The Perils of Living the Good and True Law: Iberian Crypto-Jews in the Shadow of the Inquisition of Colonial Hispanic America, by Matthew D. Warshawsky.
During the mid-1600s, tribunals of the Spanish Inquisition in Lima and Mexico City prosecuted the “Great Conspiracy” trials in response to the crypto-Jewish practices of conversos, or New Christian converts of Jewish descent, who had immigrated from Spain and Portugal to these centers of colonial power. Based on original archival records and published transcriptions of Inquisition trial testimony, this study examines the complex lives and clandestine practices of five apparent crypto-Jews who were the subject of such trials. In so doing, the book aims to understand why these individuals risked their lives and those of loved ones in the name of a forbidden belief system, and how their chameleon-like identity permitted them to live as Jews and Catholics at once. Taking its title from a description of secret Judaism by one of its subjects, Duarte de León Jaramillo, the work shows how, despite a lack of regular access to books or teachers, crypto-Jews forged a recognizable Jewish identity at the very time when the Inquisition most actively prosecuted them for doing so. The stories of these individuals also shed light on the complex relationship between Spain and Portugal during the 1600s and particularly on how this relationship affected New Christians from both countries who traveled to Spain’s American territories.
Each chapter of The Perils of Living the Good and True Law tells a distinct but complementary story about the response of secret Jews to inquisitorial efforts to coerce them to renounce their identity. Some of the topics these stories explore include the role of economics in religious persecution, the notoriety of personality that transcended the Jewish character of beliefs and practices, and the geographic and spiritual peregrinations of individuals from positions of relative safety to the riskier one of crypto-Judaism. Additionally, while the book demonstrates both the authenticity of crypto-Jewish practices and their variance from normative Judaism, it also dispels the notion that similarities in heritage and belief intrinsically unified all New Christians. Contending instead that, due to various degrees of Catholic sincerity, conversos were not Jewish ipso facto, the work uses the life stories of the five individuals and their families analyzed here to investigate how a proscribed belief system survived, as well as the influence of oppression on this belief system. These accounts suggest that relative economic prestige and imputed racial otherness made conversos feel “in and out,” a situation that in many cases caused their relationships with fellow conversos to be as complex and even antithetical as those with Christians free of Jewish lineage.
Written using a nuanced approach that neither demonizes the Inquisition nor depicts the tribunal’s victims as unblemished heroes, The Perils of Living the Good and True Law describes crypto-Judaism in colonial Hispanic America in terms of the experiences of those who lived it and the institution that tried to eliminate it. In so doing, the work adds to the growing body of scholarship on the Inquisition, particularly for readers less aware of the history of baptized Catholics prosecuted for Jewish heresy. Additionally, the book makes a valuable contribution to Jewish, Latin American, and trans-Atlantic studies by elucidating the legitimacy of crypto-Judaism in colonial Hispanic America and of Inquisition trial records as an accurate source of information about this syncretistic belief system and its contradictory practitioners. Finally, the work’s study of early examples of crypto-Judaism legitimizes the authenticity of this religious and cultural identity among Hispanics today by helping trace its longstanding roots.
Matthew D. Warshawsky is associate professor of Spanish at the University of Portland. He co-edited, with James A. Parr, Don Quixote: Interdisciplinary Connections (also from Juan de la Cuesta-Hispanic Monographs).
Series: Estudios judeoespañoles «Samuel G. Armistead y Joseph H. Silverman», #8
ISBN 978-1-58871-276-9 (PB, 176 pp.) $40