Crisis and Regeneration: the Conversos of Majorca, 1391-1416

Crisis and Regeneration: the Conversos of Majorca, 1391-1416

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Crisis and Regeneration: the Conversos of Majorca, 1391-1416

By Natalie Oeltjen

PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2012

Abstract: In the summer of 1391 anti-Jewish violence spread across the kingdom of Castile and the Crown of Aragon. Unprecedented numbers of Jews were murdered and even more were forcibly converted. These converts, known as conversos, formed a new, self-perpetuating social group, which, together with the rest of Spanish society, remained deeply conscious of its distinct ethnicity and culture. A century later, testimonies to the Spanish Inquisition depict a converso community with a continued, if varied, affiliation to Judaism. This dissertation investigates the economic, social and political factors that promoted Jewish identification among the first two generations of conversos in Majorca following their baptism in 1391.

It employs previously unexamined and unpublished archival sources to argue that corporate fiscal obligations had a major impact in shaping the converso community in Majorca, just as they shaped Jewish social and communal life prior to 1391. Conversos organized collectively in order to meet royal fiscal demands, settle their corporate debt and fund social welfare following the disruptions of 1391, adopting administrative models of the former aljama. The monarchy continued to relate to the conversos as a distinct corporate entity in the same ways it had dealt with them as Jews. Royal efforts to prevent converso emigration to the Maghreb, where many fled to renege on Catholicism, carried overtones of the same proto-mercantilist policies that motivated its failed attempts to revivify the island’s Jewish aljama. Publicized restrictions against conversos, many of whom continued to cultivate prior commercial and family relationships with Maghrebi Jews, contributed to popular assumptions that Majorcan conversos at sea were Judaizers, spurring targeted anti-converso and anti-Jewish piracy.

Conversos thus remained entrenched in the same socioeconomic structures, and employed the same licit and illicit strategies to cope with royal exploitation, as when they were Jews. This perpetuated a group identity that was unmistakeably anchored in their Jewish past, and which could promote other aspects of Jewish affiliation. In 1404 the conversos established a formal confraternity which replicated the social welfare programs and administrative techniques of the former aljama within the framework of a Catholic pious society, representing one of the first necessary adaptations to Christian life.

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