Portuguese Crypto-Jewish Ballads: A Passagem do Mar Vermelho and A Pedra Mara
Manuel da Costa Fontes (Kent State University)
eHumanista: Journal of Iberian Studies, Volume 8, (2007)
In Spain, crypto-Judaism began in 1391, when the pogroms that started in Seville spread to the rest of the country, and thousands of Jews were forced to accept Christianity from one moment to the next in order to save their lives. Although they had to go to church and to behave publicly as Christians, these New Christians or “Marranos” (pigs), as the Christian majority called them, became crypto-Jews, preserving and transmitting the faith of their ancestors to their children and grandchildren secretly, at home. This became much more difficult after 1481, when the Spanish Inquisition, which had been approved by Rome in 1478, began to actively function. In 1492, all Jews who refused to convert were expelled. About 30,000 found refuge in Portugal, doubling their numbers in that country.1 Tired from their difficult journey, many settled along the border, not far from the places where they first entered Portuguese territory.
King Manuel I wished to marry Princess Isabel, daughter of the Catholic Monarchs. Eventually he gave in to the pressure of his future in-laws and the princess, who refused to become his wife as long as there were “heretics” in the country. Contrary to what some scholars believe, however, the Portuguese expulsion of 1497 was really a hoax. The king was too intelligent to lose such a productive sector of the population and, when about 20,000 Jews gathered together in Lisbon (Rossio) to board ships in order to leave, all but eight were baptized by force (Herculano I, 76- 77). It is unknown what happened to the 40,000 Jews scattered throughout the provinces. The country, however, was officially declared to be completely Christian and Portuguese crypto-Judaism was born. Manuel hoped that the New Christians would eventually assimilate. Therefore, he resisted the pressure put upon him by a large sector of the population, who wanted them to be punished for Judaizing, and he forbade all inquiries regarding their religious practices. Although there were thousands of crypto-Jews in the country, the Portuguese Inquisition was not approved by Rome until 1536, fifteen years after Manuel’s death, and it did not begin its activities until 1540.