Wednesday, 16 November 2011


It is a good idea to get to grips with the terminology used in the texts. Virtually everything about Sephardi history is subjective. At one end of the spectrum you can find Spanish Catholic historians saying the Inquisition was all sweetness and love. At the other end there are some Jewish historians who see it as proto-Nazi. The terms below often include the values of the people who used them.

Jew. According to halakha, Jewish religious law, a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism according to halakha. A Canon Law, Catholic religious law, interpretation would be that a Jew is someone born a Jew who has not been baptised. After baptism that person ceases being a Jew and must be treated and considered as a Christian. Of course, this did not stop some people referring to converted Jews as Jews. Also, Cannon Law was bent to allow discrimination.

(f. conversa) is the polite Catholic way to refer to a converted Jew.

Marrano (literally “swine”) is a less polite Catholic way to refer to a converted Jew. I suspect the word marrano is a pun on the Hebrew “marranin”, meaning “gentlemen”.

New Christian
(sometimes written XN) is the formal way the Inquisition referred to someone of known convert ancestry. An Old Christian is someone who has never had Jewish ancestry. Some New Christians were able to persuade the authorities that they were actually Old Christians.

Anusim is Hebrew for “forced ones”, meaning Jews who had been forced to convert. Under halakha it is permissible for Jews to feign conversion in order to save their lives.

Meshumadim means “heretics” in Hebrew. These are people who chose to abandon Judaism. During the Inquisition period there was some rabbinic debate about who should be defined as anusim or meshumadim.

The Portuguese Nation was the euphemistic name given to Iberian Jews and ex-Jews outside the peninsula, including in jurisdictions from which Jews were technically banned. Of course, this drove the Portuguese government nuts. In Spain, Portuguese origin was sometimes seen as synonymous with Jewish origin.

The Nation was how members of the community often referred to themselves.

Jewish Nation was how the Portuguese Nation was sometimes called in more tolerant jurisdictions.

Portuguese Jews
was how Spanish and Portuguese Jews were called in Holland, which had fought an eighty year war of independence against Spain.

A hidalgo (Spanish: "son of someone") is someone with hidalgua - a member of the Spanish gentry or aristocracy. The requirement is to be an Old Christian with no Jewish or Moorish blood. Needless to say a number of New Christians managed to get recognised as hidalgos. In Portugal and Galicia, a hidalgo is a fidalgo.

Tudesco (f. Tudesca) literally means “German” and refers to Ashkenazi Jews. In old Hebrew the word Ashkenaz means Germany.

If you are starting to think that identities were fluid, I think you are on the right track.

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