Today we have a guest post from Thomas Devaney, author of Enemies in the Plaza: Urban Spectacle and the End of Spanish Frontier Culture, 1460–1492. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, Spanish Christians near the border of Castile and Muslim-ruled Granada held complex views about religious tolerance. People living in frontier cities bore much of the cost of war against Granada and faced the greatest risk of retaliation, but had to reconcile an ideology of holy war with the genuine admiration many felt for individual members of other religious groups. After a century of near-continuous truces, a series of political transformations in Castile—including those brought about by the civil wars of Enrique IV's reign, the final war with Granada, and Fernando and Isabel's efforts to reestablish royal authority—incited a broad reaction against religious minorities. As Devaney shows, this active hostility was triggered by public spectacles that emphasized the foreignness of Muslims, Jews, and recent converts to Christianity.
In 1474, in the aftermath of devastating attacks against conversos, or converts from Judaism to Christianity, the converso poet Antón de Montoro dedicated a poem to Isabel I of Castile. In it, he lamented that he could never gain acceptance as a true Christian despite his orthodox behavior. “I always said,” he wrote, “that [the Virgin] remained immaculate, / and I never swore by the Creator! / I recited the Creed, / I worship pots of pork fat / and eat rashers of half-cooked bacon, / I listen to Mass and pray, / cross myself every which way / and never could I slay / this stain of converso. On all those holy days I pray, / with bent knees and great devotion / … so that my guilt would be removed, / but I never could lose the label / of the old faggot Jew.”
Montoro’s closing words—viejo, puto y judio—neatly encapsulate the position of conversos in late-medieval Castile. It was no accident that that a religious identifier was attached to a sexual one, linking two outcast groups in the worst popular insult that could be hurled—“faggot Jew!” There was a long tradition of associating marginalized groups with deviant sexual characteristics. In Castile, male Jews and Muslims were alternately accused of sexual insatiability and enhanced prowess on the one hand, and of effeminacy and homosexuality on the other. As David Nirenberg and others have shown, such stereotypes served to create and enforce boundaries between confessional communities. They were, like other contemporary anti-Semitic discourses, mostly about confirming Christian identities. In addition to discouraging cross-confessional sexual relations, the stereotype permitted Christians to project deviant carnal desires onto Jews and Muslims, thus defining Christians as pure and holy, and Jews as dirty and evil.