Twelfth Century Through Fifteenth Century: European Expulsions and the Inquisition
Beginning in the late twelfth century, the kingdoms of Europe began a series of expulsions of their Jewish populations. In France in 1182, King Philip Augustus ordered Jews out of the areas surrounding the capital. Many Jews returned in 1198 with an additional tax levied upon them. On July 18, 1290, King Edward I issued an order expelling the Jews of England. In 1394, France expelled its Jewish community, which sought refuge in territories ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Between 1426 and 1450, Jews in the Rhineland and Bavaria migrated to Ottoman lands after expulsion. After Muhammad II captured Constantinople in 1453 and made it the new capital of his empire, Jews expelled from Anatolia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria made their way to Constantinople. Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490s after the Spanish expulsion and forced conversions in Spain also sought out Constantinople. In the sixteenth century, Constantinople’s Jewish community became the largest in the world.
French monarchs carried out a series of expulsions of French Jews. In 1289, Jews were expelled from the cities of Anjou, Maine, Gascony, and Nevers. Many traveled to Paris, but in 1306 King Philip ordered all Jews to leave the country. King Louis X later readmitted the Jews in 1315 but forced them to wear identifying clothing and banned them from moneylending. Charles IV ordered another expulsion in 1321, and Charles VI ordered a final expulsion in 1394. Many French Jews migrated to the Iberian Peninsula, comprised of Spain and Portugal, where one of history’s most famous Jewish expulsions would occur in the next century.
Muslims first conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century. Jews and Christians both lived as dhimmis under Muslim rule, which allowed them to freely practice their religions while paying the jizyah tax and agreeing to live under Islamic laws. There was discrimination but it was not as widespread as in the rest of Europe. As the Crusades waged in the eleventh century, Christians began to rebel in the Iberian Peninsula against their Muslim rulers. As the twelfth century began, smaller Christian kingdoms began to arise on the peninsula.
As Christianity took control of the peninsula, Christian antisemitism grew as well. The blood libel again resurfaced as monks from the Dominican and Franciscan religious orders told tales of Jews committing religious sacrifices. As the Black Plague spread through Europe, suspicions of Jews poisoning wells also spread through the peninsula. By 1248, Christianity had successfully overthrown Spain’s Muslim rulers. Eventually, multiple Christian kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula would unite through a series of marriages and treaties to form what is today Spain.
Spain began a campaign in the late fourteenth century to convert Jews to Catholicism under the threat of death. In 1390, a Franciscan priest in Castile named Ferrand Martinez ordered priests under his authority to destroy all synagogues in their area. Martinez had for years called for the expulsion of Jews. Hundreds of Jews were murdered in Seville in June 1391 by Martinez and his followers, who also incited mobs that spread to Cordoba and Toledo. The riots spread throughout Spain. Some 100,000 Jews converted during this time, known as the Great Conversion of 1391, while an estimated 100,000 more were murdered—representing approximately one-third of Spain’s Jewish population. Another 100,000 Jews fled for the safety of Muslim-ruled lands. This was a precursor to the Spanish Inquisition of the next century.
The roots of the Spanish Inquisition—a period that officially lasted for several hundred years but is most associated with the fifteenth century—are traceable back to the twelfth century. In 1184, Pope Lucius III issued a decree for bishops to actively identify and prosecute heresy in an effort to eliminate it from their domains. As Spain emerged from Muslim rule and Catholic monarchs seized power, the inquisition took on new dimensions. By 1415, an additional 50,000 Jews converted to Catholicism. These Jews who converted became known by the Spanish term conversos, “converted ones.” Nonetheless, the mobs failed to eradicate Judaism from Spain. A subsect of conversos known as crypto-Jews continued to practice Judaism in secret. The Spanish referred to these crypto-Jews as marranos, swine. And still other Jews in Spain remained committed to their faith, untouched by the mobs that had devastated other Jewish communities.
Defining Judaism and Jews has been a complicated subject throughout history, and the debate over who is a Jew and what Judaism means played a large role during the early fourteenth century. Jews themselves have assumed the mantles of a nation, a religion, and an ethnicity, sometimes separately but typically all at the same time. Rabbis and Jewish leaders have debated the monikers and reached different conclusions throughout Jewish history, but largely agreed that Jews are both a religion and a nation, Am Yisrael, “the people of Israel.”
For Spanish conversos, the question of Jewish peoplehood versus Jewish faith became a debate for their persecutors. Life for the conversos in Spain improved somewhat as they found themselves with access to professions from which they had previously been blocked. But they also elicited mistrust from Christians. Conversos were no longer captive to the legal restrictions imposed on Jews, but not all Christians trusted them. Some argued that though they had given up Jewish practice, the conversos maintained Jewish blood and remained impure. In Toledo, officials began segregating conversos through the implementation of blood-purity laws. These laws then spread throughout Spain. Violence against conversos also increased as several religious leaders feared conversos would revert to Judaism. They also accused both Jews and conversos of trying to lead astray God-fearing Christians. These charges also led to renewed accusations of the blood libel and devil worship.
Spain’s rulers, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella, sought to quell these rumors of conversos proselytizing Christians. Their answer was the creation of the Spanish Inquisition in 1490. Pope Sixtus IV initially authorized the creation of inquisitions on November 1, 1478, through a papal bull, Exigit Sincerae Devotionis Affectus, “Requires Sincere Devotion.” The Spanish Inquisition sought to eradicate all signs of Judaism and brought scrutiny upon conversos’ church attendance and even dietary habits. For example, an aversion to pork, forbidden under Jewish dietary law, was considered a sign of reversion to Judaism.
On March 31, 1492, Ferdinand issued a decree ordering all “Jews and Jewesses” to leave Spain never to return, as their presence “resulted in great damage and detriment of our holy Catholic faith.” Some 300,000 people left, ending 1,500 years of Jewish life in Spain, according to the recollection of Isaac Abravanel, a Jewish adviser to Ferdinand and Isabella who had helped arrange financing for Christopher Columbus’s expedition that year. Abravanel himself fled to Naples.
Historians estimate that the actual number of Jews expelled from Spain was between 40,000 and 100,000, while Abravanel estimated 300,000. Jews who left Spain traveled to Italy, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. These Jews became known as the Sephardim, Sephard being the Hebrew word for Spain. They became one of two main cultural branches of Judaism, the other being the Ashkenazim, Jews who historically descended from Central and Eastern Europe. In 2015, the Spanish parliament invited descendants of Sephardi Jews who could trace their lineage back to Spain to claim citizenship. As of September 2019, only 5,937 applications had been approved.
Some 125,000 people were tried during the Inquisition. Historians estimate that between 30,000 and 300,000 people were killed. According to Vatican archival information, only approximately 1,250 people were executed as heretics by the Inquisition. An estimated 2,000 people were burned at the stake under the guidance of Spain’s grand inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada.
The Inquisition officially continued in Spain and elsewhere in Europe through the nineteenth century. Jews are largely remembered as the main victims of the Spanish Inquisition, but it was actually one of several inquisitions that started in the thirteenth century and targeted anyone deemed heretical to the Catholic Church. Victims included Protestants, Muslims, and others. Pope Paul III created the Congregation of the Inquisition in 1542, which operated until 1908 when Pope Pius X renamed it as the Congregation of the Holy Office.