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Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, an 1892 painting by Moshe Maimon

Marranos were originally Jews living in Iberia who converted or were forced to convert to Christianity, some of whom may have continued to practice Judaism in secret. The term came into later use in 1492 with the Castilian Alhambra Decree, reversing protections originally in the Treaty of Granada (1491).

The converts were also known as cristianos nuevos (Spanish) or cristãos-novos (Portuguese), meaning "New Christians", or conversos (converted ones). In Hebrew the terms anusim ("forced ones") and Zera Yisrael ("seed of [the people of] Israel") are sometimes used.


  • Etymology 1
  • Demographics 2
  • Portugal 3
  • Spain 4
    • The Inquisition 4.1
    • Exodus from Spain 4.2
  • Latin America 5
  • France 6
  • Migrations 7
  • Today 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
    • Bibliography 10.1
  • Fictional characterizations 11
  • External links 12


The term marrano derives from Arabic مُحَرّمٌ muḥarram; meaning "forbidden, anathematized". Marrano in 15th-century Spanish first meant "swine", "pig", from the ritual prohibition against eating pork, practiced by both Jews and Muslims.

In Portuguese the word marrano (from Spanish) generally refers to "crypto-Jews", although it also means a type of swine (dialectally), "filthy" or "dirty" (sujo), and "outcast" (maldito, excomungado);[1] while the related terms marrão [mɐˈʁɐ̃w] and marrancho [mɐˈʁɐ̃ʃu] mean only the animal: "pig" or "swine".[2][3]


Under state pressure in the late 15th century, many Jews in the Iberian Peninsula converted to Christianity. The numbers who converted and the effects of various migrations in and out of the area have been the subject of historical debate. A phylogeographic study in 2008 of 1,150 volunteer Y-chromosome DNA haplogroups appeared to support the idea that the number of forced conversions has been significantly underestimated, as 20% of the tested Iberian population had haplogroups consistent with Sephardi ancestry. This percentage was suggested as representing the proportion of Sephardi in the population at the time of mass conversions in the 14th and 15th centuries.[4] However, these results have not been replicated in the broad array of genetic studies that have looked at Iberian heritage,[5][6][7][8][9] and the conclusion has been questioned even by the authors themselves[10][11][12][13] and by Stephen Oppenheimer, who pointed out that much earlier migrations, 5000 to 10,000 years ago from the Eastern Mediterranean, might also account for these haplogroup proportions.[14] Indeed, in a different study the same year the same authors attributed most of those haplogroup lineages in Iberia and the Balearic Islands to Phoenician origin.[9]


Some Portuguese conversos or cristãos-novos continued to practice as crypto-Jews. In the early 20th century, historian Samuel Schwartz wrote about crypto-Jewish communities discovered in northeastern Portugal (namely, Belmonte, Bragança, Miranda, and Chaves). He claimed that members had managed to survive more than four centuries without being fully assimilated into the Old Christian population.[15] The last remaining crypto-Jewish community in Belmonte officially returned to Judaism in the 1970s and opened a synagogue in 1996. In 2003, the American Sephardi Federation founded the Belmonte Project to raise funds to acquire Judaic educational material and services for the Belmonte community, who then numbered 160-180.

Two documentary films are known to have been made in north-eastern Portugal where present day descendants of Marranos were interviewed about their lives. In 1974 for The Marranos of Portugal, the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) sent reporter Ron Ben-Yishai to carry out interviews with families about their religious practice. After being asked to prove he knew Hebrew before they would talk, he found people still reluctant to talk openly but did eventually gain a remarkable insight into their version of Jewish customs, prayers and songs. The film was commended at the 1976 Jerusalem Jewish Film and TV Festival. Another documentary, The Last Marranos, was made by the New York Jewish Media Fund in 1997.

After the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497), conversos continued to be suspect in times of social strain. In Lisbon in 1506, a months-long plague caused people to look for scapegoats. Some became suspicious that conversos might be practicing Judaism and therefore be at fault. On April 17, 1506, several conversos were discovered who had in their possession "some lambs and poultry prepared according to Jewish custom; also unleavened bread and bitter herbs according to the regulations for the Passover, which festival they celebrated far into the night." Officials seized several, but released them after a few days.

On the same day on which the conversos were freed, the Dominicans displayed a crucifix and a reliquary in glass from which a peculiar light issued in a side-chapel of their church, where several New Christians were present. A New Christian who tried to explain the miracle as due to natural causes was dragged from the church and killed by an infuriated woman. A Dominican roused the populace still more. Friar João Mocho and the Aragonese friar Bernardo, crucifix in hand, were said to go through the streets of the city, crying "Heresy!" and calling upon the people to destroy the conversos. Attracted by the outcry, sailors from Holland, Zeeland and others from ships in the port of Lisbon, joined the Dominicans and formed a mob with local men to pursue the conversos.

The mob dragged converso victims from their houses and killed some. Old Christians who were in any way associated with New Christians were also attacked. The mob attacked the tax-farmer João Rodrigo Mascarenhas, a New Christian; although a wealthy and distinguished man, his work also made him resented by many. They demolished his house. Within 48 hours, many "conversos" were killed; by the third day all who could have escaped, often with the help of other Portuguese. The killing spree lasted from 19 to 21 April, in what came to be known as the Lisbon Massacre.

King Manuel severely punished those who took part in the killings. The ringleaders and the Dominicans who encouraged the riot were also executed. Local people convicted of murder or pillage suffered corporal punishment and their property was confiscated. The king granted religious freedom for 20 years to all conversos in an attempt at compensation. Lisbon lost Foral privileges. The foreigners who had taken part generally escaped punishment, leaving with their ships.

New Christians were attacked in Gouvea, Alentejo, Olivença, Santarém, and other places. In the Azores and the island of Madeira, mobs massacred former Jews. Because of these excesses, the king began to believe that a Portuguese Inquisition might help control such outbreaks.

The Portuguese conversos worked to forestall such actions, and spent immense sums to win over the Curia and most influential cardinals. Spanish and Portuguese conversos made financial sacrifices. Alfonso Gutierrez, Garcia Alvarez "el Rico" (the rich), and the Zapatas, conversos from Toledo, offered 80,000 gold crowns to Emperor Charles V if he would mitigate the harshness of the Inquisition (Revue des Etudes Juives, xxxvii, p. 270 et seq.).

The Mendes of Lisbon and Flanders also tried to help. None were successful in preventing Portugal from introducing the Holy Office in 1478. The conversos suffered immensely both from mob violence and interrogation and testing by the Inquisition. Attacks and murders were recorded at Trancoso, Lamego, Miranda, Viseu, Guarda, and Braga.

At Covilhã, there were rumors that the people planned to massacre all the New Christians on one day. In 1562, prelates petitioned the Cortes to require conversos to wear special badges, and to order Jewish descendants to live in ghettos (judiarias) in cities and villages as their ancestors had before the conversions.


According to historian Cecil Roth, Spanish political intrigues had earlier promoted the anti-Jewish policies which culminated in 1391, when Regent Queen Leonora of Castile gave the Archdeacon of Écija, Ferrand Martinez, considerable power in her realm. Martinez gave speeches that led to violence against the Jews, and this influence culminated in the sack of the Jewish quarter of Seville on June 4, 1391. Throughout Spain during this year, the cities of Ecija, Carmona, Córdoba, Toledo, Barcelona and many others saw their Jewish quarters destroyed and inhabitants massacred.

It is estimated that 200,000 Jews saved their lives by converting to Christianity in the wake of these persecutions.[16] Other Jews left the country altogether.

In 1449, feelings rose against conversos, breaking out in a riot at Toledo. Instigated by two canons, Juan Alfonso and Pedro Lopez Galvez, the mob plundered and burned the houses of Alonso Cota, a wealthy converso and tax-farmer. They also attacked the residences of wealthy New Christians in the quarter of la Magdelena. Under Juan de la Cibdad, the conversos opposed the mob, but were repulsed. They were executed with their leader. As a result, several prominent converso men were deposed from office, in obedience to a new statute.

Nearly 20 years later in July 1467, another riot occurred where a mob attacked conversos in Toledo. The chief magistrate (alcalde mayor) of the city was Alvar Gomez de Cibdad Real, who had been private secretary to King Henry IV of Castile. He was a protector of the conversos. Together with prominent conversos Fernando and Alvaro de la Torre, Alvar wished to take revenge for an insult by the counts de Fuensalida, leaders of the Old Christians. His intention was to seize control of the city, but fierce conflict erupted. Opponents set fire to houses of New Christians near the cathedral. The conflagration spread so rapidly that 1,600 houses were consumed. Both Christians and conversos perished. The brothers De la Torre were captured and hanged.

Tensions arose in Córdoba between Christians and conversos, where they formed two hostile parties. On March 14, 1473, during a dedication procession, a girl accidentally threw dirty water from the window of the house of one of the wealthiest conversos (the customary way to dispose of it.) The water splashed on an image of the Virgin being carried in procession in honor of a new society (from which conversos had been excluded by Bishop D. Pedro.) Thousands immediately joined in a fierce shout for revenge.

The mob went after conversos, denouncing them as heretics, killing them, and burning their houses. To stop the excesses, the highly respected D. Alonso Fernandez de Aguilar, whose wife was a member of the converso family of Pacheco, together with his brother D. Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba ("El Gran Capitán"), and a troop of soldiers, hastened to protect the New Christians. D. Alonso called upon the mob to retire. Its leader insulted the count, who immediately felled him with his lance. Aroused, the people considered him a martyr. Incited by Alonso de Aguilar's enemy, they again attacked the conversos. Men, women, and children were all killed. The rioting lasted three days. Those who escaped sought refuge in the castle, where their protectors also took shelter. The government decreed that no converso should thenceforth live in Córdoba or its vicinity, nor should one ever again hold public office.

In 1473, attacks on conversos arose in numerous other cities: Montoro, Bujalance, Adamuz, La Rambla, Santaella, and elsewhere. Mobs attacked conversos in Andújar, Úbeda, Baeza, and Almodóvar del Campo also. In Valladolid, groups looted the belongings of the New Christians. At Segovia, there was a massacre (May 16, 1474). D. Juan Pacheco, a converso, led the attacks. Without the intervention of the alcalde Andres de Cabrera, all New Christians might have died. At Carmona, every converso was killed.

The Inquisition

Execution of Mariana de Carabajal in Mexico, 1601.

The conversos of Seville and other cities of Castile, and especially of Aragon, bitterly opposed the Spanish Inquisition established in 1478. They rendered considerable service to the king, and held high legal, financial, and military positions. The government issued an edict directing traditional Jews to live within a ghetto and be separated from conversos. Despite the law, however, the Jews remained in communication with their New Christian brethren.

"They sought ways and means to win them from Catholicism and bring them back to Judaism. They instructed the Marranos in the tenets and ceremonies of the Jewish religion; held meetings in which they taught them what they must believe and observe according to the Mosaic law; and enabled them to circumcise themselves and their children. They furnished them with prayer-books; explained the fast-days; read with them the history of their people and their Law; announced to them the coming of the Passover; procured unleavened bread for them for that festival, as well as kosher meat throughout the year; encouraged them to live in conformity with the law of Moses, and persuaded them that there was no law and no truth except the Jewish religion." These were the charges brought by the government of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile against the Jews. They constituted the grounds for their expulsion and banishment in 1492, so they could not subvert conversos. Jews who did not want to leave Spain had to accept baptism as a sign of conversion.

During 1492, about 12,000 conversos entered Navarre from Aragon's repression, where they were allowed to remain. Tudela in Navarre turned into a converso haven. The Tudelans had already proclaimed in 1486 that "if any inquisitor enters their city, he will would be thrown into the Ebro river." Later the resistance to the inquisitors was so strong that its aldermen ordered commissioners and attorneys to ask the Catholic Monarchs to limit the power of the Inquisition in 1510.[17][18][19]

The historian Henry Kamen's Inquisition and Society In Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries questions whether there were such strong links between conversos and Jewish communities. Whilst historians such as Yitzhak Baer state, "the conversos and Jews were one people",[20] Kamen claims, "Yet if the conversos were hated by the Christians, the Jews liked them no better."[20] He documented that "Jews testified falsely against them [the conversos] when the Inquisition was finally founded."[20] This issue is being debated by historians.

Exodus from Spain

Threatened and persecuted by the Inquisition, many conversos left Spain, in bands or as individual refugees. Many migrated to Italy, attracted by the climate, which resembled that of the Iberian Peninsula, and by the kindred language. When they settled at Ferrara, Duke Ercole I d'Este granted them privileges. His son Alfonso confirmed the privileges to twenty-one Spanish conversos: physicians, merchants, and others (ib. xv. 113 et seq.). A thoroughly researched history of these migrations is also contained in the book about one of their leaders called, "The Woman Who Defied Kings", by the historian and journalist Andree Aelion Brooks.

Spanish and Portuguese conversos settled also at Florence and contributed to make Livorno a leading seaport. They received privileges at Venice, where they were protected from the persecutions of the Inquisition. At Milan, they materially advanced the interests of the city by their industry and commerce. At Bologna, Pisa, Naples and numerous other Italian cities, they freely exercised the Jewish religion again. They were soon so numerous that Fernando de Goes Loureiro, an abbot from Oporto, filled an entire book with the names of conversos who had drawn large sums from Portugal and had openly avowed Judaism in Italy.

In Piedmont, Duke Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy welcomed conversos from Coímbra and granted them commercial and industrial privileges, as well as the free exercise of their religion. Rome was full of conversos. Pope Paul III received them at Ancona for commercial reasons. He granted complete liberty "to all persons from Portugal and Algarve, even if belonging to the class of New Christians." By 1553, three thousand Portuguese Jews and conversos were living at Ancona.

Two years later, Pope Paul IV issued orders to have all the conversos thrown into the prisons of the Inquisition which he had instituted. Sixty of them, who acknowledged the Catholic faith as penitents, were transported to the island of Malta; twenty-four, who adhered to Judaism, were publicly burned (May 1556). Those who escaped the Inquisition were received at Pesaro by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino. Guidobaldo had hoped to have the Jews and conversos of Turkey select Pesaro as a commercial center; when that did not happen, he expelled the New Christians from Pesaro and other districts in 1558 (ib. xvi. 61 et seq.).

Many conversos also went to Dubrovnik, formerly a considerable seaport. In May 1544, a ship landed there filled with Portuguese refugees.

Latin America

During the 16th and 17th centuries, some conversos migrated to the Americas, often the Castilian territories of the Viceroyalties of New Spain (North and Central America) and Peru (South America and Colombia), where they believed that they would be able to live without persecution.

From urban México, there was a migration of conversos into the Nuevo México Province, present day U.S. state of New Mexico, during the 18th century. An article in 1990 in The New York Times stated that about 1500 Hispanic families in northern New Mexico had Jewish backgrounds.[21]


At this same period, the conversos were seeking refuge beyond the Pyrenées, settling at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Tarbes, Bayonne, Bordeaux, Marseille, and Montpellier. They lived as Christians; were married by Catholic priests; had their children baptized, and publicly pretended to be Catholics. In secret, however, they circumcised their sons, kept the Sabbath and feast-days as best they could, and prayed together. King Henry III of France confirmed the privileges granted them by Henry II of France, and protected them against such slanders and accusations as those which a certain Ponteil brought against them.

Under Louis XIII of France, the conversos of Bayonne were assigned to the suburb of St. Esprit. At St. Esprit, as well as at Peyrehorade, Bidache, Orthez, Biarritz, and St. Jean de Luz, they gradually avowed Judaism openly. In 1640, several hundred conversos, considered to be Jews, were living at St. Jean de Luz; conversos who had returned to Judaism founded a synagogue at St. Esprit as early as 1660.


Upon reaching the Ottoman Empire, conversos openly declared their return to Judaism and later built important communities in cities such as Salonika. One of their leaders who helped them get there was the Lisbon-born international banker, Dona Gracia Nasi. They also migrated to Flanders, where they were attracted by its flourishing cities, such as Antwerp and Brussels. Conversos from Flanders, and others direct from the Iberian Peninsula, went under the guise of Catholics to Hamburg and Altona about 1580, where they established a community and held commercial relations with their former homes. Some migrated as far as Scotland. Christian IV of Denmark invited some New Christian families to settle at Glückstadt about 1626, granting certain privileges to them and to conversos who came to Emden about 1649.

Large numbers of conversos, however, remained in Spain and Portugal, despite the extensive emigration and the fate of countless victims of the Inquisition. The New Christians of Portugal breathed more freely when Philip III of Spain came to the throne. By the law of April 4, 1601, he granted them the privilege of unrestricted sale of their real estate as well as free departure from the country for themselves, their families, and their property. Many, availing themselves of this permission, followed their coreligionists to North Africa and Turkey. After a few years, however, the privilege was revoked, and the Inquisition resumed its activity.

Numerous New Christians migrated to London, whence their families spread to Brazil (where conversos had settled at an early date) and other colonies in the Americas. Migrations to Constantinople and Thessaloniki, where Jewish refugees had settled after the expulsion from Spain, as well as to Italy, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Vienna, and Timișoara, continued into the middle of the 18th century.


Late 20th century political and social changes in Spain caused reappraisal of Jewish and Muslim contributions to its culture. There has been much new scholarship on Sephardic Jews, Moors and the consequences of conversion and expulsion. In addition, there have been official governmental efforts to welcome tourists of both ancestries to Spain. Towns and regions have worked to preserve elements of Jewish and Moorish pasts.

In 2004, Shlomo Moshe Amar traveled to Portugal to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Lisbon synagogue Shaare Tikvah. During his stay, Shlomo Moshe Amar met descendants of Jewish families persecuted by the Inquisition who still practice Judaism (Bnei Anusim) at the house of rabbi Boaz Pash. This was an historical meeting that had not happened between a Chief Rabbi and Portuguese Marranos (Bnei Anusim) in centuries. Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar promised to create a committee to evaluate the Halachic situation of the community. The delay of the Chief Rabbi to create the committee and help the descendents of Sephardi Jews in Portugal forced the creation of a second Jewish community in Lisbon, Comunidade Judaica Masorti Beit Israel, to ensure the recognition of the Bnei Anussim as Jews.

By Spanish Civil Code Art. 22.1, the government created concessions for gaining citizenship to nationals of several countries and Sephardi Jews historically linked with Spain, allowing them to seek citizenship after five years rather than the customary ten required for residence in Spain. Later it was dropped to two years. In November 2012, the residency requirement was eliminated completely.[22] In October 2006, the Parliament of Andalusia asked the three parliamentary groups that form the majority to support an amendment that would similarly ease the way for nationals of Morisco descent to gain Spanish citizenship. The proposal was originally made by IULV-CA, the Andalusian branch of the United Left.[23]

See also


  1. ^ Infopedia. Portuguese dictionary, marrano
  2. ^ Infopedia. Portuguese dictionary, marrão
  3. ^ Infopedia. Portuguese dictionary, marrancho
  4. ^ .
  5. ^ .
  6. ^ .
  7. ^ .
  8. ^ .
  9. ^ a b .
  10. ^ "Despite alternative possible sources for lineages ascribed a Sephardic Jewish origin", [1]
  11. ^ "La cifra de los sefardíes puede estar sobreestimada, ya que en estos genes hay mucha diversidad y quizá absorbieron otros genes de Oriente Medio" ("The Sephardic result may be overestimated, since there is much diversity in those genes and maybe absorbed other genes from the Middle East"). ¿Pone en duda Calafell la validez de los tests de ancestros? “Están bien para los americanos, nosotros ya sabemos de dónde venimos” (Puts Calafell in doubt the validity of ancestry tests? "They can be good for the Americans, we already know from where we come from)." [2]
  12. ^ We think it might be an over estimate" "The genetic makeup of Sephardic Jews is probably common to other Middle Eastern populations, such as the Phoenicians, that also settled the Iberian Peninsula, Calafell says. “In our study, that would have all fallen under the Jewish label.””,_Jewish_genes
  13. ^ "El doctor Calafell matiza que (...) los marcadores genéticos usados para distinguir a la población con ancestros sefardíes pueden producir distorsiones". "ese 20% de españoles que el estudio señala como descendientes de sefardíes podrían haber heredado ese rasgo de movimiento más antiguos, como el de los fenicios o, incluso, primeros pobladores neolíticos hace miles de años." "Dr. Calafell clarifies that (...) the genetic markers used to distinguish the population with Sephardim ancestry may produce distortions. The 20% of Spaniards that are identified as having Sephardim ancestry in the study could have inherited that same marker from older movements like the Phoenicians, or even the first Neolithic settlers thousands of years ago"
  14. ^ .
  15. ^ Ruth Almog, "Cryptic, these crypto Jews", nda, last update 02/12/2005,, in English; review of Hebrew translation of Schwarz's 1925 Hanotzrim Hakhadashim Beportugal Be'meah Ha'esrim (New Christians in Portugal in the 20th Century)
  16. ^ Gedaliah b. Jachia the Spaniard, Sefer Shalshelet HaKabbalah, p. 268, Jerusalem 1962, while citing Sefer HaYuchasin.
  17. ^ Cf. Salcedo Izu, Joaquín, Gran Enciclopedia Navarra, Caja de Ahorros de Navarra, Pamplona 1990, Tomo VI, voz Inquisición, pp. 131-134.
  18. ^ González Echeverría, Francisco Javier The love for truth. Life and work of Michael Servetus (El amor a la verdad. Vida y obra de Miguel Servet), printed by Navarro y Navarro, Zaragoza, collaboration with the Government of Navarre, Department of Institutional Relations and Education of the Government of Navarre,p445-450
  19. ^ Michael Servetus Research Website with historical and graphical study on the conversos in Navarre, specifically the converso Michael de Villanueva ("Servetus").
  20. ^ a b c .
  21. ^ .
  22. ^ Código Civil (Spanish)
  23. ^ Propuesta de IU sobre derecho preferente de moriscos a la nacionalidad (Spanish)


  • Damião de Góis (1567), in Chronica do Felicissimo Rey D. Emanuel da Gloriosa Memória
  • .
  • .
  • .

Fictional characterizations

External links

  • corresponding article in the Jewish Encyclopedia. Further relevant material can be found in their article on South and Central America.
  • Dona Gracia Project
  • The Jewish Story - Marranos
  • Resources > Medieval Jewish History > "Expulsion from Spain and The Anusim", The Jewish History Resource Center, Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Kathleen Telch, "Belmonte Project", Newsletter, Spring 2003, p. 9, American Sephardi Federation
  • Society For Crypto Judaic Studies
  • The Jerusalem PostMichael Freund, "Miracle in Orlando", originally published in , Jewish Society
  • Return to Sinai, in, Website covering topics relevant to descendants of assimilation and intermarriage
  • Descendants of Marranos arrive in Israel
  • Jewish by candlelight - from Spanish converso to modern mixed marriage By Miriam Shaviv, The Forward
  • Shavei Israel - a group that helps our lost brethren return
  • Alhambra Decree: 521 Years Later, a blog post on the Law Library of Congress's In Custodia Legis
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