Renaissance and Reformation Purity of Blood
Robert A. Maryks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0101


Purity of blood (pureza [limpieza] de sangre) was an obsessive concern that originated in mid-15th-century Spain, on the basis of the biased belief that the unfaithfulness of the “deicide Jews,” (god-killing Jews) not only had endured in those who converted to Catholicism but also had been transmitted by blood to their descendants, regardless of their sincerity in professing the Christian faith. Consequently, Old Christians “of pure blood” considered New Christians impure and therefore morally inadequate to be members of their communities. This judgment was primarily applied to the politically and economically influential group of Iberian conversos (Catholics of Jewish origins) but was extended also to moriscos (Catholics of Muslim lineage) and consequently to the natives and slaves in the colonial contexts. As a result, various civil and ecclesiastical institutions and communities issued discriminatory and segregation laws (known as estatutos, or statutes) against them. These statutes were often employed with more rigidity than certain canonically sanctioned impediments for descendants of Protestant heretics. A heated discussion over their implementation that subsequently spurred left an abundant written track that has been studied in a growing number of scholarly works.

General Overviews

Even though we are still missing a comprehensive monograph discussing the concept of purity of blood and its application in various European and colonial contexts in a fully comparative fashion, the following titles provide a quite ample picture of recent studies in the field. Sicroff 1960 (originally in French but translated into Spanish) is a classic to start with. Hering Torres 2011 (in German) complements the latter. The most recent studies are represented in Carrasco, et al. 2011 (in French and Spanish) and in Martínez, et al. 2012 (in English). Yerushalmi 1982 and Kamen 1996 testify to the ongoing discussion that followed the publication of Sicroff 1960 and that is present in almost all other studies cited here on the degree of pervasiveness of the blood mentality in Iberian societies and their link to modern anti-Semitism. Friedman 1987 is an attempt to revise the traditional understanding of Luther’s anti-Semitism, and Kaplan 2012 is an example of a scholarship that studies the impact of the concept of purity of blood on Spain during the process of its nation-state building.

  • Carrasco, Raphaël, Annie Molinié, and Béatrice Perez, eds. La pureté de sang en Espagne: Du lignage à la “race.” Paris: Presse Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2011.

    Collection of essays in French and Spanish on purity-of-blood laws in early modern Spain. Contributions discuss the role of blood, lineage, and nobility in the French and Spanish imagination, including the colonial contexts.

  • Friedman, Jerome. “Jewish Conversion, the Spanish Pure Blood Laws and Reformation: A Revisionist View of Racial and Religious Antisemitism.” Sixteenth Century Journal 18.1 (Spring 1987): 3–30.

    DOI: 10.2307/2540627

    Argues how the 16th-century transition from medieval anti-Judaism into a racial anti-Semitism laid the foundation for the modern hatred of Jews, including that of Luther, which was rooted in the resentment of the “Jewish contamination” that the conversos allegedly spread in the Church. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hering Torres, Max-Sebastián. Rassismus in der Vormoderne: Die “Reinheit des Blutes” im Spanien der Frühen Neuzeit. Frankfurt: Campus, 2011.

    Based on the author’s dissertation, traces the origins and the expansion of the principle of purity of blood in early modern Spain from 1391 to 1674 and discusses the bibliography on the topic. Argues that the Spanish concept of the purity of blood was a form of racial anti-Judaism and was not an antecedent of modern anti-Semitism.

  • Kamen, Henry. “Limpieza and the Ghost of Américo Castro: Racism as a Tool of Literary Analysis.” Hispanic Review 64.1 (1996): 19–26.

    DOI: 10.2307/475036

    Challenges as erroneous and unreliable the analysis of Golden-Age Spain by Castro and his followers, who argued that the cult of purity of blood, which Castro associated with the Inquisition, had a negative influence on the intellectual life of the Spanish nation. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Kaplan, Gregory B. “The Inception of Limpieza de Sangre (Purity of Blood) and Its Impact in Medieval and Golden Age Spain.” In Marginal Voices: Studies in Converso Literature of Medieval and Golden Age Spain. Edited by Amy Aronson-Friedman and Gregory B. Kaplan, 19–41. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2012.

    Pointing out some precedents in Visigothic legislation, argues that the conception of purity of blood, which gained momentum in the mid-1450s, cast a suspicion on conversos, but it became the foundation of an obsession that extended upward through Spanish society.

  • Martínez, María E., David Nirenberg, and Max-Sebastián Torres Hering. Race and Blood in the Iberian World. Zürich, Switzerland: Lit, 2012.

    Collection of essays addressing the topics of race and blood in the Spanish Atlantic world (and in Portuguese India), and asking whether it is historically appropriate to apply the concept of race to early modern Spanish and Spanish American contexts.

  • Sicroff, Albert A. Les controverses des status de “pureté de sang” en Espagne du XVe au XVIIe siècle. Paris: Didier, 1960.

    First comprehensive treatment of the origins of the purity-of-blood statutes and their application in Spain from the 15th through the 17th centuries. Argues how the blood mentality became an obsession and a stigma of the Spanish nation.

  • Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Assimilation and Racial Anti-Semitism: The Iberian and the German Models. Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture, 26. New York: Leo Baeck Institute, 1982.

    Arguing that the traditional mistrust of the Jew as outsider gave way to an even more alarming fear of the converso as insider, this brief yet influential lecture draws a connection between the racial laws in early modern Spain and in modern Germany.

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