Dr. Martin A. Cohen
Professor of Jewish History
Luis de Santángel was one of the most distinguished statesmen in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. Santángel, whose grandfather had converted from Judaism, served as confidant and Comptroller General for the Catholic monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabel. Santángel supported Christopher Columbus's application for money for his westward journey to the Indies. Even during Santángel's royal service, however, many of his relatives, themselves "New Christians" or conversos, were murdered or harassed by the Inquisition. During his keynote address, Dr. Martin A. Cohen explored the enigma of converso identity and the paradox of the Marrano Myth.
Most simply stated, this myth held that conversos, by virtue of having been Jews or having had Jewish ancestry, suffered from a congenital taint. That taint was the contamination of their blood by their Jewish component. This component prevented them from having the ideal cleanness of blood (the terms for blood cleanness are limpieza de sangre in Spanish and limpeze de sangue in Portugese). The hematologic uncleanness induced an irresistible propensity for Jewish belief and practice, and by some implicit agglutination, even a hostility to Christians and all things Christian....It became the basis for the separation of Christian from Christian, for the idealization of the Old Christians and the demonization of the conversos...What the Marrano myth did was simply channel the reservoirs of animosity that had accumulated against the Jew in the Middle Ages onto the conversos, who were regarded by class to be genetically, by blood, and therefore irremediably Jewish....In fact, the Marrano myth represents the first unmistakable example of racist mythology in the modern world....
Amazingly, given the genetic impossibility for Jews to become sincere Christians we find firstly, that the governments of Spain and Portugal repeatedly refused to expel the conversos; secondly, that countless conversos led irreproachably Christian lives throughout the Inquisitorial period; and thirdly, that among the conversos who religiously strayed were those who strayed not toward Judaism, but toward heterodox Catholicism, Protestantism, Deism, and Skepticism...
Amazingly, in contradiction to the presumed pull of Jewish blood toward Judaism, many Iberian Jews were religiously apathetic in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Beginning in 1391 more Jews preferred Christianity to the promised rewards of Jewish martyrdom, and with the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, more Jews preferred conversion to exile. And, in fact, more than a few exiles returned for conversion, while the majority of those who did not went to lands where they could not live openly as Jews...
Amazingly also, on the assumption of the Inquisition's honest quest for heretics, was its ready acceptance of evidence that was flimsy, uncorroborated or patently fabricated; its refusal to identify accusers; its obstruction of unhampered defenses and its creation of an environment that favored false denunciations by enemies or by friendly or neutral prisoners in fear of torture or death for failing to do so.
Not so amazingly, therefore, the Marrano myth, on its first articulation, was denounced by leading laity and clergy, including the Pope, and opposed throughout the Inquisitorial period, inspiring violent opposition to the Inquisition in many places and even armed defense of conversos. Understandably the number of religious and secular institutions implementing the statutes of limpieza remained small, and conversos like Luis de Santángel, with relatives prosecuted by the Inquisition, unimpededly achieved their prominence.
Dr. Martin A. Cohen has taught at HUC-JIR since 1955 and was ordained in 1957. His historical books include The Martyr, Sephardim in the Americas, and a forthcoming book on the Marrano myth. He has also written Jewish theological and education works, and served as editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica.
Copyright © 1998 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Most recent update 13 Oct 1998