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[The Medieval Mediterranean. Peoples, Economies and Cultures,
400–1500. Volume 69]
François Soyer, Reviewed by
Dr Ariel Hessayon,
Goldmiths College, University of London

On 31 March 1492 Isabella and Ferdinand signed the edict ordering all Jews living within the borders of Castile and Aragon to convert or leave before the end of July. While contemporary and early modern estimates put the number of Castilian and Aragonese Jewish exiles who found temporary refuge in Portugal at anywhere between about 93,000 and 300,000 people, Soyer suggests – drawing on the work of Tavares – that ‘even including clandestine entries the total number of Jews who entered Portugal in 1492 is unlikely to have surpassed 30,000’ (p. 111). All the same, that is still a considerable figure; especially considering that Portugal’s total population then was barely one million. Nor, as Soyer recognizes, can the terrible suffering of Castilian Jews who entered Portugal be ‘underestimated or ignored’ (p. 136). Accordingly, many Castilian Jews had little choice but to sell their property at discounted prices before paying a considerable tax to enter Portugal. Even so, João II declared that only 600 families would be permitted to settle. Those without special royal licences were largely confined to refugee camps located close to the border with Castile. Appalling sanitary conditions, however, lead to deadly epidemics. Prevented from going into neighbouring border towns for fear of spreading plague the survivors, who had been given eight months to depart, eventually made their way to Porto, Lisbon and Setúbal, where they hoped to board ships bound for North Africa. But once on the high seas the Jews were robbed and their women raped by unscrupulous mariners; some ships’ captains even reportedly strayed off course in order to sell their desperate passengers food and drink at extortionate prices. Finally, on disembarking the Jews were assaulted and robbed by the garrisons of the Portuguese North African strongholds of Arzilla and Tangier, as well as suffering harassment by the local Muslim population. As for the remaining Castilian Jews, who may or may not have been hampered from leaving Portugal – Soyer disagrees with the opinion of many modern historians here – the majority of the 600 families settled in and around Évora. Their fate, however, is ‘impossible to reconstruct due to the absence of any surviving royal registers for the crucial years’ (p. 120). Then there were those caught attempting to enter Portugal without paying the entrance tax. They were enslaved. So too were perhaps as many as 2,000 Jewish children, who were seized from their parents and sent to the equatorial island of São Tomé. Perhaps understandably a significant number of exiles converted to Christianity and then returned to Castile. All of which suggests that while Soyer may be correct in asserting that the long-term effect of flooding Portugal with conversos and almost half the Jewish population of Castile may have been minimal, that is only because João’s brutal policies had rapidly cleansed his lands of Jewish immigrants without moveable wealth.

Little wonder that as early as 1494 the Jews of Lisbon reportedly feared meeting the same fate as their Castilian brethren. On 4 December 1496 João’s successor Manuel ordered a sermon announcing the expulsion, prompting many Jews to draw parallels with the exodus from Egypt (pp. 186–93). Like Pharaoh, Manuel supposedly changed his mind and on learning that the majority of Jews preferred exile to conversion decided to force the issue. Fearing that ‘the kingdom would remain like an empty fishing net, for [they] ... possessed most of the kingdom’s wealth’, he issued writs preventing Jews from leaving Portugal by ship without a special royal licence (p. 194). Like Isabella and Ferdinand, Manuel ‘ordered the confiscation of all synagogues, religious schools and any other buildings or property that had been communally owned by Jewish communas in Portugal’ (p. 198). The Great Synagogue of Lisbon, for example, was acquired by the Crown and granted to the Order of Christ in exchange for a chapel (p. 202). Hebrew books were also seized. Despite their value, many were sold cheaply while others were publicly burned at Lisbon (pp. 206–9). Then a week before Easter 1497 Jewish children were seized from their parents with the intention of dispersing them throughout the kingdom where they would be raised as Christians. Eyewitness accounts and inquisitorial trial dossiers indicate that they were forcibly baptised, yet most of the adults held steadfast. After refusing enticements to convert, Manuel lured them to Lisbon from where they hoped to embark for a new life. Instead thousands were crammed into a park behind the Estaus palace. There they suffered terribly. Reportedly deprived of food and drink, the Jews were dragged to nearby churches for baptism. Those that still resisted were ‘condemned to be burnt’ (p. 226). Others committed suicide. It was, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Zacuto, ‘a forced conversion on a scale never before witnessed’ (p. 239). As for the survivors who had preferred nominal Christianity to death, they were granted 20 years immunity from official scrutiny. Yet popular hostility remained undiminished. Following an inflammatory sermon preached at Lisbon by a Dominican on Easter Sunday 1506 more than 3,000 New Christians were massacred over several days and their bodies, according to the chronicle of Damião de Góis (1502–c.1574), burned on a bonfire. New Christians were later accused of causing an earthquake and their situation became even more dangerous in 1536 when Pope Paul III relented to political pressure and issued a bull establishing the Inquisition in Portugal. Only in 1821 was this Portuguese Inquisition officially abolished (p. 295).

By contrast Portugal’s smaller Muslim minority was largely expelled in 1497. Contrary to some recent scholarship, Soyer suggests that it is difficult to detect increasing Christian anti-Muslim sentiment in late medieval Portugal. Indeed, despite the outbreak of anti-Muslim riots at Valencia in 1463 the Christian rulers of Iberia’s kingdoms feared reprisals against their co-religionists living in the Islamic Near East if they mistreated their Muslims. As a result the Portuguese Muslims, unlike the Jews, were allowed to leave with their children. Some may have migrated to Castile, where the Islamic population was converted in 1502. Others certainly went to North Africa.

All in all then, this is a thoroughly researched work that makes use of a variety of sources in several languages, including Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese. I found it generally persuasive and certainly an important contribution to the fields of Portuguese, Jewish and Islamic history.


In 1492, Spain expelled its Jewish population as part of the Spanish Inquisition. Tens of thousands of Spanish Jews subsequently fled to Portugal, where King John II granted them asylum in return for payment. However, the asylum was only temporary—after eight months, the Portuguese government decreed the enslavement of all Jews who had not yet left the country. In 1493, King John deported several hundred Jewish children to the newly discovered colony of São Tomé, where many of them perished.

Following John's death in 1494, the new king Manuel I of Portugal restored the freedom of the Jews. However, in 1497, under the pressure of the newly born Spanish State through the clause Marriage of Isabella, Princess of Asturias, the Church and also of part of the Christian people, King Manuel I of Portugal decreed that all Jews had to convert to Christianity or leave the country without their children. Hard times followed for the Portuguese Jews, with the massacre of 2000 individuals in Lisbon in 1506, further forced deportations to São Tomé (where there is still a Jewish presence today), and the later and even more relevant establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536.

The Inquisition held its first Auto da fé in Portugal in 1540. Like the Spanish Inquisition, it concentrated its efforts on rooting out converts from other faiths (overwhelmingly Judaism) who did not adhere to the strictures of Catholic orthodoxy; like in Spain, the Portuguese inquisitors mostly targeted the Jewish New Christians, conversos, or marranos. The Portuguese Inquisition expanded its scope of operations from Portugal to the Portuguese Empire, including Brazil, Cape Verde, and India. According to Henry Charles Lea between 1540 and 1794 tribunals in Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra and Évora burned 1,175 persons, another 633 were burned in effigy and 29,590 were penanced. The Portuguese inquisition was extinguished in 1821 by the "General Extraordinary and Constituent Courts of the Portuguese Nation".

Most Portuguese Jews, thousands, would eventually leave the country to Amsterdam, Thessaloniki, Constantinople (Istanbul), France, Morocco, Brazil, Curaçao and the Antilles. In some of these places their presence can still be witnessed, like the use of the Ladino language by some Jewish communities in Turkey, the Portuguese based dialects of the Antilles, or the multiple Synagogues built by what was to be known as the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (such as the Amsterdam Esnoga).

May 23, 1536, marks the day that the Inquisition was formally introduced into Portugal. This happened when the pope, Paul II, issued a bill establishing the tribunal in the kingdom, and abrogating a number of extant measures that had been meant to mitigate earlier actions taken against suspected Judaizers.

The institution of the Inquisition had been established in Rome at the turn of the 13th century, and was intended to root out heresy within the Church. It was not by definition directed specifically at Jews, but in countries where Jews had converted to Christianity in large numbers, it did largely focus on those who were suspected of continuing to practice Judaism in secret. Most of those interrogated by the Inquisition were not executed. That was reserved for those who refused to confess and/or repent. Others were subjected to lesser punishments, in addition to the torture they may have undergone in order to extract a confession from them.

Establishment of the Inquisition in Iberia first in Spain, then in Portugal followed earlier tribunals in Rome itself and also in France (against the Christian sect the Cathars). In Spain, the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 can be seen as an admission of the failure of the Inquisition, encouragement of conversion, and other measures to eliminate the Jewish presence and influence in society.

Thousands of the Jews forced into exile in Spain moved westward in the peninsula to Portugal.

As a condition for marrying the Infanta Isabella of Aragon, the daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Portugal’s King Manuel I had to promise to expel the Jews from his kingdom too. He carried out the order halfheartedly, however, making all deportees sail from Lisbon, where measures were taken to convince them to convert rather than leave. (One of those measures was to confiscate their children from them if they did not undergo baptism, for adoption by Christian families.)

By 1521, King Joao III, Manuel’s successor, had requested permission from the pope for the establishment of a Portuguese Inquisition. But the pope was reluctant, and the Jews were willing to pay the crown handsomely to have such a move deferred.

Finally, on May 23, 1536, Pope Paul gave the green light for the Inquisition. And in Portugal, it was an Inquisition that focused all its attention on New Christians (converts) and crypto-Jews. Although the authorization came from the Holy See, the Grand Inquisitor was chosen by the king, and always came from the royal family.

The fact that anyone arrested by the Inquisition was subject to having his property confiscated insured that the campaign was carried out with alacrity. Tribunals were set up in a number of towns in Portugal, but also in the kingdom’s overseas possessions, namely Brazil, Goa and Port Verde.

According to historian Antonio Jose Saraiva, 40,000 individuals were charged by the Portuguese Inquisition. Of them, in the mainland venues alone, 1,175 were burned at the stake, and an additional 633 burned in effigy.

The last public auto-da-fe in Portugal took place in 1765, but the Inquisition itself was only abolished in 1821, when the country went through a constitutionalist insurrection.

The Case of Maria Lopes Burned at the Srake in 1576, Introduction pp1-2
Manuel Azevedo, Fernando Guimaraes, 2013

“It is not believable that one day she was a Jewess and the next a Christian, as she again said that since the last general pardon she had always been a Jewess in her mind and heart...

All Jews in Portugal were forcibly baptized in 1497 by King Manuel to appease his future in-laws, the Catholic Monarchs, who expelled Jews from Spain in 1492. King Manuel promised the baptized Jews thereafter known as New Christians that he would not introduce the dreaded Inquisition which was implanted in Spain in 1478. Moreover he promised the newly converted Jews not to enquire into their private religious practices for 20 years, which was later extended to 1534. King Manuel died in 1521 and was succeeded by his eldest son Joao III, who married the sister of the very powerful Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and almighty King of Spain. King Joao III, a religious fanatic of mediocre intelligence, lobbied hard for the introduction of the Inquisition, which, although granted in 1536, was not fully implemented until 1547, albeit initially with certain restrictions, such as the prohibition against the confiscation of assets for ten years.  The Inquisition lasted a long time. It was abolished by a liberal “Cortes” (National Assembly) in 1821. The persecution of New Christians ended in the 1770’s. The last burning was in 1761. The Inquisition still exists it has been renamed as the, “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Inquisition was introduced in Portugal to stamp out the secret practice of Judaism of New Christians, although it also tried persons accused of witchcraft, bigamy and homosexuality. In the Lisbon tribunal, which had jurisdiction for territories and possessions (West Africa, Brazil, Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde); about 70% of cases between 1540 and 1629 were for Judaizing. In Coimbra it was about 80% between 1566 and 1762, and in Evora, about 85% between 1553 and 1688.

The late Professor Antonio Jose Saraiva provocatively hypothesised that the secret practice of Judaism was virtually non-existent in Portugal and that the Portuguese Inquisition was simply a means by which the ruling elite could extract wealth from a rising merchant class who just happened to be New Christians. However, he admitted to not having read one single Inquisition case. The professor also argued that evidence from the Holy Office is unreliable because prisoners would say whatever is required of them to get out of jail, and some confessions were obtained under torture.

There is no question that the Inquisition was after the riches of the New Christians. Nevertheless, as this case and others demonstrate, the Inquisition was unable to suppress the transmission of the essentials of Judaism oven after hundreds of years, as is demonstrated by surviving communities of Judaizing New Christians well into the 20th century. Of the 2,000 or so victims burned at the stake, it is estimated that over 95% were accused of Judaism. Professor Saraiva’s thesis is not supported by the evidence.

There were three principal tribunals in mainland Portugal: Lisbon, Coimbra and Evora. Tribunals in Porto, Tomar and Lamego existed only during the initial years in the 1540’s. There was only one tribunal outside the mainland, in Goa, India, which not only suppressed secret Judaism but also Hinduism. Its records of about 16,000 cases were burned. There are approximately 40,000 extant Inquisition files at the Torre de Tombo national archives (ANTT), although no one really knows for sure as there has been no systematic study of the files. Recently about 16,000 from the Lisbon tribunal were digitized and put online. There was no Inquisition tribunal in the Azores or the other territories and colonies including Brazil. Instead, visiting Inquisitors held inquiries and ordered arrests. The prisoners were then transported to Lisbon for trial.

No one knows how many Jews or New Christians there were in the Azores, or even how many archival files there are. Professor Isaias da Rosa Pereira’s pioneering work and the more recent publication of Professor Drummond Braga’s thesis on the Inquisition of the Azores sheds some light on the subject, such as the names of New Christians that were levied a tax to pay for the general pardon of 1604. However, much more research needs to be done.

Maria Lopes, a native of Melo in the district of Viseu, resident of Ponta Delgada in Sao Miguel was the first woman from the Azores to be burned at the stake in the Portuguese Inquisition. She was arrested on March 6th, 1573 by Antonio Amado, vicar in the city of Angra on the island of Terceira. In 1565 she had sailed from mainland Portugal to Ponta Delgada to join her husband who had fled to the Azores to escape gambling debts in Lisbon.

The order for her arrest was made after her own nineteen year old son denounced her for secretly practicing Judaism. After her arrest, she was taken to a local jail in Ponta Delgada and then transported to Lisbon.


According to legend, the pork-free ‘alheira’ chorizo was created as a way for Jews to hide their identity. Whether or not that history has been exaggerated, it’s an important part of how Portugal is now wrestling with its Jewish past.
Tablet, Shira Rubin, March 2, 2018

In Portugal, the alheira chorizo is cherished as a national gastronomic wonder. “This is our traditional food,” Miguel Fonseca, manager of the trendy Ecork Hotel in Evora, told me as he pointed to one of the sausages, mixed into a frittata and displayed at the center of a festive smorgasbord of Portuguese tapas. Fonseca keeps the alheira on the menu at the hotel’s restaurant, where black pigs roam nearby among vineyards and cork trees, awaiting slaughter for the chef’s pork-based specialties.

But the alheira is not pork-based. In fact, it’s a sausage with a specifically Jewish history that dates back more than 500 years, when Portugal’s Jews cooked it up as a way to avoid torture, imprisonment, and slaughter during the Inquisition—or so the legend goes. Whether the story is entirely accurate or somewhat exaggerated, bringing this history to light is part of the country’s increasing awareness of its Jewish past and, perhaps, a nascent Jewish revival.

Muslim Moors ruled Portugal from the eighth to 12th centuries, allowing Jews to co-exist and prosper alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbors. When Spain instituted the Inquisition in 1478, many Spanish Jews fled to neighboring Portugal and joined older Jewish communities there. Soon, Jews made up around 25 percent of Portugal’s total population. They were astronomers, scientists, and rabbis who were critical to advancing Portuguese exploration during its legendary Age of Discovery.

But it wasn’t long before the Jews, who had been publicly blamed for droughts, famines, and the plague, were given their death sentence in Portugal. In 1536, three months after angry mobs burned Jews at the stake, Portugal established its own Inquisition, with the stated aim of battling “heresy.” Jews were forced to formally vow allegiance to the church, but they practiced their faith in secret. They became known as the “New Christians,” conversos, or crypto-Jews.

These “New Christians,” Fonseca, a Portuguese Christian, explained, “were actually Jews, who made things to look like Christians, though everybody knew.”

Many Jews fled to the mountainous regions of the north, and in the city of Mirandela, the story goes, the alheira was born. It derives its name from alho, garlic in Portuguese, and follows the northern region’s sausage recipes, incorporating bread crumbs, garlic, and mountain herbs. It looked like the pork sausage commonly seen hanging in front of homes before the advent of the refrigerator and was also hung outside Jewish homes. But instead of pork, the alheira used game: chicken, duck, quail, or any other kosher meat.

Unlike many other traditions, the Jewish diet was creatively preserved during the Inquisition. In his book, Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews, the Sephardic scholar David Martin Gitlitz wrote that “as with other areas of crypto-Jewish practice that were defined more by not-doing that by doing, for many conversos, particularly in the later years, avoidance of pork became a touchstone of their Jewish identity.” Not only proscribed by the halacha, pork was also long viewed as emblematic of unclean Christian habits, and superstitions among Jews rumored that people who ate pork would turn into pigs; or that pigs were men who had been cursed by God. Gitlitz told me that some of the Catholic leaders of the Inquisition had Jewish ancestry themselves, and used their own knowledge of the faith to issue official documents that detailed certain clues—like the abstention from pork, or the apparent observance of Shabbat—to identify and persecute conversos.

Hugo Vaz, a Jewish researcher at the Kadoorie-Mekor Haim synagogue in the northern city of Porto, says that research has revealed extraordinary resilience in Portuguese Jewish history. “The king thought that by forcing them to convert, we would have no more Jews,” said Vaz, “though of course he was wrong.”

There’s only one problem with the story about the roots of the alheira: It may not be exactly true. Gitlitz told me that the Portuguese government’s concerted effort to spotlight the country’s Jewish past has exaggerated the uniquely Jewish character of relics like the alheira, which evidence shows to have been a Muslim and more generally widespread culinary tradition. “All these towns where the government has identified Jewish quarters, the restaurants that have sprung up doing allegedly Jewish dishes, all that support from national and local governments has created a kind of staged cultural renaissance that has strong economic underpinnings aimed to bring in Jewish tourists,” he said. “Portugal’s talk about the alheira as a Jewish food is important in the ways it wants to characterize its past.”

The Jewish-heritage revival has affected Portuguese citizens like Paolo Conceição, a local tour guide with a group known as Cultural Experience, who said that he, like many citizens, has begun to look at his own family tree. Strolling through the tight alleys of the medieval city of Evora, he says that his ultra-Christian last name—which translates to “conception” in Portuguese—indicates that his forefathers were likely crypto-Jews. He speaks with pride about the prestige that literate Jews commanded in the Portuguese kingdom.

“There was always a Jew under the king, the second-most-important person in Portugal, valued because all Jewish men were literate at a time when most Christians could not read or write,” Conceição boasted.

But the paucity of family documents means that Portuguese Jewish history remains largely an enigma.

Paolo Scheffer, the only authorized Jewish tour guide in Portugal, has traveled throughout the country seeking self-identifying Jews and says that it may never be possible to verify the claims of crypto-Jewish descendants. He’s found such Jews to be “stuck in a 500-year-old spiritual bear-traps that they can’t get outside of.” They attend church while maintaining their crypto-Jewish rituals: lighting Shabbat candles in their basement on Friday night, or having yearly picnics of slow-cooked lamb in tomato-pepper sauce during Passover. In rural areas, they are largely poor and disenfranchised, and without access to the internet or other resources, will likely never be able to formally record their personal family histories.

But he is hopeful that a Jewish revival is on the horizon, not because of official government efforts but because of average Portuguese citizens, who he says are “genuinely, within their hearts, excited about connecting with this history and discovering what they’ve lost.”

While Portuguese Jewish history illustrates the community’s perseverance, it also shows the legacy of centuries of trauma during the Inquisition: “Centuries ago, Jews kept their religion a secret to save their lives,” said Vaz. “More than three centuries later, we see that Jews still keep it a secret. Not because they are afraid, but because it feels like part of the religion.”

That silence may be changing. In recent years, Jewish tourism has spiked, and new Jewish citizens have arrived. Since 2014, under a new Jewish law of return, Portugal has issued passports to more than 700 Sephardic Jews, many from Turkey and France, who are attracted by EU membership and Portugal’s atmosphere of tolerance. In support of that Jewish influx, the government has poured millions of euros into Jewish-heritage projects, and, intentionally or not, kicked off a process of historical reckoning that would have been considered taboo as recently as a generation ago.

According to the national census, more than 700 Portuguese identify as “affiliated” Jews who belong to a synagogue. There are also another 5,000 Portuguese who say that they “self-identify” as Jews, meaning that they have no synagogue affiliation and, in some cases, may have nothing beyond a general inkling and a practice of potentially Jewish “family traditions” to confirm that their ancestors were Jewish.

The Kadoorie-Mekor Haim synagogue—adorned with Moroccan-style arches, heavy redwood interior, and more than 20,000 hand-painted azulejo ceramic tiles—makes Porto one of only three active Jewish communities in Portugal today. As the historic center of Portuguese Jewish history, the city is experiencing a modest revival with a kosher store, three kosher restaurants, and a kosher hotel, some of which were opened by Jews who relocated to Portugal under the law of return. The synagogue, which five years ago had only 30 members today boasts more than 250. Vaz hosts tens of thousands of schoolchildren each year with the aims of clarifying what actually happened during the Inquisition, which is played down in school curricula.

Vaz says that nationally beloved cultural artifacts like the alheira chorizo allow the country to tap into its convoluted past in an accessible way. Even if its Jewish history has been overstated, the alheira is one of many remaining testaments to Jewish survival during Inquisition. There are mezuzahs that were redesigned to include a cross, or the dreidels, known in Portuguese as rapas, that are still played with during the Christmas season. “This Jewish history is Portuguese history,” said Vaz, “and it’s something that the generations to come cannot forget.”

The Persecution
of the Jews
and Muslims
of Portugal.
King Manuel I
and the End of
Religious Tolerance

After the
from Spain

Portuguese inquisition

The History of the Inquisition,
Wrapped Up in a Sausage