Marranos, Conversos, and New Christians


Conversos and Marranos

The terms “Marrano” and “converso” were applied in Spain and Portugal to the descendants of baptized Jews suspected of secret adherence to Judaism. Converso, from the Latin conversus, meant literally the converted. Various origins for the term “marrano” have been suggested, which include the Hebrew marit ayin ("the appearance of the eye"), referring to the fact that the Marranos were ostensibly Christian but actually Jews; mohoram attah ("you are excommunicated"); the Aramaic-Hebrew Mar Anus ("forced convert"); the Hebrew mumar ("apostate") with the Spanish ending ano; the Arabic mura'in ("hypocrite"); and the second word of the ecclesiastical imprecation anathema maranatha. All such derivations, however, are unlikely. The most probable is from the Spanish word meaning swine or pig, derived from the Latin verres "wild boar." The term probably did not originally refer to the Jews' reluctance to eat pork, as some scholars hold; from its earliest use, it was intended to impart the sense of loathing conveyed by the word. Although romanticized and regarded by later Jewry as a badge of honor, the term was not as widely used, especially in official circles, as is often believed. In Latin America, as a rule, it is not found in official documents, and there is little evidence of its unofficial use in most places. It is not clear if the "Old Christians" only, or the secretly practicing Jews also called themselves "marrano."

“Marranos” started appearing with the first riots in the Juderias of Spain. Many were forced to convert to Christianity to save their lives. The laws in 14th and 15th century Spain became increasingly oppressive toward practicing Jews, and conversion was provded as an alternative to death. Large numbers of middle class Jews outwardly adopting Christianity to avoid the laws, while secretly practicing Judaism.

“New Christians”

"New Christians" is a term applied specifically to three groups of Jewish converts to Christianity and their descendants in the Iberian Peninsula. The first group converted in the wake of the massacres in Spain in 1391 and the proselytizing fervor of the subsequent decades. The second, also in Spain, were baptized following the decree of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 expelling all Jews who refused to accept Christianity. The third group, in Portugal, was converted by force and royal fiat in 1497. Like the word Conversos, but unlike Marranos, the term New Christian carried no intrinsic pejorative connotation, but with the increasing power of the Inquisition and the growth of the concept of "limpieza de sangre," cleansing the blood, the name signaled the disabilities inevitably heaped on those who bore it.

The New Christians who continued secretly to observe the precepts of Judaism as much as possible after their conversion were not regarded as voluntary apostates. The basis of this decision was the statement by Maimonides that although one should allow oneself to be put to death rather than abandon one's faith in times of persecution, "nevertheless, if he transgressed and did not choose the death of a martyr, even though he has annulled the positive precept of sanctifying the Name and transgressed the injunction not to desecrate the Name, since he transgressed under duress and could not escape, he is exempted from punishment." In accordance with this ruling, other rabbis ruled that those New Christians who remained in their countries because they were unable to escape and flee, if they conducted themselves in accordance with the precepts of Judaism, even if only privately, were full Jews; their shehitah could be relied upon, their testimony in law cases accepted, and their wine was considered kosher.

Some authorities ruled, however, that if the Marranos of a certain locality succeeded in fleeing to a country where they could return to Judaism, while others remained there in order to retain their material possessions, the latter were no longer presumed to have the privilege of being regarded as valid witnesses or even Jews. Other rabbis expressed more lenient views, and held that no one was to be deprived of their rights as a Jew as long as they were not seen to transgress the precepts of Judaism when there was no longer danger involved. Talmudic scholar Moses Isserles, too, ruled that even those Marranos who are able to flee but delay because of material considerations and transgress Judaism publicly out of compulsion while remaining observant privately, still are reliable Jews. The Marranos who had lived among gentiles for more than a century usually assimilated and intermarried, with the result that their children were presumed to be non-Jewish unless it could be proven that their mothers were Jewish.

The scholars of Safed headed by Jacob Berab imposed flagellation upon Marranos who returned to Judaism as a punishment for transgressing the prohibitions that rendered them liable to karet, excommunication, in their previous condition. Yet, since flagellation can be imposed only by ordained dayyanim (judges). Jacob Berab and his colleagues wanted to enforce punishment when ordination was renewed (see semikhah). A Marrano who escaped from his native land, but was not circumcised through neglect, was prevented from participating in the services in the synagogue until he was circumcised.

Movement From Spain

New Christians began to leave Spain in the wake of the mass conversions of 1391, and Portugal after the forced conversions in 1497. The tide of emigration ebbed and flowed, but heightened during the Inquisition in Spain in 1481, and Portugal in 1536 and after 1630. To slow the continuing exodus, as early as the last decade of the 15th century, the authorities in both countries issued decrees prohibiting the emigration of New Christians. Even the so-called irrevocable permission to emigrate which the New Christians purchased from Philip III in 1601, during the union of Spain and Portugal, was short-lived, and rescinded in 1610. These decrees were frequently evaded, however, and Marranos regularly left the Peninsula clandestinely, or secured permission to take business trips abroad from which they never returned. There were even cases of Marranos leaving for the ostensible purpose of making a pilgrimage to Rome. Once the authorities became aware of such stratagies they tried to intercept Marranos as they moved through Europe to places where they could practice Judaism openly, and men like Jean de la Foix in Lombardy acquired notoriety for his inhuman treatment of those who fell into his hands. There were instances where the highest authorities in the Peninsula closed their eyes to New Christian emigration, however, particularly when it involved their settling in Latin America, where their skills and enterprise were desperately needed. Furtively and openly, in trickles and in torrents, thousands of New Christians left the Iberian Peninsula during the nearly three and a half centuries of the Inquisition's power.

In Majorca, Spain, the community was converted in the 1430's and called Chuetas, from "pork lard" since they regularly kept pork lard boiling in cauldrons on their porches. They still called themselves "Israelitas" in private, and families typically gave their first born son to the Catholic priesthood as a means of gaining protection from Church persecution. As a result, many of the priests from across the Baleiric Islands are from Marrano families.

During the Inquisition's