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INTRODUCTION

Whoever comes to know Joseph Penso de la Vega's Confusion de Confusiones


will recognize at once that he is concerned with a literary oddity. Here is a book
written in Spanish by a Portuguese Jew, published in Amsterdam, cast in dialogue
form, embellished from start to finish with biblical, historical, and mythological
allusions, and yet concerned primarily with the business of the stock exchange and
issued as early as 1688. Such a volume obviously requires a good deal of explaining.

I
Let us begin by identifying the ethnic group to which the author belonged. This
was the Sephardic community of Amsterdam, the term "Sephards" being given to
those Jews whose ancestors had lived on the Iberian peninsula — in contrast to the
term "Ashkenasim," which was used to designate Jews of central or eastern Euro
pean origin. During the fifteenth century great pressure was exerted by the Church
authorities in Spain and Portugal to induce the Jews (and equally the Moors)
resident there to accept Christianity. Some did, but many merely went through the
necessary motions and secredy retained their earlier faith. When in 1492 the un
converted Jews (and Moors) were expelled from Spain, many fled to Portugal; but
in 1536 the Portuguese also introduced the Inquisition, and the recent immigrants
had to look elsewhere for asylum. Many of the purely nominal Chrisdans, the
"Christianos nuevos," as they were called in Spain, joined their more stiff-backed
brethren in these pilgrimages. It is probably also true, relative to the second migra
tion, that some of the Jews in Spain and Portugal were attracted to the cities of
northern Europe by the economic opportunities there offered to their entrepreneurial
skills.
At all events, the de la Vega family seems to have been numbered among the
"new Christians." An earlier generation had moved to Portugal; then, perhaps after
1536, it returned to Spain; and finally, a hundred years later, about 1630, it migrated
to the Low Countries. It found substantial colonies already settled on the banks of
the lower Elbe and the lower Amstel, where the members could, of course, live
openly according to their traditions. The first immigrants of this character had
appeared at the close of the fifteenth century; the stream had increased in size in the
succeeding century; and by the time of the appearance of our Confusion de Con-
fusiones the Sephardic communities of northern Europe had in fact reached what
was to constitute the height of their influence in that area. The major part of these
colonies spoke the Portuguese language, since that was the official language of their
congregations. Therefore their members came to be referred to by the Gentiles as
"Portuguese" or "Portuguese Jews." However, curiously enough, those of the group
who acquired literary ambitions chose to write their poems, plays, legal treatises,
and other works in Spanish. Presumably a larger proportion of the educated ele
ment knew Spanish rather than either Portuguese or Dutch, or else Spanish was a
language common to all these elements, whatever their native language.