on July 22, 2020
eBook Sefarditas

Who are Sephardic Jews and New Christians

on July 22, 2020

Because of the Law No. 1/2013 It's from Decree-Law 30-A / 2015, which grant Portuguese citizenship to the descendants of Jews persecuted by the Portuguese Inquisition, some terms have gained repercussion, among which “new Christians" and "Sephardic”. But do they have the same meaning or have nothing to do with each other? Let's clarify.


Thus was known the Jewish people who would have occupied the Iberian peninsula since the period before the Roman Empire. It is true that there are scholars who claim that there is evidence that these people settled in the region during the Phoenician navigations. However, there is only material evidence of its presence in the Roman period.

At that time, the Hebrews called the peninsula Sefarad, hence they are called Sephardic. Cultural exchanges between the diverse peoples that inhabited the region gave rise to Ladino, a language still used today by some Sephardic groups.

Despite living in the region for centuries, having established, prospered and even held high positions in the newly created Iberian monarchies, at the end of the Middle Ages the Sephardic people began to be the target of persecution. The performance in these public offices, especially linked to the collection of taxes, would have been the main motivation for both the nobility and the local landowners and part of the clergy to start defamatory campaigns against these people, culminating in the resurgence of the Court of the Holy Inquisition in Spain and Portugal.


New Christians

The Inquisition began in Spain, when the Catholic kings D. Isabel and D. Fernando established, on March 31, 1492, that local Jews should convert to Catholicism or be expelled within four months. Some decided to convert, becoming known as “new Christians”.

With the expiry of the term, more than 100,000 Spanish Jews entered Portugal with the permission of King D. João II, who viewed it as positive to have qualified labor and, above all, to be able to collect taxes from them. These refugees they were able to settle in Portuguese lands where they were initially tolerated, but regarded with some suspicion even by the local Jews, who had enormous wealth and power at court.

In this context, during the reign of D. Manuel I - crowned due to the death of his brother-in-law D. João II - the instabilities caused by social tensions and the pressure from supporters of a religious unit in the kingdom were decisive for the monarch to yield to the demand made by the Spanish kings Fernando and Isabel. In exchange for the matrimonial alliance between their widowed daughter and the Portuguese king, the Catholic kings demanded the expulsion of the Sephardim from Portuguese territory.

The wedding took place in November 1496 and, already in the following month, the Portuguese king ordered the expulsion of the Jews, who, if they did not leave Portugal, would be executed and their property confiscated. He went back to being alerted by his advice that there would be a great capital flight from Portugal with the measure, which ended up being changed to mandatory conversion to Catholicism. After much physical and symbolic violence, thousands of Jews spread throughout the world, drastically reducing the practice of religion in Portugal, except for the practice of cryptic (hidden) Judaism.

It is worth noting that not only Jews, but also Muslims who still lived on the Iberian peninsula were forced to convert to Catholicism. In this way, “new Christians” are people of any origin who have converted to Catholicism.

This mandatory conversion would even be the origin of the term “marrano”, Used disparagingly by the Portuguese in relation to new Christians. The term would have two probable origins: the first says that it would be an old Spanish or Portuguese word from the beginning of the Middle Ages and would mean pig. Even today, in Alentejo, people refer to a young sow as a “gilt”. Another theory points out that the term is a corruption of the Hebrew expression “anuss sea”, Which means“ man converted by force ”.