The Portuguese Crypto-Jews of Nantes In The 16th Century

Repression of Crypto Jews intensified in Portugal with the beginning of John III’s reign On March 23 1536 Pope Paul III authorized the establishment of the Inquisition and in 1540 the first Portuguese autodafé took place Fearing the worst Crypto Jews began their immigration into neighboring France Nantes in Brittany became both a temporary and permanent refuge as did Ciboure SaintJean de luz Biarritz Dax SaintEsprit (a suburb of Bayonne) Peyrehorade La BastideClairence Bidache Bordeaux Rouen and Paris Henri II of France issued letters of authorization in August 1550 allowing merchants and other Portuguese New Christians to enjoy the same rights as Frenchmen They were free to come and go wherever they wished to trade and acquire real estate In 1574 Henri III confirmed the letters of authorization

Bartholomeo Velho was a distinguished geographer and cypto Jew from Lisbon who had lived in Nantes during the reign of Charles IX The king had benefitted from his advice on explorations of distant places which proved profitable for France Velho had been discovered by Andre del Bagno and his brother Albaigne After Phillip II of Spain conquered Portugal in 1580 the Inquisition spread rapidly throughout the country Emigration increased among New Christians or Crypto Jews escaping from the inquisitors who punished those not following the state religion Numerous subjects of Philip II began arriving in Nantes attracted to this cosmopolitan city by the area’s trade and commerce

The newcomers contributed to the growth of this early colony Among them were immigrants who practiced Catholicism and others who practiced Judaism Those who openly declared allegiance to Judaism did not stay long in Nantes Conservative Catholic values prevailed among the city’s population and when stirred up by the members of the league a confederation of French Catholics dedicated to the defense of their faith made the situation of the Jews similar to what they had suffered in Portugal That was the case with the d’Espinoza farnily Abraham d’Espinoza the grandfather of Philosopher Baruch Spinoza immigrated in Nantes with kinsmen Sarah and Isaac d’Espinoza Spinoza’s grandfather on his father’s side Pedro Rodriguez (later Pedro Rodriguez Spinoza and Isaac Spinoza of Nantes) had come from Lisbon He had married Mor Alvares and settled in her native city of Vidigueira in Portugal This little town is situated at the edge of the upper and lower Alentejo where the main source of prosperity was viniculture In 1519 this whole area had been granted to Vasco da Gama the explorer of the maritime route to India That year he was named Count of Vidigueira a title carried later by his son grandson and great grandson

The 1613 report by the Portuguese Inquisition investigating New Christians in Vidigueira who had emigrated illustrates its continued scrutiny of the ascendants and close relatives of Spinoza’s paternal grandmother As found in the archives of the Portuguese Holy Office most of the people investigated were Spinoza’s ancestors and the report gave details of their lives and of crypto Judaism in the prosperous little village during the sixteenth century Further research had been abandoned in 1597 when the philosopher’s grandfather frightened by inquisitorial interrogation joined his family and his brother already refugees in Nantes He later went on to Amsterdam and Rotterdam The funeral records of the Jewish community of Amsterdam lists the death on April 9 1627of Abraharn d’Espinoza “who came from Nantes to Rotterdam” The archives of the Amsterdam community record that representatives had met in Abrabarn d’Espinoza’s house in Nantes on October 8 1628

The crypto Jews then settled in Nantes where their predecessors had been traders since the middle of the twelfth century The street of the Jews had existed since the tenth century according to the records of the priest Travers historian of Nantes There was a synagogue in the thirteenth century A Jewish cemetery is mentioned in 1231 Thinking they were avenging the death of Christ the crusaders of Brittany the Jerusalemitans massacred a large part of this first Jewish community in 1236 The crusade had been ordered by Pope Gregory IX to deliver the holy cities Before they left for the Holy Land Jerusalemitans intended to destroy the Jews of Brittany Anjou and Poitou Ironically the crusade never happened due to the lack of support from the nobility

The Portuguese crypto Jews most of them traders made Nantes a refuge far away from the threat of the Inquisition with business exchanges occurring regularly between Brittany and Portugal In 1412 Portugal was encouraging trade with Breton merchants and in 1438 the Regency of Doña Leonor sealed the first general safeconduct granted to the Bretons In 1449 the invitation of 1438 was reiterated adding extensive measures of protection Residents of Armorica now called Brittany were invited to trade freely with Portugal with promises assuring their safety

In 1459 Alphonse V (14381481) and Duc Francois II signed an alliance and trade treaty and in 1469 they renewed the agreement for a period of ten years Likewise Chancellor Rodriguez of Portugal consented to protections for the Breton cryptoJewish dealers in Portugal Duc Francois 11 granted letters of safe conduct to the Portuguese settling in the duchy of Brittany and he recommanded that they be posted at all the fairs The first Portuguese crypto Jew to be found in the local archives of La Loire Atlantique was a woman Antoinette Da Costa who obtained a letter of habitation in 1543 The recipient certified to have left Portugal in 1533 shortly before the establishment of the Inquisition in her native country The Da Costa family is related to the Mendes da Costa Costa and La Coste families all of whom are Nantese descendants of the Mendes da Costa These names designate Spanish or Portuguese cities

The records of the parishes of Nantes also indicate that Diego Gomez and Isabeau da Costa were married before 1575 To the name Da Costa which referred to a place is often added another patronym (paternal ancestor) like Mendes Rodrigues or Franco In 1783 Abraham and Samuel Costa Franco appeared on the income tax records in Nantes Records also show that Manuel (Emanuel) Mendes da Costa married Ysabelle Donart in 1599 at SaintNicholas Church and that Louis Rodnigues da Costa (16111686) lived on la Casserie Street with his wife Perrie Dies Henriques

In 1552 nine years after granting Antoinette Da Costa the letter a similar one was given to two Portuguese cryptoJewish brothers Hierosme and Phelippes Martin “Both were native and merchants of Lisbon” In 1561 Agnes de Cardossa bom in Lisbon obtained a Nantes letter and four years later in 1565 Francisco Cardoso also from Lisbon received one Later another person with the same surname Emanuel Cardoso was authorized to reside in Nantes with his wife and children In 1598 Bastienne Cardoze obtained letters of “naturalization” During the sixteenth century families with the surname name Rodrigues also received them In the second half of the eighteenth century Antoine and David Rodrigues were openly practicing Judaism in Nantes

The Portuguese naturalization letter of Georges Henry in 1572 reviewed the history of his movements in the past twenty years He affirmed to have paid the tax on “the letters of naturalization” in 1551 He then declared that he returned to Portugal a few years later where be married his first wife Jehanne Cardose who bore him three children His second wife was Violane Vaz He also mentioned being away from the Kingdom of France during the past fifteen or sixteen years The reasons for Georges Henry’s travels are not mentioned either in the letter of 1572 or in any previous or past document The fact that he left France and was opposed to the terms of the first letters suggests that he was asked to pay taxes one more time His second wife Violane Vaz newcomer to the Kingdom of France had to pay registration taxes in order to obtain a letter of naturalization

This unique example illustrates that crypto Jews often returned to Portugal in order to support the secret practice of Judaism They brought with them pages of prayer books scriptures texts about Jewish holidays and other material Therefore the travelers from France were helping maintain the Crypto Jews’ secret religion This religion of the New Christians in Portugal penetrated the nobility although it was mainly observed by professionals in finance trading or arts and crafts This huge movement of the New Christians and of the Crypto Jews into Nantes determined their basic historical role and impacted the history of the seventeenth century

Therefore Crypto Jews settled in Nantes from 1543 on They were exempted from inherent administrative and financial formalities to acquire French naturalization The death of King Sebastien (15541578) in the Saharan sand brought a period of uncertainty and political instability which was favorable at last for the Crypto Jews The Catholic orthodoxy supported by Phillip II of Spain triumphed This historic fact explains why no naturalization of Portuguese was registered in Nantes between 1572 and 1581 with the exception of Violane Vaz who settled in Nantes in 1578

So what is the structure and what is the contribution of the letters of naturalization delivered by the monarch to outsiders who have requested it? The letter of naturalization of Emanuel de Mello Ambroise Dies written in sixteenth century French is an example:

Philipes Emmanuel of Loraine Duc de Mercueur and of Penthevre pair of France Prince du St empire and of Martigues Governor of Brittany to whom letters will be presented will find salvation Esmanuel Demello native of Villevicose in the Kingdom of Portugal medical doctor at the University of Nantes and his spouse Ambroyse Dyes native of the city of Combre in Portugal has shown having left the city of Nantes two years before in the attempt to acclimate themselves to remain the rest of their life to establish posterity that ultimately please God Their desire was to be legally able to exert power and to acquire property and inheritance from the Duchy to dispose by will or succession or otherwise

This text is written in the old French of the sixteenth century In summary the family in a desperate quest to obtain rights and privileges implored the highest court of the Kingdom appealing before political military and Catholic authorities for letters of authorization to acquire property and preserve their estate for their heirs Demello and Dies were granted permission and obtained an official document signed on May 20 1593 by Phelipes Esmanuel de Loraine and sealed by the local monsignor

These letters in the form of a charter gave the applicants the rights and privileges of those born in the Kingdom The socalled permanent letters of naturalization were structured in three parts: 1 initial information indicating name and characteristics of the applicant 2 text of the legal document and 3 the final agreement

The second part of the above letter provides the framework and is generally divided into five sections indicating name place of origin and sometimes characteristics of the applicant date of arrival in the Kingdom and his intentions Among the forty letters of naturalization delivered to the Portuguese of Nantes between 1543 and 1636 twentytwo more than half indicated that Lisbon was the origin of the beneficiaries Three of them mentioned Douro two Villevicose one Porto one Stumall and one Frontera Place of origin was not clear in ten of the letters

Three medical doctors are among professions registered in the letters of naturalization including Emmanuel de Mello born in Villevicose However most of the recipients were merchants and traders in Nantes This city along with Le Havre shared the FrancoPortuguese trading monopoly with goods coming from Brittany or the Loire Region Relatively few commodities came from abroad Like other merchants the crypto Jews used Quai de la Fosse established in 1516 as the main bank where most of the ships coming from sea would unload Porto Villa do Conde and Lisbon were the chief Portuguese harbors used by the crypto Jews trading from Nantes Among the goods exchanged the largest quantity of wheat from Nantes regularly in shortage was sent to Portugal

Until about 1580 Spanish émigrés in Nantes controlled the trade with Portugal From 1580 Portuguese crypto Jews believed they could likewise succeed in Nantes and sought these harbors in search of a refuge They first settled in SaintNicholas parish then in SaintSaturnin From 1597 to 1599 there were fourteen letters of naturalization registered in Nantes granted to Portuguese Almost half of the 32 letters that were granted from 1581 to 1615

This movement of immigration increased especially under the reign of Henri IV (15891610) who protected the foreigners Keep in mind that Henri IV had borrowed money from some Portuguese merchants and particularly from Duarte Fernandez We can understand why when the crypto Jews asked him to authorize settlement in the Kingdom they were granted permission in the edict of 1595 after an agreement was reached with the League This allowed several crypto Jews residing in Nantes and other cities in the Kingdom to stabilize their situation Therefore after the final peace treaty of Brittany a very large number of crypto Jews settled in Nantes from 1598 on

Among those arriving part of them would settle in the city on SaintNicholas Street La Poissonnerie and la Casserie Street They were essentially textile merchants or druggists Others would travel through to refuge in Holland

Crypto Jews were not really accepted in Nantes Complex grievances were brought against them Nantese authorities doubted the authenticity of their Catholic faith and they were persecuted for their ethnicreligious origins and for the circumstances that brought them abroad despite the fact they were very discreet Most New Christian families were sincere Catholics not observing Judaism in secret and did not identify publicly with the Jewish religion On the contrary they submitted graciously to the rituals and formalities of the Catholic church However in time of trouble latent antisernitism with vigilant xenophobia could be easily aroused In fact the catechism nurtured this hostile opinion from the earliest years in parishioners

RICHARD AYOUN holds the Alberto Benveniste Chair in Sephardic Studies Faculty of Letters University of Lisbon He prepared this paper for SCJS’s 2001 conference in Pueblo where it was read by Laurette Heppell who translated it from the French Dolores Sloan prepared the paper for publication in Halapid and assisted with additional translation 

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