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Between Christian and Jew

Between Christian and Jew pivots around the inquisitorial trial of three Jews who were accused in 1341 of persuading Jewish apostates to return to Judaism and die as martyrs. This cultural history explores the worlds of Jews, Jewish converts, and medieval inquisitors as they intersected in northern Iberia in the Crown of Aragon.

Between Christian and Jew
Conversion and Inquisition in the Crown of Aragon, 1250-1391

Paola Tartakoff

2012 | 224 pages | Cloth $65.00
History / Religion
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Table of Contents

Note on Names, Money, Terminology, and Transliterations
Map 1
Map 2
Map 3

Four Arrests
Chapter 1. Defending the Faith: Medieval Inquisitors and the Prosecution of Jews and Converts
Chapter 2. From Resistance to Surrender: Jewish Responses to Inquisitorial
Four Condemnations

Alatzar and Abadia, Baptized
Chapter 3. Between Doubt and Desire: Jewish Conversion, Converts, and Christian Society
Chapter 4. Homeward Bound: The Fates of Jewish Converts
Two Converts, Repentant

The Intervention
Chapter 5. Apostasy as Scourge: Jews and the Repudiation of Apostates
Chapter 6. Recruiting Repentance: The Re-Judaization of Apostates
The Road to the Stake

List of Abbreviations

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


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 usury was described as a form of Jewish "oppression" of Christians and as an effort "to exhaust Christians' financial strength," and, in late thirteenth-century Valencia, Christians called for the ouster of Jewish bailiffs, indignant that Jews had been raised above their proper, inferior station. In 1375, Pope Gregory XI condoned sentiments such as these in a letter to King Henry II of Castile. "Jews hate Christians," he wrote, "as those who by divine mercy were received from the detestable hardness of the same Jews into their places as sons of adoption. Therefore . . . the sacred canons forbid Christian freemen to remain subject to the governorship of Jewish slaves and to be cruelly burdened by them."

In the Crown of Aragon, Christians regularly expressed their antagonism toward Jews. Every year during Holy Week, for example, they stoned the walls of Jewish quarters wherein "the sons of the crucifiers" lived. Christians also spread noxious rumors about Jews. In 1321, in the Valencian town of Sogorb, for instance, Christians alleged that a Jew named Mossé had shaped matzah in the form of the crucified Christ and burned it in the oven. In addition, Christians accused Jews of poisoning wells and engaging in host desecration and the ritual murder of Christian children. Charges such as these escalated tensions further. In 1327, in Valencia, incensed by accusations of Jewish host desecration, Christians threw stones at Jewish burial parties and corpses, defiled the Jewish cemetery, and dumped filth in Jewish graves. On rare occasions, Christian anti-Jewish hostility led to bloodshed. In 1320, in the Aragonese village of Montclús, the French Pastoureaux massacred 337 Jews. In 1348, following the outbreak of the Black Death, which some Christians blamed upon Jews' sins, Christians slaughtered Jews in Barcelona, Cervera, Lleida, Tàrrega, and perhaps also Girona. In Tàrrega alone, Christians killed 300 Jews.

These abuses had a deep impact on the Jews of the Crown of Aragon. Because Jews depended on Christians for survival, they could not respond in kind. Jews, however, found other ways to express their anger at Christians. They deprecated Christians and Christianity in their daily prayers, for example, and they told anti-Christian folktales, such as the Toledot Yeshu (The Life Story of Jesus), which depicted Christ as a charlatan and Mary as an adulteress. Jewish scholars composed anti-Christian polemics, such as the Kelimat ha-goyim (The Shame of the Gentiles) of Profiat Duran, the Bitul ikarei ha-Notsrim (The Refutation of the Christian Principles) of Hasdai Crescas, the Even bohan (Touchstone) of Shem Tov ben Isaac ibn Shaprut, and the Keshet u-magen (Shield and Sword) of Shimon ben Tsemah Duran. The Jewish political and spiritual leader of Barcelona at the turn of the fourteenth century, Rabbi Solomon ben Avraham ibn Aderet (c. 1233-1310, known by the rabbinic acronym "Rashba"), also penned polemical responses to Christian arguments. In addition, Jews engaged in informal theological disputations with Christians. Indeed, Shem Tov ben Isaac ibn Shaprut explained that he hoped that his Even bohan would serve as a "shield" to Jews by furnishing them with retorts to Christian arguments. On rare occasions, Jews, too, turned to violence. In 1308 in Morvedre, after Christians broke into Jewish homes and damaged property during Holy Week, Jews stoned a church and shouted insults against Christians and their faith. In 1320 in Montclús, in response to the slaughter of Jews by the Pastoureaux, Jews rioted and destroyed Christian property.

Christians clearly were aware of Jewish antagonism toward them, and they even knew of expressions of Jewish antipathy that were intended primarily for internal Jewish consumption. Bernard Gui, the inquisitor of Toulouse from 1307 to 1323, devoted half of the section on "the Jewish perfidy" in his guide for inquisitors, the Practica inquisitionis heretice pravitatis (Conduct of the Inquisition into Heretical Depravity), to a discussion of passages in Jewish prayers—including the Birkhot ha-shahar, the Amidah, and the Aleinu—that he deemed offensive to Christians. The Catalan Dominican theologian Ramon Martí recorded a version of the Toledot Yeshu in Latin in his compendium of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish polemic, the Pugio fidei adversus mauros et iudaeos (Dagger of Faith against Muslims and Jews, 1278). And the prolific Catalan Franciscan, Francesc Eiximenis (c. 1340-1409), devoted nine chapters of his Primer del Crestià (First Book of the Christian), which he wrote in Catalan for a lay audience, to defending Christianity against the attacks of "a great Jewish rabbi" who had impugned Christian dogma and practice and slandered Christ. It has even been suggested that Eiximenis composed his final work, the Vita Christi (Life of Christ), specifically in order to combat the claims of the Toledot Yeshu, which he referred to as the "book of the devil."

The experiences of Jewish converts, and Jewish and Christian attitudes toward converts, as revealed by Pere's case and other little-known sources, allow us to probe the nature of Jewish-Christian tensions in the medieval Crown of Aragon during the century prior to 1391 in new ways. As we shall see, they point especially to features of mutual hostility that spanned this period, characterizing "golden" and darker times alike. They also reveal commonalities in the experiences of Jewish converts, and in Jewish and Christian attitudes toward converts, across medieval Western Christendom.

Book Outline

This study unfolds in three parts, each bookended by short sections that focus on Pere's case. Part I, "Before the Tribunal," explores the inquisitorial prosecution of Jews and converts as an arena of Jewish-Christian conflict in the medieval Crown of Aragon. Chapter 1 examines the inquisitorial prosecution of Jews as a means of defending Christians and Christianity from perceived Jewish attacks. It argues that inquisitors' commitment to protecting converts from corruption by Jews demonstrates the symbolic importance of converts to the church. Chapter 2 analyzes the trials of Janto and Jamila Almuli and Jucef de Quatorze. It details how inquisitors tackled the challenges involved in prosecuting Jews and how Jewish inquisitorial defendants responded to the pressures of inquisitorial scrutiny.

Part II, "At the Font of New Life," examines the lives of Jewish converts who lived in the Crown of Aragon before 1391. Chapter 3 explores converts' backgrounds, their reasons for converting, and the circumstances of their baptisms, and it argues that these factors contributed to Christian skepticism about the sincerity of Jewish conversions. It also considers how Christian authorities responded to the tension between the realities of Jewish conversion and Christian ideals. Chapter 4 turns to converts' experiences following baptism. It suggests that Christian rejection and poverty led many converts to remain bound up in Jewish affairs and caused some to seek to return to Judaism.

Part III, "By the Fire," explores Jewish attitudes toward apostates and apostasy in the medieval Crown of Aragon. Chapter 5 examines Jewish antagonism toward apostates. It argues that a sense of betrayal, anti-Christian sentiments, and the dangers that apostates posed to Jews all fueled this hostility. It shows also that Jews harmed apostates by disinheriting and taunting them and even denouncing them to Christian authorities. Chapter 6 focuses on Jewish efforts to bring apostates back to Judaism. It argues that these constituted bold expressions of Jewish contempt for Christianity and defiance toward Christians.

The Conclusion considers ways in which the implications of this study transcend the history of Jewish conversion and Jewish-Christian relations in medieval Iberia, extending to majority-minority relations in Christian Spain more generally, Jewish conversion throughout medieval Western Europe, Jewish and Christian attitudes toward converts in fifteenth-century Spain, and the activities of the Spanish Inquisition.

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