During the later decades of Spain’s Golden Age life for Jews under Muslim rule grew increasingly harsh. In the search for allies to evict the Moors the Catholic monarchy even embraced the Jews. Responding to the hand of friendship 40,000 Jews joined Alfonso VI whose army conquered Toledo in 1085. Although the Jews enjoyed some degree of autonomy under the Catholic monarchy it was short-lived, and gradually the ground for the Inquisition was laid. Edicts restricted Jewish practice and livelihood; forced conversions and pogroms: tens of thousands of Jews were killed.
Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición, (Wikipedia)
The Inquisition, intended to root out Catholic heresies and heretics, was created through a papal bull at the end of the 12th century. Although the Inquisition of Spain is most commonly identified with the term, “the Inquisition,” the bull was intended to track down and put an end to heresy throughout all the lands of Christendom.
The Jews of Europe, constantly under pressure to convert, were forced to wear humiliating clothing to set them apart and were forced to sit in church as observers of Catholic services. Since conversion was typically coerced, even at the point of a sword, converts were always suspected of insincerity, of secretly remaining Jews, of practicing Judaism in the privacy of their home while “passing” as Catholics in the street:
“By the mid-15th century, hatred toward the Neo-Christians exceeded that toward the professed Jews.”
In addition to its mission to track down heresy, the Spanish Inquisition also served to unify Spain and consolidate Catholic power under the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Its original goal was the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. The Jews, that other foreign population, were given a choice: conversion, or expulsion.
Torture Chamber of the Inquisition
Among the Jewish Conversos, some rose to positions of authority in the Church and this, the fear of “Jewish influence” was one motivating factor driving the Inquisition.
Portuguese Jews observing the Inquisition unfold in Spain expected Portugal next. Many fled to North Africa, some to the New World. The first auto de fé held in Mexico was in 1528 when two Conversos were tortured and burned at the stake. Although the Church insisted on the Inquisition continuing in the New World the practical need for manpower took precedence over religious fervor and few prosecutions of Conversos or, for that matter, Jews occurred. Both were a source of labor, possessed skills needed to develop the economies of the emerging colonial project. And so,
“social contacts between the Jews and their Christian neighbors in America during the colonial era were not marred by the religious intolerance of the Spanish Church symbolized by the Holy Office of the Inquisition.”
Estimates vary regarding the actual number of Conversos who died in the fires of the Inquisition. Based on statistics drawn from the records of autos da fé’, 8,000 may have been burned at the stake. Jewish Virtual Library estimates that, in addition to “Conversos” directly murdered by the Spanish Inquisition,
“Tens of thousands of refugees [expelled from Spain by the 1492 edict] died while trying to reach safety.”
Limpieza de Sangre: Nearly five hundred years before the Holocaust Limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) legislation was both portent and precedent for the Jewish future. Literally translated it means “purity of blood” and as applied during the Inquisition it was paired with mala de sangre, or “black/Jewish blood.” There are stark coincidences between the 15th Century legislation and the 20th Century Nuremberg legislation and this issue will be returned to following the Limpieza in 15th Century Spain.
“In 1449 an anti-converso riot broke out in Toledo, where they were blamed for an oppressive tax. Actually it was a sign of increased tensions arising from political instability in Castile.
“As a result the first statute of limpieza was passed by the city, whereby Christians of Jewish descent were banned from all public and private offices in the city and its jurisdictions.”
In 1496 Pope Alexander VI approved the statute for use by the Inquisition in dealing with heretics and witches. The Spanish Inquisition found in it an instrument to remove what was seen by “old Christians” a threat by the “new Christians” to their social and ecclesiastical prerogatives. With the Inquisition members of the Church bureaucracy and new applicants for the priesthood had to prove by documentation and witnesses that their family was free of Jewish blood back to their grandparents. The claim would then be investigated by outside authorities. With Limpieza de Sangre,
“Jewishness is… a permanent inborn characteristic that even baptism does not remove… Those who wished to hold public office had to present a certificate … showing that there were no Jews in their lineage, that they were free of… mala sangre, bad blood (William Nicholls, Christian Antisemitism, A History of Hate).”
Limpieza de sangre pursued Conversos and Jews across the Atlantic, with officers of the Inquisition accompanying the Conquistadors. According to Grosser and Halperin, p.154, conversion and assimilation
“were no longer a guarantee against prejudice and persecution. The Jewish taint survived and contaminated. In this sense the Inquisition [was] the intellectual and historical precursor of the racial anti-Semitism of the 19th and 20th centuries epitomized by Nazism.”
Limpieza de Sangre as determining Jewish blood as basis for exclusion from society continued in use in Spain until removed in 1870. These laws covering social life and eligibility appear nearly identical, inspired if not adopted whole as law excluding Jews from society in Nazi Germany incorporated in the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. Prohibitions against Jews regarding marriage and sexual relations, attending school and university, practicing various professions, and employment; all were included in law by Germany and served to isolate Jew from Aryan. The following examples appear in Wikipedia and were drawn from the Colección Legislativa de España (1870):
“Tests of limpieza de sangre had begun to lose their utility by the 19th century; rarely did persons have to endure the grueling inquisitions into distant parentage through birth records. However, laws requiring limpieza de sangre were still sometimes adopted even into the 19th century. For example, an edict of 8 March 1804 by King Ferdinand VII resolved that no knight of the Military Orders could wed without having a council vouch for the limpieza de sangre of his spouse.
“On 20 March 1870, a decree suppressed all use of blood purity standards in determining eligibility for any government position or any licensed profession.
Although limpieza tests ended in Spain in 1870 they continued in use in other parts of extended Spanish influence. In Majorca the “Xuetons” (descendants of the Majorcan Conversos) priests were not allowed to say Mass in a cathedral until the 1960s.