Christian kings and Jewish conversion in the medieval Crown of Aragon
By Paola Tartakoff
Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, March (2011)
Abstract: As Christian monarchs in the age of crusade and reconquista, the kings of the medieval Crown of Aragon had no choice but to show public support for Jewish conversion to Christianity, issuing legislation meant to encourage conversion and granting favors to individual converts. However, this public position disguised a deep ambivalence toward the conversion of Jews, whom kings considered personal property. This article explores the causes and expressions of this ambivalence during the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It argues that when kings acted at cross-purposes to conversionary efforts, it was not only because these efforts threatened to thin the ranks of their Jewish subjects, who provided important funding for the royal treasury, but also because kings benefited financially from practices that discouraged Jewish conversion, such as the confiscation of converts’ property and the sale to Jews of exemptions from compulsory conversionary sermons. These observations underscore the complexity of Christian attitudes toward Jewish conversion during the century and a half that preceded the pan-Iberian massacres and forced conversions of 1391.
At the Council of Lleida on 12 March 1243, King Jaume I of the Crown of Aragon (r. 1213– 76) gave voice to his “missionary zeal” and declared that no Jew or Muslim who sought to become a Christian should encounter impediments of any kind. He ordered that converts be allowed to retain their possessions, which normally would have devolved at least in part to the royal treasury. He decreed that converts were not to be deprived of their inheritances. He warned that anyone who ridiculed converts would be ﬁned. And, in an effort to encourage additional conversions, he commanded ofﬁcials to compel Jews and Muslims to attend missionary sermons. During the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, several kings of the Crown of Aragon followed in the footsteps of Jaume I. For example, Jaume II (r. 1291– 1327) repeated that converts should be permitted to keep their property, again sanctioned conversionary sermons, and granted employment and dispensed charity to several converts. Likewise, Pere III (IV in Aragon, r. 1336–87) served as a godfather and gave alms to a handful of converts