Who were the Marranos? What does that term mean? Are there Marranos anywhere in the world nowadays? Are they considered to be Jewish?
This is one of the most fascinating and unfortunate episodes in Jewish History. Due to the complexity of the subject, I’ll address your questions in two installments. The first will cover who the Marranos were and possible sources and meanings of the term. The second installment will cover whether there are Marranos nowadays, and their status as Jews.
“Marranos” is generally a derogatory term referring to Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages who chose, or were forced, to convert to Christianity, yet continued to practice Judaism in secret. The more neutral and academic term for the clandestine worship of these secret Jews is “Crypto-Judaism”. The Hebrew term used for these outward converts who privately practiced Judaism is the more sympathetic word “Anusim”, meaning “forced ones”.
“Converso”, Latin for converted, was a more general term used for these baptized Jews and their descendants, whether they were suspected of secret adherence to Judaism or not. “New Christians” was a similar such term, but with a more explicit reference to a theological agenda. However, as suspicions, accusations, and the Inquisition became more forceful and widespread, these terms also came to have a derogatory connotation as part of the program to eradicate Jews and Judaism from Spanish lands.
A less known aspect of the Inquisition is that it was preceded by a century of intense persecution and massacres, resulting in a large percentage of conversions. These included the riots, burnings, and massacres of 1391 in Seville; of 1449 and 1467 in Toledo; and of 1473 in Cordoba and other widespread areas. It is estimated that 200,000 Jews saved their lives during this period by converting to Christianity in the wake of these persecutions. Other Jews left the country altogether, and around 100,000 remained in Spain as openly-practicing Jews.
Thus, by the time of the Castilian Alhambra Decree of 1492 (spurred by Inquisitor Torquemada, himself from a Converso family) that prohibited the practice of Judaism in Spain and required all remaining Jews to convert or leave, the large majority of Jews in Spain had already converted to Catholicism, and Conversos numbered hundreds of thousands. This culminated in the baptizing of tens of thousands of Jews in the three months before the deadline for expulsion, most of these undoubtedly to avoid expulsion rather than as a sincere change of faith. Through this century-long preemptive conversion, over half of the Jews in the Iberian Peninsula avoided the Decree of Expulsion which affected Spain’s remaining openly Jewish population in 1492.
While it was the openly Jewish population who was subject to the Expulsion, it was the Conversos who were the principal concern of the subsequent Inquisition; being suspected of continuing to practice Judaism while remaining in Spain. And it was they who were monitored by the Inquisition and subject to suspicions by Catholics of the secret practice of Judaism, also known as “Marranism”.
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 Spanish Y-chromosome DNA haplogroups appeared to support the idea that the number of forced conversions has been significantly underestimated, since 20% of the tested Iberian population had haplogroups consistent with Sephardi Jewish ancestry. This high percentage of modern-day Spaniards with Jewish genetic ancestry would thus indicate the proportion of Jews in the population at the time of mass conversions in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Regarding the source and meaning of the term Marrano, many suggestions have been offered. The most probable is from the Spanish word meaning swine or pig. While it has been suggested that this is based on the Jewish prohibition against eating pork, it is rather more likely intended to convey loathing toward these secret Jews. Interestingly, Jewish sources describe the pig as displaying outward signs of being kosher (cloven hooves) while nevertheless remaining internally non-kosher (being a non-ruminant). As such, it is possible that non-Jews adopted this term to indicate the Marranos’ purely external display of conversion while privately maintaining their “impure” Jewish ways. Alternatively, it’s interesting to consider whether loyal Jews might have coined this phrase as a criticism of their brethren, who, through a facade of conversion, attempted to appear “kosher” to the non-Jews, but who inwardly maintained what, to their oppressors, would be “unkosher”, Jewish ways.
Other less likely suggestions are that the term Marrano is derived from: 1] The Spanish verb “marrar” meaning “to deviate” or “to err”, in the sense that they deviated from their newly adopted faith by secretly continuing to practice Judaism. 2] Galician-Portuguese, where “marrar” means “to force” and marrano would mean “forced one,” indicating the compulsory nature of the conversions. 3] The Hebrew “marit ayin” (“external appearance”), referring to the fact that the Marranos were ostensibly Christian but actually Jews. 4] The Hebrew “mohoram” (“excommunicated”) and Arabic “muharram” (“forbidden, anathematized”). 5] Aramaic-Hebrew “mar anous” (“a forced person”). 6] Hebrew “mumar” (“apostate”) with the Spanish ending ano. 7] Arabic “mura’in” (“hypocrite”). 8] The Ecclesiastical term “maranatha” associated with excommunication as in “anathema maranatha”.
Stay tuned for the next installment in which we’ll explore what ultimately happened to the Marranos and what is their status as Jews.
- Wikipedia.org, “Marrano”
- JewishVirtualLibrary.org, “Christian-Jewish Relations: Marranos, Conversos & New Christians”
- JewishHistory.org, “The Marranos”