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CONVERSOS. . The Jews of Spain who converted to Christianity are usually called conversos, although they are also known as Marranos or New Christians to distinguish them from the more numerous Old Christians. Some Jews converted voluntarily. Two of the best known are Abner of Burgos and Pablo de Santa María, both of whom were baptized in the fourteenth century and inspired others to follow their lead. Other Jews were forced to convert to save their lives during the massacres and mob violence motivated by a rising tide of anti-Semitism that was most perceptible in the late fourteenth century and continued on through the fifteenth century. However conversion was accomplished, integration of this ethnic minority into the majority Old Christian culture was a much debated and uncertain issue from the fifteenth through the seventeenth century.

Conversion brought with it certain benefits, such as the opportunity to occupy church and state offices prohibited to Jews, and the new converts began to fill these offices. Conversos played an important role in the Castilian economy and administration, as treasurers, merchants, money managers, secretaries, and record keepers. Some of these highly placed royal servants chose to marry their daughters into the Old Christian nobility, thus forming a new group of mixed ethnic origins. If these developments argue for successful assimilation at court, matters were not so positive in some urban centers, where the appearance of wealthy conversos in city and church councils and as tax collectors caused resentments. In the city of Toledo, for example, battles between conversos and Old Christians occurred in 1449 and again in 1467. In these two rebellions, the animosities felt by some Old Christians were formulated in "pure-blood" statutes, which stripped conversos of their municipal offices on grounds of their tainted or impure lineage, that is, their Jewish ancestry. Some converts were also accused of continuing to practice Judaism. Conversos were soon restored to their offices and the pure-blood statutes rescinded, but relations between the two ethnic groups, frequently referred to as "the two lineages," remained unstable in many towns of the realm.

The Catholic monarchs determined to resolve the converso problem. To this end, they founded the Spanish Inquisition, which was to ensure that the new converts did indeed observe the tenets of Christianity and abandon the customs, traditions, and beliefs of their ancestors. In its early years, the Inquisition struck a savage blow to the converso community, as few families escaped punishment. These same monarchs also expelled the Jews from their realms, and one of the motives for this expulsion was to protect conversos from any temptation to revert to their old religion.

Any conversos who remained in Spain after the Inquisition was established would have to observe at least the exterior forms of Christianity or risk being burned at the stake. And most conversos did try to observe these forms. From 1508, when the heresy known as "The Coming of the Messiah" was finally put to rest, mass punishments and executions of conversos subsided. The Toledo Inquisition still kept track of conversos, however, through the compilation of detailed genealogical records, and by having the name and crime of anyone punished by the Inquisition publicly displayed in his or her parish church.

Despite this surveillance and public humiliation, some conversos prospered and attained an impressive upward mobility during the first half of the sixteenth century. This was an era of population and economic growth within the crown of Castile and of imperial expansion, developments that favored the skills and talents of entrepreneurial-minded conversos, many of whom amassed substantial fortunes. Others trained in bookkeeping, law, or writing found employment in the ever-expanding bureaucracy of the realm as secretaries, treasurers, or accountants. Many who made their fortune through business and trade were able to buy a seat in a municipal governing council or place a son in the cathedral chapter, and some, not all, married their daughters to spouses outside the converso community, just as they had done before the Inquisition was established.

The city of Toledo serves as an example of some of these generalizations. Aside from a crown-appointed corregidor, the city was governed by a council of regidores (aldermen) and an advisory, nonvoting council of jurados (parish representatives). In the first half of the sixteenth century, conversos were especially visible as jurados and as regidores who sat on the citizens' bench, rather than on the more prestigious nobles' bench. Many of the converso citizen regidores were money managers, such as tax farmers, or wholesalers who dealt in wool, silk, and other products in the Indies, Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula. Active in the city council from the 1530s to the 1560s, the citizen regidores and the jurados were instrumental in advancing the city's textile industries by supplying them with raw materials and distributing their products. They also organized and set up the credit mechanisms needed to purchase large quantities of grain during a subsistence crisis of 15571558.

All this apparent acceptance and integration was to change in mid-century when the doctrine of pure blood reappeared. In Toledo, a pure-blood statute was first imposed on the cathedral chapter by Cardinal-Archbishop Juan Martínez Silíceo in 1548, and this statute was approved by the pope in 1555 and the crown in 1556. Then, in 1566, a similar statute was imposed on the citizens' bench of the city council. Not only were the citizen regidores to be of pure blood, their numbers (theoretically twelve) were to be reduced, while the seats on the nobles' bench were augmented. The noble regidores suffered no genealogical scrutiny, although they were supposed to have inherited their nobility, as opposed to buying it, and were not to be involved in any base occupations.

Many conversos fought the pure-blood statutes, but with their acceptance by both the crown and the papacy, opponents faced formidable obstacles. If conversos could meet the demand of becoming good Christians, they could hardly manage to escape their ancestry and meet the pure-blood qualifications. So conversos dissimulated, falsifying lineage, changing names and birthplaces, and paying for false testimony. Some were wealthy enough to buy their way into the nobility, by marrying a daughter to an impoverished aristocrat, by buying a village that would enable their heirs to claim nobility, or by having their nobility approved by a chancellery court. In the Toledo city council, many of the citizen regidores first attempted to have their lineage approved locally, and then, if they could afford it, to upgrade their seating arrangements by moving from the citizens' to the nobles' bench. For example, the converso Vaca de Herrera brothers, who farmed royal taxes in the 1580s and 1590s, managed to secure three city council seats, and all the brothers ended up on the nobles' bench. They also had their nobility confirmed in the chancellery court of Valladolid.

With the death of Philip II in 1598, public debates about pure-blood statutes resurfaced. Modifications were urged by deputies of the Castilian Cortes and by others of more prestige, such as cardinal-archbishops of Toledo and of Seville. Little was done, however, until 1623, when the count-duke of Olivares, the favorite of Philip IV, did moderate the statutes. His reforms, which limited the genealogical inquiry of candidates to two generations and took into consideration pure-blood certificates held by other family members, helped some conversos to move up the social scale. Given the inflation of honors that occurred over time, what wealthy merchants and financiers sought in the seventeenth century was a habit in a military order, and Olivares's reforms allowed many to achieve this goal. It is an irony that Olivares should complain of the lack of merchants in Spain, when during his rule the citizens' bench of the Toledo city council, long the bastion of converso merchants and entrepreneurs, was finally phased outnot because conversos had disappeared, but because those who lasted until 1639 had some sort of pure-blood pedigree that disqualified them from mercantile activities and qualified them as nobles.

Thus, in addition to fostering perjury and a blatant hypocrisy, the pure-blood statutes accelerated movement from the middle ranks to the nobility. This upward passage had been going on for some time, of course, and was not unique to Spain, but the values implicit in pure-blood statutes certainly encouraged wealthy conversos to abandon commerce and trade, activities associated with Jews, and to seek a title of some sort, a post in the royal bureaucracy or in the church, or to live on their investments. The economic downturn in the seventeenth century also discouraged mercantile ventures and encouraged investments in rural lands, rents, and offices.

If, in the end, the crown won its battle against the conversos, most of whom abandoned their traditional activities and values and spent their wealth in acquiring an acceptable pedigree for themselves or their children, it also lost, or at least rechanneled, the dynamism and skills of a hard-working, talented minority. The myth of pure blood carried the day, and those unwilling to do lip service to the doctrine suffered.

See also Inquisition ; Jews, Attitudes toward ; Jews, Expulsion of (Spain ; Portugal) ; Spain ; Toledo .


Domínguez Ortiz, Antonio. La clase social de los conversos en Castilla en la edad moderna. Reprint. Granada, 1991. Originally published 1955.

Martz, Linda. A Network of Converso Families in Early Modern Toledo: Assimilating a Minority. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2003.

Sicroff, Albert A. Los estatutos de limpieza de sangre. Controversias entre los siglos XV y XVII. Translated from the French by Mauro Armiño. Madrid, 1985.

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto: Isaac Cardoso: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Marranism and Jewish Apologetics. Reprint. Seattle, 1981. Originally published 1971.

Linda Martz