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A converso (Spanish: [komˈberso]; Portuguese: [kõˈvɛɾsu]; Catalan: convers [kumˈbɛrs], [komˈvɛɾs]; "a convert", from Latin conversvs, "converted, turned around") and its feminine form conversa was a Jew who converted to Catholicism in Spain or Portugal, particularly during the 14th and 15th centuries, or one of their descendents. The majority of Spain's Jews converted to Christianity as a result of the pogroms in 1391. The remaining Jews who had chosen to remain practicing Jews were finally expelled during the Alhambra decree in 1492. However, even a significant proportion of these remaining practicing Jews chose to join the already large Converso community rather than face exile. Over the following two centuries Conversos were subject to discriminatory laws and harassment by the Inquisition.

Those Conversos who did not fully embrace Catholicism and continued to practice Judaism were referred to as marranos. New Christians of Muslim origin were known as moriscos. Unlike Marranos, Moriscos were subject to an edict of expulsion even after conversion, which was implemented severely in the eastern region of Valencia and less so in other parts of Spain. Nevertheless, overall Moriscos were subject to considerably less suspicion and hostility from the wider Christian community than the Jews and Jewish-descended Conversos.

Conversos played an important role in the 1520-1521 Revolt of the Comuneros, a popular revolt and Civil war centred in the region of Castile against the imperial pretensions of the Spanish monarchy.[1]


Ferrand Martinez, Archdeacon of Ecijia, directed a 13-year anti-Semitic campaign that began in 1378. Martinez used a series of provocative sermons, through which he openly condemned the Jews with little to no opposition. He rallied non-Jews against the Jews by creating a constant state of fear through riots. Martinez’s efforts led to a series of outbreaks on June 4, 1391,[2] where several Synagogues in Seville were burned to the ground and Churches were erected in their place. Amidst this outbreak, many Jews fled the country, some converted to Christianity in fear, and some were sold to Muslims. Martinez set in motion the largest forced mass conversion of Jews in Spain.[2]

Both the Church and the Crown had not anticipated such a large-scale conversion stemming from an unplanned anti-Semitic campaign led by Ferrand Martinez. The new converts, most of whom were forced, due to their large numbers, were victims of a new problem. A problem that temporarily solved the Jewish presence in Spain, however, led to the creation of a new group that was neither completely Catholic or Jewish.[3]

The Conversos, who were now fully privileged citizens, challenged in all aspects of the economic sphere. This resulted in a new wave of anti-Semitism that was targeted at the Conversos. This anti-Semitism evolved into small and large riots in Toledo, 1449, that now oppressed not the Jews, but the New Christians (Conversos) and the Old Christians. Thus, the Crown established a National Inquisition in 1478, that would test the loyalty and purity of a newly baptized Christian (Converso). Due to continued repression, some Jews and Conversos fled Spain, others created a community that ensure the survival of Judaism in the Iberian Peninsula, although outwardly practicing Christianity.[3]

Perpetuation of Jewish Heritage[edit]

Conversas played a pivotal role in keeping Jewish traditions alive by observing many Jewish holidays like Sabbath. Conversas also cooked and baked traditional Jewish dishes in honor of Sabbath, Yom Kippur, and other holidays. During festivals like Sukkot and Passover, Conversas participated by giving clothing articles and ornaments to Jewish women, they also attended seder or obtained a baking matzah. Conversas also ensured that their household maintained similar dietary regulations as their Jewish counterparts, they did so by eating only kosher birds and animals. Conversas also financially contributed to the growth of the Jewish / Converso Community and Synagogue.[3] The Jewish community and the Conversos exchanged books and knowledge, Jews taught Conversos how to read to ensure a constant growth of their Jewish heritage. In order to take a stance against the church and its principles, some Conversos performed professional work even on Sundays.[3]


Conversos were subject to suspicion and harassment from both what was left of the community they were leaving and that which they were joining.[4] Christians and Jews called them tornadizo (renegade). James I, Alfonso X and John I passed laws forbidding the use of this epithet. This was part of a larger pattern of royal oversight, as laws were promulgated to protect their property, forbid attempts to convert them back to Judaism or the Muslim faith, and regulate their behavior, preventing their cohabitation or even dining with Jews, lest they convert back.

The conversos did not enjoy legal equality. Alfonso VII prohibited the "recently converted" from holding office in Toledo. They had supporters and bitter opponents in the Christian secular of general acceptance, yet they became targets of occasional pogroms during times of social tension (as during an epidemic and after an earthquake). They were subject to the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions.

While pure blood (so-called limpieza de sangre) would come to be placed at a premium, particularly among the nobility, in a 15th-century defense of conversos, Bishop Lope de Barrientos would list what Roth calls "a veritable 'Who's Who' of Spanish nobility" as having converso members or being of converso descent. He pointed out that given the near-universal conversion of Iberian Jews during Visigothic times, (quoting Roth) "[W]ho among the Christians of Spain could be certain that he is not a descendant of those conversos?"

According to a widely publicised study (December 2008) in the American Journal of Human Genetics, 19.8 percent of modern Spaniards (and Portuguese) have DNA originating in the Near East during historic times (i.e. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Jews and Levantine Arabs) - compared to 10.6 percent having DNA reflecting North African ancestors.[5][6][7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Lea, Henry Charles (1896-01-01). "Ferrand Martinez and the Massacres of 1391". The American Historical Review. 1 (2): 209–219. doi:10.2307/1833647. 
  3. ^ a b c d Melammed, Renee (1999). Heretics or Daughters of Israel. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 3–10, 86–95, 166–174. 
  4. ^ A very recent book that highlights such issues in the sixteenth century is James Nelson Novoa, Being the Nação in the Eternal City: New Christian Lives in Sixteenth-Century Rome (Peterborough: Baywolf Press, 2014);
  5. ^ Adams, Susan M.; Bosch, Elena; Balaresque, Patricia L.; Ballereau, Stéphane J.; Lee, Andrew C.; Arroyo, Eduardo; López-Parra, Ana M.; Aler, Mercedes; Grifo, Marina S. Gisbert; Brion, Maria; Carracedo, Angel; Lavinha, João; Martínez-Jarreta, Begoña; Quintana-Murci, Lluis; Picornell, Antònia; Ramon, Misericordia; Skorecki, Karl; Behar, Doron M.; Calafell, Francesc; Jobling, Mark A. (2008). "The Genetic Legacy of Religious Diversity and Intolerance: Paternal Lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula". The American Journal of Human Genetics. 83 (6): 725–36. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2008.11.007. PMC 2668061Freely accessible. PMID 19061982. 
  6. ^ "Spanish Inquisition left genetic legacy in Iberia - life". New Scientist. 4 December 2008. Retrieved 2012-02-10. 
  7. ^ Zalloua, Pierre A.; Platt, Daniel E.; El Sibai, Mirvat; Khalife, Jade; Makhoul, Nadine; Haber, Marc; Xue, Yali; Izaabel, Hassan; Bosch, Elena; Adams, Susan M.; Arroyo, Eduardo; López-Parra, Ana María; Aler, Mercedes; Picornell, Antònia; Ramon, Misericordia; Jobling, Mark A.; Comas, David; Bertranpetit, Jaume; Wells, R. Spencer; Tyler-Smith, Chris; The Genographic, Consortium (2008). "Identifying Genetic Traces of Historical Expansions: Phoenician Footprints in the Mediterranean". The American Journal of Human Genetics. 83 (5): 633–42. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2008.10.012. PMC 2668035Freely accessible. PMID 18976729. 


  • Gitlitz, David. Secrecy and Deceit: The Religion of the Crypto-Jews, Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2002. ISBN 082632813X
  • Brooks, Andrée Aelion. The Woman who Defied Kings: the life and times of Dona Gracia Nasi, Paragon House, 2002. ISBN 1557788294
  • Roth, Norman, Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. ISBN 0299142302

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