On March 15, 1391, anti-Jewish rioting broke out in Seville, Spain, initiating a cycle of violence and open hatred toward the Jews of Castile that culminated a century later in the Inquisition.
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At the time of the riots, Jews were living peacefully in Seville where they were allowed to operate three large synagogues and 20 smaller ones. They and the city’s Muslims were protected by the crown.
The immediate cause of the violence was the incitement of a Christian monk named Ferdinand Martinez, who preached regularly and for years against what historian Heinrich Graetz described as the Jews’ perceived “hardened infidelity, their pride, their heaped-up riches, their greed and their usury.”
The important role Jews played in Spain as money-lenders, and as advisors and even, when they converted, as marriage partners to royalty gave them unusual influence and power, but also made them subject to anger and resentment. When combined with the theological differences between Christians and Jews, and the preaching of a hate-filled cleric, the result could be lethal, and efforts by authorities to quell the popular violence sometimes had the opposite effect.
In the case of Martinez in 1391, the priest’s harangues raised public expectations of a mass conversion of Jews, and sparked popular riots. Angry crowds entered the Juderia, the city’s Jewish section, attacked its residents and pillaged their businesses. When the mayor of Seville had the ringleaders of the pogroms arrested and ordered they be flogged, Archdeacon Martinez only upped his rhetoric and the crowd became all the more violent.
Three months later, on June 6, 1391, rioters re-entered the Juderia, blocked the two exits from the quarter, and set it on fire. An estimated 4,000 Jews were killed that day. Most of those who survived converted or left the city, so that by the time of the Expulsion, in 1492, there were few Jews remaining in Seville to be exiled. King Henry III then redistributed the property of the Juderia to various Christian nobles.
The rioting in Seville spread to other parts of Spain – to Castile, Aragon and Catalonia, followed by the island of Majorca. Murderous rioting continued for three months.
The significance of the 1391 rioting goes beyond the toll in life and property: It began a wave of conversions by Jews, estimates of which range between tens of thousands and 200,000 individuals – up to half of the country’s Jews.
Those who converted included not only Jewish business and social leaders but also large numbers of rabbis. Sometimes entire communities would follow suit, and the phenomenon of mass conversions under duress led to the subsequent phenomenon of crypto-Jews, those who were suspected of continuing to practice their former faith in secret. The Jewish community that was finally sent into exile in 1492 was already a severely depleted and weakened one.