Beyond Tolerance and Persecution: Reassessing Our Approach

to Medieval Convivencia
Jonathan Ray
Jewish Social Studies, Volume 11, Number 2, Winter 2005 (New Series),
pp. 1-18 (Article)
Published by Indiana University Press
DOI: 10.1353/jss.2005.0018
For additional information about this article
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Beyond Tolerance and
Persecution: Reassessing
Our Approach to
Medieval Convivencia
Jonathan Ray
n 1992, the quincentennial marking the expulsion of the Jews from
Spain brought with it a flurry of studies on medieval Jewish, or
Sephardic, civilization. In the succeeding dozen years, Spain has
become an increasingly “hot” subject for medievalists and Judaicists
alike, and new courses on the diverse cultural legacy of the Iberian
Peninsula have continued to appear at colleges and universities
throughout the Europe, Israel, and North America.
The proliferation
of such curricula has been aided by the publication of sourcebooks and
readers that have enabled even nonspecialists to offer courses on medi-
eval Iberia that highlight the important contributions of Muslims, Jews,
and Conversos to the broader history of the medieval Iberian world.
The historiographic motif that runs throughout this new interest in me-
dieval Spain is the subject of convivencia, or coexistence—a term that has
been used to describe the tripartite society of medieval Iberia ever since
it was introduced by the great Spanish philologist and historian Américo
Castro in the 1940s.
In recent years, this term has been embraced and
distorted by an ever-widening group of academics, journalists, and poli-
ticians, a phenomenon that increasingly challenges historians of medi-
eval Spain to return convivencia to its original context.
Jonathan Ray, “Beyond Tolerance and Persecution: Reassessing Our Ap-
proach to Medieval Convivencia,” Jewish Social Studies 11, no. 2 (Winter 2005):
In the field of Jewish Studies, the fascination with the relative accep-
tance of Jews in medieval Spain and the resulting rapprochement be-
tween the Sephardim and their host societies date back to the
German-Jewish Wissenschaft historians of the late nineteenth century.
Frustrated by the Jews’ problematic encounter with modern European
culture, the founders of Jewish Studies thought they had found, with
the medieval Sephardim, a paradigm of a Jewish society that could in-
tegrate into its host culture without losing its own identity.

Over the course of the past 50 years, Hispanists and scholars of Jew-
ish history have taken up the discourse on the nature of convivencia,
using it as a lens through which medieval Iberian civilization might be
understood. The debate has traditionally centered around two polar-
ized views. Some regard medieval Iberian society as a model of toler-
ance and cross-cultural interaction. This, indeed, was the original
stance of both Castro and the Jewish historians who preceded him.
Whereas the Wissenschaft scholars sought a paradigm of Jewish-
gentile symbiosis, Castro and his followers hoped to explain the
unique character of Spanish civilization and believed that the answer
was the contributions of Iberia’s Muslim and Jewish societies. They ar-
gued that España es diferente—“Spain is different”—from the rest of
Latin Christendom, its civilization the product of a unique religious
and cultural frontier that brought Muslims, Christians, and Jews to-
gether in close contact with one another.
Castro’s vision of Spanish history as the result of cross-cultural influ-
ences was challenged by his lifelong critic and counterweight, Claudio
Sánchez Albornoz, who saw Muslims and Jews as having little impact
on the formation of the Spanish character, and who argued that medi-
eval Spanish culture is best characterized by conflict, not cooperation.
Although a somewhat altered version of Castro’s thesis has generally
won out among most Hispanists, the corrective offered by Sánchez
Albornoz has found increasing support within Jewish Studies, espe-
cially among scholars assessing Jewish life in Muslim Iberia. Influ-
enced, in part, by the deterioration of Arab-Israeli relations since the
1960s, a number of critics of convivencia have countered the idyllic
view of an interfaith utopia in medieval Spain, pointing out the perse-
cutions against Jewish populations under the Muslim Almoravid and
Almohad dynasties of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the wide-
spread Christian pogroms and forced conversions of Jews in 1391, and
the cycle of forced conversions, expulsions, and inquisitorial harass-
ment of Jewish and Muslim communities throughout the late medi-
eval and early modern periods.


Jonathan Ray
To be sure, recent decades have witnessed the publication of more
nuanced studies of Sephardic interaction with gentile culture, many of
which have wisely substituted geographically and temporally limited
portraits for the broad canvases favored by the likes of Castro and
Sánchez Albornoz. Nonetheless, the tendency to couch the discussion
of medieval convivencia in terms of either persecution or tolerance
has proved to be remarkably durable. Scholars continue to gauge the
Jewish experience in medieval Iberia in terms of their treatment by
Muslims and Christians, and to search for the moment when Spanish
coexistence and cooperation fell victim to the exclusivism that had al-
ready swept across much of Europe.

One of the principal reasons for the persistence of this oversimpli-
fied view of convivencia has been the topic’s recent popularity both
among nonacademics (as evidenced by a profusion of articles and ed-
itorials in the popular press) and among scholars of adjacent fields of
academic inquiry, including literary criticism and political science.
Two recent articles in a leading travel magazine illustrate the degree to
which the term has taken on a life of its own—albeit a life that continues
to reflect back on its initial, academic context. One piece, entitled
“Long Live Convivencia!,” notes that the term best characterizes the
desire for peaceful relations and mutual respect held by native Span-
iards as well as by that country’s growing population of immigrants
from North Africa. Writing about the meaning of convivencia in con-
temporary Chilean society, another author notes: “It is an extremely
useful word, at least in Chile, because it means ‘coexistence’ or ‘living
together.’ And the Chileans—unlike, for example, the Israelis or even
the Spanish—take great pride in their convivencia skills.”
That this
definition retains echoes of Castro’s original points of reference—
Spain, Jews, Muslims—gives some indication (if only as a negative
proof) of how the widespread use of the term has the potential to dis-
tort discussion of this topic. Indeed, the nonspecialists have emerged
as the dominant voice in the debate on medieval Iberian history, and,
as a result, those of us who write and teach on the Jews of this period
continue to confront this old, polarized discussion of convivencia.
The subject of medieval convivencia, including the term’s recent
popularity as a catch phrase outside of academia, is one that can oc-
cupy a much longer study than what I present here. The following ob-
servations are thus offered not as a resolution to this dilemma, nor as
a full exposition of the topic of Jewish-gentile relations in medieval
Iberia, but rather as a suggestion of a way to reorient the discussion on
this topic. It is my hope that some of the points I present will be helpful
to those who are dealing with these same issues, whether inside or out-
side the classroom, and whether for the Muslim or the Christian period
of Hispano-Jewish history.
By focusing on Jewish legal status, or on the mentalité and attitudes
of the majority culture toward the Jews, the discussion of convivencia
within scholarly circles often becomes reduced to the question “Was it
good for the Jews?” In my opinion, comparing levels of tolerance
under Muslim and Christian rule (that is, where was it better for the
Jews) offers little variation on this theme.
Instead, I would like to
pose the following: What were the attitudes of the medieval
Sephardim themselves? How did they view their social, political, and
economic relationship to gentile society? I will endeavor to answer
these questions, first by looking at the stance of medieval Jewish au-
thorities toward what scholars today often label as manifestations of
convivencia. I will then move from attitudes to actions, looking briefly
at some of the ways in which individual Jews navigated between the var-
ious boundaries of identity in Iberian culture. Several aspects of this
reassessment of medieval convivencia are also applicable to the Jewish
experience in Muslim al-Andalus as well as to other premodern Jewish
communities. For reasons of convenience, however, I have attempted
to narrow my analysis to Jewish life in Christian Iberia during the thir-
teenth and fourteenth centuries.

I propose that it was specifically those aspects of medieval conviven-
cia most frequently lauded as ideal—that is, those of an open and ac-
cepting society—that medieval Hispano-Jewish authorities found to be
the most problematic. For Jewish spiritual and communal leaders, at
least, the real problem was not the exclusion but rather the acceptance
of Jews. After all, a certain amount of exclusion and “intolerance” (to
use a popular anachronism) was to be expected. Theologically speak-
ing, Jews understood themselves to be in Exile among the Nations as
divine punishment for their sins. But Christian and Muslim permis-
siveness presented these leaders with a much thornier problem. How
do you prevent the social, economic, and political assimilation into
non-Jewish society of the constituent members of your communities?
How do you maintain social cohesion, religious identity, and a control-
lable taxbase when Jews are allowed to settle outside of their desig-
nated quarters, dress like gentiles, socialize with gentiles, and even
take gentile lovers?
It should first be pointed out that the permeability of religious and
social boundaries on the Iberian Peninsula predates the Middle Ages.
As early as the Council of Elvira in the early fourth century, we have evi-
dence that Jews and Christians socialized together, that they inter-
married, and even that Christians asked Jewish leaders to bless their

Jonathan Ray
crops. Although anti-Jewish policies generally prevailed under Visi-
gothic rule, the problems arising from the accessibility and attraction
to various aspects of gentile society and culture once again came to
pose a formidable challenge to Jewish authorities throughout the Mus-
lim period. During the high Middle Ages, royal authorities in Chris-
tian Iberia generally took a laissez-faire attitude toward the social
interaction of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Laws that were meant to
separate and distinguish members of the three religious communities,
such as those drawn up at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, were
generally ignored. Despite the recurrence of negative representations
of Jews and Muslims in the Christian literature of the Reconquest, bal-
lads and poems such as the Cantigas de Santa María nonetheless reflect
a society in which social, cultural, and economic relations between in-
dividuals of all faiths remained remarkably open and fluid.

It was precisely this openness to heterodox groups that was a cause of
concern for Jewish authorities. In the thirteenth century, leading Jew-
ish moralists and would-be reformers Jonah Gerondi and Todros ben
Joseph Halevi Abulafia of Toledo addressed the issue of the ethical con-
duct of Spain’s Jewish communities.
Although their sermons and writ-
ings are filled with standard calls to greater piety (such as observance of
Shabbat and support of scholars and the poor), both also point to ex-
cessive social interaction with non-Jews as the leading cause for the low
state of Jewish morals.
Abulafia, who was writing while his young rela-
tive and namesake (Todros ben Judah Halevi Abulafia) composed
erotic verses about Muslim women, even blamed such intermingling
for a recent royal backlash against Jewish civil servants. This last case is
instructive, in that Abulafia clearly (and perhaps deliberately) misinter-
prets the cause of King Alfonso X’s anger with his Jewish courtiers.
Christian sources regarding the incident mention only that the Jews
were accused of redirecting royal funds to the king’s rebellious son.
Abulafia was less interested in the particulars of this crisis than in using
it as an opportunity to attack larger issues of acculturation. That Abula-
fia, or other reformers, should seek to explain the vicissitudes of Jewish
life as a result of moral laxity comes as no surprise. Yet their frequent
emphasis on the seductiveness of gentile society, and of gentile women
in particular, is worth noting. Such anxiety over the ease with which
Jews could and, evidently, did cross one of the most significant bound-
aries separating them from the gentiles can also be found in contempo-
rary mystical treatises and in the observations of foreign scholars such as
the French talmudist and preacher Moses de Coucy.

Behind the pietists’ complaints of sexual transgressions and the
more pragmatic concerns of Jewish communal officials (which I will
discuss further, below) loomed the great and abiding fear of Diaspora
Jewry: conversion. In medieval Spain, anxieties that acculturation
might lead to assimilation and the abandonment of the Jewish com-
munity were not unfounded. Even prior to the mass conversions of
1391, there is evidence that an increased familiarity with Christian so-
ciety had already convinced many Jews to adopt Christianity.
And for
many Jews, the rise of a Converso society in Spain in the decades fol-
lowing 1391 helped to sustain the allure of Christian intellectual and
material culture. Recently, Eric Lawee has shown how fifteenth-
century Jewish intellectuals wrote admiringly of several aspects of
Christian society, even as they continued to reject the Christian faith
and its theological underpinnings.
This somewhat ironic dichotomy
between the condemnation of wide-scale Jewish attraction to gentile
material culture and the concomitant admiration of Christian piety
and religious solidarity can be seen in Solomon Alami’s Igeret musar
(Epistle on Morality). Alami, who witnessed the events of 1391 and the
subsequent decline of much of Iberian Jewry, echoed the contempo-
rary notion that the Jews’ fate was a result of their own religious laxity.
What is of interest in his assessment is the portrayal of Christian society
as the custodian of proper social and religious boundaries between the
different faiths:
Because we arrayed ourselves in their apparel, they have clothed us in dif-
ferent garments, so that we might appear as aliens in their midst and
arouse derision and contempt in the sight of all; and because we have
trimmed the corners of our beards and our hair, they have compelled us
to let our beards grow long like mourners.
Far from lamenting what modern scholars identify as the rise of “intoler-
ance” in Spanish culture, Alami juxtaposes Jewish religious negligence
with gentile righteousness, and he praises the Christian world for provid-
ing wayward Jews with a model of religious cohesion and devotion:
How much our rich coreligionists could learn from their Christian neigh-
bors! The Christian princes and barons rival one another in efforts to pro-
mote and uphold their religion, and to train their youth in the pious
sentiments of their ancestors. Our Jewish rich despise their faith, and per-
mit the teachers of religion to eat the bread of sorrow and poverty.

Despite such views of Christian religious vitality, the depiction of
Christian secular culture as a garden of forbidden delights remained
an enduring image among Jewish writers of the late Middle Ages. This
view of gentile society is reflected in a well-known letter written by the

Jonathan Ray
fourteenth-century rabbi Yehoshua ha-Lorki to his erstwhile teacher,
Pablo de Santa María (né Shlomo ha-Levi), after the latter’s conver-
sion to Christianity. Struggling to comprehend the path taken by his
former mentor, ha-Lorki set forth a number of possible motivating fac-
tors, among them the following:
Perhaps your appetitive soul longed to climb the rungs of wealth and
honor which everyone desires, and to satisfy the craving soul with all man-
ner of food, and to gaze at the resplendent beauty of the countenance of
gentile women.

Rabbinic concerns about sexual liaisons between Jews and Christians
(itself a representation of the general seductiveness of Christian society
as a whole) are also reflected in contemporary Christian literature. In
the story of Marisaltos, a well-known Castilian folktale that appears in
Gonzalo de Berceo’s Milagros de Nuestra Señora and in Alfonso X’s Can-
tigas de Santa María, a beautiful Jewess is discovered with her Christian
lover. Enraged, the leaders of the Jewish community cast her from a
cliff, only to have the Virgin Mary intervene and save her. The story of-
fers a fairly common message of Christian forgiveness (and divine fa-
vor) over and against Jewish harshness and obstinacy, but the sense of
Jewish outrage at such relationships is not without historical merit. A re-
sponsum in the collection of Asher ben Yehiel, the leading rabbinic
sage of Castile in the early fourteenth century, records the case of a Jew-
ish widow near the town of Coca who had caused a scandal by taking a
gentile lover and becoming pregnant. Upon hearing about the situa-
tion, the great courtier-rabbi Yehudah ibn Waqar took it upon himself
to punish the widow. His letter to Rabbi Asher, in which he describes
the steps he took toward meting out justice, is particularly illuminating.
After obtaining sufficient testimony that the woman in question was
indeed guilty of fornication with a gentile, Ibn Waqar hesitated before
openly condemning her and her behavior. He explained:
Since I was afraid that perhaps she might be converted, it did not seem
[wise] to me to sermonize and to judge on this matter in public. I thus
brought this matter concerning the gentile before Don Juan, may the
Lord preserve him, while in Coca. And he responded that this was not a
matter for him to decide, since she was a Jewess, but that we should judge
her according to the laws of our Torah.
By Ibn Waqar’s own account, the Christian Infante, Don Juan,
seems to have been far less disturbed by the interfaith relation than his
Jewish counterpart. Furthermore, the mention of the woman’s poten-
tial conversion underscores Jewish anxiety over the very attractive op-
tion that Hispano-Christian society presented to medieval Sephardim.
Finally, Ibn Waqar resolves that the woman is to be disfigured, both as
a means of preserving the dignity and authority of the Jewish legal sys-
tem and to send a cautionary message to other Jewish women. His con-
cern that this is not an isolated occurrence, and that other Jews could
be easily enticed to commit similar transgressions, is unambiguous.
His letter continues:
[A]ll of the [Jewish] communities in the vicinity of Coca share rumors,
and thus the knowledge concerning this “whore” will spread among the
non-Jews, who will look scornfully at our laws, and in order that the
women should hear and not be like her. It occurred to me that since the
matter received so much notoriety, that she should be punished by cut-
ting off her nose in order to destroy the shape of her face which she
adorned for her paramour, and that she pay the lords of the city a certain
amount of money.
In his response, Rabbi Asher applaudes Ibn Waqar’s decision and echoes
the courtier’s apprehensions regarding the potential humiliation
posed by her conversion:
You have judged well to duly punish her so that she would become de-
spised by her paramour. This matter should be carried out immediately in
order that she not be allowed to escape by means of conversion.

Nor were pietists alone in regarding the relative openness of gentile
culture as inherently problematic. If rabbinic authorities were most
alarmed by Jewish sexual liaisons with gentiles, Jewish communal offi-
cials were primarily concerned by the development of social and politi-
cal ties between members of their communities and Christian
The most common manifestations of this phenomenon
were the chronic problem of malshinim, or informers, and the less cel-
ebrated yet equally distressing custom of Jews taking their legal cases
before royal, municipal, and even ecclesiastic courts.
Although Jews
were granted the right of judicial autonomy in cases between members
of their own faith, they had a difficult time establishing their courts as
the sole recourse for Jewish litigants. Christian and Jewish sources
both document the common practice of Jews turning to non-Jewish
judges, often after not receiving the verdict they wanted from their
local Jewish court.
Despite the formal recognition of Jewish autonomy, the challenge
posed by gentile courts as a potential alternative for Jewish litigants was

Jonathan Ray
an issue throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The more re-
ceptive these courts were to Jewish appeals, the greater the threat to
Jewish legal and communal authority.
In the lands of Christian Iberia,
Jewish willingness to patronize gentile courts was encouraged by the
friendly reception that they (and their financial inducements) often
received there, which was an indirect product of the system of social
and political structures we refer to as convivencia. In medieval Spain,
Christian tribunals had jurisdiction over cases involving both Jews and
Christians, and Jewish presence in these courts as well as the subse-
quent relationships they established with Christian judges were a part
of the fabric of their daily lives. For many Jews, the voluntary expan-
sion of these relationships into the realm of ostensibly internal com-
munal affairs was a logical expedience. A responsum by Solomon ibn
Adret deals with one case in which communal officials, helpless to pre-
vent their members from adopting local Christian customs regarding
inheritance, merely declared that such practice falls within the cate-
gory of dina de-malkhuta dina (the law of the land is binding), a tactic
that sent Ibn Adret into a fit of rage.
Such cases show that the average
Jew and even his communal leaders understood themselves to be liv-
ing in a relatively open marketplace of competing communal organi-
zations and institutions.
This fact raises another issue in the study of convivencia that merits
reconsideration. For Spain, as well as for other cultural borderlands of
the Middle Ages, scholars have tended to examine the cross-cultural
contacts of various religious and ethnic groups. In doing so, they have
focused their attention on issues such as the status of each group (Did
Jews have equal rights with other minorities?) and cultural borrowing
(To what degree were Jewish thought and attitudes shaped by other
Such an approach has been a valuable means of analysis
for intellectual and cultural histories, but it does little to illuminate
our understanding of daily life. It is my supposition that, by focusing
on the individual rather than on the group, we will gain greater insight
into the social history of Iberian Jewry and perhaps be able to avoid
some of the chronic problems of “myth and counter-myth” that have
so far dominated this subject.

Indeed, though the attraction of gentile women and gentile courts
might have been the principal concerns of Jewish spiritual and commu-
nal leaders, the degree to which individual Jews took advantage of what
we might call the “opportunities of convivencia” is not limited to these
areas. On the contrary, medieval Sephardic Jews tended to resist any
policies that would restrict their social and economic movement within
the larger society. The great territorial expansion of Christian Iberia
during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries created an imme-
diate need for settlers to help develop the economic and governmental
infrastructure of former Muslim lands. The dynamism and fluidity of
Spanish society during this period afforded Jews a relatively high de-
gree of social mobility, and many Jews responded by assuming several of
the features of Christian identity. Among these was Christian dress, par-
ticularly clothes commonly worn by Christian burghers and nobles,
which many Jews adopted in order to assume greater personal status
and, in some cases, to avoid financial burdens. Such practices were
sharply denounced by Jewish leaders, including Gerondi, who chided
Jews for attempting to hide their religious identity from gentiles in
order to avoid paying special taxes. Christian legislation aimed at regu-
lating Jewish dress was only loosely enforced, and decrees such as the
one issued at the Castilian Cortes of 1268 that prohibited Jews from as-
suming Christian names reflects Jewish interests in acculturation and
integration as much as it does a Christian campaign to exclude them.
Another significant way in which Jews were able to approximate the sta-
tus of conquering Christians was their ownership of Muslims slaves.
Christian victories and their later success in quelling Muslim rebellions
greatly increased both the number of Muslims who became enslaved
and the involvement of Jews in the trade and ownership of these
In contrast, the Jews themselves were protected under royal de-
cree from being enslaved by the conquering Christians.

The rapid expansion of Christian society during the high Recon-
quest also undermined efforts by both Christian and Jewish leaders to
maintain separate residential neighborhoods for members of the dif-
ferent faiths. Many of the Jews who migrated to the newly conquered
territories settled outside the limits of the official Jewish quarter, main-
taining only the most tenuous ties to the Jewish community. Through-
out the peninsula, leaders of Jewish communities repeatedly ordered
their members not to move their homes or businesses outside of the
quarter, and not to sell land within it to Christians, though to little
The nature of Jewish landownership also mirrored that of many
Christians. Not only were Iberian Jews permitted to own land, but the
types of lands they owned, as well as the social and economic status
they derived from these properties, closely paralleled the experiences
of other urban groups on the peninsula.
Under Muslim rule, urban property had been tied to gardens, vine-
yards, and orchards located outside of the town walls, and the transition
to Christian rule did little to alter this basic urban landscape. It was thus
commonplace that Jews who settled the cities of southern Iberia were
also involved in the cultivation of small plots of land and came to own a

Jonathan Ray
variety of urban and rural properties in much the same way as other set-
tlers. Additionally, some Jewish settlers possessed larger tracts of farm-
land beyond the municipal sphere and others participated directly in the
exploitation of rural lands as did their Christian and Muslim counter-
parts. Aharon Abinaffia, courtier to Pedro III of Aragon, was granted
ownership of two entire villages in the kingdom of Valencia, whose in-
habitants were mostly Muslim.
Indeed, the Castilian legal code Las
Siete Partidas prohibited Jews from employing Christians as domestic
servants but allowed Jews to engage them as agricultural laborers, and a
contemporary letter by Pope Gregory X complained of “possessions
that the Jews and Saracens cultivate or that they give to others to culti-
In 1297, an Aragonese royal privilege protected the rights of
Jewish laborers who had migrated to the rural district near Alicante, in
Valencia, in order to participate in the harvest there.

In addition to owning large estates, some Jews were granted rights
to own and operate mills, saltworks, and olive presses. The ownership
of flour mills is particularly interesting, because it has ramifications
that extend beyond economic opportunity and utility. In medieval so-
ciety, the ability to control such mills was generally a sign of seigneurial
power and gave Jews a small entry into a feudal (or, at least, quasi-
feudal) system from which they were typically excluded.
The avail-
ability in some rural areas of a large Muslim labor force even allowed
Jews to act as landlords in a style analogous to that of Christian caballeros
villanos, or urban non-noble knights, whose rise to prominence is one
of the hallmarks of social change in thirteenth-century Castile.
tially, the caballeros villanos derived their social rank from demonstra-
tions of military prowess, a quality for which there was no parallel
among the Jews. However, as the battles of conquest became fewer and
farther between, these urban knights continued to cling to their hard-
won status and honor as a hereditary distinction and vigorously at-
tempted to blur the lines between themselves and the lower nobility.
In this respect, they are indeed comparable to their wealthy and ambi-
tious Jewish neighbors.
The Jews’ attempts to assume features of Christian identity and the
corresponding efforts by Jewish (and to a lesser extent Christian) offi-
cials to prohibit such behavior were part and parcel of a broader
Iberian phenomenon. The pan-peninsular movement to resettle the
new territories increased the already peripatetic nature of Iberian so-
ciety, and the opportunities for military glory and economic advance-
ment opened by the conquest of these regions also helped to
challenge the existing social order. Jewish merchants and wealthy
landholders were as affected by these sweeping social changes as were
their Christian counterparts, and many joined these upwardly mobile
Christians in imitating the dress and customs of their social superiors.
Here we see something approaching a true example of convivencia. Not
only did Jews show a greater concern for personal advancement than
for religious or communal solidarity, but in doing so they demon-
strated their identities to be as much a product of the prevailing histor-
ical processes and social dynamics of the age as they were of the
discrete traditions of the Jewish community.
Thomas Glick has argued that, both in Muslim and in Christian Iberia,
inherent tensions between members of the three faiths were created
by the “dominant caste” that sought to restrict groups religiously yet
not economically. Glick, whose studies on the subject of convivencia
are among the most insightful and cogent work in this field, seems
here to overestimate the degree of control that both the crown and the
Jewish kahal (communal government) had over the actions of individ-
ual Jews during this period. To my mind, the inherent tensions that
Glick correctly identifies arose not from official policies (which were
always subject to suspension for Jews with money or connections) but
from the ability and willingness of Iberian Jews to construct identities
that transcended the limits of their religious communities.

In this article I have sought to redirect the current discussion of
convivencia in medieval Iberia and to move beyond the questions of
tolerance and persecution. First, I have suggested that we reexamine
some of the traditional hallmarks of convivencia by focusing on the at-
titudes and actions of medieval Jews themselves, rather than on per-
ceptions of the Jews held by the majority culture. In doing so, we see
that Jewish spiritual leaders and communal officials viewed the acces-
sibility of gentile culture as one of the primary challenges to Jewish re-
ligious piety, social cohesion, and political autonomy.
Second, the subject of convivencia has heretofore always been
viewed as a product of group dynamics—that is, the “coexistence” of
different groups constructed by religion or ethnicity. What I am sug-
gesting is that, though Jews do retain an important identity qua Jews,
in their own eyes and in the eyes of their contemporaries, it is nonethe-
less important to recognize that they also possessed a number of other
characteristics and associations that contributed to their overall iden-
tity. As with periodization, we use groups as a way of studying history
while understanding that there is a certain arbitrary quality to the way

Jonathan Ray
we set the limits of our subject. Just as we know that there is no great
difference between 1399 and 1401, we also understand that the vari-
ous members of subject groups (such as peasants, nobles, monks)
maintained other identities as well (such as women, siblings, crimi-
nals) and could be viewed in a different context. Following such logic,
part of my argument has been that we need not only view Jews qua
Jews. This position is somewhat counterintuitive for those of us who
are scholars of Judaica, as it goes against our very raison d’être. None-
theless, by looking at the individual rather than at the interaction of
the peninsula’s three confessional groups, I hope to draw greater at-
tention to the question of identity formation in medieval Iberian soci-
ety. In addition to taking advantage of royal incentives and charters
that granted them a legal status on par with that of their Christian
counterparts, Jews availed themselves of opportunities for economic
advancement and social mobility that further obscured the lines be-
tween them and their gentile neighbors. The former can be explained
as royal desires to privilege a group over which it had certain posses-
sory rights; the latter gives us much greater insight into the attitudes of
the individual Jews themselves.

The resurgence in popularity of medieval Spanish civilization and
the ongoing conflict in the Middle East will, no doubt, continue to sus-
tain interest in the subject of convivencia as well as to distort its inter-
pretation. I nonetheless believe that the history of Iberian Jewry, and
of medieval Spain in general, holds relevance beyond the search for
utopian models of interfaith harmony or the roots of modern anti-
semitism. I propose that if, as both Christian and Jewish sources seem
to suggest, medieval Spanish Jews continually pursued associations
and social positions that closely resembled those of their Christian
counterparts, then perhaps we have to revise our notion of conviven-
cia as merely a measurement of tolerance. Rather than continue to dis-
cuss this society in terms of religious communities, it might be more
profitable to view it as a product of a variety of contending identities
and social, cultural, and religious tensions that existed between the in-
dividual and a number of possible groups.
1 In 1995, the International Cen-
ter for University Teaching of
Jewish Civilization published an
interdisciplinary and multi-
lingual collection of course syl-
labi, edited by Jane Gerber,
entitled Sephardic Studies in the
University (Madison, N.J., 1995).
Since 1998, a separate caucus of
scholars affiliated with the Asso-
ciation for Jewish Studies has
continued to promote the devel-
opment of university courses in
Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry.
2 These include O. R. Constable,
Medieval Iberia: Readings from
Christian Muslim and Jewish
Sources (Philadelphia, 1997); C.
Smith, ed., Christians and Moors
in Spain, 3 vols. (Warminster,
1988–92); and E. R. Dixson, ed.
The Crusades: A Reader (Toronto,
2003), which includes a section
on the “Conflict and Coexist-
ence in Spain.” A fine collection
of articles can be found in T.
Glick, V. Mann, and J. Dodds,
eds., Convivencia, Jews, Muslims,
and Christians in Medieval Spain
(New York, 1992)
3 See Américo Castro’s classic
study, España en su historia
(Madrid, 1948), 200–209. The
term was originally employed by
Castro’s teacher, Ramón
Menéndez Pidal, to describe lin-
guistic development.
4 On the importance of medieval
Sepharad to the German-Jewish
academics of the nineteenth
century, see I. Schorsch, “The
Myth of Sephardic Supremacy,”
Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 34
(1989): 47–66.
5 Sánchez Albornoz’ polemic
against Castro and his view of
convivencia is contained within
his monumental España: Un
enigma histórico, 2 vols. (Buenos
Aires, 1956), and in his El drama
de la formación de España y los es-
pañoles (Barcelona, 1973). For
an overview of this debate, see T.
Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain
in the Early Middle Ages (Prince-
ton, 1979), 6–13.
6 M. R. Cohen, “The Neo-Lachry-
mose Conception of Jewish Arab
History,” Tikkun 6 (1991): 55–
60, and the article by E. Roth-
stein, “Was the Islam of Old
Spain Truly Tolerant?” New York
Times, Sept. 27, 2003, p. 9.
7 A. Meyuas Ginio, “øConvivencia
o coexistencia? Acotaciones al
pensamiento de Américo Cas-
tro,” in Creencias y culturas, ed. A.
Meyuas Ginio and C. Carrete
Parrondo (Salamanca, 1998),
147–58; E. W. Monter, “The
Death of Coexistence: Jews and
Moslems in Christian Spain,” in
The Expulsion of the Jews, 1492 and
After, ed. R. Waddington and A.
Williamson (New York, 1994),
15–17; M. González Jiménez, “El
Fracaso de la convivencia de
moros y judíos en Andalucía (ss.
XIII–XV),” in Proyección histórica
de España, vol. 1, ed. E. L. Sanz
(Valladolid, 1993), 129–49.
More generally, see R. I. Moore,
Formation of a Persecuting Society
(Oxford, 1987), and David
Nirenberg’s thoughtful refuta-
tion Communities of Violence: Per-
secution of Minorities in the Middle
Ages (Princeton, 1996).
8 For recent examples, see Maria
Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of
the World: How Muslims, Jews, and
Christians Created a Culture of Tol-
erance in Medieval Spain (Boston,
2002), and the editorial by po-
litical scientist Seyla Benhabib
in response to the attacks on
Turkish Synagogues, in the New
York Times, Nov. 18, 2003. See
also the comments of Norman
Stillman, “Myth, Counter-myth,

Jonathan Ray
and Distortion,” Tikkun 6
(1991): 60–64, in response to
the work of Mark Cohen.
9 J. Tayler, “Long Live Conviven-
cia!” Condé Nast Traveler (July
2004): 86–93. On Chile, see G.
Wells, “Looking for Pablo,” Condé
Nast Traveler (Feb. 2004): 180.
10 For the comparative approach,
see M. R. Cohen, Under Crescent
and Cross: The Jews in the Middle
Ages (Princeton, 1994).
11 For a treatment of similar issues
in medieval Ashkenaz, see Ivan
Marcus, “A Jewish-Christian
Symbiosis: The Culture of Earl
Ashkenaz,” in Cultures of the Jews,
ed. D. Biale (New York, 2002),
12 Alfonso X, Cantigas de Santa
María, ed. W. Mettmann (Coim-
bra, 1959–72). On the portrayal
of Jews in these and other works
of the era, see L. Mirrer, “The
Jew’s Body in Medieval Literary
Portraits and Miniatures: Ex-
amples from the Cantigas de
Santa María and the Cantar de
mio Cid,” Shofar 12 (1994): 17–
30; E. Aizenberg, “Una judía muy
fermosa: The Jewess as Sex Object
in Medieval Spanish Literature
and Lore,” La Corónica 12
(1984): 187–94; and D. Carpen-
ter, “Social Perception and Lit-
erary Portrayal: Jews and
Muslims in Medieval Spanish
Literature,” in Glick et al., Con-
vivencia, 61–81.
13 Jonah Gerondi, Shaarei tshuvah
(Jerusalem, 1967), chap. 3, sec-
tions 131–33. Abulafia’s sermon
can be found in the responsa
collection of Judah ben Asher,
Zikheron yehudah (Berlin, 1946),
43a–45b. On the Jewish moral-
ists of the period and their at-
tack on the courtier elite, see
Yizhak Baer’s treatment of the
Raaya mehemanah in his A History
of the Jews in Christian Spain, 2
vols. (Philadelphia, 1961), 1:
14 See M. Saperstein, “The Preach-
ing of Repentance and the Re-
forms in Toledo of 1281,” in
Models of Holiness in Medieval Ser-
mons, ed. B. M. Kienzle (Louvain-
la-Neuve, 1996), 157–74.
15 On the impact of the political
tensions of the period on
Toledan Jewry, see Baer, Jews in
Christian Spain, 1: 129–30, 257–
61. See also A. Ballesteros,
“Burgos y la rebellion de Infante
Don Sancho,” Boletín de la Real
Academia de la Historia 119
(1946): 93–191.
16 Moses ben Jacob de Coucy, Sefer
Mitsvot Gadol, Negative Com-
mandment 112. Moses de Leon,
author of the mystical treatise
Sefer ha-Zohar also fulminated
against the practice of taking
Muslim concubines. Such rela-
tions were portrayed as a viola-
tion of Jewish holiness. Zohar,
II:3b, 7a, 87b.
17 N. Roth, “Jewish Conversos in
Medieval Spain: Some Miscon-
ceptions and New Information,”
in Marginated Groups in Spanish
and Portuguese History, ed. W. D.
Phillips, Jr., and C. R. Phillips
(Minneapolis, 1986), 23–52.
18 E. Lawee, “Changing Jewish Atti-
tudes Towards Christian Society:
The Case of Spain in the Late
Middle Ages,” in Facing In and
Facing Out: Gentiles in the Eyes of
Jewish Traditionalists, ed. M.
Brown (Toronto, 2001), 1–15.
In this vein, see also C. Carrete
Parrondo, “Fraternization Be-
tween Jews and Christians in
Spain before 1492,” American
Sephardi 9 (1978): 15–21.
19 Solomon Alami, Igeret musar, o,
Igeret ha-tokhehah veha-emunah,
ed. A. M. Habermann (Jerusa-
lem, 1946). Translation taken
from Baer, Jews in Christian
Spain, 2: 239–42.
20 The translation is taken from
Benjamin Gampel, “A Letter to
a Wayward Teacher,” in Biale,
Cultures of the Jews, 391.
21 Asher ben Yehiel, Sheelot u-
tshuvot (Responsa) (Jerusalem,
1965), section XVIII, no. 13. Al-
though some editions of the text
refer to the gentile as a Muslim
(ha-Ismaeli), this appears to be a
form of self-censorship per-
formed by Jewish printers living
in Christian lands during the
early modern period. The lack
of a significant Muslim popula-
tion in northern Castile at this
time and the involvement of the
Infante Don Juan both point to
the man in question being a
22 On the distinction between rab-
binic and lay authorities in me-
dieval Iberia, see Jonathan Ray,
“Royal Authority and the Jewish
Community: The Crown Rabbi
in Medieval Spain and Portu-
gal,” in Jewish Religious Leader-
ship: From Biblical Models Through
the Middle Ages, ed. J. Wert-
heimer (New York, 2004).
23 Yom Tov Assis, “Yehudei sefarad
be-arkaot ha-goyim,” in Tarbut
ve-hevrah be-toldot yisrael bi-ymei-
ha-benayim, ed. M. Ben Sasson,
R. Bonfil, and Y. Hacker ( Jeru-
salem, 1989), 399–430. On the
problem of informers and the
response of Sephardic authori-
ties, see Asher ben Yehiel, Re-
sponsa, section XVII, nos. 1, 6, 8;
Solomon ben Abraham ibn
Adret, Sheelot u-tshuvot ha-rashba
(Responsa) ( Jerusalem, 1996),
section V, nos. 287–89; Ben
Asher, Zikheron yehudah, no. 63;
D. Kauffman, “Jewish Informers
in the Middle Ages,” The Jewish
Quarterly Review, o.s. 8 (1896):
217–38; I. Epstein, The “Re-
sponsa” of Rabbi Solomon Adret of
Barcelona 1235–1310 as a Source
of the History of Spain (London,
1923), 48–53; Baer, Jews in Chris-
tian Spain, 1: 232–33, 285; and E.
Lourie, “Mafiosi and Malsines:
Violence, Fear, and Faction in
the Jewish Aljamas of Valencia
in the Fourteenth Century,” in
Congreso Internacional “Encuentro
de las tres Culturas,” vol. 4, ed. C.
Carrete Parrondo (Toledo,
1988), 69–102.
24 For Christian Iberia, see Assis,
“Yehudei sefarad be-arkaot ha-
goyim.” For the Muslim period,
see M. Lehmann, “Islamic Legal
Consultation and the Jewish-
Muslim ‘Convivencia’: Al-
Wansharisi’s Fatwa Collection as
a Source for Jewish Social His-
tory in ‘al-Andalus’ and the
Maghrib,” Jewish Studies Quarterly
6 (1999): 25–54.
25 Ibn Adret, Sheelot u-tshuvot, sec-
tion VI, no. 254.
26 Recent examples include N.
Roth, “The Civic Status of the Jew
in Medieval Spain,” in Iberia and
the Mediterranean World of the Mid-
dle Ages, vol. 2, ed. P. E. Cheved-
den, D. J. Kagay, and P. G. Padilla

Jonathan Ray
(Leiden, 1996), 139–61, and D.
Nirenberg, “Religious and Sex-
ual Boundaries in the Medieval
Crown of Aragon,” in Christians,
Muslims, and Jews in Medieval and
Early Modern Spain, ed. M. Meyer-
son and E. English (Notre Dame,
Ind., 1999), 141–60. For similar
treatments of other regions, see
N. Berend, At the Gates of Christen-
dom: Jews, Muslims and “Pagans”
in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000–c.
1300 (Cambridge, Engl., 2001),
and Maria Georgopoulou, “Map-
ping Religious and Ethnic Iden-
tities in the Venetian Colonial
Empire,” Journal of Medieval and
Early Modern Studies 26 (1996):
467–97, here 470.
27 See Cohen, Under Crescent and
Cross, chap. 1, and Stillman,
“Myth, Counter-myth.”
28 M. Colmeiro, ed., Cortes de los an-
tiguos reinos de León y de Castilla, 3
vols. (Madrid, 1884), 1: art. 7,
68; Jonah ben Abraham
Gerondi, Sefer ha-yirah (Jerusa-
lem, 1975), 5b.
29 For the medieval slave trade on
the Iberian Peninsula, see C.
Verlinden, “L’esclavage dans la
péninsula Ibérique au XIVe
siècle,” Anuario de Estudios Medi-
evales 7 (1970–71): 577–91, and
S. Bensch, “From Prizes of War
to Domestic Merchandise: The
Changing Face of Slavery in Cat-
alonia and Aragon, 1000–1300,”
Viator 25 (1994): 63–93. On the
Jewish role, see L. Simon,
“Muslim-Jewish Relations in Cru-
sader Majorca in the Thirteenth
Century: An Inquiry Based on
Patrimony Register 342,” in Mey-
erson and English, Christians,
Muslims, and Jews, 125–40.
30 See Jaime I’s prohibition against
taking Jews as slaves in J. Villa-
nueva, Viatge Literario a las igle-
sias de España, vol. 22 (Madrid,
1852), 314.
31 E. Gutwirth, “Hispano-Jewish At-
titudes to the Moors in the Fif-
teenth Century,” Sefarad 49
(1989): 249. The same prohibi-
tions were often issued by lead-
ers of Muslim communities.
32 Archivo de la Corona de Ara-
gon, reg. 37, fol. 93.
33 Alfonso X, Las Siete Partidas,
7.24.8. For Gregory X’s letter,
see Biblioteca de la Catedral de
Córdoba, ms. 125, fol. 34r, cited
in Corpus mediaevale cordubense,
vol. 1, ed. M. Nieto Cumplido
(Córdoba, 1979), 80–81.
34 J. M. de Estal, Alicante, de villa a
ciudad (1252–1490) (Alicante,
1990), 210–11.
35 For Jewish ownership of mills,
see Archivo Zaida de Valencia,
caja III, perg. 17; Archivo de la
Catedral de Sevilla, caja 4, no.
45/1, S. A. 1-7-83; and Y. T. Assis,
Jewish Economy in the Medieval
Crown of Aragon (Leiden, 1997),
36 On the caballeros villanos, see
T. Ruiz, Crisis and Continuity,
Land and Town in Late Medieval
Castile (Philadelphia, 1994),
237–48, and C. Pescador, “La
Caballería popular en León y
Castilla,” Cuadernos de historia de
España 33–34 (1961): 101–238,
35–36 (1962): 56–201, 37–38
(1963): 88–198, and 39–40
(1964): 169–260.
37 For royal attempts to curtail
such excesses through the pro-
mulgation of various sumptuary
laws, see T. F. Ruiz, “Expansion
et changement: La conquete de
Séville et la société castillane
(1248–1350),” Annales Economies
Sociétés et Civilisations 34 (1979):
548–65, and J. D. González Arce,
Apariencia y Poder: La legislación
suntuaria castellana en los siglos
XIII y XIV (Jaén, 1998).
38 T. Glick, “Convivencia: An Intro-
ductory Note,” in Glick et al.,
Convivencia, 5.
39 For royal legislation and Jewish
status during this period, see N.
Roth, “The Civic Status.” For the
somewhat anomalous view that
Alfonso X’s legal reforms mark
the beginning of the end of con-
vivencia, see R. Rosenstein,
“Convivencia and Outsiderhood
in the Galician-Portuguese Can-
cioneros: The Place of the ‘Mus-
lim, Jew or Heretic’ (Siete
Partidas),” in Toleranz und Intol-
eranz im Mittelalter: VIII. Jahresta-
gung der Reineke-Gesellschaft
(Greifswald, 1997), 83–91.

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