Part 1

Conversos and Crypto-Jews on Stamps


The years from 1391 to 1497 were turbulent ones for the Jews living in the Iberian Peninsula when events beyond their control led, in the wake of violent anti-Jewish riots in 1391 in Spain, to thousands of Jews converting to Catholicism, at least outwardly, out of fear for their lives. When the Catholic military ended Muslim rule in southern Spain in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella declared that Jews must convert or emigrate at once, leaving behind their worldly possessions. The expelled Jews immigrated to many lands, including border country Portugal, where another forced conversion was later promulgated by royal decree in 1497.1


Thus was created a new glossary of terms to define the converted Jews of that era. A Converso is a Jew forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain or Portugal or descendants of such a person. A Crypto- Jew is a Converso who is secretly observing Judaism while openly practicing Catholicism. A Marrano is a pejorative word meaning swine, used to refer to Conversos. New Christian is the term applied to Conversos, in contrast to Old Christians who were presumably the “original” Catholics. The former term signified the lack of full acceptance by the established Christian community. The term Judaizing, coined by the Inquisition, refers to New Christians who were accused of secretly practicing or promoting Judaism. Those accused were interrogated, imprisoned, tortured or publicly burned to death for presumed heresy.2 Active periods of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal and their colonies were 1478-1534 and 1636-1794, respectively.

Included among Conversos and Crypto-Jews were those making outstanding contributions in science, philosophy, literature and commerce. Often, they were only one step away from the grasp of the feared Inquisitors. The contributions of a number of Crypto-Jews have been recognized on commemorative stamps.