A history of the marrano diaspora.

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Legal Restrictions: Purity of Blood

Mass conversions introduced a problem for Spanish society. Unlike the sporadic conversion of individuals during the Middle Ages, the entry of a large group into Spanish Christendom created a confusion of categories and demanded new solutions.

Since converts to Christianity were officially free of all legal restrictions that applied to Jews, the introduction of conversos en masse into Spanish society brought with it heavier competition in commercial fields previously closed to these individuals as Jews, and a general sense of resentment by the old population towards this new influx.

An ethnic solution was imposed in a series of statutes first enacted in Toledo in 1449 called limpieza de sangre (purity of blood), which barred men of Jewish descent from holding public office as well as other titles. This new designation of conversos as separated from the main population by blood helped in the formation of a group identity based on ethnicity, even when its religious element was erased.

The threat that converts would revert to their Jewish faith--or "Judaize"--was the motivation for the establishment of the Inquisition in Spain in 1483. In 1492, all practicing Jews were expelled from Spain, since they were viewed as a pernicious influence on New Christians who were at risk for backsliding to Judaism.

Portuguese Varieties

Whereas the Spanish monarchs sought to solve their Jewish problem by expelling all practicing Jews from their country, their counterparts in Portugal took a different approach. Recognizing the important commercial activities of Jews in Portugal, in 1497 King Manuel opted to forcibly baptize all of the Jews in Portugal.

While Spanish conversions often severed the bonds of family and community, the full-scale conversion of Portuguese Jewry meant that the informal networks of Jewish life remained largely intact, even as their institutional organizations disappeared.

Collective Identity: Forging "the Nation"

An ethnic designation of Jewishness, rather than a religious one, was given further impetus by the fact that in Portugal converted Jews served a critical economic function as merchants and traders. This unique role helped create a synonymy between New Christians and so-called homens de negócios (“Men of Affairs").

As Portuguese Jews established business connections beyond Portugal, this group gained further valence, and the simple designation homens de nação ("Men of the Nation"). This title initially denoted vocation but was soon extended to refer to any and all people of Jewish origin, regardless of their religious activities. Across the European continent, members of the marrano diaspora came to conceive of themselves as linked by ethnicity and nationality.

An Alternative Path to Modernity

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Joshua Teplitsky is a doctoral candidate at New York University in the departments of History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies. His research focuses on the Jewish experience in early modern Prague, and the culture of Jews in early modern Europe more generally.