The Jewish communities in Portuguese late medieval cities: space and identity

The Jewish communities in Portuguese late medieval cities: space and identity

By Luísa Trindade

Religion, Ritual and Mythology Aspects of Identity Formation in Europe, edited by Joaquim Carvalho (Pisa University Press, 2006)

Introduction: Until 1496, the Portuguese city was a multi-faith space, shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews alike. However, this coexistence changed as the Middle Ages progressed. In a gradual, but not necessarily violent manner, the Christian majority’s feeling of tolerance was replaced by multiple forms of rejection that culminated in the edict which ordered the expulsion of the minorities. This article aims to analyse the repercussions that this process had on the city, specifically in terms of the way that the Jewish quarters evolved and interacted with the Christian city as a whole.

Medieval Portuguese society’s tolerance of Judaism allowed for ways of life which, albeit subject to certain restrictions, helped to strengthen the ethnic and religious identity of the Jewish community, consolidating its position as a foreign body separate from the medieval city. Thus, the Jews had rights that were the direct result of their different creed and ethnic group, such as freedom of worship, the right to a different upbringing and the use of Hebrew. Moreover, in return for hefty taxation, Portugal’s kings granted them a set of prerogatives that were of equal significance in establishing the differences. Under the local leadership of the rabbi, and national guidance of the chief rabbi, the Jewish communities enjoyed a broad degree of autonomy vis-à-vis the local authorities. This found political expression in their right to set up their own councils, and legal expression through their observation of Talmudic law, even though they were still ultimately subject to the general law of the land.

The ethnic and religious model of identity, reinforced in political and legal terms, was further entrenched in the middle of the 14th century by the imposition of a spatial “identity”. The Jewish residential area, previously the result of the spontaneous permeable association that coexisted alongside non-congregated occupations throughout the urban network, was transformed by a royal decree from 1361 into a compulsory, restricted and exclusive space.

It is this Jewish residential area in comparison with the Christian part of the city which will be analysed below, examining and assessing signs of continuity between the two, as well as looking for evidence of material differences which might be exclusive to the minority. Matters such as control over and symbolic marking out of the space, location, land ownership and building characteristics are of fundamental interest in understanding the balance between what the community saw as its own identity and the external pressures to which it was subjected.

This analysis is underpinned by the evolution of the relationship between the Christian majority and the Jewish minority, expressed in material terms by concrete actions, the most significant being the expansion, closure and relocation of Jewish neighbourhoods. Such alterations, particularly in the final phase, had repercussions that extended beyond the limits and the internal functioning of the community, and impacted on the surrounding urban fabric, creating impasses and altering routes whose effects have yet to be assessed in terms of an accurate definition of the degree of blockage or permeability.

Although the background of growing tension never scaled the radical heights found in other kingdoms, it is equally important to understand the distance between the law and daily practice. In other words, a distinction must be made between the governed space and the lived-in space.

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