Jewish Portugal

Prior to the formal start of Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536, Portugal’s Jewish population lived in relative peace. Some Portuguese Jews even held important positions within the Royal administration and many others aided the Kingdom during its Golden Age of discovery as scientists, navigators, and astronomers. Portuguese Jews were the majority of doctors at the time.

During this period, Portugal’s population only stood at roughly one million (compared to 10 million in 2018), with estimates putting Jews making up 20% of the entire population. However, the situation changed drastically in the very late 15th and early 16th-century.

Portuguese Inquisition

The institution of the Inquisition had been established in Rome as early as the 14th century with its intentions to root out what was considered “heresy,” including those practicing Islam (Moors in Iberia), Catharism and of course Judaism.

Jewish PortugalFriday, 13 October 1307 (a date sometimes linked with the origin of the Friday the 13th superstition) is when Knights Templars of the Cathar sect were murdered in South-western France, including at Carcassonne above

After the Royal marriage between the Prince of Portugal and the Princess of Spain in 1498, a Royal Decree ordered the full conversion of the Jews in Portugal. Therefore, the early 16th century witnessed a period of turmoil within the Portuguese Jewish population, gradually becoming more extreme. Most Jews chose to convert against their will, however, persecutions, interrogations/torture and death sentences followed for those that chose not to willfully accept conversions.

Those that accepted being converted, known as New Christians (or Conversos and Marranos in Portuguese) were often treated with suspicions as there were naturally few “real conversions”.

Jewish PortugalInquisition torture device captured in the Jewish Museum of Girona, Spain

Those who were able to flee the persecution (known as “Sephardim” or Jews from the Iberian Peninsula) settled in the New World (particularly newly-discovered Brazil), as well as safer havens such as North Africa, Greece, and the Netherlands.

Rise of Conversos

These Conversos included roughly 40,000 people who between 1492 and 1498 had fled from Spain and settled in towns close to the Portuguese/Spanish border, especially in the more remote mountainous northern regions, such as Castelo Branco. Conversos settled in Jewish Quarters, known as Juderias. In such towns as Belmonte, Guarda, Trancoso, Covilha, Castelo de Vide, Judeiras have been well-preserved and are a portal to the past.

Jewish PortugalGuarda’s Jewish Quarter (Juderia)

Jewish PortugalMedieval cross marking on a wall in Guarda’s Jewish Quarter (Juderia) depicting houses of Conversos

Conversos were forced to adopt New Christian-sounding surnames, which are common in both Portugal and Portuguese-speaking countries today. This suggests that persons with these surnames are highly likely to have some Portuguese Jewish ancestry. Some common “New Christian” surnames include: Rodrigues, Nunes, Mendes, Lopes, Miranda, Gomes, Henriques, Costa, Fernandes, Pereira, Pinto, Coelho, Cardoso e Alves. Chances are you may have a friend with one of the following middle/surnames.

Although such Conversos were generally well-received in Portugal by the others, high-ranking Church officials and the Grand Inquisitor appointed by the Pope rightly suspected many of them of secretly following the Jewish faith.

Lisbon Massacre of 1506

On April 19, 1506, 2,000 alleged Jewish followers were killed in Lisbon, after one congregant exclaimed that 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, a simple optical illusion. Although ridiculous by modern standards, it just goes to show how devout and ignorant many were in the Middle Ages. Thousands more died on the coming days as well as extensive looting.

Jewish PortugalGerman woodcut depicting the Lisbon massacre of 1506. Source: Wikipedia

In the 16th and 17th centuries, many thousands of New Christians who refused to confess following Judaism were burned at the stake in many towns’ pillories (Pelourinho in Portuguese). The Portuguese Inquisition did not officially end until 1821.

Jewish PortugalClose up of a pillory on the town square in Constancia, Portugal

Jewish Resilience

Crypto-Jews are defined as those that secretly adhere to Judaism while publicly professing another faith by using complex social strategies. One example is the humble yet highly symbolic Portuguese-Kosher dish: alheira. According to an interesting article entitled, the History of the Inquisition Wrapped Up in a Sausage:

“It [alheira] derives its name from alho, garlic in Portuguese, and follows the northern region’s sausage recipes, incorporating bread crumbs, garlic, and mountain herbs. It looked like the pork sausage commonly seen hanging in front of homes before the advent of the refrigerator and was also hung outside Jewish homes. But instead of pork, the alheira used game: chicken, duck, quail, or any other kosher meat.”

Jewish PortugalAlheira in a basket

Another example of the sort of deceptions carried out was to simultaneously adopt various family names. According to The Myth of Marrano Names, “The Inquisition, as we know, persecuted Jews on a family basis, and this was one of the reasons why the Marranos adopted simultaneously two or three names (and often skipping names within generations), so that the work of the inquisitorial agents became more difficult and the risk to the families smaller. In the large books where the Inquisitors registered all the names of the prisoners suspected of Judaism, we can find many repetitions related to the names, and sometimes the Inquisitors themselves became confused and could not identify the suspected ones.” Perhaps this may be one reason why it’s so common for many of those deriving from Portuguese-roots have multiple surnames.

Although we may look back at this example with a sense of humor, at the time using these sorts of deceptions was a matter of life and death for many Crypto-Jews.

Belmonte Crypto-Jews

Belmonte (population: 3,000) is a quiet cobblestone-paved town on the foothills of the Serra das Estrelas Mountains, almost three hours drive from Lisbon and two hours’ from Porto. Belmonte holds an important place in Portugal’s Medieval Jewish history, which is present until today.

Jewish PortugalBelmonte is a sleepy town in north-eastern Portugal steeped with history

Belmonte is still home to a community of descendant Jews who, while having openly converted to Christianity 500 years ago, in fact lived a double-life. In public, they attended mass and celebrated feast days but in secret they observed their old religious values. Such as a game of Chinese Whispers, the traditions were passed down from generation to generation. Naturally with many generations, some of the more orthodox Jewish traditions were diluted, sometimes by ignorance and other times by fear, such as in the case those Belmonte-Jews have forsaken the ritual of circumcision. Currently there are approximately 300 descendants of the Crypto-Jews in Belmonte, which is incredible considering it’s been 500 years with little contact outside the region!

In 1996, a new synagogue (Bet Eliahu) was opened in the village through donations from various worldwide Jewish communities.

Jewish PortugalBet Eliahu Synagogue in Belmonte overlooking the olive-grove filled valley below

In 2005, the first dedicated Jewish Museum opened in Belmonte, describing in detail the history of the Belmonte Crypto-Jews and the wider context within the Iberian Peninsula. These developments have reinvigorated the isolated town and region with a new type of tourism.

Jewish PortugalGiant menorah in the historic center of Belmonte

Jewish PortugalJewish Museum in Belmonte

Pedro Alvares Cabral, Discoverer of Brazil, a Crypto-Jew?

Coincidently, or probably not, Belmonte is also the birthplace to the famous explorer, Pedro Álvares Cabral. According to History, he was the man who (accidentally) discovered Brazil in 1500, during Portugal’s Golden Age of discovery.

Jewish PortugalBelmonte Castle tower, birthplace of Pedro Alvares Cabral, widely regarded as the discoverer of Brazil. Notice the Brazilian flag on left

As the story goes (was even taught to the author of this article at school), his expeditionary fleet of thirteen caravels and 1,200 men was caught-up in a giant storm on his way to India. When the storm finally cleared, he spotted land, where is now modern-day Porto Seguro in the state of Bahia, Brazil. At first it was named Vera Consumer Resource GuideCruz (meaning True Cross). Eventually, colonists began referring to this new mysterious land as “Brazil” due to its abundance of a type of tree known as “Brazilwood”.

What is indisputable is that Cabral was from a prominent family in Belmonte and sailed with his fleet shortly after the after the Jewish Conversion Decree, issued in 1498. Interesting to note that Pedro Alvares Cabral’s expedition started in 1499, just one year after the Royal wedding that brought the obligation of conversions.  One theory among historians is that Cabral was fleeing persecution, along with 1,200 others and aimed at setting up the New World’s first Jewish community. Gaspar da Gama (Pilot of Vasco da Gama’s fleet), a Jew by birth who was forcibly baptized, accompanied Portuguese admiral Pedro Álvares Cabral in this journey. Other New Christians or Conversos were aboard the ships, many of whom stayed behind in Brazil to set up the first colonies.

Jewish PortugalMemorial to Pedro Alvares Cabral in Belmonte

However, for political gain, the Church and powers-to-be chose to spin the story towards their favor as Middle-Ages fake news.  

The period following the discovery of Brazil collimated in the colonization of the vast lands, mainly for the production of sugar. By 1624, approximately 50,000 Europeans lived in Brazil, many being expelled Jews and Conversors.

Making Amends With its Past

Even though the history of Portuguese Judaism is one of trauma, Portugal has taken small steps to make amends with its past. In 2013, the Portuguese government approved a law that made it possible (via a lengthy application) to grant Portuguese nationality through naturalization to the descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Portugal and Spain in the fifteenth century. Nearly 1,800 descendants of Sephardic Jews acquired the Portuguese nationality in 2017, with another 12,000 applications still pending (source).

For more details, please see this link to Portuguese Embassy in the US.  

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