By Edward Peters
Jewish History, Vol. 9 No. 1 (1995)
Introduction: During the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, the Christian kingdoms and principalities in northern Iberia extended their power southward. They acquired territory and people that, since the first quarter of the eighth century, had been under Islamic rule. The kingdoms of Leon-Castila, Aragon, and Portugal (especially the former two) contained greater numbers of non-Christians – Jews and Muslims – than any other Christian territory in western Europe. Until the late fourteenth century the kind of public life led in these states was termed convivencia, “peacefully living together,” and in Jewish usage Iberia was termed Sefarad (Obadiah 20: literally the farthest northern point of Jewish migration in Syria; figuratively, a refuge remote from Palestine).
Jews played a subordinate but crucial role in these kingdoms, which have been termed sociologically incomplete societies, i.e., requiring the presence and service of non-Christians for some governmental functions – chiefly financial and professional – that Christian subjects could not or would not perform. Although Jews were needed, they were also excluded from high public office, as were Jews elsewhere in Christian Europe.