Women and Conversion in Medieval Iberia

AHA Session 89
Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship 3
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Liberty Suite 5 (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Paola Tartakoff, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Maneuvering between the Lines: Conversa Widows after the Violence of 1391 in Girona
Alexandra Guerson, University of Toronto; Dana Wessell Lightfoot, University of Northern British Columbia

Session Abstract

The question of social and individual identity is a complex one in our multicultural, global society. Although issues of assimilation and acculturation of immigrants and the negotiation of multiple identities are often perceived as modern phenomena these issues have much deeper roots. In medieval Iberia, social and individual identity as well as legal status was based on religious identity one was either a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim. In that patriarchal society, gender was also a marker of status, both social and legal. Religious identity, which was rarely questioned before, collapsed in the wake of the violence and mass conversions of Jews in 1391. In that year, Jewish communities throughout Castile and the Crown of Aragon were attacked and many Jews were either killed or converted to Christianity. This mass conversion of thousands of Jews (known as conversos) marked a turning point since this destabilization of religious classification and identity in late medieval Spain led to the “racialization” of religious identity and the creation of concepts of racial purity among both Christian Spaniards and Sephardic Jews in Iberia. The premodern world was also marked by significant changes for women since economic contractions and the implementation of Roman law, led to diminishing opportunities and greater strictures grounded in gendered ideology. This panel looks at the experience of Jewish women and conversas after the violence of 1391 in the Crown of Aragon and the forced conversions and expulsions in Portugal in 1497 . Women often appear at the centre of debates regarding accommodation of religious minorities, negotiation of identities and preservation of culture. This panel highlights that such roles for women have longstanding historical roots and thus allows us to better contextualize such debates. In this panel, Guerson and Lightfoot explore how Jewish widows in Girona, near Barcelona, who had been forcefully converted in 1391 negotiated their new reality in the wake of violence and change. They find that some widows used both their past Jewish connections as well as their new Christian identities to defend their interests and those of their young children. Few Jewish communities in the Crown of Aragon were spared and when violence hit the island of Mallorca, its important Jewish community was deeply changed. In her paper, Natalie Oeltjen looks at the experience of the women who survived the violence and had to pick up the pieces after. Many, like Blanca in Girona, had been widowed by the violence. Oeltjen shows that these women played an active role in safeguarding their interests and their of their children and community. Portugal, which had survived the violence of 1391 unscathed, had its own challenges when King Manuel I ordered the forced conversion or expulsion of the its Jewish communities. Susannah Humble Ferreira’s paper explores the negative impacts that such social upheaval had on newly converted young women, highlighting the gendered dimensions in the the vacuum that existed between the destruction of their former Jewish communities and the development of a new community that of cristãos novos.

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