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 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Torah reading 370
(photo credit: 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 dowry.
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.
While 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.
Another 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 unknown.
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 simple matter.
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.