincoln has observed, «the problem to be addressed in any concrete study» is not whether «ideals and beliefs» or «material interests» came first, «but how a given group reshapes its consciousness (of self, other, morality, and purpose) through select acts of discourse such that its members feel licensed -or, alternatively, inhibited- in pursuing their material advantage in increasingly aggressive ways»9 Similarly, where the rebel government wielded religious arguments to defend itself against an angry king, we need not necessarily dismiss those arguments as cynical, for, again citing Lincoln, «it is often the case that those who would persuade others are themselves most persuaded of all»10. The arguments of the conversos' opponents may be less palatable to our twenty-first-century sensibilities than those of the conversos' defenders, who asserted a more inclusive Christianity by insisting that Christ's sacrifice rendered all clean through baptism11. Nonetheless, neither the distastefulness of the Toledan insurgents' arguments, nor the material and political gains that the insurgents sought need imply that their arguments were not theological or negate the relevance of their beliefs to the investigation of their actions. In the investigation of anti-Judaism in the mid-fifteenth century converso debate, we will take seriously the theological arguments of the conversos' opponents in order to show that they developed a hermeneutic of the flesh founded in a reading of the epistles of Paul and informed by their own particular historical context12.

The kingdom of Castile was contending with economic hardship along with political turmoil. King Juan II faced threats and incursions from the neighboring kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre to the east, Granada to the south, and on Castile's western border a challenge from a count sympathetic to the Aragonese13. These external pressures prompted Álvaro de Luna, the king's constable, to request the war loan from the city of Toledo that sparked the 1449 uprising14. Internal unrest among the Castilian nobility exacerbated the external threats, and contemporary observers identified a moral and vocational crisis within the noble ranks15. Finally, as we have seen, the mass conversions of Jews to Christianity at the beginning of the fifteenth century dramatically transformed the religious landscape of the peninsula. While we find evidence of anti-converso sentiment in Aragon similar to that in Castile, as witness the kinds of royal and papal decrees mentioned above, the Castilian monarchs more actively defended the conversos' eligibility to attain the same offices and honors as «other Christians» could hold16. Juan II, for example, issued a decree re-stating the position of his father, Enrique III, and calling on the authority of the venerable Partidas of Alfonso X from the thirteenth century: «We order that, once any Jews have converted to the faith of Christ, all people of our dominion honor them, and let no one be heard to defame them or their progeny [by saying] as a means of disparagement that they were Jews; and [we order] that they may hold the offices and honors that other Christians hold»17. This position on the part of the Castilian kings, and by Don Alvaro on Juan II's behalf, helps to explain why the insurgents of Toledo bound their animosity toward the conversos together with their anger toward the king. Given the religious questions enmeshed in the problem of conversion from Judaism to Christianity, the royal defense of the conversos also helps to explain why the Toledans and their sympathizers turned to theological arguments in order to defend actions that had been ignited by what they considered to be wrongful and excessive taxation by the Crown.

Several documents were produced contemporaneously with the rebellion in Toledo that express the Sarmiento regime's anti-converso views. The earliest was «The Supplication and Petition that Pero Sarmiento and the Community of Toledo, for itself and for the other Cities of the Kingdom, Presented regarding the Siege and the Offenses which they were doing to it». Four emissaries from Sarmiento's regime presented the «Petition» to King Juan II once he had set up camp outside Toledo's gates at the beginning of May 144918. When the king refused their terms, the rebels offered terms instead to the king's son and heir, Enrique, then at odds with his father. In an attempt to protect the advances they had made independently of king or crown prince, Sarmiento and his associates, with the support of at least a significant percentage of the Toledan public, produced the «Sentencia-Estatuto de Pero Sarmiento» on June 519. The third major extant document produced by the Toledan rebels was written by a man who was one of Sarmiento's key supporters and possibly the primary author of the «Sentencia» and the «Petition», the bachelor Marcos García de Mora, called Marquillos by his opponents. García de Mora likely wrote «The Appeal and Supplication» in November 1449 as a response to tracts by converso defendersand to the papal bulls issued against the rebels on September 2420. As such it is an apology for the Toledans' actions against both royal authority and the conversos, written when circumstances appeared to be moving against the insurgents. The final document produced by the Toledan rebellion that we will analyze is the «Copy of a Letter of Privilege that the King Juan II Gave to a Nobleman», written anonymously, probably by a citizen of Toledo in the autumn of 1449 during the controversy over the «Sentencia»21. This satirical work mimics the form of a royal decree produced in the chancellery.

The language previously cited from the «Sentencia» explicitly links conversos to Jews through fleshly lineage and the rhetoric of race, here epitomized in the term ralea, «breed» or «stock». This term came out of the field of falconry; the passage cited here to designate converts from Judaism and their descendants is among our earliest evidence of its use to describe a group of human beings22. The «Sentencia» weaves the concepts of lineage and race together with notions of purity, belief, morality, and their opposites, and applies them to a public policy of exclusion and persecution. Extending the metaphor, the loom that provides the frame onto which these and other ideas are woven together is a particular conception of Judaism, or perhaps better, anti-Judaism. In his investigation of anti-Judaism from antiquity into the modern era, David Nirenberg borrows a metaphor from Nietzsche to describe the relationship between the apparent continuity of anti-Judaism over time and its manifestations in particular historical contexts. He likens anti-Judaism to a mask that serves as «a pedagogical fear», a sort of shorthand that suggests continuity between the concepts and questions of the past and those of the present23. The rhetoric of the documents produced by the insurgents in Toledo and their sympathizers indicates that they framed their actions and policies as a defense of the Christian people against the ancient and persistent animosity of the Jews. However, the mask of similarity (the Jews have always been and done thus) conceals transformations and historical contingencies at work in the deployment of the mask. In mid-fifteenth-century Castile, the mask of anti-Judaism became attached to the flesh, not only figuratively as it often had in the history of Christian thought, but literally, in the fleshly lineage of baptized Christians who descended from Jews.

The impassioned arguments presented in García de Mora's «Appeal and Supplication» reveal that the bachelor defended his attacks on the conversos within the framework of Christian theology. The «Appeal's» opening address establishes the debate as a hermeneutical battle for truth waged between «Jews» and «Christians». All those «truly believing in the birth, passion and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ, and in the virginity of the most glorious queen, our lady and advocate, his Mother..., having true zeal for the service of God and fear of justice on the day of wrath» belong to «the congregation and corporate body of faithful Christians». Conversely, they are «enclosed in the chamber of the synagogue, which properly means congregation of beasts», who are «unbelieving and suspect in the faith, [...] arriving like cattle at the letter[;] [they] always gave and [still] give false understandings to divine and human writing, as the truth testifies and says, "the letter kills, the spirit vivifies"»24. In this first paragraph García de Mora opens wide the floodgates of hermeneutical error to include any and all who read according to the killing letter. Any Christian prince who read like a Jew, including King Juan II of Castile, could find himself in the «congregation of beasts». Not even the pope himself was safe from membership in «the chamber of the synagogue»; his response to the bachelor's «Appeal» would prove where his allegiance lay25.

Almost as soon as García de Mora opens the floodgates, however, he closes them again and attempts to contain the hermeneutical danger in the lineage of the Jews. Immediately following his opening address the bachelor claims that the «intolerable cruelties and inhumanities done against the human and Christian race [género humano e christiano] by the evil tyrant Don Alvaro de Luna», the king's constable, were «caused, promoted, and incited by the [...] detested fourth type [género] and state of baptized Jews and those proceeding from their damned line». That the «baptized Jews» would commit cruel and inhuman actions against «the human and Christian race» came as no surprise to the bachelor, for they were «adulterers, children of unbelief and faithlessness, parents of every greed, sowers of every discord and division, overflowing in every wickedness and perversity, always ungrateful to their God, contrary to his commandments, separated from his ways and paths; [...] and thus disinherited from eternal glory, perpetually condemned for their obstinate stubbornness to the punishments of the inferno»26. García de Mora supports his argument by pointing to scriptural passages from Deuteronomy, «They have sinned against him, and are none of his children in their filth: they are a wicked and perverse generation», and the Psalms, «Forty years long was I offended with that generation, and I said: These always err in heart. And these men have not known my ways: so I swore in my wrath that they shall not enter into my rest»27.

The use of such passages from the Hebrew scriptures to support Christian criticism of Jews is nothing new; we find it already in the New Testament28. Also far from new is the application of Paul's distinction between the letter that kills and the spirit that gives life as a hermeneutical key to the proper understanding of scripture29. In these ways, the bachelor's use of the mask of anti-Judaism aligns the questions and fears of mid-fifteenth-century Spain with those of countless Christians in the centuries before. Similarly, just as in earlier manifestations of anti-Judaism Christians displaced the qualities they feared within their society onto the Jews30, so the conversos' opponents employ the same strategy. In the kingdom of Castile, so deeply ordered in terms of religious status, the effects of the transformed religious landscape reached all levels of society, introducing changes and complications into tax codes and legal structures, family obligations, civil government, trades and professions, even urban residential planning31. As exemplified in Juan II's decree cited above, converts previously barred from civil and ecclesiastical offices, particular trades, and military service could now pursue these opportunities. Granted a royal privilege, they could even enter the ranks of the nobility. The converso question thus intertwined with debates over the nature of nobility and its relationship to lineage and merit; the conversos and their Jewish lineage received the blame for corruption that their opponents identified in the designation of nobility as well as in the moral and vocational expectations of nobles.

   The Galician poet Juan Rodríguez del Padrón argued that true nobility required generations of purging and refinement and that the contemporary crisis of virtue and leadership among the nobility resulted from the bestowal of noble titles and offices onto «unworthy persons»32. Declarations of the contemporary proverb that «the king can make a knight but not a nobleman» reveal a common assumption about the intrinsic nature of nobility, which many associated with membership in a particular lineage33. As the proverb suggests, some doubted the king's authority to ennoble whomever he pleased. The anonymous text known as the «Privilege» satirizes the granting of royal privileges of nobility to converso families; the fictitious King Juan II grants an «old Christian» nobleman «who was not prospering» a letter of privilege legitimizing him and authorizing him «to be such a Marrano» as those «of the generation of the Hebrews that are legitimate» and to employ the «arts, subtleties, [...] deceits, and evils» that they used in order to get ahead34. The interest in lineage complements the themes of legitimacy and usurpation that abound in the political propaganda of the time; Dayle Seidenspinner-Núñez points to anxieties surrounding the legitimacy of the royal line, whose founder was the illegitimate son of King Alfonso XI, having gained the throne by murdering his half brother35. This accumulation of factors contributed to a rise in «genealogical mentalities» and a preoccupation with lineage among Jews, conversos, and so-called Old Christians of late medieval Spain36.

In their accusations against the conversos, the texts under consideration reveal the nature of some of the fears and anxieties felt by some Old Christians, displacing those fears and their causes onto the conversos and calling them «Jewish». The disorder and greed, and «disordered greed», that had ruined so many ancient houses and destroyed the livelihood of the laboring classes who worked for them, had been caused by converso advisers and treasurers who tricked their lords into believing that «money was worth much»37. The intra-Christian violence waged both within the kingdom and against the Christian kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre could also be traced to conversos and their «subtle and deceitful words»38. Even the concern with lineage that informed the discourses about nobility and religious purity could be blamed on the conversos39. The «Sentencia's» charge that conversos mocked Christians who worshiped as God «a hanged man of their lineage»40 corresponds to attempts to defend the conversos' legitimate participation in church and society in part by highlighting their fleshly connection to the founders of the Christian faith41.

Now as before Christian anti-Judaism involved the turning of the Hebrew prophets against the Jews and the blaming of society's ills on Judaism. The innovation of García de Mora and his sympathizers that is concealed behind the mask of anti-Judaism is the way they use Paul's hermeneutical key distinguishing the «spirit» from the «letter» not just to identify «Jewish» ways of reading and acting by Christians but, going further, to attach those «Jewish» errors onto the literal flesh of the Jews, passed down through the generations and enduring despite baptism in the flesh of the conversos. In the apostle Paul's efforts to exhort and encourage early followers of Christ to cling to faith, he constructed a set of oppositions that clustered around the contrast between «spirit» and «flesh». The «flesh» encompasses a variety of problems in the Pauline letters, from moral sins such as drunkenness and greed, to the Greek pursuit of philosophy, to the idolatrous practices of pagan worship. Paul also aligns Jewish practices with the «flesh» and argues that true circumcision is not that which is done «outwardly in the flesh», but «inwardly [...] in the spirit and not in the letter» (Rom. 2,28-29). In that same epistle to the Romans Paul again makes explicit this alignment of «flesh» and «letter» against «spirit» when he writes, «For when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members, to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are loosed from the law of death wherein we were detained; so that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter» (7,5-6). Let us look to one final passage, this one from the epistle to Titus likely written by one of Paul's followers. In its first chapter Paul describes the kind of people Titus should seek for leadership roles in the church. They should be «without crime [...] not proud, not subject to anger, nor given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre» (1,7). Paul urges Titus to establish such leaders, that they may «convince the gainsayers. For there are also many disobedient, vain talkers and seducers: especially they who are of the circumcision» (1, 9-10). The cumulative effect of such passages was that circumcision, and its association with corporeal flesh, became a symbol of «Judaizing» and all the sins and errors associated with metaphorical flesh42. Aligned with the «letter», circumcision and thus «Judaism» also signified hermeneutical error and disability.

This cluster of Pauline terms and concepts had already informed much Christian anti-Judaism. The texts written by the bachelor and those who sympathized with him show how these authors «put old ideas about Judaism to new kinds of work» to address the concerns and situations of their own day43. It is my contention that the heightened concern about lineage and legitimacy that appears in Spain at this time informs García de Mora's reading of Paul; it facilitates his conflation of Paul's multivalent metaphorical flesh that included but was not limited to «Judaizing», with the corporeal flesh of the Jews. Once García de Mora had made this move, it became no trouble to link «the lineage of the Jews» with the moral sins of the «flesh» and all the errors of belief and interpretation that accompanied its relationship to the «letter». Thus when the bachelor cites the passage from Titus previously quoted, he reads «they who are of the circumcision» (1,10) as «those converted of the lineage of the Jews»44. That such people should not be elected as prelates seems sage advice to García de Mora, «because they are naturally evil, vindictive, faithless, adulterous, proud, vainglorious and learned in all evil customs»; in other words, their fleshly Jewish lineage predisposed them to the host of moral sins associated with Paul's metaphorical «flesh»45. García de Mora points to this evidence from sacred scripture to defend the exclusion of all conversos from all offices and benefices as «one of the most meritorious and virtuous acts that were done» by the Sarmiento regime46.

Using this hermeneutic of conflating the characteristics and dangers of the metaphorical «flesh» with the literal flesh of Jewish lineage, the conversos' opponents read critiques of the Jews (and their cognates) from both biblical testaments as descriptions and critiques of those «of the lineage of the Jews», baptized or not. Prophetic warnings that chastised the Israelites for straying from the paths of God through sin and unbelief such as those adduced by García de Mora at the beginning of his «Appeal» confirmed and supported arguments about the moral and hermeneutical error of the conversos. The repeated rejection of God by the Israelites in the Old Testament crystallized for the bachelor in the New Testament depictions of «Jews», «Pharisees», and «Sadducees» as unable to recognize God in the flesh and worse, as so antagonistic toward Christ that they rejected his teachings and engineered his death47. The mask of anti-Judaism had fueled and confirmed fears of Jewish animosity toward Christians elsewhere in Europe, exemplified in accusations of host desecration and the ritual murder of Christian children by Jews48. The hermeneutic of the flesh employed by the conversos' opponents in mid-fifteenth-century Spain applied this fear of perpetual Jewish animosity toward Christ to the conversos who were enabled by their baptism to afflict Christians from within the church.

The documents produced by the Toledan insurgents and their sympathizers warn their leaders and their «old Christian» readership that the conversos have already caused great damage to Old Christians of Spain materially, politically, and spiritually, and that they will relentlessly and mercilessly continue to do so as long as they are allowed to remain in any position that grants them any sort of power or authority over Old Christians. The «Privilege» suggests that the conversos used «subtleties, evils, deceits, and flatteries» to trick Christian lords and their laborers out of material assets and daily sustenance. These same strategies enabled the conversos to use royal offices to make personal gain from the city's revenues and to encourage strife and violence among Old Christians. Within the priesthood, conversos supposedly used the confessional to learn the secret sins of «the old, fine Christians» and then informed other conversos, allowing the latter to use the knowledge to their own advantage»49. In the medical professions, the «Privilege» suggests that the conversos managed «to kill and humiliate the old Christians, through the hatred and enmity that they hold, as well as in order to marry the widows of those whom they kill and to devour their goods and estates and sully and stain the pure blood»50. All this should come as no surprise, given that «the said Marranos, Pharisees, Hebrews, and Sadducees [...] dealt death to Our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ, their true creator, without any cause, although he had done them so many goods and favors»51.

The persistent and active enmity toward Christians that these texts identify in those of Jewish lineage is bound up with allegations of «Jewish» errors of belief and hermeneutical disability. The «Petition» that was delivered by emissaries of the Sarmiento regime to King Juan II outlining the insurgents' grievances and demands asserts that «the greater part» of «the conversos of the lineage of the Jews [...] were judged to be infidels and heretics[;] [they] have Judaized and do Judaize, have kept and do keep most of the rites and ceremonies of the Jews, apostatizing the chrism and baptism that they received, demonstrating with words and deeds that they received these things in the skin and not the heart nor in the will, such that under the pretense and name of Christians, prevaricating, they bleed dry the souls and bodies and estates of the Christians old in the Catholic faith»52. Furthermore, the «Petition» argues, «Many others have blasphemed very harshly and gravely against our Savior Jesus Christ, and against the glorious Virgin Mary, his mother», while others «have adored and do adore idols»53. Similarly, the «Sentencia» contends that «the conversos of the lineage of the Jews» were «suspect in the faith of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in which they frequently vomit, easily Judaizing»54. It too alleges religious crimes «of both belief and practice» in which «a very large part» of them held «extremely great errors against the articles of the holy Catholic faith, guarding the rites and ceremonies of the old law, and calling and affirming that our Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ was a hanged man of their lineage whom the Christians worship as God»55.

Just as concerns about greed, violence, and social upheaval were blamed on the conversos and labeled «Jewish», so too did the bachelor and others attach fears of unbelief and imperfect conversion onto the lineage of the Jews. The same passage from Titus used in the «Appeal» to describe the natural immorality of the conversos and to defend their exclusion from all offices links belief to purity and unbelief to defilement caused by «giving heed to Jewish fables» (1,14). Christians had historically criticized Jews for their attachment to the external observance of the Law; whereas the Jews worried about the impurity of material things, Christians who concentrated on the spirit and not on the letter or the flesh knew that «for the pure all things are pure» (1,15). Nevertheless, Christians continued to worry about impurity even as they feared that the worry itself belied their own claims to true faith, for «to them that are defiled and to unbelievers, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled» (ibid.)56. In mid-fifteenth-century Spain, the conversos' opponents used the hermeneutic of the flesh to attach their fears about unbelief and imperfect conversion onto the lineage of the Jews, blaming the conversos themselves for introducing the «Jewish» preoccupation with genealogical purity into old Christian society and compromising the faith of Old Christians57.

In his rebuttal to the anti-converso arguments and policies of the Sarmiento regime, Alonso de Cartagena58, bishop of Burgos, insists that Christ's sacrifice, made available through baptism, can wash away the stain of all sins from every person who undergoes the sacrament, whereas his opponents claimed that the sins inherent in a particular lineage put up barriers that Christ's sacrifice could not overcome. Citing Jerome, Cartagena contends, «"What else is this but to say that Christ has died in vain?"»59. In contrast to his opponents' hyper-literal reading of the «letter» and the «flesh», Cartagena argues that the faithful reader understands that phrases such as hii qui ex iudeis sunt found in holy scripture and in canon law referred to those who «cling to the perfidy of the Jews», regardless of their carnal descent60. He warns the bachelor, «Consider, therefore, to speak in harmony with you, whether you may be of the Jews, since, favoring their perfidy, you persecute their descendants with odious rancor»61. Cartagena's response brings us back to Nirenberg's point, that «anti-Judaism» is not «simply an attitude toward Jews and their religion, but a way of critically engaging the world»62. In his efforts to make room for conversos in the church and in Spanish society, Cartagena could think of no more effective way to conceptualize the bachelor's error and to persuade king and pope of its dangers than to call it «Jewish». Rather than throw out a useful conceptual and rhetorical tool, the bishop attempted to dislodge the mask of anti-Judaism from the literal flesh of the lineage of the Jews, where García de Mora and others had placed it, and reinstate it in the flesh of metaphor.

The Toledan insurgents' arguments about the sinful character of Jews and their enmity toward Christians reproduced and transmitted over time in their flesh and despite baptism do not emerge necessarily from Christianity's scriptural texts. Neither, however, do such readings emerge from Christian scripture unaccountably. The readings of the conversos' mid-fifteenth-century opponents illuminate potentials within Christian scripture that may seem today to be erroneous, even heretical, but that resonated with many Christians in late medieval Spain63. The converso debate that we have waded into here demonstrates how theological insights and Christian institutions that we might consider self-evident, such as the irrelevance of race to salvation or the universal efficacy of the sacrament of baptism, can become contested. Like «Judaism» and «anti-Judaism», «Christianity» may also be understood as a mask, apparently constant over time but concealing transformations and contestations that arise in particular historical moments. In the contestations that arose in late medieval Spain, both sides assailed their opponents with competing forms of anti-Judaism.