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The Jews of the Middle Ages probably had the distinction of being the first captive audience in the world. A fifteenth- century pope conceived the idea of mass conversion sermons. The Jews were herded into cathedrals, where bishops and archbishops, and sometimes even the Pope himself, would sermonize them on the evils of Judaism and the beauties of Christianity. Vigilance was the word for survival, as falling asleep would be a discourtesy for which death alone could atone. The Jews attended these sermons with trepidation, applauded with enthusiasm, and forgot with modesty. These compulsory conversion sermons lasted until late into the eighteenth century, not because of any practical results, but, may it be suggested, because no speaker could resist being flattered by such attentive audiences.


A new era of suffering and persecution started when Henry II became King in 1369.  Prolonged warfare devastated the land, and the people became accustomed to lawlessness. The Jews were reduced to extreme poverty and later expelled.  In addition, Henry II decreed that Jews

Be kept far from palaces.  Were forbidden to hold public office.  Must live separate from Christians.  Should not wear costly garments nor ride on mules.  Must wear distinct badges to indicate that they were Jewish.  Were barred from adapting Christian names.  Were forbidden to carry arms and sell weapons.

Despite his aversion to the Jews, Henry could not dispense with their services. He employed wealthy Jews—Samuel Abravanel and others—as financial councillors and tax collectors. He also did not prevent them from holding religious disputations or deny them the right to conduct their own court proceedings. He died in 1379.

Things grew even worse under John I (1379-1390). Jewish courts were forbidden from calling for capital punishment, Jews were forced to change prayers deemed offensive to the Church, and people were forbidden to convert to Judaism on pain of becoming property of the State. Anti-Semitic violence also increased during this period, and Jews were often beaten or even killed in the streets.


Riots broke out in Seville led by a priest called Ferrand Martinez who had begun an anti-Jewish campaign in 1378. In public sermons, filled with hatred of the Jews, he called on all good Christians to destroy the 23 beautiful synagogues of the Jewish community of Seville, lock Jews up in a ghetto, have no dealings with them, and force them to accept Christianity. He preached that it was no crime for Christians to murder and pillage the "unbelievers".  He concentrated on the peasants and lower classes of Andalusia by urging them not to give peace to their Jewish neighbours.

In 1390, after the death of the archbishop, he became the chief deacon and church administrator of the region and continued his Jew-baiting with greater vigour when a blood-thirsty mob fell on the Jewish quarter of Seville killing all Jews falling into their hands and refusing baptism.  Many women and children were sold into slavery.  He was made a saint (see Jewish Encyclopedia)

(Wikipedia - Ferrand Martinez (fl. 14th century) was a Spanish cleric and archdeacon of Écija most noted for being an antisemitic agitator whom historians cite as the prime mover behind the series of pogroms against the Spanish Jews in 1391 beginning in the city of Seville.

Little is known of Martinez's early life (the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia has no article on him). Before taking up the position at Écija, he was the confessor of the queen mother of Aragon. Beginning in 1378, he began preaching sermons against the Jews. Although Juan I commanded him to cease his rabble-rousing, he ignored the royal order, as well as commands from Barroso, archbishop of Toledo, the primate of Spain.  For more than a decade Martinez continued his verbal assaults, telling Catholics to "expel the Jews...and to demolish their synagogues." Though put on trial in 1388, his activities were not checked by the king, though the latter stated that the Jews must not be maltreated.

The tipping point occurred when both Juan I and Borroso died in 1390, leaving his 11-year-old son Henry III to rule under the regency of his mother. Martinez continued his campaign against the Jews of Seville, calling on clergy and people to destroy synagogues and seize Jewish holy books and other items. These events led to a further royal order deposing Martinez from his office and ordering damaged synagogues be repaired at Church expense. Declaring that neither the state nor the local church authorities had power over him, he ignored the commands.

The first anti-Jewish riots began in Seville in March 1391. It was on 6 June that the first great massacre occurred. Thousands of Jews were murdered and many were forced to accept baptism. Over the course of the year, the massacres would spread to all of Spain (though nothing of the kind happened in Portugal). These events inaugurated the beginning of the mass conversions as fear gripped the Jewish communities of Spain.

Martinez was imprisoned again by royal order in 1395, and although he was quickly released, he died soon after, leaving his fortune to a hospital he had founded in San Maria.)

Some, educated in talmudic yeshivot put their talents to the service of the Church, one Paulus (or Paul or Pablo) de Santa Maria (formerly Solomon Halevi, 1352-1435) was almost elected Pope in Avignon and became Primate of the Spanish Church.   He acted as Ferrand’s evil genius and urged him to greater ferocity to convert or exterminate the Jews.

A feeling of how the Jews reacted is given by Chaim Potok in 'Wanderings' p308

They would use their weapons to hold off the mobs.  But when it was clear that defeat was near, they would accept it as a sign from God that their deaths had been decreed. There might be a pause in the battle. The men would gather for a final decision.  To let themselves and their families be taken alive by such mobs was unthinkable. Jewish law developed a benediction for the act of martyrdom. Fathers would cut the throats of their wives and children and say aloud "Hear O Israel the Lord is God, the Lord is One" and commit suicide.

They died without doubting the unfathomable judgement of heaven. They felt themselves linked to the patriarch Abraham and his act of faith when he nearly sacrificed Isaac......They saw themselves continuing in the tradition of the Pietists who died fighting the Hellenists.  It was a charged, passionate choice made with the certainty that the world to come was a living reality and its rewards awaited them when they fulfilled their ultimate duty as Jews.

Accounts make it clear...that Jews were fully aware of their actions; they were testifying to the truth and continuing reality of the original covenant and to the cruelty and emptiness of the Christianity that had forced them to such a choice.  Martyrdom was an aggressive act of denial, a publicly performed act sanctifying the name of God.  During the heat of battle and before the act of suicide, Jews would shout words of derision about Jesus.  Some let themselves be taken alive, agreed to baptism and then spat on the crucifix, knowing they might be torn to pieces by the infuriated crowd.

Violence spread to other towns in Andalusia, the southern province of Castille, and then swept northward to Burgos. Within three months most of the flourishing Jewish communities in all the Christian States of Spain - Castille, Aragon, Valencia, Catalonia, as well as the Balearic Islands-were destroyed.

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.

Many were affected.  Numbers are disputed with up to 100,000 Jews dead, 100,000 leaving and 100,000 converting to Christianity. By 1415 it is claimed a further 50,000 converted to Christianity.  Those converting, but became secret Jews, were indistinguishable from those who were not.  Jews who considered their brethren to be forced converts referred to them as anussim (literally "forced ones"). The term marrano literally ‘pig’ became a term of opprobrium applied to secret Jews

From The Jewish Virtual Library

A revolt broke out in Seville after the death of King John I in 1390, leading to a period of disorder which greatly affected the Jewish community of Spain in the coming years. On Ash Wednesday 1391, Ferrand Martinez, the Archdeacon of Ecija, urged Christians to kill or baptize the Jews of Spain. On June 6, the mob attacked the Juderia in Seville from all sides and murdered 4,000 Jews; the rest submitted to baptism as the only means of escaping death. The riots then spread across the countryside destroying many synagogues and murdering thousands of Jews in the streets. During the months-long riots, the Cordova Juderia was burned down and over 5,000 Jews ruthlessly murdered regardless of age or sex. Many Jews converted as the only way to escape death.

Soon after, a series of laws were passed to reduce the Jews to poverty and further humiliate them. Under these laws, the Jews were ordered to:

Live by themselves in enclosed Juderias;     Banned from practicing medicine, surgery, or chemistry.   Banned from selling commodities such as bread, wine, flour, meat, etc.     Banned from engaging in handicrafts or trades of any kind.   Forbidden to hire Christian servants, farm hands, lamplighters, or gravediggers.     Banned from eating drinking, bathing, holding intimate conversation with, visiting, or giving presents to Christians.     Banned from holding public offices or acting as money-brokers or agents.     Christian women, married or unmarried, were forbidden to enter the Juderia either by day or by night.     Allowed no self-jurisdiction whatever, nor might they, without royal permission, levy taxes for communal purposes.     Forbidden to assume the title of “Don”.     Forbidden to carry arms.     Forbidden to trim beard or hair.     Jewesses were required to wear plain, long garments of coarse material reaching to the feet, and Jews were forbidden to wear garments made of fine material.     On pain of loss of property and even of slavery, Jews were forbidden to leave the country.     Any grandee or knight who protected or sheltered a fugitive Jew was punished with a fine of 150,000 maravedís for the first offense.

These laws were strictly enforced, and calculated to compel the Jews to embrace Christianity.

Though targeted against the Jews all Spain suffered.  Commerce and industry were at a standstill, the soil was left uncultivated and finances disturbed.  In Aragon entire communities such as Barcelona, Lerida, and Valencia were destroyed, and many lost more than half their population and were reduced to poverty.

After the persecutions of 1391, many Jews converted, and still thousands more continued to practice Judaism in secret (these people were known as Marranos). On account of their talent and wealth, and through intermarriage with noble families, the converts and Marranos gained considerable influence and filled important government offices. To restore commerce and industry, Queen Maria, consort of Alfonso V and temporary regent, endeavored to draw Jews to the country by offering them rights and privileges while making emigration difficult by imposing higher taxes.