St Vicente Ferrer and the AntiSemitism of Fifteenth Century Spain

St Vicente Ferrer (13501419) was a Dominican preacher (Orden de Predicadores) from Valencia Spain who played a critical role during the events of the late 1300’s and early 1400’s that led to the forced conversions of thousands of Jews and the massacres of others When Ferrer was forty years old he launched a campaign against Judaism with the purpose of eliminating it from Spain and over the next three decades he came close to achieving it He was canonized because he was an eloquent preacher who stirred Christians to dedicate themselves to their faith and because he was credited as the best evangelist of the age in Spain being responsible for thousands of conversions On the other hand Ferrer’s preaching was antiSemitic and it engendered violent emotions that turned his followers into mobs that invaded Jewish neighborhoods assaulting Jews destroying property and even killing people An integral element to his success as an evangelist was the intimidation created by the gang behavior of his followers

Ferrer’s first campaign against Jews came in 1390 when he was caught up in the wave of antiSemitic movements that were sweeping Spain at the time That year he went on an evangelizing mission to Castile accompanied by Cardinal Pedro de Luna who was later elected Pope Benedict XIII The two of them were to lead the antiSemitic forces in Spain over the next three decades each reenforcing the other Ferrer’s incendiary preaching against the Jews and Judaism in this crusade through Castile was a part of the environment of odium that led to the 1391 assaults on Jewish communities in which thousands of Jews were killed the worst pogroms ever in Christian Spain In some cities the entire Jewish population was either killed forced to convert or fled the city completely eliminating the Jewish presence This experience seems to have honed Ferrer’s vision that it was in fact possible to eradicate Judaism in Spain

During the 1390’s and early 1400’s Ferrer was credited with the conversion of many Jews including some who were outstanding leaders in their communities Å elomo haLevi was one of these leaders the respected rabbi of Burgos who converted along with several other members of his extended family He took the baptismal name of Pablo de Santa Mará­a and in later years went on to become the Chancellor of the government of Castile He remained an ally of Ferrer and when he was Chancellor they collaborated in formulating the restrictive laws on Jewish communities Ferrer was also credited with the conversion of Å emuel Abrabanel one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Seville The conversion of important figures like these caused a crisis among Spanish Jews weakening the faith of their followers and leading to further conversions

Many of these converts known as anusim or “the forced ones” took on Christianity simply as a protective shield to fend off the threats to their lives livelihoods and families; however some went further and even joined the antiSemitic forces themselves Ferrer had established his credentials as an evangelist but he had done so in the environment of violent antiJewish pogroms In the early 1400s he began elaborating a plan to crush the aljamas or Jewish communities that had survived the genocidal attacks of 1391 His plan was to ghettoize Jews and remove them completely from contact with Christians

In 1406 Ferrer was in Castile advocating his plan against the Jews with Queen Catalina and Fernando de Antequera who was assisting her Eventually his ideas along with those of other antiSemitic leaders were enacted into a set of laws between 1408 and 1412 that essentially destroyed the Jewish way of life These laws culminated in the Ordinances of Valladolid promulgated in 1412 which raised antiSemitic restrictions to a new height The limited political autonomy that the aljamas had experienced in the fourteenth century was revoked meaning that Jews could no longer judge themselves nor make decisions about the preservation of their communities Jews were no longer allowed to work in governmental or judicial offices of Castile nor provide services to Christians as doctors pharmacists surgeons barbers blacksmiths carpenters tailors shoemakers butchers leather workers or other occupations This was a major blow to livelihood because the educated elite frequently worked in the administrative financial and judicial branches of government and the commoners worked in the crafts At this time Jews constituted approximately ten percent of the population of Spain and these laws prohibited them from working with the ninety percent of Christians Limited to working only within the Jewish neighborhoods they were stripped of the possibility of economic success These laws would reduce Jews to poverty demeaning their status in the society

Ferrer’s plan forced Jews to move out of their houses in the towns where they would have contact with Christians and move into isolated ghetto barrios on the edge of town so Christians would be insulated from them Ferrer’s idea of quarantining the Jews was designed to eliminate or minimize friendship intermarriage or other social contexts through which their “infidel” beliefs or influences might affect Christians especially new Christians the anusim Making Jews a socially isolated group also meant there would be less empathy with them as a people laying the basis for more restrictive legislation in the future He successfully urged Queen Catalina to order this separation of Jews from the Christians in the Kingdom of Castile and subsequently Jews were forcibly moved to the new “barrios” This was frequently done even though there were no houses or even basic services Ferrer’s plan set the Jews apart as exile communities within their own towns a situation that anticipated the Expulsion

In subsequent years Jewish ghettos were set up throughout Castile Aragón and other kingdoms and Jews lived as a separate people in Spain from that time until the final Expulsion They could no longer dress in fine attire and were limited to the most modest clothes of the poor Men were required to grow their beards and hair long in traditional Jewish fashion and no one could use Christian names Jews could not hire Christians to work for them nor attend Christian weddings or funerals nor bring arms into town Jews were prohibited from moving to any other kingdom where these rules were not in effect They were specifically denied the right to travel to North Africa where Jewish communities were thriving under Islam because of the fear that they would be forever lost as candidates for conversion to Christianity These restrictive measures devastated the economies of the Jewish communities and severely affected the overall economy of Castile to the extent that some measures were later scaled back

In 1410 Ferrer intervened to have of Fernando de Antequera elected as king of Aragón and traveled with him to his new kingdom to oversee the implementation of the antiSemitic laws there By 1412 the laws had been enacted and it was recorded that they were so intimidating to the Aragonese Jews that they were afraid to walk in the streets of the capital Zaragoza King Fernando I sought to calm the hostile passions that were aroused among the Aragonese Christians with another edict which ordered them to treat Jews benignly according as they traditionally had done He also ordered that if Vicente Ferrer said anything against the protection of the Jews in his sermons that it should be reported to him the King In spite of enacting these restrictive laws the King was still protecting the Jewish communities against the Church Royal protection of the Jewish community was frequently all that kept them alive and it occurred repeatedly throughout the kingdoms of Spain However the pressure of Ferrer and the antiSemitic forces would soon eclipse this royal defense of the Jews

During 1411 and 1412 Ferrer traveled throughout Castile and Aragón in evangelistic crusades As usual he attracted large crowds with his eloquent preaching and his messages focused on the need of Christians to purify their faith and to eliminate the unchristian influence of the Jews Although he is on record saying that he was against forced conversions and bloodshed he had to make those clarifications because the results of his preaching spoke otherwise After his sermons the Christian mobs repeatedly attacked the Jews robbing them and physically beating them Many were killed He attracted bands of flagellants who whipping themselves into religious frenzies with chains forced their way into Jewish neighborhoods threatening the local Jews if they did not convert Christian sources blamed these attacks on criminal elements who took advantage of these disturbances to sack the Jewish quarters However backed up by these throngs Ferrer obligated Jews to listen to his sermons denouncing their religious traditions and labeling them as a threat to Christianity In some towns Ferrer entered synagogues and forcefully converted the buildings into Christian churches One such synagogue was in Toledo later renamed Santa Mará­a la Blanca which is still owned by the Church Many others that were forcefully converted to churches at that time still exist as churches today

In Aragón Ferrer joined forces with his old friend Pedro de Luna who was now Pope Benedict XIII having been elected by the Avignon court during the schism with Rome The Pope had established his court in the Aragonese kingdom and was living there The Pope’s personal doctor was a Jewish physician Yosuha Lorquá­ who was well respected in the kingdom Lorquá­ already had doubts about his faith and Ferrer was able to persuade him to become a Christian After which he assumed a new Christian name as Geronimo of Santa Fe Ferrer stayed near the papal court and as in 1390 the collaboration between Ferrer and de Luna soon led to a confrontation with Jews In 1413 the Pope ordered the aljamas of Aragón and Cataluña to send two to four of their rabbis to the papal court at Tortosa to receive instruction in Christian beliefs With the collaboration of Geronimo de Santa Fe he set up the famous Debate or Disputation in Tortosa between Christians and Jews on the doctrine of the Messiah Geronimo the new convert led the debate on the Christian side using his detailed knowledge of the Talmud and Midrash to argue against Jewish beliefs In Tortosa the rabbis were not allowed to leave and the debate continued for months Pressure was brought on the rabbis and followers to convert and some did Eventually the debate ended and the Christian forces claimed they had won Taking advantage of that moment Pope Benedict XIII decided to push for the conversion of all of the Jews of Aragón

King Fernando I chose to avoid confrontation with the Pope and took a neutral stance on the issue since he had been named king largely through the influence of Ferrer Although the kings had historically defended the rights of Jews now they were largely coopted by the Church The Jewish communities of Castile Aragón and Cataluña were powerless at this point without the protection of the monarchs largely as a result of the influence of Ferrer and the Pope Jews were marginalized by the new antiSemitic laws and the Debate of Tortosa sealed their fate as an outcast community While the rabbis were sequestered for the long debate Ferrer traveled from town to town preaching against the Jews In 1415 Pope Benedict XIII issued a papal bull prohibiting the reading and teaching of the Talmud All copies of the Talmud were to be confiscated and taken to the diocese of each town and all other Jewish books were prohibited Only one synagogue was permitted per town and synagogues could not be expanded or repaired Vicente Ferrer and Pope Benedict XIII shared the common goal of eradicating Judaism in Aragón and Castile and they were on the verge of achieving it

When all seemed lost there was a reprieve for the Jewish communities In 1416 the authority of Pope Benedict XIII was revoked and in the same year King Fernando I died With those two out of authority Ferrer lost his political influence and his projection as preacher and religious activist declined Three years later in 1419 Ferrer died in the town of Vannes France on a trip to evangelize Celtic descent Bretons whom he thought to be slack in their practice of Christianity and the antiSemitic forces lost their most persuasive preacher Ferrer was eventually canonized by the Church and credited for the conversion of 15000 Jews to Christianity Others say that he may have caused as many as 25000 conversions during his decades of preaching and he is almost definitely responsible for more forced conversions than any other single individual in Spain Later a church in Vannes was named after St Vicente Ferrer and today it continues to bear his name and preserve a relic of the saint Throughout Europe and the Americas there are many churches streets and landmarks named in honor of St Vincent or San Vicente in spite of his history of antiSemitism This raises the question whether the cult to an antiSemitic leader of the past can be differentiated from the antiSemitism for which he is known

Ferrer took the low road of stirring up the masses with fiery sermons that launched them on assaults against Jews and he was willing to accept intimidation as a tactic to force Jews to convert to Christianity He was also against Muslims and used the same rhetoric against them but Muslims were more rural lived in dispersed patterns and had a lower social visibility than the Jews By and large Muslims escaped the wrath of the mobs but the more accessible urban Jewish neighborhoods suffered the brunt of it As Ferrer stirred the masses against the Jews his friend and collaborator Pope Benedict XIII applied pressure from his position of power to issue bulls and persuade kings against them The pincer movement applied by these two antiSemitic Christian leaders was a plan for the final elimination of Jews from Spain failing only when their authority and power collapsed in 1416

Ferrer was the architect of the use of intimidation to force Jews to convert to Christianity This leader of the early fifteenth century Church in Spain used the threatening masses as an instrument of evangelization apparently on the justification that the ends justified the means The choice for Jews was frequently either convert or see their life family and community destroyed Although Ferrer’s efforts between 1390 and 1419 did not eliminate Judaism in Spain he gave impetus to a process that continued over the next several decades until the Edict of Expulsion was issued in 1492 Expulsion was the ultimate weapon to coerce Jews to convert or leave Spain and it represented the culmination of Spanish antiSemitism The followers of Ferrer finally accomplished through King Fernando and Queen Isabella what he set out to do 100 years before eliminating the visible presence of Jews and practice of Judaism from Spain However as cryptoJewish families know today 600 years later the strategy of intimidation used by St Vicente Ferrer was more successful in creating terror than in forcing people to abandon the foundations of their faith

References

Baer Yitzhak 1959 Historia de los Judá­os en la España Cristiana 1981 edition Barcelona: Riopiedras Ediciones
Beinart Haim 1992 Los Judá­os de España Madrid: Editorial Mapfre 1992
“La conversión en masa y el problema de los conversos en el siglo 15” in MoreÅ¡et Sefarad: El Legado de Sefarad 1992Edited by Haim Beinart Jerusalem: Hebrew University Pages 355 to 392
Bel Bravo Mará­a Antonia 1997 Sefarad: Los Judá­os de España Madrid: SÍLEX
Gerber Jane S 1992 The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience New York: The Free Press

Ronald J Duncan is an anthropologist who has lived and published primarily in Latin America currently living in the United States He has conducted extensive research in Spain on the coexistence of Jewish Muslim and Christian cultures

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