The Other Within: The Marranos, Split Identity and Emerging Modernity.
While not based on original archival research, Yirmiyahu Yovel's exploration of the complex nature of the self-identity of Marranos--descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews forced to convert to Christianity--is groundbreaking as an integrative study, the first suchwork since Cecil Roth's 1932 tome. His interest piqued through study of the radical philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, Yovel decided to trace the "Marrano saga" from its origins in late-medieval Spain through to the European Enlightenment and beyond. The result is a tour de force.
Although Conversos adopted a public Catholic identity, many wore it like a mask over their Jewish face. Never fully accepted by either religious world, they coped with contradictions and tensions that helped forge a new approach to religious identity which stressed the inner reality over outward appearance, inner spirituality over external orthodoxy
and ritual. Many became skeptical or turned away from belief altogether. This Marrano fashioning of a new dualistic identity or self contributed significantly to modern notions of toleration, freedom of conscience, and individual choice.
Yovel tackles this topic from a number of approaches. Determined to illustrate the Marrano influence in virtually all aspects of Iberian culture, Yovel's comprehensive perspective covers six sections encompassing twenty chapters. In parts one through five he follows the development of Marrano identity in Iberia, concluding with its broader impact on European culture outside of Spain in part six. Throughout, he reinforces his historico-philosophical arguments with illuminating case studies. Part one begins with a concise explication of the complex relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims before the 1391 conversions, neatly illuminating the tangled motivation of archdeacon Ferrran Martinez of Seville, whose fiery sermons initially sparked these violent pogroms. It was at this point, Yovel suggests, Spain turned from its heterogeneous past to a "delusion of purity" and to insane policies of uniformity. As for the Jews and Conversos, their lives and identities became immeasurably more complex.
Yovel's major thesis is developed in part two, which in four chapters addresses the essential conundrum that the Jews who converted to Christianity faced. Despite initial hopes of a return to Judaism, over time the Marranos' Christian pretence became part and parcel of their essential identity. While some were indeed secret Judaizers and others sincere converts, most fell somewhere in the middle. In the minds of Old Christians, however, none of this variation really mattered, and all Marranos found themselves rejected by both Old Christian and Jewish communities. As a result, duplicity and secretness became essential components of their identity. The Spanish Inquisition, created to root out insincere converts, merely accelerated this double alienation (it also inadvertently schooled its suspects on Judaism). Lacking "any deep religious consciousness," Marranos adopted "a new human type," partly alienated from "the self," acting as the "Other within" who essentially and innovatively focused on salvation in this world.
Part three (three chapters) overviews the Spanish Inquisition and the 1492 expulsion of the Jews. This is followed in part four's two chapters with the comparable developments in Portugal, an early refuge for exiled Jews which soon became a trap with its own Inquisition and preoccupation with pure blood. Part five's four chapters argue persuasively that the distinctive Marrano identity, especially its duality and inward focus, profoundly influenced Iberian culture and religion. Marranos, Yovel suggests, were integral in Renaissance Spain's interiorized religion, such as that of St. Teresa of Avila, the Iberian Erasmians, the Alumbrados, and even the Jesuits and quasi-Lutherans. While many of these figures may have denied Marrano influence, like an Inquisitor determining purity of blood Yovel reveals the Marrano family linkages which he believes imply intellectual influences. While not Judaizers, these reformers were "different Christians" whose creative religious discontent meshed nicely with Erasmus's critique of external religiosity. While Yovel is undoubtedly correct in assuming that since Juan Luis Vives's parents had both been burned as Judaizers, his rational philosophy and advocacy of toleration owed much to this Marrano heritage, one might wish for more smoking guns than the records can provide.
In chapter sixteen, Yovel carries this approach into his discussion of Spain's unique literary genre, the Picaresque, highlighting several Marrano features, such as the hero's suspicion of "impure blood," his "social exclusion" and the prevalence of a covert world which rebukes hidalgo values and lauds personal achievement over bloodlines. He presents several examples revealing close Converso backgrounds for key Picaresque writers, although that for its most famous practitioner, Cervantes, remains inconclusive.
The final chapters of part six follow the Marrano dispersal across Europe. Those many who returned to Judaism were "New Jews" with a particularly Marrano version of the faith, one that was more rationalistic, Biblicist, and less ceremonial and rabbinical than contemporary Judaism. Infused with Christian concepts and symbolism, the New Jews "hardly knew what Judaism--the Law of Moses--actually meant" (p. 292). Some were able to practice Judaism in public, such as in Amsterdam, while most did so surreptitiously. Most identified themselves as members of the Portuguese Nation, an international trading network integral to the seventeenth century's emerging global commerce. Yovel's snapshots of the experience of the Marrano Dispersion in several key cities reveals the wide variation in the reception of the New Jews.
Yovel's portraits of leading Marrano intellectuals, such as Michel de Montaigne (whose mother was a Converso) and Spinoza, are flamed to illustrate how the "major transformationS" that marked modernity required the "mediation of ironic, evasive, equivocal ... language" that was the speciality of Marranos (p. 351). In this Yovel is generally convincing, although he does not fully appreciate the non-Jewish factor in this development, such as the rampant Spiritualism of the Dutch Republic, where a large New Jewish community flourished. Like Marranos, Spiritualists depreciated external religious confessions and rituals in favour of an inner religious identity, and surely there was an intersection of these two religious agendas in the Republic. Yovel's fascinating epilogue telling the story of a modern day Marrano community in Belmonte, Portugal, caps his discussion.
Yovel's methodology is somewhat unorthodox for historians, such as bringing immediacy to his narrative through fictionalized characters who speak directly to the reader. His endnotes do not always point the reader to the expected source reference, and his literature review is at the end of the book, where it belatedly highlights Yovel's achievements. That said, Yovel's treatment of the literature is sensitive to the difficulties inquisitorial material presents, and he neatly teases out information from inquisitorial records revealing the great variation in attitude among Marranos. While the book is generally free of typos, there are a couple noteworthy ones: on p. 160, Seville's first auto de fe is dated to 1486, rather than 1481; and on p. 217, the battle of Ksar el Kibir in Morocco was in 1578, not 1587. Such quibbles aside, this is a captivating synthesis that reveals much about religious identity and mentalite on the eve of modernity.
Gary K. Waite
University of New Brunswick
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|Author:||Waite, Gary K.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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