Chapter 4

“No Sight More Pitiable”

The Mediterranean World and the Redistribution of the Sephardim

May 1: The royal decree expelling unbaptized Jews
from Spain is published.

There was not a Christian who did not feel their pain,” reported Andrés de Bernáldez, priest and chronicler, who watched the crowds of Jews making their way into exile from Castile in the summer of 1492. Making music as they went, shaking their tambourines and beating their drums to keep their spirits up, “they went by the roads and fields with great labor and misery, some falling, some struggling again to their feet, others dying or falling sick.” When they saw the sea, “they uttered loud screams and wailing, men and women, old and young, begging for God’s mercy, for they hoped for some miracle from God and that the sea would part to make a road for them. Having waited many days and seen nothing but trouble, many wished they had never been born.” Those who embarked “suffered disasters, robberies, and death on sea and on land, wherever they went, at the hands of Christians and Moors alike.” Bernáldez knew “no sight more pitiable.”1

Despite this avowal of compassion, Bernáldez hated Jews. By contumaciously refusing to recognize their Messiah, they had forfeited to Christians their heritage as God’s chosen people. The roles in the book of Exodus were now reversed: the Jews were the “evil, unbelieving idolaters,” and Christians were “the new children of Israel.” Bernáldez hated Jews for their arrogance in claiming God’s special favor. He hated the stink he scented on their breath and in their homes and synagogues, and which he attributed to the use of olive oil in cooking—for, amazing as it seems to anyone familiar with Spanish cooking today, medieval Castilians eschewed olive oil and used lard as their main source of dietary fat. He hated them with hatred born of economic envy, as dwellers “in the best locations in cities and towns and the choicest, richest lands” and as work-shy capitalists who “sought prosperous occupations, so as to get rich with little work,…cunning people, who usually lived off the many extortions and usuries they gained from Christians.” 2

He hated them, above all, for their privileges. Jews were exempt from tithes and, if they lived in their own ghettoes (which by no means all did), were not obliged to pay municipal taxes. They elected the officials of their own communities. They enjoyed their own jurisdiction, and until 1476 they regulated their own business affairs among themselves according to their own laws. Even after that date, lawsuits between Jews were settled outside the common legal system, by judges specially appointed by the crown. The Inquisition—the tribunal everyone else feared—could not touch them unless they were suspected of suborning Christians or committing blasphemy. Because their own customs allowed higher rates of interest than those chargeable under Christian law, they had an advantage in any form of business that involved handling debt. They farmed taxes and occupied positions of profit in royal and seigneurial bureaucracies—though diminishingly so by the late fifteenth century. They lived—in many cases—as tenants and protégés of church, crown, or aristocracy. Most Jews, of course, were poor artisans, small tradesmen, or laborers, but Bernáldez observed what we would now call a trickle-down effect, with the wealthy members of the community supporting the less fortunate. In that respect, Jews were a typical group in medieval society—an “estate” that transcended class, with fellow feeling and a sense of common interest uniting people at different levels of wealth and education in defense of their shared identity and collective privileges.

“Jew” became a term of abuse. Terms of abuse are rarely used literally. Nowadays “fascist” is an insult hurled undiscriminatingly at people who have no resemblance to fascists. “Liberal” is fast becoming a similarly unspecific term in the United States. Few of the people foulmouthed as “motherfuckers” in gangland parlance actually practice incest. Of most of the people denounced as Jews in fifteenth-century Spain, there is no independent evidence to connect them with Jewish ancestry, culture, or beliefs. If the term meant anything, it seems to have meant something like “thinking in an allegedly Jewish way”—which meant, in practice, thinking pharisaically: having, for instance, a literal-minded attitude to the law, or being more concerned with material or legalistic values than with spirituality. Of course, these thought patterns were not genuinely Jewish—you can find them in people of all religions and none—but readers of the letters of St. Paul would recognize them as the sort of thoughts the apostle regarded as un-Christian.

Anti-Semitism is so perversely irrational that it is hard for any clearheaded person to understand. Christians, especially, ought to be immune to its venom, because their religion originated in Judaism and owes much of its doctrine, ritual, and scripture to the Jewish past. Christ, his mother, and all the apostles were Jews. The good that Jews have done the world by way of science, art, literature, and scholarship has been out of all proportion to their numbers. No community of similar size can rival Jews for the blessings they have brought the rest of us. Yet any conspicuous minority—and Jews have always formed conspicuous minorities—seems to ignite prejudice and attract odium. Privileged minorities stoke hatred even more intensively. And though Christianity did not cause anti-Semitism, which was rife in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds before Christ, it provided a new pretext. Mobs regularly plundered Jews when readings in church reminded them that Christ’s co-religionists demanded his crucifixion and cried, “His blood be upon us and on our children!”


Hartmann Schedel, the principal author of the Nuremberg Chronicle, collected Hebrew books, perhaps in the hope of sparing them from the burning he anticipated as a harbinger of the imminent end of the world.
Nuremberg Chronicle.

In a notorious case heard in ávila in 1491, on evidence recorded by hearsay or extracted by torture, Jews and some former Jews were condemned for crucifying a child, with a lot of mocking mummery of Christ’s crucifixion, and eating his heart in a parody of the mass, as well as stealing and blasphemously abusing a consecrated Host for purposes of black magic. The allegedly murdered child—never convincingly named, never produced—probably never existed, but he became the hero of sensationalist literature, the object of a popular cult, and the genius of a shrine that attracts worshippers to ávila to this day. The supposed perpetrators of the crimes were garroted, or dismembered with red-hot pincers, and their grisly remains were burned so as not to pollute the earth. The Inquisition gave the case a huge billing. Much of it was heard in the presence of the Grand Inquisitor himself, and the findings—suitably massaged to conceal the implausibility of most of the charges and the contradictions of most of the testimony—were lavishly publicized. Some of the most learned jurists in Spain endorsed the sentence, despite the outrageous deficiencies of the evidence.

The case revealed three troubling aspects of the deteriorating reputation of Jews in the kingdom. First, public credulousness was an index of how far anti-Semitism had penetrated the culture. Second, the imagery of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and in the Eucharist, despite Christians’ moral debt to Judaism, could easily be twisted into service against Jews. Finally, the trial seems, in retrospect, obviously contrived to serve political ends. By showing Jews and former Jews colluding in ritual murder and black magic, the inquisitors managed to establish in policy makers’ minds a suppositious link between Judaism and Christian apostasy.

For what really worried the partisans of expulsion of the Jews was that, while Jewish communities remained in place, converts from Judaism could not escape the corroding effects of a Jewish environment. In the La Guardia case, the only charge that was proved against one of the alleged conspirators was that

not content with the fact that, for humanity’s sake alone, as our holy faith prescribes, he, together with all other Jews, has the right to consort and converse with faithful Catholic Christians, he seduced certain Christians to his damnable law with false and deceitful preachings and suggestions, as a fautor of heresy, saying and expounding to them that the law of Moses was the only true law, in which they must be saved, and that the law of Jesus Christ was a feigned and dissembled law, never imposed or established by God.3

It was therefore the policy of the Inquisition to insulate society from Jewish influence. It was also a popular cause. The result of free association between Christians and Jews, according to Bernáldez, who was dim enough to be representative of popular prejudices, was that converts from Judaism and their descendants tended to be either “secret Jews” or “neither Jews nor Christians”—“like Muhammad’s beast of burden, neither horse nor mule,” as a tract of 1488 said.4 Rather, they were godless antinomians who withheld their children from baptism, respected no fasts, made no confession, and gave no alms, but lived for gluttony and sexual excess or, in the case of backsliders into Judaism, ate Jewish food and observed Jewish customs.

There was probably some truth in the less sensational of these accusations: in a culturally ambiguous, transgressive setting, people can easily transcend traditions, escape dogma, and create new synergies. Investigations by the Inquisition uncovered many cases of religious indifference or outright skepticism. The late-fifteenth-century convert Alfonso Fernández Semuel asked to be buried with a cross at his feet, a Quran on his breast, and a Torah “high on his head”—as we know from a satire denouncing him for behaving crazily.5 A sophisticated Jewish convert who became a bishop and a royal inquisitor felt that “because converts from Judaism are learned and intelligent, they cannot and will not believe or engage in the nonsense believed and diffused by Gentile converts to Catholicism.” 6 In areas where Jews were relatively numerous, their practices infected culture generally. “You should know,” Bernáldez asserted, “that the habits of the common people, as the Inquisition discovered, were no more nor less than those of the Jews, and were steeped in their stench, and this was the result of the continual contact people had with them.”

Anti-Semitism was part of the background that makes the expulsion of the Jews intelligible, but it was not its cause. Indeed, Iberia tolerated its Jews for longer than other parts of western Europe. England expelled its Jews in 1291, France in 1343, and many states in western Germany followed suit in the early fifteenth century. The big problem of the expulsion is not why it happened, but why it happened when it did. Money grubbing was not the motive. By refusing a bribe to abrogate the decree of expulsion, the monarchs of Castile and Aragon surprised the Jewish leaders who thought the whole policy was simply a ruse to extort cash. The Jews were reliable fiscal milch-cows. By expelling those who worked as tax gatherers, the monarchs imperiled their own revenues. It took five years for returns to recover their former levels. The Ottoman sultan Suleiman I is said to have marveled at the expulsion because it was tantamount to “throwing away wealth.” 7 “We are astonished,” the king wrote in self-vindication to one opponent of the expulsion,

that you should think we want to take the Jews’ possessions for ourselves, for that is very far from our thoughts…. While we want to recover for our court, as is reasonable, all that rightfully belongs to us by way of debts the Jews owe in taxes or other dues owed by their community, once their debts to us and other creditors have been paid, what remains should be returned to the Jews, to each his own, so that they may do as they wish with it.8

The monarchs seem to have been entirely sincere in their determination not to profit from the expulsion: to them, it was a spiritual purgation. Synagogues were seized for conversion into churches, almshouses, and other public institutions, and cemeteries were generally turned over to common grazing; but other Jewish communal property was assigned to be held in escrow for settlement of Jews’ debts, which, in theory, were recoverable by Christian and Jewish creditors alike. Jews could realize the value of their assets in cash and, by a modification of the original decree of expulsion, take the proceeds abroad with them, together with unlimited movable wealth in the form of jewels, bonds, and bills of exchange. This was a remarkable concession, as the laws of the realms of Aragon and Castile were strict about absolutely prohibiting the export of money and valuables. Some exceptions were even granted for the removal of bullion: the leading figure among the expulsees, Isaac Abranavel, was allowed ten thousand ducats in gold and jewels. Probably no more than a dozen individuals in the entire kingdom could lay their hands on that much cash.

In every diocese, the monarchs appointed administrators to look after personal property that Jews left unsold at the expulsion and, when its value could be realized, to pay the proceeds to the expulsees in their new homes abroad, and to recover and remit unpaid debts owed to expelled Jews. Some of these administrators labored for years at the job, with mixed results, and their records show how evil some of the unintended consequences were. Buyers extorted property from desperate expulsees. Municipalities acted illegally in seizing Jews’ assets and used every imaginable form of prevarication to avoid disgorging them. In a buyers’ market, it was impossible to get a fair price for Jewish property. Rapacious officials robbed exiles of cash or extorted unlawful bribes or illegal fees. Debtors to Jewish creditors evaded their obligations. Freighters overcharged. Despite honest efforts by administrators the crown appointed, most wrongs were probably never righted. The entire process was ill thought out, and the monarchs had simply not allowed enough time for all the problems to be solved before the Jews were made to leave.

The real motives for the expulsion, the reasons that can explain its timing, must be sought in the immediate circumstances of the event. In part, an exalted mood of religious fervor was responsible, kindled by war and fanned by fear. The war with Granada demanded a united effort from the monarchs’ subjects. Legend ascribed to the Jews a supporting role in the first Muslim conquests of Iberian soil nearly eight hundred years before. Scouring the past for material, propagandists reawakened old anxieties about where Jewish loyalties lay. In 1483, the monarchs responded to local petitions by permitting the expulsion of all Jews from Andalusia, as if clearing the frontier zone of suspect aliens. As they conquered territory from Granada, the monarchs shifted Jews out of it, piece by piece, as if afraid of nurturing a potentially traitorous fifth column clandestinely undermining stability from within. And as with the conquest of Granada, the threat or promise of the millennium was like a shadow over the Jews. The conversion of the world, according to traditional Christian eschatology, was one of the signs of its approaching end.

The Inquisition contributed. In 1478, the monarchs persuaded the pope to give them control over appointments and operations of the Inquisition in Spain, turning it effectively from an arm of the Church into a scourge of the state. It was the only institution that operated in the territories of both Aragon and Castile without having to respect the frontiers and the peculiarities of the laws. Previously, the Inquisition had been barely active in the Iberian Peninsula, concentrating strictly on matters of dogma and dealing only with serious heresies. It now became a kind of thought police, a terrifyingly omniscient network of tribunals and informers, prying into people’s lives at every social level and extending its jurisdiction from matters of faith to morals and private life. The rather weak theological justification for this was that moral misbehavior was prima facie evidence of incorrect belief, and that personal lives and customs exhibited practitioners’ true religion.

The Inquisition became an organ for policing and enforcing social conformity—a cauldron for brewing a consistent state, into which elements of heterogeneity were flung and boiled to a pulp. Nominally, the organization’s job was to expunge “heretical depravity.” The only common deviations from orthodoxy in Spain were the result of ignorance, poor education, and inadequate catechization by overworked or under-trained clergy. But the widespread conviction that heresy arose mainly from Jewish example, or from the memory of Judaism in the progeny of converts, trumped the truth. The “justice” the Inquisition delivered was attractive to anyone who wanted to denounce a neighbor, a competitor, or an enemy. It was perilous to anyone who was a victim of envy or revenge. And it was cheap. In no other court could you bring charges without incurring costs or risks. Inquisitorial justice was also secretive. In no other court could you bring a charge without disclosing your identity to the accused. Because the courts had the power to sequester the assets of accused people during their trials, the Inquisition had a vested interest in treating denunciations seriously and protracting cases. All of these features made the Inquisition a popular tribunal, to which complainants were keen to recur, and a juggernaut that its own officials could barely manage and no one could control. Rather, as happened in other parts of Europe at the time, where a craze for witchcraft persecution took off, or as we have seen in our own time with the proliferation of cases of alleged child abuse based on supposedly “recovered” memories, the numbers of accusations seemed to corroborate the Inquisitors’ fears. On flimsy evidence, Spain seemed suddenly to be awash with apostasy.

Ferdinand and Isabella took the peril seriously. Because Ferdinand was a hero of Machiavelli’s, who saw him as ruthlessly calculating, dedicated to success, and unconstrained by moral scruples, a myth has grown up of Ferdinand as a modern-minded, secular politician. On the contrary, he was conventionally pious, susceptible to prophecy, and deeply aware of his responsibilities to God. No monarch of the day could escape exposure to traditional ideas of kingship—in their daily education as princes, in the readings their tutors prescribed, and in sermons and in the confessional when in power. One of the most frequently repeated principles of tradition was the ruler’s responsibility for his subjects’ salvation.

Bernáldez, perhaps, highlighted the most urgent reason for the expulsion. The numbers of conversos—Jewish converts to Christianity—were multiplying alarmingly. Minorities are easy to tolerate until their numbers reach a critical threshold, which varies from case to case and society to society, but which always exists and which, when crossed, seems trapped with trip wires that set off terrible alarms. Against the background of war, the growth of a potentially subversive minority nourished widespread neurosis. Spain was in the grip of a Great Fear—irremediable because irrational and therefore impervious to facts, like the equally irrational fear of terrorists and poor immigrants and “rising crime” in Western democracies today. Crown and church should have been pleased with the growing number of converts to Christianity, but fear subverted pleasure. Every convert was a potential apostate or “secret Jew.” The large turnover in conversions suggested that converts were superficially instructed and perhaps in many cases opportunistic. In the circumstances it might have made more sense to expel the converts than the Jews, but that was an unthinkable strategy. There were too many of them. Society could not function without their services. Natural law and the law of the Church protected them, whereas Jews were technically at the mercy of the crown—present on sufferance, dependent on revocable royal grace. The Inquisition, moreover, had jurisdiction over converts and could command their beliefs, whereas the tribunal had no right to interrogate the faith of Jews. Inquisitors believed, therefore, that without Jews to seduce them into heresy or apostasy, converts could be redeemed or coerced into salvation.

So inquisitors lobbied the crown to remove what they thought was the cause of the problem. They issued the decree expelling Jews from Andalusia. Exceeding their lawful powers, they attempted—unsuccessfully, because of local resentment of their high-handed tactics—to launch similar initiatives in other parts of the realm. The Grand Inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada, made the first draft of the decree expelling the Jews from the whole kingdom in March 1492. The document, modified at the royal court, and signed and sealed by the king and queen on the last day of the month, was explicit about the arguments that swayed the monarchs. There is no reason to mistrust its declarations. What the monarchs believed about the Jews may not have been true. But it is true that they believed it. “We were informed,” the decree began, “that in our realms there were some bad Christians who Judaized and apostasized from our holy Catholic faith, and much of the cause of this was the communication between Christians and Jews.” The decree went on to detail the particular instances—most of them verified at hearings before the Inquisition—of

the great damage to the Christians…from the information, contacts, and communication exchanged with the Jews, who, according to the evidence, always seek by whatever means they can to subvert and subtract faithful Christians from our holy Catholic faith and part them from it and attract and pervert them to their accursed faith and opinion, instructing them in the rites and observances of their tradition; convening assemblies where they read out and teach what they must believe and observe according to their tradition; seeking to circumcise them and their sons; giving them books in which to read their prayers and explaining to them the fasts they have to keep, and joining with them to read and teach their versions of their history; keeping them informed in advance of the dates of Passover and advising them of what acts and observances they must perform at that time; giving them, and taking from their houses, the unleavened bread and ritually slaughtered meats; instructing them in what to avoid, both in terms of foodstuffs and other matters their law requires; and persuading them as far as they can to hold and keep the law of Moses and giving them to understand that there is no other law or truth beside it; all of which appears from many statements and confessions both by Jews themselves and those whom they have perverted and deceived.9

The document continued by explaining that the monarchs had hoped to solve the problem by permitting the expulsion of the Jews from Andalusia, where most of the harm had been done. The results, however, had been unsatisfactory, and they had decided to resort to a more radical policy because “the said Jews increase and continue their evil and accursed purpose wherever they dwell in company” with Christians. A scruple, however, arising from considerations of natural justice troubled the monarchs: by expelling all the Jews, they were, in effect, punishing the avowedly innocent along with the allegedly guilty. They dealt with this by arguing that the Jews together formed a single corporation, by analogy with a college or university:

because when any grave or detestable crime is committed by certain members of a college or university, it is right that such college or university be dissolved and abolished and that the lesser members incur the consequences on account of their superiors and vice versa.

Like most hurriedly formulated policies, the expulsion had the opposite of its intended effect: it enormously increased the numbers of insincere, underevangelized, and uncommitted converts. The demographics of the expulsion have generated ferocious and inconclusive debate, but two disarming facts are incontrovertible: There were never very many Jews to expel. And many of them—probably most, including most of the rabbis, according to contemporary assertions by a Jewish observer—preferred baptism to expulsion.10 “Expulsion” seems a misnomer. The event should perhaps rather be called a forcible conversion.

Though no reliable records exist, the consensus of the sources suggests a total Jewish population of at least 150,000 at the time of the expulsion, and perhaps as many as 200,000. There is no warrant in the sources for any significantly higher estimate. Chroniclers’ estimates of the number of expulsees are probably, like almost all other chroniclers’ estimates, inflated by delusion or design. Christian chroniclers who tried to compute figures put the totals at between 100,000 and about 125,000; Jewish chroniclers, who might be pardoned for exaggerating, aired figures of 200,000 or 300,000, which would at least equal and probably exceed all the Jews of the kingdoms. If we allow that large numbers accepted baptism, and others returned to do so after despairing of making a life abroad, it would be rash to assert that the expulsees numbered more than 100,000 and prudent to bear in mind that the real tally may have been much lower. The decree of expulsion created more converts than expulsees.

Most of those who persevered in exile endured harrowing privations or died along the way. The neighboring kingdoms of Navarre and Portugal admitted refugees—but not for long. Diplomatic pressure from Ferdinand and Isabella, combined with the fear and resentment any foreign influx brings, made the rulers of both countries anxious to usher the Jews along their way. A few families bought the right of residence in Portugal, but it proved a poor bargain, abrogated when expulsions of native Jews followed, in Portugal in 1497, as the price of negotiating a dynastic alliance with Castile, and in Navarre in 1512 when Ferdinand conquered and annexed the portions of the kingdom south of the Pyrenees. Refugees who entered Portugal illegally or broke the terms of their visas were liable to be enslaved. Their children were seized and shipped off to the remotest and deadliest destination in the Portuguese world, the island of São Tomé, in the Gulf of Guinea, amid unraveling Portuguese dreams of starting sugar plantations and trading in such mainland treasure as slaves, copper, ivory, and condiments. Almost all the handful of colonists—who even at the end of the decade numbered only fifty—were exiled criminals. The land, the governor reported, was evil, and the colony so penniless that there was no truck to trade with and no food to spare for the Jewish children. They had to be shipped off to the nearby island of Príncipe, “in order to be able to eat.” 11

Some refugees went to Morocco. The Spanish chronicler who recorded their sufferings may have exaggerated, because he wanted to show “what calamities, dishonors, tribulations, pain, and suffering” ensue from unbelief. He also relished an opportunity to catalog Muslim barbarities. But he claimed to have heard the stories he told from returnees relieved to have got back home “to a land of reasonable people.” The list of atrocities is depressing: along the roads “the Moors came and stripped them to their skins, raped the women, murdered the men, and slit their stomachs open, searching for gold in their bellies, because they knew they had swallowed it.” 12

In Morocco, the courtly city of Fez was one of the destinations the Jews most favored. Leo Africanus knew Fez well. He was equivocal about the city. He invited readers to marvel at “how large, how populous, how well-fortified and walled this citie is.” 13 He made a list of its amenities: the sewers that carried all the filth into the river through 150 conduits; the houses finely built and curiously painted, and gaily tiled and roofed with “gold, azure, and other excellent colours,” and the summer houses of the nobility outside the town, each with its “christall-fountain environed with roses and other odoriferous flowers and herbes.” There were more than one hundred baths, and two hundred inns fairer than any buildings in Christendom save the Spanish College in Bologna. There were two hundred schools, seven hundred mosques, and more than two thousand flour mills. The nine hundred lamps in the main mosque were forged from bells captured from Christian churches. But the hospitals were decayed and the colleges impoverished—“and this,” Leo opined, “may be one reason why the government is so base.” The city’s elite was equally degenerate: “If you compare them with the noblemen and gentlemen of Europe, they may seem to be miserable and base fellowes; not for any want or scarcitie of victuals, but for want of good manners and cleanliness.” They sat on the ground to eat and used “neither knives or spoones but only their ten talons…. To tell you the very truth, in all Italie there is no gentleman so meane, which for fine diet and stately furniture excelleth not the greatest potentates and lords of all Africa.” 14

Those who got there suffered “all the curses of the Torah and more”—as one of them, who was ten years old at the time of the expulsion—later recalled.15 They built shanties of straw. A conflagration consumed them, along with all the valuables and many collections of books in Hebrew. But for the survivors, Fez had, at least, the advantages of cosmopolitanism, and a corresponding tolerance of religious diversity and heterodoxy. Vestiges of Christian or pagan ceremonies dappled the culture. Irrespective of their creed, people served pulses at Christmas, and at New Years, Leo Africanus reported, masked children “have fruits given them for singing certaine carols or songs.” Divination and necromancy were rife, though proscribed, as Leo pointed out, by “Mahometan inquisitors.” Jewish learning had a market niche. Cabbalism was especially popular, its practitioners “never found to erre, which causeth their art of Cabala to be had in great admiration: which although it be accounted naturall, yet never saw I any thing that hath more affinitie with supernatural and divine knowledge.” Jews monopolized gold and silver work, forbidden to Muslims because of the usurious profits smiths made on the jewelwork they pawned.16

To judge, however, from the account of Leo Africanus, the effects of the influx of fugitives from Spain were deleterious for the whole community of Jews in Fez. The Jews occupied one long street in the new city, “wherein they have their shops and their synagogues, and their number is marvellously encreased ever since they were driven out of Spaine.” The increase turned them into a minority too big to be welcome. Formerly favored, now victimized, they paid double the tribute traditionally due. “These Iewes,” Leo observed, “are had in great contempt by all men, neither are any of them permitted to wear shooes, but they make them certaine socks of sea-rushes.”

Tlemcen, which, like Fez, already had a large Jewish community, was another destination that looked attractive until the expulsees actually arrived. Leo “never saw a more pleasant place,” but in Tlemcen, as one of the Spanish refugees recalled, the newly arrived Jews roamed “naked,…clinging to the trash-heaps.”17 Thousands of Jews died in a subsequent plague, but enough survived to exacerbate ethnic and religious tension. Though the Jews “in times past” were “all of them exceeding rich,” in riots during the interregnum of 1516 “they were all so robbed and spoiled that they are now brought almost unto beggerie.”18 Alarmed citizens accused them of bringing syphilis: “Many of the Jews who came to Barbary…carried the disease from Spain…. Some unhappy Moors mixed with the Jewish women, and so, little by little, within ten years, one could not find a family untouched by the disease.” At first, sufferers were forced to live with lepers. The cure, according to Leo, was to breathe the air of the Land of the Blacks.19

Some Jews gravitated toward the Atlantic coast of Morocco, where the kingdom of Fez was crumbling at the edges as herdsmen from the Sahara colonized farmland and reduced the wheat production for export, on which the rulers relied for tolls. In the ports of Safi and Azemmour, the power of Fez was barely felt, and control was in the hands of the leaders of pastoral tribes. But there was still enough arable land to grow some wheat, and the tribal big shots collaborated with Spanish and Portuguese efforts to acquire the surplus cheaply—and often got bribes and even Iberian titles of nobility in return. In effect, the region became a joint Spanish-Portuguese condominium, or at least protectorate—a kind of free-port zone, exempt both from the control of the sultans in Fez and from the Church’s rules against trading with infidels.

The Jewish refugees were the perfect middlemen for this trade. Their expulsion from Spain had a dramatic effect on turnover, making the region Portugal’s main source of foreign wheat in the early sixteenth century. They also handled slaves, copper, and iron. The Zamero and Levi families specialized, in addition, in organizing the manufacture of the brightly colored woolen cloth that was prized in the gold-bearing regions south of the desert. In partial consequence, from 1492 or 1493, for the rest of the decade, Safi earned more West African gold than the fort of São Jorge.20

Yet nowhere in the Maghreb, or even in the Sahel itself, could the Jews find perfect peace. The anti-Semitism of the rabid itinerant preacher al-Maghili pursued and harried them all over the Maghreb. In Tuat he inspired pogroms and acts of arson against Jewish homes and synagogues. He turned the Niger Valley into a danger zone after his preaching mission beyond the Sahara in 1498. In Songhay, Askia Muhammad became “a declared enemy of the Jews. He will not allow any to live in the city. If he hears it said that a Berber merchant frequents them or does business with them, he confiscates his goods and puts them in the royal treasury, leaving him scarcely enough money to get home.” 21

For Jews able to escape Spain via ports on the Mediterranean coast, Italy was an alluring destination. There were so many competing jurisdictions in that patchwork peninsula of many states of varying sizes that it was unlikely ever to be uniformly hostile to any group. Jews would always find a refuge somewhere. Sicily and Sardinia were closed: the King of Aragon controlled them and extended the terms of the expulsion from Spain to cover those islands. Naples was a temporary refuge, where most of the Jews, if plague spared them, fled again when Charles VIII of France conquered the city in 1494.

Meanwhile, as one of the exiles from Spain reported, “Italy and all the Levant became filled with…slavers and captives who owed their seamen the cost of their transport.” For many refugees, the best hope was to find a sympathetic Jewish community already in place and throw themselves on the mercy of their hosts. In Candia, in Venetian-ruled Crete, the father of the Jewish chronicler Elijah Capsali encountered “many mercies” and collected 250 florins for the relief of Jewish refugees in 1493. After many adventures, Judah ben Yakob Hayyat—whose travels were travails involving imprisonment in Tlemcen, enslavement in Fez, and surviving plague in Naples—found succor in Venice, where fellow Spaniards took pity on him. He also found a welcome in Mantua, where he died at peace among a well-established and secure Jewish community. For those who remained faithful to their religion, their miseries seemed like a trial of faith—a new sacred history of temptation by God, a new exodus leading to a new Canaan, or a reenactment of the torments of Job.22

Among the most hospitable places were Venice and—ironically, perhaps—Rome. The former city was under the rule of a merchant patriciate, who knew better than to exclude potential wealth creators, while in Rome, the papacy had no reason to fear Jews and every interest in having them available to exploit. Like poor immigrants throughout the ages, Jews there adjusted to the jobs no one else would do. Early in the next century, Francisco Delicado, a convert from Judaism who moved between Rome and Venice, wrote one of the first novels of social realism, La Lozana andaluza (The Andalusian Waif), set in the Jewish and converso demimonde of Rome, where the inmates grubbed inconspicuous lives from brothels and gutters, in a world scarred by syphilis and smeared with filth. Ambiguity, adaptability, and evasion were the only means of survival in this world. It was easy to mistake them for dishonesty. A Roman essayist of the 1530s thought the city’s converts were shifty and lying—like Aesop’s bat, who represented himself as a mouse to a cockerel and as a bird to a cat. Solomon Ibn Verga was one of these mutable creatures. He masqueraded as a Christian in Lisbon and later returned to practice his faith in safety in Rome, where he heard one of his fellow deportees exclaim, after all the sufferings of the journey,

Lord of the Universe! You have done much to make me forsake my religion, so let it be known faithfully, that despite those who dwell in heaven I am a Jew and will remain a Jew. And it makes no difference what you brought down upon me or bring down upon me!23

But many of the exiles gave up, returned to Spain, and submitted to baptism. Andrés de Bernáldez recorded the baptisms of a hundred returnees from Portugal in his own parish at Los Palacios, near Seville. He saw others struggling back from Morocco, “naked, barefoot, and full of fleas, dying of hunger.” 24

The most secure destination for exiled Jews, where their communities and culture found a ready welcome and were able to survive and thrive for centuries to come, was the Ottoman Empire—one of the world’s fastest-expanding states, which covered almost the whole of Anatolia and Greece and much of southeastern Europe. Ottoman rulers had long represented themselves as warriors fighting to defend and strengthen Islam, but they maintained a culturally plural, confession-ally heterogeneous state in which Christians and Jews were tolerated but were subject to discriminatory taxation and burdensome forms of service to the state—the most notorious of which was the annual levy of Christian children, seized from their families, brought up as Muslims, and enslaved as soldiers or servants of the sultan. On the whole, the Ottomans preferred Jewish to Christian subjects: they were unlikely to sympathize with the empire’s enemies. Among the inducements that made Jews settle in Ottoman lands were fiscal privileges, free plots for housing, and freedom to build synagogues—in contrast with Christians, who could use existing churches in land the Ottomans conquered but who were not allowed to add to them.

An environment hospitable to religious exiles was the product of two generations of Ottoman expansion. While most other European states were striving for the kind of strength that emerges from uniform identity, focused allegiance, and cultural unity, the Ottomans embarked on an experiment in empire building among culturally divergent peoples and the construction of unity in diversity. In the thirty years from his accession in 1451, Mehmet II devoted his time as sultan to this project. Before his time, Turks had a reputation as destructive raiders, “like torrential rains,” as one of Mehmet’s generals recalled in his memoirs.

…and everything this water strikes it carries away and, moreover, destroys…. But such sudden downpours do not last long. Thus also Turkish raiders…do not linger long, but wherever they strike they burn, plunder, kill and destroy everything so that for many years the cock will not crow there.25

After Mehmet’s time it was impossible to continue to see Ottoman armies as raiders or Ottoman policies as destructive. Mehmet turned conquest into a constructive force, building the Ottoman state into a culturally flexible, potentially universal empire.

His predecessors had been conscious of a dual heritage: as paladins of Islam, and as heirs of steppeland conquerors with a vocation to rule the world. Without sacrificing those perceptions, Mehmet added a new image of himself as the legatee of ancient Greek civilization and the Roman Empire. He had Italian humanists at his court, who read to him every day from histories of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. He introduced new rules of court etiquette, combining Roman and Persian traditions. In 1453 he conquered Constantinople, where the people still called themselves Romans, and made it his capital. The city was bleak and bare when he conquered it—run down by generations of decline. Mehmet’s declared aim was “to make the city in every way the best supplied and strongest city as it used to be long ago, in power, wealth, and glory.” 26 To repopulate it and restore its glory, Mehmet was lavish with concessions to immigrants:


The port of Constantinople, with all the tourist sites known to the principal illustrators of the Nuremberg Chronicle, Michael Wohlgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff.
Nuremberg Chronicle.

Who among you of all my people that is with me, may his God be with him, let him ascend to Istanbul, the site of my imperial throne. Let him dwell in the best of the land, each beneath his vine and beneath his fig tree, with silver and gold, with wealth and with cattle. Let him dwell in the land, trade in it, and take possession of it.

According to one of the Ottomans’ Jewish subjects, Jews “gathered together from all the cities of Turkey” in response. At that time, rabbis in Mehmet’s pay circulated among Jewish victims of persecution and local expulsions in Germany the fifteenth-century equivalent of promotional brochures. “I was driven out of my native country,” wrote one of them to fellow Jews he had left behind in Germany, “and came to the Turkish land, which is blessed by God and filled with good things. Here I found rest and happiness. Turkey can also become for you the land of peace.” 27 Long before the expulsion from Spain, Jewish networks had identified the Ottoman Empire as a suitable place for business and a safe destination for exiles.

Most of Mehmet’s other conquests were on his empire’s western front, south of the Danube, incorporating an ever-larger Christian subject population. He brought artists from Italy to his court, had himself portrayed in Renaissance style in portraits and medals, learned Greek and Latin, and taught himself the principles of Christianity in order to be able to understand his Christian subjects better. He realized that the key to successful state building lies in turning the conquered into allies or adherents. Oppression rarely works. He won the allegiance of most of the Christians of his empire. Indeed, they supplied many of the recruits to his armies. He opened high office to members of the Greek, Serb, Bulgarian, and Albanian aristocracies, though most of them were converts to Islam. He consciously straddled Europe and Asia. He called himself ruler of Anatolia and Rumelia, sultan and caesar, emperor of Turks and Romans, and master of two seas—the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. He began an intensive program of investment in his navy, and in 1480 a seaborne Turkish force captured the Italian city of Otranto. Mehmet seemed not only to want to invoke the Roman Empire, but to re-create it. The pope prepared to decamp from Rome, calling urgently for a new crusade.

Mehmet’s conquests, however, had been so costly that the empire needed a respite. The state’s great institutional weakness, moreover, was an ill-defined system of succession, which tended to plunge the empire into civil war at every sultan’s death. So when Mehmet died in 1481, a spell of chaos ensued. Otranto was lost, and when the new sultan, Bayezid II, got hold of power, a reaction against Mehmet’s policies set in. Bayezid exercised more caution, restrained the Ottoman war machine, and repudiated his predecessor’s Romanizing policy. He restored to mosques the lands Mehmet had secularized to pay for his wars, and—at least at the level of rhetoric—proclaimed a return to Islamic law as the law of the state. He also reframed war as jihad, though his summons to arms, which shows that booty and land were still the main objectives of Ottoman campaigns, was addressed to “[a]ll who wish to join in the sacred conquest, engage in the pleasure of raiding and jihad, and who desire booty and plunder, and all brave comrades who gain their bread by the sword.” 28


The Temple candelabrum of Jerusalem, reputedly designed by Moses under divine inspiration, symbolized Judaism for the compilers of the Nuremberg Chronicle.
Nuremberg Chronicle.

Bayezid did not, however, depart from all Mehmet’s principles. He saw the expulsion of 1492 as a chance to enrich his own realms and granted Jews unlimited rights to enter and settle. Chroniclers represented this as the result of compassion. Calculation had more to do with it. One of Bayezid’s few recorded jokes was a jibe at the supposed wisdom of the king of Spain, “who impoverishes his country and enriches our own” by expelling Jews.29

At least as significant for the future of the Mediterranean world was Bayezid’s option in favor of his predecessor’s maritime policy. He did not relax the effort to build up the navy; rather, he pursued it with increased vigor. The transformation of the Ottoman Empire into a great maritime power was one of the most astonishing episodes in the history of the Mediterranean. No landlubbers had taken to the sea so rapidly or successfully since Rome defeated Carthage. The Turkish vocation for the sea did not spring suddenly and fully armed into existence. From the early fourteenth century, Turkish chiefs maintained pirate nests on the Levantine shores of the Mediterranean. Some allegedly had hundreds of vessels at their command. The greater the extent of coastline the Ottomans conquered, as their land forces stole west, the greater the opportunities for Turkish-operated corsairs to stay at sea, with access to watering stations and supplies from onshore. Throughout the fourteenth century, however, these were unambitious enterprises, limited to small ships and hit-and-run tactics.

From the 1390s, the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I began to build up a permanent fleet of his own, but without embracing a radically different strategy from that of the independent operators who preceded him. But the winds and currents of the Mediterranean favor warships joining battle from the north or west, because they tend to have the wind in their sails. So the Christian powers that lined those shores generally got the better of adversaries from Islam. Venice, Genoa, and the Spanish states established a sort of armed equilibrium—a surface tension that covered the sea and that the Turks could not break. Set-piece battles usually occurred in spite of Turkish intentions and resulted in Turkish defeats. As late as 1466, a Venetian merchant in Constantinople claimed that for a successful engagement Turkish ships needed to outnumber Venetians by four or five to one. By that date, however, Ottoman investment in naval strength was probably higher than that of any Christian state. The far-seeing sultan Mehmet II realized that the momentum of conquests by land had to be supported—if it was to continue—by power at sea.

Bayezid II hoped, at first, to remain focused on investment in a large army, and to rely on an understanding with Venice to keep the empire secure in the Mediterranean. But the Venetians proved unreliable and, in particular, unwilling to place their ports at Ottoman disposal. Even if the empire’s expansionist ambitions lay dormant for a while, there were still pirates to deal with and commerce to protect. So Bayezid ordered ships “agile as sea serpents,” impressing Christian technicians to help build them. The shadow of a pretender inhibited him. His brother, Djem, whom he had defeated in a contest for the throne, had taken refuge, first with the Mamluks of Egypt, then with the Christians of the West. The Mamluk frontier was hard to hold. On the European front, ferocious campaigns in 1491 and 1492 led to defeat in Austria, though Bayezid strengthened his hold on the western shore of the Black Sea. With Djem out of the way, however, Bayezid’s ambitions were loosed. When his chief rival for the throne died in 1495, he felt secure enough to challenge Venice’s maritime supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. In the war of 1499–1502, the effects were dramatic. Bayezid sent three hundred ships against the Venetians in the first year. By the end of the war, his fleet of four hundred vessels included two hundred galleys mounted with heavy guns. No other Mediterranean power could match this might. Venice was humbled, and the Ottomans were elevated to something like superpower status—commanding force greater than that of any conceivable alliance of the empire’s enemies. In the new century, Egypt and most of the North African coast as far as Morocco fell under Ottoman dominion.

While the Ottomans took command of the eastern Mediterranean, Spain ascended to something approaching similar control in the western half of the same sea. Once the kingdoms began to recover from the self-inflicted damage of the expulsion of the Jews, the united power of Castile, Aragon, and Granada was insuperable. King Ferdinand had inherited Sicily, Corsica, the Balearic Islands, and Sardinia along with his lands on Spain’s eastern shore, as well as a claim to the throne of Naples, which he enforced by conquest early in the new century. The Spanish crown added substantial territories in northern Italy not long after and had acquired Melilla on the North African coast in 1497—though Spain’s many other attempts at conquests in the same region rarely succeeded and never lasted long.

So in the aftermath of 1492, and partly as a result of the events of that year, battle lines were drawn in the Mediterranean for the next century. If neither of the giant powers that faced each other across that sea ever established overall supremacy, it was in part because sailing conditions in the Mediterranean naturally divided it in two halves. The Strait of Messina and the sea around Sicily is like a stopper, corked by the racing current and hazardous whirlpools against shipping in both directions. Though navigable in times of peace, the confluence of the two halves of the Mediterranean is easily policed. Because of the winds and currents, the Turks, despite the numerical superiority of their fleets, remained at a permanent disadvantage. The consequence of the stalemate between Spain and Turkey was that the unity of the Mediterranean world, of which Greek and Phoenician navigators laid the foundations in antiquity, and which the Roman Empire achieved, was never reestablished. The shores of the sea have similar climates and ecosystems and many elements of common culture. But they have remained divided, with Islam confined to the south shore and patches of the eastern Mediterranean, while the northern and western ends of the ocean have remained in Christendom. The sea that was once the “middle sea” of Western civilization became and remained a frontier.

In one further, supremely important way, nature always constrained the Ottomans’ naval effort, however much time and investment they put into it. Just as the Strait of Messina squeezed access to the western Mediterranean, so the Turks’ approach to the Indian Ocean got trapped in the narrows of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, from where easily policed straits guard the way eastward. After 1492, as we shall see, when Europeans began exploring the ocean highways that led them across the Atlantic and on to the wind systems of the world, the disadvantages for Turks would become painfully obvious and ultimately insuperable.

From every rational point of view, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain seems to have been a foolish and disastrous policy. The assumptions on which it was based were false. The evidence cited in its favor was faulty. The arguments used to justify it were unconvincing. The material cost to the Spanish kingdoms in wasted wealth and talent was incalculable. Instead of solving the problem of converso inconstancy, it worsened it by increasing the numbers of insincere or imperfectly instructed converts. In part, however, it has to be understood as a successful episode in a much longer and bigger story: the consolidation and homogenization of European states. Measures against other communities regarded as foreign were common in the period, both in Spain and throughout Europe. Though the Spanish monarchs did not expel any other groups from the whole of their territories, they did subject foreign communities to arbitrary forms of discrimination, sometimes confiscating property and taking a fairly searching attitude to requests for naturalization.

Ferdinand and Isabella, like other monarchs of their day and later, wanted subjects with increasingly uniform notions of themselves and uncompromised allegiance to a common identity. They did not want—and probably could not envisage—a politically unified state. Their realms’ long, divergent histories and contrasting institutions defined and distinguished Aragon and Castile. When Ferdinand and Isabella called themselves “King and Queen of Spain,” they did not mean to erect a new superstate, but to inaugurate a period of close partnership between what would remain distinct countries. But they did want those countries to have consistent cultures and a common creed. In one respect, for Spain, the effect of their policy toward Jews was positive. Spain derived a kind of bonus, in the form of the talents of former Jews who opted for baptism. The numbers of the converts exceeded those of the expelled. So much talent, so much potential had formerly enriched the Jewish community. Now, by effectively compelling conversions, the monarchs garnered that talent, forcing former Jews into the mainstream of Spanish life. Scholars have a tendency to seek converso origins for almost anyone of importance in Spanish culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; but the scale of the achievements of former Jews and their descendants in letters, learning, science, and the arts was formidable—out of all proportion to their numbers. Converted Jews were the alchemical ingredient that made Spain’s golden age.

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