Limpieza de Sangre

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LIMPIEZA DE SANGRE (Sp., "purity of blood"), an obsessive concern in Spain and Portugal from the 15th century, based on the mythical goal of a society in which all but the most humble functions would be exercised by "pure-blooded" Christians. In varying degrees this obsession afflicted Spain until well into the 19th century; blood purity was still a requirement for admission to the military academy until 1860, when it was legally abolished. In Portugal all legal distinctions between Old and *New Christians were officially removed in 1773. Limpieza de sangre continues to be a matter of concern on the island of Majorca, where Christians of Jewish ancestry are disdainfully referred to as *chuetas and frequently suffer discrimination because of their "impure blood."

Although the pure-blood statutes established by the various communities of Spain in the 16th century adopted a routine formula directed against all Christians descended from Moors and heretics as well as Jews, the problem, both in its historical origins and in its later consequences, mainly concerned those of Jewish ancestry. The first such measure of which details are known, the so-called Sentencia-Estatuto adopted in Toledo in 1449 in the course of a popular uprising under the leadership of Pedro *Sarmiento against royal authority, was directed solely against the Toledan *Conversos. It prohibited them from testifying in legal proceedings and excluded them from all public office, especially notaryships which were most frequently in their hands, "under penalty of death and confiscation of all their goods."

This extraordinary measure against the Conversos or New Christians was a direct consequence of a series of anti-Jewish riots which swept through Spain in 1391. Protests against and denunciations of the Sentencia-Estatuto arose both among the affected converts as well as distinguished ecclesiastics of non-Jewish origin, including Pope Nicholas v. Nevertheless, the pure-blood statutes spread to such an extent that by 1500 most Spanish organizations, secular or religious, insisted on "blood purity" as a qualification for membership. The controversy concerning the legality and propriety of the limpieza de sangre discriminations continued until well into the 17th century, and Conversos were excluded from an increasing number of guilds, religious confraternities, most colleges, religious and military orders, and residence in certain towns. Churches and cathedrals reserved even their most humble benefices for Christians "without the stain of Jewish blood," leading one polemicist to observe that Jesus himself would have failed to qualify as a porter in Toledo Cathedral.

Spain's obsession with blood purity in the 16th and 17th centuries led to considerable social turmoil. A leading supporter of the limpieza de sangre statutes in the early 17th century was Juan Escobar del Corro in his Tractatus. His work suggests that the racial or ethnic grounds for the opposition to the Conversos cannot be canceled by religious and theological reasons. The limpieza de sangre was introduced when it was no longer possible to reject a descendant of Jews purely on religious grounds. As generations passed and the memory of the Jewish ancestry of Converso Spaniards faded, efforts were redoubled to unearth the traces of their long-forgotten "impure" forefathers. Communities vied with one another in the severity of their pure-blood statutes. The Old College of Saint Bartholomew of Salamanca, the source of Spain's most important leaders, took pride in refusing admittance to anyone even rumored to be of Jewish descent. Hearsay testimony and words spoken in anger to the effect that someone was a Jew, or a descendant of Jews, sufficed to disqualify a man, a kind of "civil death" understandably feared by Spaniards. As investigations into ancestries ranged even farther into the distant past, until "time immemorial" as some put it, even families considered Old Christian lived in constant fear lest some remote, forgotten "stain" be brought to light or a hostile rumormonger destroy their reputation.

Since no one could be absolutely certain of his blood purity "since time immemorial," limpieza de sangre ultimately became a qualification negotiated through bribed witnesses, shuffled genealogies, and falsified documents.

Américo Castro's attempt to demonstrate that the roots of the limpieza de sangre are to be found, not in the Christian-Iberian anti-Jewish feelings, but in much older sources, very distant from Spain, namely Jewish ones, has been rejected by scholars, such as B.Z. Netanyahu. Castro claims that the Jewsintroduced their racial beliefs into Spain, just as they introduced the Inquisition. Castro brings his evidence from ancient biblical sources, medieval rabbinic literature, and Spanish Jewish scholars, but is clearly unfounded and often based on mistaken views of the Jewish sources.


J. Caro Baroja, Los judíos en la España moderna y contemporánea, 1 (1961), ch. 6; 2 pt. 4 (1961), chs. 2–7; A. Domínguez-Ortiz, La clase social de los conversos en Castilla en la Edad Moderna (1955); H.C. Lea, A History of the Inquisition of Spain, 1 (1906), ch. 3; A.A. Sicroff, Les controverses des statuts de "puret de sang" en Espagne (1960). Add. Bibliography: C. Carrete Parrondo, in: Helmantica, 26 (1975), 97–116; H. Méchoulan, in: REJ, 136 (1977), 125–37; M. Defourneaux, Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age (1979), 28–45; B. Netanayahu, in: PAAJR, 46–47 (1979–80), 397–457; M. Orfali, in: Actas de las Jornadas de estudios sefardíes (1981), 245–50; F. Abad, in: Actas de las Jornadas de estudios segfardíes (1981), 239–44; H. Yerushalmi, Assimilation and Racial Anti-Semitism: The Iberian and German Models (1982); J. Fayard and M-C. Gerbert, in: Histoire, économie et société, 1 (1982), 51–75; E.M. Jarque Martínez, Los procesos de limpieza de sangre en la Zaragoza de de la edad moderna, (1983); Ch. Amiel, in: Annales du CESERE, 6 (1983), 27–45; A.A. Sicroff, Los estatutos de limpieza de sangre; controversias entre los siglos XV y XVII (1985) (trans. from French); P. Molas Ribalta, in: Les sociétés fermées dans le monde ibérique (XVI-XVIIIe s.); définitions et problématique (1986), 63–80; H. Kamen, in: Bulletin hispanique, 88 (1986), 321–56; J. Edwards, in: Proceedings of 9th World Congress of Jewish Studies (1986), Division B, vol. 1, 143–50; idem, in: Proceedings of the 10thWorld Congress of Jewish Studies (1990), Division B, vol. 2, 159–66; J. Friedman, in: Sixteenth Century Journal, 18 (1987), 3–30; J.I. Gutiérrez Nieto, in: J.J. de Bustos Tovar and J.H. Silverman, Homenaje a Américo Castro (1987), 77–89; idem, in: II Simposio sobre San Juan de la Cruz, 33–60.

[Albert A. Sicroff /

Yom Tov Assis (2nd ed.)]