In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conversos and Crypto-Judaism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collected Essays
  • Primary Sources
  • Origins of the Converso Problem
  • The Challenge of Assimilation into Iberian Societies
  • Conversos and Inquisition
  • Converso Beliefs, Practices, and Identity
  • The Converso Diaspora in Europe
  • The Converso Diaspora in the Atlantic World
  • Important Converso Individuals and Case Studies
  • Crypto-Jews in the Modern World

Renaissance and Reformation Conversos and Crypto-Judaism
Gretchen Starr-Lebeau
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0190


Conversos are converts from Judaism to Christianity and their descendants. Other terms include tornizados, New Christians, and marranos. The first three terms are neutral, suggesting conversion. The latter term is of uncertain origin and pejorative. It is used today especially by French-speaking scholars. The term “converso” came into use after a wave of forced conversions (and voluntary conversions) in Aragon and Castile, beginning in 1391. These conversions differed from earlier ones because of their broad scale, and because these converts were not easily assimilated into Christian society. By 1449, the city of Toledo had instituted so-called purity of blood laws (limpieza de sangre) to limit the ability of converts and their descendants to participate fully in Christian life. A debate also emerged around that time about the extent to which conversos were attempting to live as Christians. The Spanish Inquisition was established initially to combat what scholars call “crypto-Judaism,” that is, the continued secret practice of Judaism in some degree after conversion to Christianity. The existence and extent of crypto-Judaism remains a contentious topic. A general scholarly consensus acknowledges the existence of some crypto-Jewish practices among conversos in much of Iberia in the 15th century but also emphasizes the variability, fluidity, and mutability of individuals’ religious beliefs. Meanwhile, the situation for conversos changed in the 1490s. In 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand ordered the expulsion of all Jews from their united territories of Spain. Many converted so that they could remain, while others fled to Portugal or elsewhere in the Mediterranean. By the mid-1520s, crypto-Judaism in Spain seems largely to have died out. Ferdinand and Isabella also put pressure on Portugal to expel its Jewish population (which now included refugee Spanish Jews). King Manuel promised a mass expulsion from Lisbon in 1497, but instead organized a mass conversion on the docks. He also guaranteed new converts a generation without inquisitorial scrutiny. Portuguese conversos, free from both the Inquisition and catechism in Christianity, and caught in a corporate social system that identified them as conversos, maintained a sense of themselves as Jewish, which often included crypto-Judaism. These conversos, members of the “nation” (nação), spread across Iberia, the Mediterranean, Europe, the Atlantic, and Asia. Some were devoted Christians, others traveled to cities in Italy and the Low Countries and became “New Jews,” and still others led a religious life that included elements of both Christianity and Judaism, possibly to the present day.

General Overviews

Scholarly overviews of the subject of conversos and crypto-Jews have taken several approaches. One of the earliest and best general studies of conversos is Roth 1992, first published in 1932. Its optimistic and heroic tone seemed less appropriate to the author when he wrote a preface to a revised edition after World War II. The authors of Révah 1959–1960 and Saraiva 2001 engaged in a bitter debate in a newspaper in Portugal in the early 1970s over the nature of conversos and the Portuguese Inquisition. Saraiva took a Marxist approach to the institution, arguing that religion merely masked the Inquisition’s economic goals. Révah argued in contrast for the fundamentally Jewish nature of conversos, albeit a Judaism that was not normative. Alpert 2001 is a survey focusing on crypto-Jews’ encounters with the Inquisition in Spain, while Melammed 2004 more successfully attempts an overall survey of the converso experience, aimed at undergraduates or beginners to the field. But the best more recent survey is Pulido Serrano 2003; the author brings to the task a familiarity with many of the sources, a methodological sophistication, and the tendency of recent scholarship to contextualize converso experiences in the political, corporate, and religious culture of early modern Iberia. The weakness of Pulido Serrano is that it is limited to the Iberian peninsula.

  • Alpert, Michael. Cryptojudaism and the Spanish Inquisition. Basingstoke, NY: Palgrave, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780333985267

    A superficial survey of converso and crypto-Jewish life in Spain; although it is weak on some details, it addresses the understudied 18th century.

  • Melammed, Renée Levine. A Question of Identity: Iberian Conversos in Historical Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1093/0195170717.001.0001

    Stretches from the initial wave of conversion and emigration in the 15th century, through the expulsions of the 1490s and early modern diaspora, up to the re-emergence of the phenomenon in the 20th century. Though it omits the Ottoman Empire and (more unfortunately) the Americas, it is an excellent starting point for undergraduates, given the author’s command of the secondary literature and the judicious presentation.

  • Pulido Serrano, Juan Ignacio. Los conversos en España y Portugal. Madrid: Arco/Libros, 2003.

    Brief (about 80 pages) but a particularly lucid and compelling overview of the history of conversos in the Iberian peninsula, emphasizing that hostility to conversos was not racial or even necessarily religious, but part of a larger array of complex economic, cultural, and political rivalries that divided early modern Iberian society.

  • Révah, Israel Salvator. “Les Marranes.” Revue des Études Juives 118–119 (1959–1960): 29–77.

    A pathbreaking article by a significant historian of conversos, describing conversos in religious terms as practicing a “potential Judaism.”

  • Roth, Cecil. A History of the Marranos. 5th ed. New York: Sepher-Hermon, 1992.

    A classic account of conversos, first published in 1932. It subscribes to a romanticized, heroic vision of crypto-Jews maintaining their beliefs in difficult circumstances. Not the best source on the Inquisition, and superseded in many respects, but it remains an engaging, readable introduction to the field.

  • Saraiva, António José. The Marrano Factory: The Portuguese Inquisition and Its New Christians, 1536–1765. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2001.

    Most recent edition and translation of Saraiva, notable for the author’s contention that the Portuguese Inquisition fabricated Judaizers rather than identifying them; he argues that the purpose of the Portuguese Holy Office was financial (taking the savings of a mercantile group labeled Jewish) rather than religious. Not widely accepted by scholars.

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