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See also The Sephardic Diaspora After 1492


Jewish Learning Joshua Teplitsky

Converso, Marrano, New Christian, Catholic, Crypto-Jew: these titles, amongst others, are intermittently applied to the men and women of 15th-17th century Spain and Portugal whose identities lingered somewhere between Jew and Christian. In most cases, multiple labels can be used to describe the same individuals, because the boundaries between their identities were porous. For both contemporary observers and for modern historians, the label used reveals more about the labeler than about the phenomenon described.


For most of the Middle Ages, control of the Iberian Peninsula (the geographic entity comprising modern Spain and Portugal) alternated between Muslim and Christian hands. At times this meant a more tolerant society, from which Jews benefited in kind. By the 14th century, however, as the Christian Reconquista (reconquest) of Spain was in full swing, a crusading spirit permeated most levels of society. Compounded with the fear and desolation of the Black Death in the mid-14th century, the atmosphere was ripe for anti-Jewish sentiment.

Encouraged by a decade-long anti-Jewish campaign by the Sevillian preacher Ferrant Martinez, a rash of popular riots against Jews erupted across the peninsula in the year 1391. By the time the riots subsided, 100,000 Jews were dead, 100,000 had fled the peninsula, and another 100,000 had converted to Christianity. By the year 1415, another 50,000 Jews had converted to Christianity.


After the wave of conversions in 1391, three loose groups emerged: Jews who held fast to their faith and religious practice; Jews who converted to Christianity and were absorbed by Christian society; and those who existed outwardly as Christians but practiced Judaism in secret.

To outsiders, secret Jews were indistinguishable from those who had fully converted to Christianity. The titles converso (Spanish for “convert”) or cristianos nuevos (“New Christians”) were thus equally applied to the second and third of these groups–fully devout Christians who were once Jewish, and those secret, or crypto-Jews.

The ambiguities of outward appearances, and the desire to discern the truth behind the mask of the converso, dogged both faithful Jew and hereditary Christian alike. Many Jews, both on the peninsula and in other parts of Europe, considered their brethren to be forced converts, and referred to them as anusim (literally “forced ones”).

Among Christians, a new label was devised to describe those converts to Christianity who were suspected of maintaining their former Jewish practices: marrano. Literally meaning “swine,” this term of opprobrium came to serve as a reference to any sort of crypto-Jewish activity, such as lighting special lamps on Friday night, avoiding forbidden foods, or abstaining from work on the Jewish Sabbath.

Modern descriptions of this phenomenon are faced with similar difficulties in labeling. Both converso and New Christian offer value-neutral designations, since neither presumes to know whether people who behaved as Christians were secretly practicing or believing as Jews. In both Jewish and Spanish historical writing, the term marrano is emptied of any swinish connotation and refers only to the phenomenon of some form of crypto-Judaism or the ambiguities therein. Marrano suggests that an outwardly Catholic persona was really something in disguise–a historical fact that, by its secret nature, was difficult both for contemporaries to identify, and for historians to uncover.


Mass conversions introduced a problem for Spanish society. Unlike the sporadic conversion of individuals during the Middle Ages, the entry of a large group into Spanish Christendom created a confusion of categories and demanded new solutions.

Since converts to Christianity were officially free of all legal restrictions that applied to Jews, the introduction of conversos en masse into Spanish society brought with it heavier competition in commercial fields previously closed to these individuals as Jews, and a general sense of resentment by the old population towards this new influx.

An ethnic solution was imposed in a series of statutes first enacted in Toledo in 1449 called limpieza de sangre (purity of blood), which barred men of Jewish descent from holding public office as well as other titles. This new designation of conversos as separated from the main population by blood helped in the formation of a group identity based on ethnicity, even when its religious element was erased.

The threat that converts would revert to their Jewish faith–or “Judaize”–was the motivation for the establishment of the Inquisition in Spain in 1483. In 1492, all practicing Jews were expelled from Spain, since they were viewed as a pernicious influence on New Christians who were at risk for backsliding to Judaism.


Whereas the Spanish monarchs sought to solve their Jewish problem by expelling all practicing Jews from their country, their counterparts in Portugal took a different approach. Recognizing the important commercial activities of Jews in Portugal, in 1497 King Manuel opted to forcibly baptize all of the Jews in Portugal.

While Spanish conversions often severed the bonds of family and community, the full-scale conversion of Portuguese Jewry meant that the informal networks of Jewish life remained largely intact, even as their institutional organizations disappeared.


An ethnic designation of Jewishness, rather than a religious one, was given further impetus by the fact that in Portugal converted Jews served a critical economic function as merchants and traders. This unique role helped create a synonymy between New Christians and so-called homens de negócios (“Men of Affairs”).

As Portuguese Jews established business connections beyond Portugal, this group gained further valence, and the simple designation homens de nação (“Men of the Nation”). This title initially denoted vocation but was soon extended to refer to any and all people of Jewish origin, regardless of their religious activities. Across the European continent, members of the marrano diaspora came to conceive of themselves as linked by ethnicity and nationality.


The creation of the marranos and the return to Judaism of some in the following centuries, particularly in the Ottoman Empire, Amsterdam, and small settlements in the south of France, offers a different model of understanding Jewish modernity. Unlike their Ashkenazic counterparts, the Sephardic Jews who underwent the marrano experience came to their Judaism with a split between Jewish ethnicity and Jewish religious practice.

The experience of multiple Jewish identities engendered for some a belief in skepticism–doubt regarding any and all particular religious principles and practice–most famously in the case of Baruch/Benedict Spinoza. The crucible of crypto-Judaism had formed a Jewish identity that was less than the full complement of religious ideals, and at the same time, a sense of Jewish belonging that was greater than any sum of legal precepts.


Anusim (Hebrew: אֲנוּסִים, pronounced [anuˈsim]; singular male, anús, Hebrew: אָנוּס pronounced [aˈnus]; singular female, anusáh, אָנוּסָה pronounced [anuˈsa], meaning "coerced") is a legal category of Jews in halakha (Jewish law) who were forced to abandon Judaism against their will, typically while forcibly converted to another religion. The term "anusim" is most properly translated as the "coerced [ones]" or the "forced [ones]".

The term anusim derives from the Talmudic phrase averah b’ones (עבירה באונס),[1] meaning "a forced transgression." The Hebrew ones (pronounced "oh'nes") derives from the triconsonantal root א-נ-ס (Aleph-Nun-Samekh), and originally referred to any case where a person has been forced into any act against his or her will. In Modern Hebrew, the word ones is mainly used to mean rape, thus "anusim" (or female "anusot") nowadays means rape victims - the older meaning used only in the historical context.

The term anús is used in contradistinction to meshumad (מְשֻׁמָּד), which means a person who has voluntarily abandoned the practice of Jewish law in whole or part. The forced converts were also known as cristianos nuevos (Spanish) or cristãos-novos (Portuguese); converso or marrano, which had and still has today a pejorative connotation in Spanish.

The term anusim became more frequently used after the forced conversion to Christianity of Ashkenazi Jews in Germany at the end of the 11th century. In his religious legal opinions, Rashi, a French rabbi who lived during this period, commented about the issue of anusim.

Several centuries later, following the mass forced conversion of Sephardi Jews (those Jews with extended histories in Spain and Portugal, known jointly as Iberia, or "Sepharad" in Hebrew) of the 15th and 16th centuries, the term "anusim" became widely used by Spanish rabbis and their successors for the following 600 years, henceforth becoming associated with Sephardic history.

The term may be properly applied to any Jew of any ethnic division. Since that time, it has also been applied to other forced or coerced converted Jews, such as the Mashadi Jews of Persia (modern Iran), who converted to Islam in the public eye, but secretly practised Judaism at home. They lived dual-religious lives, being fully practising Muslims in public life, and fully practising Jews at home.


The Jews of Spain who converted to Christianity are usually called conversos, although they are also known as Marranos or New Christians to distinguish them from the more numerous Old Christians. Some Jews converted voluntarily. Two of the best known are Abner of Burgos and Pablo de Santa María, both of whom were baptized in the fourteenth century and inspired others to follow their lead. Other Jews were forced to convert to save their lives during the massacres and mob violence motivated by a rising tide of anti-Semitism that was most perceptible in the late fourteenth century and continued on through the fifteenth century. However conversion was accomplished, integration of this ethnic minority into the majority Old Christian culture was a much debated and uncertain issue from the fifteenth through the seventeenth century.

Conversion brought with it certain benefits, such as the opportunity to occupy church and state offices prohibited to Jews, and the new converts began to fill these offices. Conversos played an important role in the Castilian economy and administration, as treasurers, merchants, money managers, secretaries, and record keepers. Some of these highly placed royal servants chose to marry their daughters into the Old Christian nobility, thus forming a new group of mixed ethnic origins. If these developments argue for successful assimilation at court, matters were not so positive in some urban centers, where the appearance of wealthy conversos in city and church councils and as tax collectors caused resentments. In the city of Toledo, for example, battles between conversos and Old Christians occurred in 1449 and again in 1467. In these two rebellions, the animosities felt by some Old Christians were formulated in "pure-blood" statutes, which stripped conversos of their municipal offices on grounds of their tainted or impure lineage, that is, their Jewish ancestry. Some converts were also accused of continuing to practice Judaism. Conversos were soon restored to their offices and the pure-blood statutes rescinded, but relations between the two ethnic groups, frequently referred to as "the two lineages," remained unstable in many towns of the realm.

The Catholic monarchs determined to resolve the converso problem. To this end, they founded the Spanish Inquisition, which was to ensure that the new converts did indeed observe the tenets of Christianity and abandon the customs, traditions, and beliefs of their ancestors. In its early years, the Inquisition struck a savage blow to the converso community, as few families escaped punishment. These same monarchs also expelled the Jews from their realms, and one of the motives for this expulsion was to protect conversos from any temptation to revert to their old religion.

Any conversos who remained in Spain after the Inquisition was established would have to observe at least the exterior forms of Christianity or risk being burned at the stake. And most conversos did try to observe these forms. From 1508, when the heresy known as "The Coming of the Messiah" was finally put to rest, mass punishments and executions of conversos subsided. The Toledo Inquisition still kept track of conversos, however, through the compilation of detailed genealogical records, and by having the name and crime of anyone punished by the Inquisition publicly displayed in his or her parish church.

Despite this surveillance and public humiliation, some conversos prospered and attained an impressive upward mobility during the first half of the sixteenth century. This was an era of population and economic growth within the crown of Castile and of imperial expansion, developments that favored the skills and talents of entrepreneurial-minded conversos, many of whom amassed substantial fortunes. Others trained in bookkeeping, law, or writing found employment in the ever-expanding bureaucracy of the realm as secretaries, treasurers, or accountants. Many who made their fortune through business and trade were able to buy a seat in a municipal governing council or place a son in the cathedral chapter, and some, not all, married their daughters to spouses outside the converso community, just as they had done before the Inquisition was established.

The city of Toledo serves as an example of some of these generalizations. Aside from a crown-appointed corregidor, the city was governed by a council of regidores (aldermen) and an advisory, nonvoting council of jurados (parish representatives). In the first half of the sixteenth century, conversos were especially visible as jurados and as regidores who sat on the citizens' bench, rather than on the more prestigious nobles' bench. Many of the converso citizen regidores were money managers, such as tax farmers, or wholesalers who dealt in wool, silk, and other products in the Indies, Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula. Active in the city council from the 1530s to the 1560s, the citizen regidores and the jurados were instrumental in advancing the city's textile industries by supplying them with raw materials and distributing their products. They also organized and set up the credit mechanisms needed to purchase large quantities of grain during a subsistence crisis of 1557–1558.

All this apparent acceptance and integration was to change in mid-century when the doctrine of pure blood reappeared. In Toledo, a pure-blood statute was first imposed on the cathedral chapter by Cardinal-Archbishop Juan Martínez Silíceo in 1548, and this statute was approved by the pope in 1555 and the crown in 1556. Then, in 1566, a similar statute was imposed on the citizens' bench of the city council. Not only were the citizen regidores to be of pure blood, their numbers (theoretically twelve) were to be reduced, while the seats on the nobles' bench were augmented. The noble regidores suffered no genealogical scrutiny, although they were supposed to have inherited their nobility, as opposed to buying it, and were not to be involved in any base occupations.

Many conversos fought the pure-blood statutes, but with their acceptance by both the crown and the papacy, opponents faced formidable obstacles. If conversos could meet the demand of becoming good Christians, they could hardly manage to escape their ancestry and meet the pure-blood qualifications. So conversos dissimulated, falsifying lineage, changing names and birthplaces, and paying for false testimony. Some were wealthy enough to buy their way into the nobility, by marrying a daughter to an impoverished aristocrat, by buying a village that would enable their heirs to claim nobility, or by having their nobility approved by a chancellery court. In the Toledo city council, many of the citizen regidores first attempted to have their lineage approved locally, and then, if they could afford it, to upgrade their seating arrangements by moving from the citizens' to the nobles' bench. For example, the converso Vaca de Herrera brothers, who farmed royal taxes in the 1580s and 1590s, managed to secure three city council seats, and all the brothers ended up on the nobles' bench. They also had their nobility confirmed in the chancellery court of Valladolid.

With the death of Philip II in 1598, public debates about pure-blood statutes resurfaced. Modifications were urged by deputies of the Castilian Cortes and by others of more prestige, such as cardinal-archbishops of Toledo and of Seville. Little was done, however, until 1623, when the count-duke of Olivares, the favorite of Philip IV, did moderate the statutes. His reforms, which limited the genealogical inquiry of candidates to two generations and took into consideration pure-blood certificates held by other family members, helped some conversos to move up the social scale. Given the inflation of honors that occurred over time, what wealthy merchants and financiers sought in the seventeenth century was a habit in a military order, and Olivares's reforms allowed many to achieve this goal. It is an irony that Olivares should complain of the lack of merchants in Spain, when during his rule the citizens' bench of the Toledo city council, long the bastion of converso merchants and entrepreneurs, was finally phased out—not because conversos had disappeared, but because those who lasted until 1639 had some sort of pure-blood pedigree that disqualified them from mercantile activities and qualified them as nobles.

Thus, in addition to fostering perjury and a blatant hypocrisy, the pure-blood statutes accelerated movement from the middle ranks to the nobility. This upward passage had been going on for some time, of course, and was not unique to Spain, but the values implicit in pure-blood statutes certainly encouraged wealthy conversos to abandon commerce and trade, activities associated with Jews, and to seek a title of some sort, a post in the royal bureaucracy or in the church, or to live on their investments. The economic downturn in the seventeenth century also discouraged mercantile ventures and encouraged investments in rural lands, rents, and offices.

If, in the end, the crown won its battle against the conversos, most of whom abandoned their traditional activities and values and spent their wealth in acquiring an acceptable pedigree for themselves or their children, it also lost, or at least rechanneled, the dynamism and skills of a hard-working, talented minority. The myth of pure blood carried the day, and those unwilling to do lip service to the doctrine suffered.


Marranos were Jews living in the Iberian Peninsula who converted or were forced to convert to Christianity during the Middle Ages, yet continued to practice Judaism in secret.

The term specifically refers to the charge of Crypto-Judaism, whereas the term converso was used for the wider population of Jewish converts to Catholicism, whether or not they secretly still practised Jewish rites. Converts from either Judaism or Islam were referred to by the broader term of "New Christians".

The term "marrano" came into later use in 1492 with the Castilian Alhambra Decree, hasted by Inquisitor Torquemada, himself from a 'converse' family, also Espina, confessor of Queen Isabel, had been rabin; it prohibited the practice of Judaism in Spain and required all remaining Jews to convert or leave, under the premise that: 'If they are not good Christians, their descendants will be'. By then, the large majority of Jews in Spain had converted to Catholicism, perhaps under the pressure from 1391 massacres, and conversos numbered hundreds of thousands. They were monitored by the Spanish Inquisition and subject to suspicions by Catholics of the secret practice of Judaism, also known as "Marranism".

In modern use "marrano" is sometimes, but not always, considered offensive; and "crypto-Jew" is occasionally preferred in scholarly works.


Although the category of New Christian is meaningless in Christian theology, it was nevertheless introduced by the Old Christians who claimed "pure unmixed" Spanish Christian bloodlines in order to distinguish themselves as a unique group, separated from ethnic Jews and Iberian Muslims.

The Old Christians wanted to legally and socially distinguish themselves from the conversos (converts to Christianity), who they considered to be tainted by virtue of their non-Spanish bloodlines, even though in the case of Muslims, the overwhelming majority of Spain's Muslims were also of indigenous Iberian stock, themselves the descendants of native Iberians who earlier converted to Islam under Muslim rule.

In practice, for New Christians of Jewish origin, the concept of New Christian was a legal mechanism and manifestation of racial antisemitism, being a prejudice against Jews as a racial/ethnic group, rather than Judaism as a religion. For those of Moorish origin, it was a manifestation of racial anti-Berberism and/or anti-Arabism.


The related Spanish development of an ideology of limpieza de sangre ("cleanliness of blood") also excluded New Christians from society — universities, emigration to the New World, many professions — regardless of their sincerity as converts.

Other derogatory terms applied to each of the converting groups included marranos (i.e. "pigs") for New Christians of Jewish origin, and moriscos (a term which carried pejorative connotations) for New Christians of Andalusian origin).


Aside from social stigma and ostracism, the consequences of legal or social categorization as a New Christian included restrictions of civil and political rights, abuses of those already-limited civil rights, social and sometimes legal restrictions on whom one could marry (anti-miscegenation laws), social restrictions on where one could live, legal restrictions of entry into the professions and the clergy, legal restrictions and prohibition of immigration to and settlement in the newly colonized Spanish territories in the Americas, deportation from the colonies.

In addition to the above restrictions and discrimination endured by New Christians, the Spanish Crown and Church authorities also subjected New Christians to persecution, prosecution and capital punishment for actual or alleged practice of the family's former religion.

After the Alhambra Decree of expulsion of the Jewish population from Spain in 1492 and a similar Portuguese decree in 1497, the remaining Jewish population in Iberia became officially Christian by default. The New Christians, especially those of Jewish origin, were always under suspicion of being judaizantes ("judaizers"), that is, apostizing from the Christian religion and being active crypto-Jews.


Despite the discrimination and legal restrictions, many Jewish-origin New Christians found ways of circumventing these restrictions for emigration and settlement in the Iberian colonies of the New World, by falsifying or buying "cleanliness of blood" documentation, or attaining perjured affidavits attesting to untainted Old Christian pedigrees. The descendants of these, who could not return to Judaism, became the modern-day Christian-professing Sephardic Bnei Anusim of Latin America (it is only in the modern era that a nascent community, the Neo-Western Sephardim, is currently returning to Judaism from among this population).

Also as a result of the unceasing trials and persecutions by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition, other Jewish-origin New Christians opted to migrate out of the Iberian Peninsula in a continuous flow between the 1600s to 1800's towards Amsterdam, and also London, whereupon in their new tolerant environment of refuge outside the Iberian cultural sphere they eventually returned to Judaism. The descendants of these became the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (also known more ambiguously in the Netherlands as Spanish and Portuguese Jews, among other names elsewhere).


Although Iberian Muslims were protected in the treaty signed at the fall of Granada, and the New Christian descendants of former Muslims weren't expelled until over a century later, even so, in the meantime, different waves of Iberian Muslims and New Christians of Moorish origin left and settled across North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.


Throughout the Middle Ages, Sephardim (Iberian Jews) and Moros (Iberian Muslims) sometimes converted to Christianity, usually as the result of coercion: physical, economic, and social pressures.[dubious – discuss][citation needed]

In the 14th century there was increasing pressure, especially against the Jews, that culminated in the riots of 1391 in Seville and other cities in which many Jews were massacred. These riots caused the destruction of the Aljamas (Jewish quarters) of the cities and sparked many conversions, a trend that continued throughout the 15th century.

Unlike the other Iberian kingdoms, Portugal was not much affected by the waves of riots. However, there, the Jews remaining on Portuguese soil were forcefully converted in 1497, after which New Christians became a numerous part of the population.

New Christians, both Portuguese and Spanish, played an important role in LatinAmerica. They formed a considerable percentage of encomenderos and were among the first to capitalize on theexport of Cuban sugar.[4]

The governments of Spain and Portugal created the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 and the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536 as a way of dealing with social tensions, supposedly justified by the need to fight heresy. Communities believed correctly that many New Christians were secretly practising their former religions to any extent possible, becoming crypto-Jews and crypto-Muslims.


After conversion, New Christians of Jewish origin generally adopted Christian given names and Old Christian surnames. Eventually, all Old Christian given names and surnames were in use by New Christians of Jewish origin.

Among descendants of Sephardic Jews today, there are three categories of descendants:

Generally, it is only those who descend from group 1 who carry surnames which typically identify the surname-carrier as a person of Jewish origins. The other descendants of Sephardic Jews (those from group 2, and especially those from group 3) almost always carry "Old Christian" Spanish or Portuguese surnames because they became nominal Christians, whether intermittently or permanently.

For group 3 especially, only a very and extremely limited number of surnames carried by modern-day Spanish, Portuguese, Hispanics and Brazilians who descend from Jewish New Christians are surnames which are exclusively Jewish "New Christian" surnames being capable of, on their own, indicating Jewish origins of the surname-carrier. The great majority of their surnames are, per se, Old Christian surnames, and these surnames alone cannot indicate a Jewish origin without accompanying genealogical documentation, family traditions and customs, and/or Genealogical DNA testing.

Although it is true that a few surnames became popularly adopted by New Christians (including, for example the surname Pérez, because of its similarity to the Hebrew surname Peretz), such popularly adopted surnames by New Christians remain Old Christian surnames in origin, and carrying these surnames does not indicate Jewish ancestry by itself. The Portuguese surnames that were very common among the Portuguese New Christians were: Oliveira, Henriques, Cardoso, Sampaio, Pereira, Rodrigues, Castro, Fonseca, Abreu, Nunes, Marques, Coelho, Queiroz, Macieira, Pimentel, Figueira, Carneiro, Menezes, Flores, Correia, Benveniste, Fernandes, Neves, Sousa, Furtado, Miranda, Tavares, Aguiar, Moreno, Faria, Ximenes, Annes, Mascarenhas, Mesquita, Penso, Marques, Medina, Guterres, Espinosa, Esteves, Rosa, Andrade, Dias, Teixeira, Pires, Mendes, Costa, Mendonça, Cunha, Bethancourt, Lopes, Lemos, Delmar, Lobo, Cruz, Bensaude, Morais, Medeiros, Sotomaior, Noronha, Penafiel, Gomes, Lopes, Falcão, Simões, Serra, Matos, Amorim, Belmonte, Brandão, Ferreira, Peixotto, Benevides, Cordeiro, Melo, Pardo, Vaz, Martins, Soares, Pinto, Almeida, Borges, Santos, Vasconcelos, Torres, Alvarez, Teles, Coutinho, Franco, Pacheco, Lobato, Leão, Gouveia, Vieira, Sampaio, Cabral, Moreira, Pinheiro, Lima, Velho, Garcia, Nogueira, Machado, Silva, Ribeiro, and many more. There is a very high probability that a person of Portuguese heritage had New Christian, Jewish ancestors somewhere in their family lineage if they possess one of the above mentioned surnames.

This phenomenon is much the same as is the Sephardic Portuguese/Spanish situation with surnames typically considered to be Ashkenazi "Jewish". Most "Jewish" surnames among Ashkenazi Jews are not in fact "Jewish" per se, but are simply German or Slavic ornamental surnames including so-called "Jewish" nature derived surnames such as: Applebaum (Apple Tree), Rosenthal (Valley of Roses), Bloomfield (Field of Flowers), Kirschenbaum (Cherry Tree), Birnbaum (Pear Tree), Weinrebe (Grapevine), Goldberg (Mountain of Gold), which were adopted by Ashkenazi Jews, some of which became so overwhelmingly carried by Jews that they came to be seen as "Jewish", although there are people of non-Jewish descent that are carriers of those same surnames, because it is with those said families that the surnames originated to begin with. Only some surnames found among Ashkenazi Jews today (i.e., Rabinowitz=son of a Rabbi) are surnames which are exclusively "Jewish" being capable of, on their own, indicating Jewish origins of the carrier.

Crypto-Judaism   Jews who had, or pretended to, convert to Christianity

the coerced or ‘forced’ one.

Conversos converts
to Christianity

conversos who practiced Judaism in secret
and so were targeted
by the
Spanish inquisition

New Christians
new converts to Christianity
as distinct from
‘Old Christians’