Many Muslims and Jews converted to Christianity in medieval Spain and Portugal to avoid the dangerous wrath of the Inquisition. But Christian converts – called New Christians or conversos – tragically discovered that being baptised was no guarantee of saving their lives.
The southern half of the Iberian peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal) had been under Muslim rule for over 500 years. There had been a large Jewish presence across the peninsula since the Roman Empire. But gradually, crusader armies – with the Knights Templar in the vanguard – swept down and by 1492 – all of the peninsula was under Christian control.
In the same way – hundreds of years before – many Christians had opportunistically converted to Islam, now the flow went in the opposite direction. Threatened with being burnt at the stake as a heretic if they refused, Muslims and Jews either fled abroad or quietly converted. But being a Christian convert still left you under the suspicious gaze of both the Inquisition and your neighbours.
Christian converts killed in a grim massacre
In Lisbon last year, I chanced upon a grim memorial in the Portuguese capital. Outside a church called São Domingos is a plaque with a star of David. It’s a reminder of a massacre of Jewish people that broke out at Easter in 1506. Below are images of the memorial and the nearby church which played a very important role in the story.
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A plague was ravaging Lisbon. The King and the court had left the city. People prayed frantically for salvation from the pandemic. And suddenly, a man in the São Domingos church claimed to have seen the face of Jesus flickering on an altar rail. But a doctor praying nearby scoffed. That was just a reflection of the candle, he said. A trick of the light.
Unfortunately, the sceptic was a Christian convert from Judaism. The mood among the congregation was so ugly and visceral that they beat the convert to death. But worse was to come. The church was under the control of the Dominican friars – an order set up in the 13th century to spearhead the Catholic Inquisition. Their first target had been the Cathar heretics in France.
Now they offered the people of Lisbon a dreadful promise – if they killed hundreds of Jews during the Easter period, their sins would be absolved. The mob killed all the Christian converts in the church and then moved to the streets outside. Joined by sailors from the port, they massacred an estimated one to four thousand Jewish residents of Lisbon.
Christian converts hated by all sides
From the year 711 AD into the 1200s, Muslim emirs had ruled the richest parts of Spain and Portugal. By the 11th century, it’s thought by some historians that the majority of people on the Iberian peninsula may have been Muslim or at least passively converted. Anything to get on in the world!
The Jews of Spain and Portugal had been a very visible presence in cities like Toledo, Cordoba and Seville. They often played the role of broker between Christian and Muslim forces on the peninsula. But by the 15th century, they found themselves fleeing the Spanish Inquisition into Portugal – where they thought their safety was assured. Some became Christian converts. And they were hated by many of their fellow Jews for giving in to pressure.
But conversion was no guarantee of avoiding the mob’s wrath. As the 1506 Lisbon massacre and countless other incidents showed, the Inquisition would not be so easily convinced.