Viejo, puto y judío: Gender and conversion in late-medieval Castile

Devaney_Cover imageToday we have a guest post from Thomas Devaney, author of Enemies in the Plaza: Urban Spectacle and the End of Spanish Frontier Culture, 1460–1492. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, Spanish Christians near the border of Castile and Muslim-ruled Granada held complex views about religious tolerance. People living in frontier cities bore much of the cost of war against Granada and faced the greatest risk of retaliation, but had to reconcile an ideology of holy war with the genuine admiration many felt for individual members of other religious groups. After a century of near-continuous truces, a series of political transformations in Castile—including those brought about by the civil wars of Enrique IV's reign, the final war with Granada, and Fernando and Isabel's efforts to reestablish royal authority—incited a broad reaction against religious minorities. As Devaney shows, this active hostility was triggered by public spectacles that emphasized the foreignness of Muslims, Jews, and recent converts to Christianity.

In 1474, in the aftermath of devastating attacks against conversos, or converts from Judaism to Christianity, the converso poet Antón de Montoro dedicated a poem to Isabel I of Castile. In it, he lamented that he could never gain acceptance as a true Christian despite his orthodox behavior. “I always said,” he wrote, “that [the Virgin] remained immaculate, / and I never swore by the Creator! / I recited the Creed, / I worship pots of pork fat / and eat rashers of half-cooked bacon, / I listen to Mass and pray, / cross myself every which way / and never could I slay / this stain of converso. On all those holy days I pray, / with bent knees and great devotion / … so that my guilt would be removed, / but I never could lose the label / of the old faggot Jew.”

Montoro’s closing words—viejo, puto y judio—neatly encapsulate the position of conversos in late-medieval Castile. It was no accident that that a religious identifier was attached to a sexual one, linking two outcast groups in the worst popular insult that could be hurled—“faggot Jew!”  There was a long tradition of associating marginalized groups with deviant sexual characteristics. In Castile, male Jews and Muslims were alternately accused of sexual insatiability and enhanced prowess on the one hand, and of effeminacy and homosexuality on the other. As David Nirenberg and others have shown, such stereotypes served to create and enforce boundaries between confessional communities. They were, like other contemporary anti-Semitic discourses, mostly about confirming Christian identities. In addition to discouraging cross-confessional sexual relations, the stereotype permitted Christians to project deviant carnal desires onto Jews and Muslims, thus defining Christians as pure and holy, and Jews as dirty and evil.

During the fifteenth century, however, the conversion of large numbers of Jews to Christianity occasioned a crisis in religious identification. In theory, baptism erased all taint from the former Jew and so conversos, who were also sometimes called Marranos, enjoyed the legal and social privileges of full Christians, including the right to marry other Christians. But they still looked and acted like Jews in many respects, blurring the once-clear lines that divided Jew from Christian. These boundaries were eventually rebuilt, as those who considered themselves to be “natural” or “Old” Christians argued that conversos were, by virtue of their ancestry, fundamentally different from themselves. To marry a convert, they contended, was to introduce “Jewish blood” into one’s lineage. So, in practice, the taint of Judaism was not washed away by baptism. Stereotypes about Jewish sexuality were now extended to converts.

As Montoro’s poem indicates, this had a profound impact on conversos. He peppered his extensive body of work with sardonic and self-deprecating references to the taunts he faced: about his age and infirmity, about his sexuality, about his Jewishness. And Montoro was only one of many converts to write about such themes. These poets not only suffered from Old Christian gibes, they internalized them to such a degree that they used the same insults as weapons in their own rivalries. They accused each other of Judaizing and of effeminacy, they equated circumcision with castration, and they suggested that to be a convert was to live a crippled life.

The mass conversion of Iberian Jews began in 1391, with a series of anti-Semitic riots that induced thousands to convert. Two decades later, St. Vincent Ferrer’s call for strict separation between Christians and Jews encouraged a wave of further conversions. At first, Old Christians received the converts with open arms, seeing widespread Jewish conversion as a miracle. But their welcome was short-lived. Concerns about the suitability of intermarriage between “Old” and “New” Christians became common in the 1430s, and the first “purity of blood” statute, which barred converts from holding municipal or church offices, became law in Toledo in 1449. The conversos had their defenders, however. Although several other cities passed Toledo-style laws, converts continued to enjoy full rights in many places. This effectively ended with the series of anti-convert riots of 1473, which forced municipal councils to abandon their protection of converts. Soon after, the Inquisition was established in Spain. Its jurisdiction over conversos replaced mob violence with repression by the rule of law. This transformation was facilitated, ironically, by the converts’ legal status as Christians, which permitted the trial of suspected backsliders as Christian heretics. 

Montoro lived through nearly all these changes. He was born in Córdoba in 1404 and converted to Christianity as a teenager or young adult. It’s difficult to say with certainty what Montoro’s conversion meant to him. He refers to a lifetime of Christian practices and beliefs, but his poems make numerous Hebrew references and snide comments about Christianity. And, like that of many converts, his was a divided family: many, even most, of his relatives did not convert. So Montoro never fully left behind his Jewish origins, nor was he permitted to. Converts tended to remain in their existing social networks: they usually lived in their old neighborhoods, worked with their former co-religionists, and married other converts. All this was seen as evidence of their Judaizing by Old Christians. Of course, Old Christian unwillingness to marry “impure” converts contributed to this lack of assimilation, thus trapping conversos in a difficult situation. In lines addressed to his wife, Montoro wrote, “Since God had wanted us to be both unlucky, you and I, and to have but little worth, we had better both pervert a single house only, and not two. For wishing to enjoy a good husband would be a waste of time for you, and an offense to good reason. So I, old, dirty, and meek, will caress a pretty woman.” Although racial stigma meant that both he and his wife were considered unworthy of marrying “natural” Christians, he put an ironic positive spin on the situation: because her options were so few, he was able to marry well.

Many of his other poems were less optimistic. As was typical of the time, Montoro used his poetry to attack rivals and was attacked in turn. Many of these poetic assaults centered on the familiar issues of converts’ sexuality and permanent Jewishness. So, for instance, the Old Christian poets Comendador Roman and Gómez Dávila regularly referred to Montoro as “vile Jew,” “castrate,” and “Christ-killer.” Roman went on, “You know well how to chant according to your own Law . . . and to keep the Sabbath and you adore the Torah which you Jews have always adored . . . Vile Marrano, on whom one spits . . . a Jew in all respects. For, being a good tailor, you have tailored your dick (pixa) like a hood.” Montoro wasn’t the only one who faced such treatment. Diego Arias D'Avila, a convert who rose to high position in the administration of King Enrique IV, was targeted by an anonymous poet who taunted: “Diego Arias, you faggot, who is and was a Jew / with you I won't compete. You who possess a great lordship, an Eagle, a Castle, a Cross. Tell me where you got them, since after all, because of your hood-shaped dick, you should never have all this.”

Montoro, at least, did not take such treatment lying down. And, when he responded to Roman’s insults, the manner in which he did so is revealing—he called Roman’s mother a Moor, insinuating that his Old Christian rival was not really so pure either. This was a self-defeating approach—to argue over whose blood was lesser would do nothing to improve Montoro’s own status—but it was a common one. For Montoro and his converso peers didn’t direct such comments only at Old Christians. Indeed, they reserved their sharpest barbs for each other.

When Montoro, for instance, challenged the convert Juan Poeta by calling attention to his Jewish origins, Poeta responded with venom, “You converso, you Marrano . . . you are malicious, unpredictable, more evil than Lucifer, a Jew through and through.” Juan Alonso de Baena noted of Juan Agraz, that “there never has been a converso / more perverso.” Agraz, he wrote, “adores the old Law / which is the Torah, / yet He gets busy with pork, the wretched man, in order to look like a Christian . . . O what a Marrano he is!”

These insults often linked circumcision to castration and impotence. Fray Diego de Valencia organized a poem castigating his fellow convert Juan de España around the concept that Juan had no balls. Using the voice of a pious Jew, he wrote, “And the sages of the Talmud . . . / say there is no salvation / for one who has no balls; / they hold him to be a villain / who bears no circumcision / and is incapable of copulation. . . . We find in the [book of] Pellim / in both text and commentary / that he who has no balls / will not take a pretty woman.” Alfonso Álvarez Villasandino described Alfonso Ferrandes Semuel as a “world-wise castrate” and advised him to “stop acting as if you were young, / you’re a tasteless old bear / who’s never served Love / or even been in her company.” Semuel had, he concluded, lived a “castrated life.”

These converts knew for themselves that circumcision was not castration. But their use of Old Christian misconceptions about Jewish bodies indicates the degree to which they actually identified with Old Christians. The most direct statement of this comes from Montoro. The 1472 Córdoba riots began when a local confraternity conducted a procession through the city’s converso neighborhood. During the procession, a young convert girl spilt some water from a balcony onto a statue of the Virgin Mary. Alonso Rodríguez, a blacksmith in the procession, shouted that she had deliberately thrown urine on it. “Look,” he yelled, “at the contempt that these detestable heretics have shown toward our holy religion, with no fear of punishment for their crimes. Let’s now have our vengeance.” In response, the crowd set fire to nearby homes, kicking off weeks of violence. Montoro later lamented, “I, how unfortunate I was, was the first to take up the cause of the blacksmith.” This went beyond literary taunts. While it’s not clear that Montoro actually took any action during the riot, his sympathies (at least for a time) were with those attacking the conversos.

Converts were trapped between their current Christianity and their former Judaism, a duality underscored in many of these poems. But the Córdoba riot forced them to choose. Despite his outspokenness on behalf of conversos, Montoro’s inclination to stand with the Old Christians hints at the anxiety that lay behind his sharp remarks. Montoro had learned that the only way for converts to survive was to be so abject that they would be seen as unthreatening. And he didn’t only write this, he acted on it. The Córdoba riot and the changing climate toward conversos put an end to his candor and he wrote little about the convert's situation in his final years. He died in 1482 or early 1483, just a few months after the establishment of the Inquisition in Córdoba. We don’t know if the Inquisition paid any posthumous attention to Montoro’s poems. However, his wife, Teresa Rodríguez, was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1487.  

The tense atmosphere surrounding conversos in late-medieval Castile meant that their every action was scrutinized for evidence of Judaizing. Their modes of dress, of eating, and of worship acquired a ritual significance that proved their religious conformity or dissent. Male converts also had to publicly deny their own masculinity. Recognizing the anguish this caused is critical to understanding the position of converts. In describing themselves and each other as castrates, they presented themselves as fulfilling Old Christian expectations of converts as unfit for marrying Christian women. In doing so, converts were not trying to ingratiate themselves with the Old Christians—they were trying to survive, both individually and as a community. Montoro ended  the poem he wrote about the Córdoba riot with a pitiable account of the lengths to which conversos would go in order to be permitted to live in Christian society: “We’re willing to give [you] tribute, / to be captives and serve. / We’ll be beggars, cuckolds, and faggots / we’ll take whatever you throw away / so that we might live.”

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Thomas Devaney teaches history at the University of Rochester. Enemies in the Plaza: Urban Spectacle and the End of Spanish Frontier Culture, 1460–1492 is available now.

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