By David Nirenberg
Past and Present, No. 174 (2002)
Introduction: It is both well known and worthy of note that Sephardim (that is, the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain) and Spaniards shared an unusually heightened concern with lineage and genealogy in the early modern period. The Spanish obsession with hidalgu ́ıa, Gothic descent, and purity of blood has long constituted a stereotype. Think only of Don Juan’s father, mockingly portrayed by Lord Byron: ‘His father’s name was Jose ́ — Don, of course, / A true Hidalgo, free from every stain / Of Moor or Hebrew blood, he traced his source / Through the most Gothic gentlemen of Spain’.
The Sephardim, too, were criticized on this score almost from the moment of exile. The (Ashkenazic) Italian David ben Judah Messer Leon, for example, ridiculed the eminent exile Don Isaac Abarbanel’s claims to royal pedigree, scoffing that Abarbanel ‘made of himself a Messiah with his claims to Davidic descent’. That the exiles’ emphasis on lineage flourished nonetheless is evident, not only in the splendid armorial bearings of Sephardic tombs in Venice or Livorno, but also in the communal statutes of congregations in Italy and the Netherlands. And just as Spaniards asserted that their unstained nobility set them above other nations, so Isaac de Pinto could attempt to counter Voltaire’s negative portrayal of Jews by arguing that Sephardic nobility made ‘[a] Portuguese Jew of Bordeaux and a German Jew of Metz appear two beings of a different nature!’