A converso (Spanish: [komˈberso]; Portuguese: [kõˈvɛɾsu]; feminine form conversa), “a convert”, (from Latin conversvs, “converted, turned around”) was a Jew who converted to Roman Catholicism in Spain or Portugal, particularly during the 14th and 15th centuries, or one of their descendants.
The majority of Spain’s Jews converted to Christianity as a result of the pogroms in 1391. Those who remained openly practicing Jews were expelled by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in the Alhambra decree in 1492, following the Christian Reconquista (reconquest) of Spain. However, even a significant proportion of these remaining practicing Jews chose to join the already large converso community rather than face exile. In order to safe-guard the Old Christian population and make sure that converso “New Christians” were true to their new faith, the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in Spain in 1481.
New Christian converts of Muslim origin were known as moriscos. Unlike marranos, moriscos were subject to an edict of expulsion even after their conversion to Catholicism, which was implemented severely in the eastern region of Valencia and less so in other parts of Spain.
Conversos played an important role in the 1520-1521 Revolt of the Comuneros, a popular uprising and civil war centered in the region of Castile against the imperial pretensions of the Spanish monarchy.
Ferrand Martinez, Archdeacon of Ecijia, directed a 13-year anti-Semitic campaign that began in 1378. Martinez used a series of provocative sermons, through which he openly condemned the Jews with little to no opposition. He rallied non-Jews against the Jews by creating a constant state of fear through riots. Martinez’s efforts led to a series of outbreaks on June 4, 1391, where several Synagogues in Seville were burned to the ground and Churches were erected in their place. Amidst this outbreak, many Jews fled the country, some converted to Christianity in fear, and some were sold to Muslims. Martinez set in motion the largest forced mass conversion of Jews in Spain.
Both the Church and the Crown had not anticipated such a large-scale conversion stemming from an unplanned anti-Semitic campaign led by Ferrand Martinez. The new converts, most of whom were forced, due to their large numbers, were victims of a new problem. A problem that temporarily solved the Jewish presence in Spain, however, led to the creation of a new group that was neither completely Catholic or Jewish.
The Conversos, who were now fully privileged citizens, competed in all aspects of the economic sphere. This resulted in a new wave of racial anti-Semitism that was targeted at the Conversos. This anti-Semitism evolved into small and large riots in Toledo, 1449, that now oppressed not the Jews by the Christians, but the New Christians (Conversos) by the Old Christians. Thus, the Crown established a National Inquisition in 1478, that would test the loyalty and purity of a newly baptized Christian (Converso). Due to continued oppression, some Jews and Conversos fled Spain, others created a community that ensure the survival of Judaism in the Iberian Peninsula, although outwardly practicing Christianity.
Perpetuation of Jewish heritage
Conversas played a pivotal role in keeping Jewish traditions alive by observing many Jewish holidays like Shabbat. Conversas also cooked and baked traditional Jewish dishes in honor of the Sabbath (starting on Friday sundown), Yom Kippur, and other religious holidays. During festivals like Sukkot and Passover, Conversas participated by giving clothing articles and ornaments to Jewish women, they also attended a seder or obtained a baking matzah. Conversas also ensured that their household maintained similar dietary regulations as their Jewish counterparts, they did so by eating only kosher birds and other animals. Conversas also financially contributed to the growth of the Jewish / Converso Community and Synagogue. The Jewish community and the Conversos exchanged books and knowledge, Jews taught Conversos how to read to ensure a constant growth of their Jewish heritage. In order to take a stance against the church and its principles, some Conversos performed professional work even on Sundays.
Conversos were subject to suspicion and harassment from both what was left of the community they were leaving and that which they were joining. Both Christians and Jews called them tornadizo (renegade). James I, Alfonso X and John I passed laws forbidding the use of this epithet. This was part of a larger pattern of royal oversight, as laws were promulgated to protect their property, forbid attempts to convert them back to Judaism or the Muslim faith, and regulate their behavior, preventing their cohabitation or even dining with Jews, lest they convert back.
Conversos did not enjoy legal equality. Alfonso VII prohibited the “recently converted” from holding office in Toledo. They had supporters and bitter opponents in the Christian secular of general acceptance, yet they became targets of occasional pogroms during times of social tension (as during an epidemic and after an earthquake). They were subject to the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions.
While “pure blood” (so-called limpieza de sangre), free of the “taint” of non-Christian lineage, would come to be placed at a premium, particularly among the nobility, in a 15th-century defense of conversos, Bishop Lope de Barrientos would list what Roth calls “a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Spanish nobility” as having converso members or being of converso descent. He pointed out that given the near-universal conversion of Iberian Jews during Visigothic times, (quoting Roth) “[W]ho among the Christians of Spain could be certain that he is not a descendant of those conversos?”
With advances in science able to trace individuals’ ancestry via their DNA, according to a widely publicized study (December 2008) in the American Journal of Human Genetics, 19.8 percent of modern Spaniards (and Portuguese) have DNA originating in the Near East during historic times (i.e. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Jews and Levantine Arabs) – compared to 10.6 percent having DNA reflecting North African ancestors.
Specific groups of conversos left Spain and Portugal after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, in search for better life. They left for other parts of Europe, especially Italy, where they were inevitably looked at with suspicion and harassment, both in their old and new communities. Subsequently, many conversos who arrived in Italian cities did not openly embrace their Judaism, since they were tempted by the advantages they could seek in the Christian world.
The first three cities to accept the conversos who openly converted back to Judaism, were in Florence, Ferrara and Ancona. Most of these conversos appeared after 1536 from Portugal, and most lived in Florence. In 1549, Duke Cosimo de Medici allowed the Portuguese conversos to trade and reside within Florence. Most of the re-converted Jews lived in the ghetto of Florence, and by 1705 there were 453 Jews in the city.
Conversos arrived to Ferrara in 1535, and were able to assimilate with their neighbors, perform circumcisions, and return openly to Judaism, due to the Lettres Patentes issued by Duke Ercole II. After the plague in 1505 and the eventual fall of Ferrara in 1551, many of these Jews relocated North towards the economically stable ports in Venice. Venice slowly became a center for conversos who either stopped temporarily on their way to Turkey, or stayed permanently as residents in the ghetto Jewish community port. Venetian leaders were convinced to openly accept conversos to practice Judaism, because they recognized that if conversos were not welcome in Venice, they would take their successful trades to the country’s economic rival of Turkey. A Portuguese converso in Venice, named Abraham de Almeda, connected strongly with Christianity, however, turned to the Jewish members of his family when in need for financial for moral support. As a result, many of the conversos during this period struggled with their Christian and Jewish identities.
Conversos in the city of Ancona faced difficult lives living under the pope, and eventually fled to Ferrara in 1555. Portuguese conversos in Ancona were falsely misled that they were welcome to Ancona and that they could openly convert back to Judaism. Their fate was overturned by the succeeding pope, Pope Paul IV. The conversos in Ancona faced traumatic emotional damage after the pope imprisoned 102 conversos who refused to reside in the ghetto and wear badges to distinguish themselves. In 1588, when the duke granted a charter of residence in return for the conversos building up the city’s economy, they refused, due to accumulated skepticism.