Converting before the Great Conversion
Why might a woman opt to leave the fold? What happened if she did so? Was this a risky business or a wise choice? Was this something one might regret?
Torah reading Photo: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post
There was an interesting study recently, concerning the phenomenon of Jewish
women and conversion to Catholicism in Spain prior to the forced conversions
that took place in 1391. Why might a woman opt to leave the fold? What happened
if she did so? Was this a risky business or a wise choice? Was this something
one might regret? Paola Tartakoff (“Jewish Women and Apostasy in the Medieval
Crown of Aragon, c. 1300-1391,” Jewish History (2010)) used Latin sources to
uncover some cases that dealt with precisely this phenomenon. It is hard to know
how many or how few Jews actually converted pre-1391, but it seems likely that
records do not reveal the actual numbers.
Converting sometimes resulted
in forfeiting one’s belongings, although this practice was not advocated by the
Church. Some new converts chose to do so out of a sense of piety, while others
were denied access to their money and/or prop- erty by Jewish relatives. As a
result, converts often found themselves in serious financial straits, seeking
charity or licenses permitting them to beg. The daughter of a convert might be
unable to arrange a marriage if her family could not supply her
Records show that one orphaned daughter of an apostate had none
other than the king for a godfather. He fulfilled his role graciously, aiding
her at the time of her marriage as well as while she was married, and eventually
on a daily basis.
Needless to say, this was highly unusual.
the above appears to be a case of a family’s conversion, husbands and wives did
not necessarily choose an identical path. Some women joined their hus- bands,
others converted without them, and still others refused to apostasize with them.
Halachically a woman who remained Jewish after her husband converted needed to
get a divorce writ from him in order to to remarry. Some husbands cooperated,
but others were not willing to grant the get . More complications developed when
children were involved. Did a father have the right to take his children to the
baptismal font with him? One family had complicated dealings in the mid-14th
century because only part of the family converted. The grandfather ran off with
his granddaughters and their mother, but his newly Christian son-in-law objected
vehemently. He protested to the bishop of Barcelona and to an inquisitor who
sought to arrest these Jews and tem- porarily confiscate their possessions. The
records do not reveal the end of this story.
A Catalan woman was
concerned about the fate of her children when their father elected to convert to
Catholicism. She chose to protect them and their reli- gious future by
convincing her husband to state in the presence of a notary that he would not
try to influence their progeny to follow in his footsteps.
Aragonese woman remained Jewish even though her husband convert- ed (thus
reducing a fine that had been imposed on him). This fellow fled Spain with one
of their sons and reverted to Judaism. His wife opted to bring the rest of their
family to him in Tripoli, but the reunion was short-lived, as he died soon
afterward. She then bought his confiscated property in Catalonia and contem-
plated returning, but feared she’d be blamed for his reversion to Judaism. In
the end, she requested and received safe-conduct.
One case from the 1380s
is extremely complicated: A tailor’s wife converted and arranged to marry a
fellow convert. Her husband was upset when he learned of this development, and
promptly approached the bishop to arrange for his own conversion. He then asked
for a decision to be made in his favor declaring that he was his wife’s husband.
Which marriage took precedence? Which was valid? While contemplating this
complex case, the bishop separated the second couple, but the final ruling is
These documents reveal the complications involved when opting to
convert – particularly if one took this step without one’s spouse, because of
legal implications regarding the status of the marriage, as well as the future
of the children in the family. Even prior to the “Great Conversion of 1391,”
choosing to be baptized on one’s own or with one’s family clearly was not a
The author is a professor of Jewish history at the
Schechter Institute. She is currently a fellow in the School of Historical
Studies at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies.