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THE PERSECUTION OF THE JEWS AND MUSLIMS OF PORTUGAL. KING MANUEL I AND THE END OF RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE (1496–7) [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).