This Day in Jewish History

1506: With the Land Groaning in Crisis, the Jews of Lisbon Are Massacred

As disease and drought racked Portugal, murders of New Christians who denied a Catholic’s vision of Jesus spread to the Jews.

Roxanna / Wikimedia Commons

On April 19, 1506, the Lisbon Massacre began. Over a few days, an estimated 1,000 to 4,000 converted Jews were slaughtered in the city’s streets, while the civil authorities seemed powerless to stop the carnage.

By 1506, some 93,000 Jews had fled Spain for Portugal, in the wake of the 1492 expulsion. Many of them settled in Lisbon. Portugal’s king, Manuel I, was under pressure from Spain to undertake similar action against the Jews of his country, but, reluctant to expel them, he ordered them to convert.

Many New Christians, as the converts were called, continued to practice Judaism in secret, while others fully embraced Catholicism. But suspicions of them led to frequent and violent outbursts of anti-Semitism.

In the spring of 1506, a drought and an epidemic claiming 100 lives a day added to the anxiety, so a need arose to identify who had so angered God and brought down these punishments on the land.

The face of Jesus

On Sunday, April 19, prayers of supplication were being offered at the convent of Sao Domingos de Lisboa, when one congregant exclaimed he had seen the illuminated face of Jesus emanating from the altar.

At this point, according to the accounts of several chroniclers, a New Christian present suggested that there was a simple explanation for the divine vision — an optical illusion. The response of the assembled was to drag the unbeliever to the square outside the church and beat him to death. The same fate was met by another member of the faithful who dared to suggest that the first man was right.

After all the New Christians in the church had been murdered, the violence spread across the city, encouraged by the presence in town of a number of foreign sailors, many of them from Germany, who took it upon themselves to run down and kill Jews. Also, several Dominican priests promised that townspeople would be absolved of any sins if they killed heretics during the days before Easter.

Chroniclers reported that more than 500 Jews were killed in Lisbon that Sunday — and the violence continued the following day. Extensive looting took place as well.

The king was away from the capital, and some attempts by the legal authorities to quash the rioting were quickly rebuffed. According to historian Francois Soyer, the violence went on until Thursday; estimates of the final death toll range from 1,000 to 4,000.

When the king, who had left the city earlier to avoid the plague, learned of the catastrophic events, he ordered Lisbon’s governor, who was also out of town, to have the perpetrators arrested and hanged.

Two Dominican priests who had helped instigate the marauders were defrocked and burned at the stake. The foreign merchant sailors returned to their vessels with their booty and left town. The Sao Domingos convent was shut down.

Finally, the king renewed for 30 years an ordinance that made it illegal for the authorities to interrogate New Christians about their faith or practices. Thus it was only in 1536 that an Inquisition was established in Portugal to root out heretics. The Spanish Inquisition had begun half a century earlier in 1478.