The Spanish Inquisition not only questioned whether or not Jews could be sincere converts to Christianity, it also gave rise to troubling questions about the biological or genealogical basis of jewish behavior and identity, as is outlined in the essay, “Mass Conversion and Genealogical Mentalities: Jews and Christians in Fifteenth-Century Spain” (quoted below).
The Inquisition exposed countless Jews who converted to Christianity in name only but continued to identify as Jews privately, and this deceit naturally brought up the issue of the biological Jew whose behavior cannot be changed merely by Christian conversion — that there is an eternal jewish identity arising out of their bloodline.
Prior to this converso crisis in Spain, the delineation between Jews and Christians was much sharper, but then Jews discovered that by “converting” they could not only marry their way into wealthy families but they could now hold public office and high positions in the Catholic Church which wielded significant social power. This was no small problem, as the Spanish nobility became tainted with jewish conversos at an alarming level:
Responding in 1449 to the purity of blood statutes of the Toledan rebels, Fernán Díaz, the Relator of Juan II, had pointed out that there was scarcely a noble house in Spain that had no converso in its family tree. If Jewishness were attached to blood, the Relator warned, genealogy would become a weapon of the weak and the nobility of Iberia would be destroyed. Non-Spaniards were more than willing to agree. ‘Spain is not pleasing’, Erasmus wrote in 1517, because it is full of Jews (though keep in mind that Germany and Italy also had too many Jews for Erasmus’ taste, and England too many riots). One French pamphleteer claimed in the 1590s that ‘The Catalans, those of Castile and Portugal are Jews, those of Galicia and Granada Muslims, their prince is an atheist.’ Another called Philip II a ‘demi-More, demi-Juif, demi-Sarrazin’. A French dictionary from 1680 defined Marrano (‘Marrane’) as ‘an insult we apply to Spaniards, which means a Muslim’.
This blurring of the racial lines in Spain forced many “Old Christian” Spanish families to look for a racial and biblical justification to shun Jews and conversos and maintain their “purity of blood”:
It was upon the Jews that they focused, for it was by mapping a set of ‘Jewish’ cultural characteristics (enmity towards Christians, ‘subtlety’, financial acumen) onto a genealogy said to reproduce them that they sought to disenfranchise the converts as ‘Judaizing Christians.’ To that end, they turned to biblical genealogies, and to arguments from later history, in order to represent the Jews as a lineage corrupted through hybridity.
Some writers, such as Alonso de Espina, verged on a polygenetic approach, putting the corruption at the very origins of human history. Espina related the lineage of Jews to the offspring of 1) Adam with animals and 2) Adam with the demon Lilith. As a result of these unions, he wrote, Jews were of the lineage of demons and of monsters, the mule and the sow their adoptive mothers. Others, like the author of a treatise called the Alborayque (c. 1455-65), used biblical accounts of Israelite migration to make similar arguments. The Jews are a mixed lineage, an amalgam of Edom, Moab, Amon, Egypt, and more. The author employed the Alborayque, the composite Qur’anic beast (part horse, part lion, part snake, etc.) who carried Muhammad to heaven, as a symbol of the conversos’ monstrously hybrid nature. The converts are not only Alborayques. They are bats, unclassifiable as animal (wings) or bird (teeth); they are a weak alloy rather than pure metal. These unnatural mixtures support the conclusion that, as heirs of the Jews, the conversos and their descendants could never be classified as Christian. Other scholars placed the corruption even later. One influential tradition maintained that since Titus had put no Jewish women aboard the ships that carried the survivors of the siege of Jerusalem into the Diaspora, the males had taken Muslim or pagan women to wife, so that their descendants were not real Jews but bastards, without claim to the covenant. These ‘natural histories’ sought to explain why the reproduction of Jewish cultural attributes should be understood as embedded in the reproduction of the flesh. In this sense, they provided the theoretical underpinning for the new genealogical boundaries, such as the doctrine of purity of blood, being established between Christian and ‘Jew’.
There were many “Old Christian” families that took this “purity of blood” seriously, and regardless of whether or not the Catholic Church arbitrarily would allow jewish converts, they were under no obligation to accept them, and many went out of their way to document that their families were free of the taint of jewish blood:
One might say that the genealogical definitions of community that Spain had constructed had turned her into an inescapably hybrid land. To deal with this paradox Spaniards filled vast archives with documents designed to free one’s lineage of Judaism (such as proofs of purity of blood and of hidalguía) and to Judaize those of others (such as inquisitional records, and genealogical pamphlets like the ‘Tizón de la nobleza’ and the ‘Libro verde de Aragón’). At the level of ideas, the same anxiety produced a genealogical type of cultural history that sought to separate ‘Jewish’ from ‘Christian’ ideas. The products of this type of history were typically lists of supposedly Jewish cultural attributes. According to the bishop of Cordoba in 1530, for example, Jewish attributes included heresy, apostasy, love of novelty and dissension, ambition, presumption, and hatred of peace.
Had it not been for the aberrant, anti-social behavior of these insincere jewish converts, the biological basis of jewish behavior would never have been questioned, but as they say, a leopard cannot change its spots merely by calling it a lion. And Jews continue to deplore the idea that their eternal characteristics are informed by their bloodline except when they award themselves Nobel Prizes. Today, anyone who believes in this relationship is smeared as an “antisemite,” but in 15th Century Spain, this question went to the very heart of who can be a real Christian and a real Spaniard:
Nor were ‘Jewish ideas’ wanting. Since the classification of a practice or ‘idea’ as Jewish or Christian was determined largely by mapping it onto the lineage of the person who held it, almost any practice or position could be presented as Jewish if the accused could be shown to have descended from Jews. Returning to the example above, pride in one’s lineage could be evidence of judaizing if that lineage contained Jews, or appear perfectly orthodox if not. The classification of practices and ideas and the logic of genealogy depended upon each other.
While this writer above would like to characterize this practice of connecting jewish behavior to their race as arbitrary and self-serving, it was in the best interests of the Jews to undermine the concept of “purity of blood” and the biological basis of human behavior. Just as the “Old Christians” had a vested interest in maintaining “purity of blood,” the Jews had a vested interest in attacking these ideas. They started attacking them in the 15th Century, and 600 years later, they continue to do so. If these ideas have no foundation in reality, why do they persist for so long?
It was the behavior of Jews which originally forced Christians to come to terms with their own racial identity as separate and distinct from the Jews, and it continues to remind Christians, if they have eyes to see, who they are and who they are not even to this day.