Defining “Conversos” in Fifteenth-Century Castile: The Making of a Controversial Category

Yosi Yisraeli, Yanay Israeli

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This article recovers a fifteenth-century debate over the meaning of the category “conversos.” Departing from the standard account, in which “conversos” is seen as a neutral category designating Jewish ancestry, we demonstrate that in fifteenth-century Castile, the question of “who is a converso?” had a much less certain answer. Rather than a consistent view of how Jewish converts and their descendants should be classified, contemporary discourses reveal a myriad of options and a deep sense of consciousness about the implications of terminological choices. Drawing on a large range of historical sources, we analyze this terminological struggle, while paying special attention to the debates that followed the revolt of Toledo of 1449. We examine the arguments made by those who sought—or resisted—labeling the descendants of Jews as “conversos” or “neophytes.” Furthermore, we explain how debates over such labels were linked to broader interpretations of the meaning of conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Finally, we demonstrate that although the descent-based interpretation of “conversos” eventually prevailed, the problem of classifying Christians of Jewish descent continued to haunt political discourses well into the reign of Isabel I and Fernando II (1474–1504).

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)609-648
Number of pages40
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2022

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