Between Christian and Jew: Conversion and Inquisition in the Crown of Aragon, 1250-1391 (The Middle Ages Series)

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9780812244212: Between Christian and Jew: Conversion and Inquisition in the Crown of Aragon, 1250-1391 (The Middle Ages Series)
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In 1341 in Aragon, a Jewish convert to Christianity was sentenced to death, only to be pulled from the burning stake and into a formal religious interrogation. His confession was as astonishing to his inquisitors as his brush with mortality is to us: the condemned man described a Jewish conspiracy to persuade recent converts to denounce their newfound Christian faith. His claims were corroborated by witnesses and became the catalyst for a series of trials that unfolded over the course of the next twenty months. Between Christian and Jew closely analyzes these events, which Paola Tartakoff considers paradigmatic of inquisitorial proceedings against Jews in the period. The trials also serve as the backbone of her nuanced consideration of Jewish conversion to Christianity—and the unwelcoming Christian response to Jewish conversions—during a period that is usually celebrated as a time of relative interfaith harmony.

The book lays bare the intensity of the mutual hostility between Christians and Jews in medieval Spain. Tartakoff's research reveals that the majority of Jewish converts of the period turned to baptism in order to escape personal difficulties, such as poverty, conflict with other Jews, or unhappy marriages. They often met with a chilly reception from their new Christian brethren, making it difficult to integrate into Christian society. Tartakoff explores Jewish antagonism toward Christians and Christianity by examining the aims and techniques of Jews who sought to re-Judaize apostates as well as the Jewish responses to inquisitorial prosecution during an actual investigation. Prosecutions such as the 1341 trial were understood by papal inquisitors to be in defense of Christianity against perceived Jewish attacks, although Tartakoff shows that Christian fears about Jewish hostility were often exaggerated. Drawing together the accounts of Jews, Jewish converts, and inquisitors, this cultural history offers a broad study of interfaith relations in medieval Iberia.

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About the Author:

Paola Tartakoff teaches history and Jewish studies at Rutgers University.

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Writing about Muslim converts to Christianity in thirteenth-century Valencia, the great historian of the medieval Mediterranean, Robert I. Burns, noted that converts were "a by-product of the main dispute, a kind of displaced person, whose story and status illumine the larger scene." The same could be said of Jewish converts to Christianity who lived in the Crown of Aragon during the century that preceded the massacres and forced conversions of 1391. Their lives lay bare the intensity of mutual hostility between Christians and Jews across a period whose first decades in particular have been celebrated as a time of interreligious harmony.

In the medieval Crown of Aragon, the situation of Jewish converts was, in some ways, paradoxical. Christians were enamored of the idea of winning over Jewish souls, and some Jews were eager to bring apostates back to Judaism. Yet many Christians were disdainful of actual Jewish converts, both on account of converts' dubious motivations in seeking baptism and also because of converts' ties—real and merely perceived—to Judaism, and most Jews repudiated apostates as traitors and sinners who had been polluted by baptism and life among Christians. Sometimes courted by Christians and Jews, yet usually ultimately rejected by both societies, many converts became wandering beggars, some made a living by tormenting Jews, and others took great risks to return to Judaism.

The present work explores these dynamics with special attention to the activities of medieval, or papal, inquisitors, the forerunners of the personnel of the notorious Spanish Inquisition, which was established in 1478. In so doing, it argues that, decades before Jewish conversion became a mass phenomenon in Iberia, and over a century before Jewish converts were inquisitors' primary targets, Jewish converts were a focus of tensions between Christians and Jews. Their experiences thus reflect and shed light on deep undercurrents of mutual antagonism.

The Case of Pere

The story of a convert from the Aragonese town of Calatayud whose Jewish name was Alatzar (Eleazar) forms the backbone of this book. Alatzar was the son of a Jew named Isaach Camariel, and he seems to have been of humble origins. He and his father frequently dined at the home of a Jewish cobbler, and he once worked as a messenger for a wealthy Jewish family. In mid-December 1340, Alatzar was baptized, hundreds of kilometers from home, in the Catalan town of Sant Pere de Riudebitlles, taking the name Pere (Peter). We do not know how old he was or why he decided to convert.

Pere might never have appeared in written records had it not been for a dramatic turn of events. On January 5, 1341, less than three weeks after his baptism, he returned to Calatayud and narrowly escaped death at the stake. Flames were lapping at his feet, in fact, when the local Dominican prior and the commissary of the bishop of Tarazona—having heard that a Jewish convert was being burned—rushed to the scene, ordered that he be freed from the fire, and had him brought to the Dominican monastery of Calatayud, Sant Pere Mártir. There, Pere told a hastily assembled inquisitorial tribunal that a group of Jews had convinced him to court death at the stake. These Jews had done so, Pere explained, by telling him that in order to save his soul he would have to renounce Christianity before the local justicia—the magistrate in charge of administering justice—thereby incur the death penalty and die as a Jewish martyr. Pere added that the Jews also told him that they previously had convinced a convert whose Jewish name was Abadia (Obadiah) to do this. Abadia had burned to death, and his soul was now "safe with God." According to the inquisitorial scribe and notary who was present at Pere's interrogation, the Christian townspeople of Calatayud confirmed that seven years earlier Abadia had "had himself burned because he had gone over to the Catholic faith."

Pere's accusations were corroborated in detail by two Jewish eyewitnesses, and they sparked a series of trials that unfolded over the course of twenty months, passed through the hands of inquisitors in Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia, came to the attention of King Pere III, and concluded in Barcelona under the supervision of fra Bernat de Puigcercós, the inquisitor of all the territories of the Crown of Aragon. Pere was sentenced to prison for life, and so were two of the Jews whom Pere blamed for his actions—the prominent Janto (Shem Tov) Almuli of La Almunia de Doña Godina and his wife, Jamila. A third Jew—the illustrious Jucef de Quatorze of Calatayud—was turned over to the secular arm to burn at the stake.

Pere's case is extraordinary in several respects. First, Jews and converts were uncommon defendants for medieval inquisitions, which began to operate in the 1230s in order to eradicate Christian heresies, such as Catharism. Moreover, Jews were technically off limits to medieval inquisitions as, unlike converts, they did not belong to the Christian fold. Indeed, the records of the trials of Janto and Jamila Almuli and Jucef de Quatorze not only include some of the earliest known inquisitorial trial transcripts of any kind from the Crown of Aragon, but they are especially unusual as complete records of inquisitorial proceedings against Jews. As such, they raise broad questions about the relationships between medieval inquisitors, converts, and Jews. How commonly did medieval inquisitors prosecute Jews and converts? With what offenses were Jews and converts usually charged? How did these trials unfold? What impact did inquisitorial prosecution have on Jews and converts? How did the prosecution of Jews and converts affect inquisitors and Christian society?

Historians have begun to explore these questions in general terms. The dossiers of the Almulis and Jucef de Quatorze grant unprecedented insight, however, into daily interactions between Jews, converts, and inquisitors. They allow us to trace the arc of a complex case in detail, and they preserve the unedited ruminations of a medieval inquisitor on the prosecution of Jews. Moreover, in conjunction with additional sources—including royal, papal, and episcopal records and inquisitorial manuals—they illuminate how the inquisitorial prosecution of Jews was intended to punish Jews for perceived attacks against Christians and the Christian faith, and they demonstrate the symbolic importance of Jewish conversions for the medieval church.

Pere's case is remarkable also insofar as it highlights the existence of Jewish converts to Christianity in Iberia prior to 1391. With the exception of occasional victims of Christian violence and several converts who became prominent anti-Jewish polemicists—such as Peter Alfonsi (formerly Moses Sefaradi), Pablo Christiani (formerly Saul of Montpellier), and Alfonso of Valladolid (formerly Abner of Burgos)—Iberian Jewish converts who lived before 1391 have lurked below the scholarly radar. Pere and Abadia were not alone, however, in journeying from Judaism to Christianity when they did. Nearly two hundred Jewish converts emerge from the pages of royal, papal, and episcopal correspondence, inquisitorial records, and rabbinic responsa composed between 1243 and 1391. Moreover, additional converts undoubtedly have been lost to history. Baptismal records were not yet systematically kept during this period. Episcopal documents of the kind that most frequently mention converts were not produced until the first quarter of the fourteenth century, at the earliest. Finally, wars, natural disasters, and poor storage conditions have destroyed enormous quantities of archival material.

Although fragmentary, extant sources establish that Jewish converts constituted a significant presence in Jewish and Christian communal life in the Crown of Aragon. Jewish apostates often tore apart Jewish families when they went over to Christianity, and they threatened Jewish communal security by denouncing Jews to Christian authorities and drawing inquisitorial attention to the Jews with whom they interacted. Repentant apostates' efforts to return to Judaism sowed strife among Jews and often sparked inquisitorial investigations. Converts who were itinerant beggars became a familiar presence among Christians, and those who worked as Christian preachers drew Jewish and Christian audiences. Highly visible, converts galvanized tensions between Christians and Jews at the same time as they suffered rejection on account of Jewish-Christian hostility.

Beyond shedding light on the experiences of inquisitors and converts in the medieval Crown of Aragon, Pere's case raises questions about Jewish attitudes toward apostates and apostasy prior to 1391. Indeed, the charges that Pere leveled against Janto and Jamila Almuli and Jucef de Quatorze are perhaps the most baffling aspect of Pere's case. Did the Almulis and Jucef de Quatorze actually counsel repentant apostates to renounce Christianity and burn at the stake? If so, was their aim truly to save apostates' souls? We shall never know, not least of all because our sources are so problematic. The defendants in the trials of Pere, the Almulis, and Jucef de Quatorze endured prison and torture. The witnesses feared for their lives, and the inquisitors had vested ideological, professional, and pecuniary interests in discovering guilt. Condemning culprits not only enabled inquisitors to punish presumed wrongdoers and thus safeguard Christendom, but it also benefited them personally. The more people inquisitors condemned, the more successful inquisitors appeared and the more revenue they brought in. Further complicating the task of using these records to reconstruct Jewish history, inquisitorial scribes and notaries altered confessions and testimonies through their translations, interpretations, and emendations. On the sole basis of inquisitorial records, therefore, we can draw few definitive conclusions about the Almulis and Jucef de Quatorze.

Upon examining these documents in conjunction with other sources, however, several things become clear. If there existed a religious sensibility among some Jews in Calatayud in the 1330s and 1340s that favored martyrdom by fire as a salvific act for apostates, it was not representative of Jewish attitudes elsewhere in the Crown of Aragon. No evidence suggests that fourteenth-century Jews in other Iberian localities encouraged converts to martyr themselves. However, Jewish horror at apostasy was widespread, and some Jews across the Crown of Aragon and beyond shared a desire to re-Judaize apostates. Moreover, both horror at apostasy and efforts to re-Judaize apostates were inextricably linked to Jewish disdain for the Christian faith and resentment of Christian abuses of Jews.

Pere's case is a powerful lens, then, through which to begin to examine the intersecting worlds of Jews, converts, and inquisitors in the medieval Crown of Aragon. As such, it invites us to look more closely at the nature and consequences of Jewish conversion, and the state of Jewish-Christian relations, in northeastern Iberia during the century prior to 1391.

Jews and Christians in the Medieval Crown of Aragon

Living in self-governing communities known as aljamas, Jews constituted between 2 and 6 percent of the population of the Crown of Aragon, and perhaps more than 10 percent of the population of large cities. There may have been up to twenty-five thousand Jews in Catalonia, twenty thousand in Aragon, and ten thousand in Valencia. Considered royal property, Jews enjoyed a degree of protection and certain privileges, but they also endured fiscal exploitation. In addition, the Jews of the Crown maintained close ties to Jews in southern France, whence this study also draws material.

The Christian conquest of Muslim territories created unique conditions for the Jews of Spain from the late twelfth century onward. Jews assisted Christian kings as financial advisors, translators, doctors, and diplomats, and they helped to administer and colonize new domains. Through the early years of the fourteenth century, when the Crown of Aragon reached the peak of its expansion, Jews in the Crown of Aragon are said even to have enjoyed a social, economic, and cultural "golden age." During this period, but also during most of the subsequent decades leading up to 1391, Jews and Christians often interacted productively in the Crown of Aragon. Economic collaboration and interdependence fostered interreligious stability. Christians and Jews embarked on joint business ventures. Butchers of the two faiths bought animals together and provided them with shared pasturage. Jewish doctors treated Christian patients. Jews frequented Christian courts and notaries, and Jews employed Christians in their homes. Records from Vic in the 1330s, for instance, mention a Christian woman who "was in the habit of nursing the children of Jews." In the Crown of Aragon, Jews and Christians also socialized together. Christians in early fourteenth-century Barcelona attended Jewish weddings, circumcisions, and funerals, for example. In 1336, the provost of the monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès was found gambling with Jews in the call, or Jewish quarter, of Barcelona. In 1341, a presbyter in Vilafranca del Penedès joined local Jews for the holiday of Purim and later stumbled out of the call drunk, and in the 1370s, it was discovered that the bailiff of Girona was selling licenses to Christians who wanted to gamble in the call on Christian holy days. There is even evidence of love affairs between Christians and Jews. In the mid-1260s, for instance, a Jewish woman named Goig and her Christian lover, Guillemó, who were "burning in their love for each other," openly cohabited, with the permission of King Jaume I. In Morvedre in 1325, a Jewish woman named Jorayffa not only fornicated with Christian men but also arranged for encounters between other Christians and Jews.

Collaboration and camaraderie between Christians and Jews were not inconsistent with deep tensions, however, and, throughout the period in question, the peace was tenuous. In the Crown of Aragon, as elsewhere in medieval Christendom, Christian antagonism toward Jews was rooted in the annals of Christian sacred history. Holy Week liturgies and graphic passion plays reminded Christians yearly that Jews were the stubborn rejecters and killers of Christ, and many Christians believed that Jews were inherently malevolent and still conspiring for evil purposes. Jews were the church's antagonists par excellence, and their malice was said to know no bounds. By contrast, the tensions that existed between Christians and the Muslim population of the Crown of Aragon—which was small in Catalonia but large in Aragon and Valencia—were rooted in contemporary political realities. Christians worried, for example, that Muslims might rebel, conspire with Muslims abroad, or abduct Christians and sell them into slavery.

Anxious to keep Jews' destructive potential in check, and eager that the socioreligious order should reflect the Christian claim that Christianity had superseded Judaism, medieval Christians felt strongly that Jews should always be subordinate to them. Instances in which Jews acquired leverage over Christians thus gave rise to outrage. At the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), for instance, the Jewish practice of us...

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Tartakoff, Paola
Published by University of Pennsylvania Press (2012)
ISBN 10: 0812244214 ISBN 13: 9780812244212
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