Tomás de Torquemada

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At his birth (1420, Torquemada, Castile, Spain) Tomás already had something to hide: his grandmother was a converso; a converted Jew; a New Christian.

Spain had more converted Jews than any other country; some had converted by choice, many more by force, but they were all regarded with suspicion and mistrust by the Old Christians. Some, called Marranos, were only nominally converted, and continued their Jewish customs in secret.

The result was the Spanish cult of sangre limpia, “pure blood”, that is, pure white Christian blood. Actually, since Spain had the largest Jewish population in medieval Europe and conversion and intermarriage were common, hardly anyone had sangre limpia, but many claimed to, and it was a constant preoccupation of the nobility. Torquemada’s life work was an attempts to achieve sangre limpia for Spain.

By 1479, when Spain was unified under Ferdinand and Isabella, Torquemada was a Dominican priest and Isabella’s confessor. Four years later he had established himself as the head of the Spanish Inquisition.

The purpose of the Inquisition was to root out heresy, and for Torquemada this meant destroying the Marranos. The Inquisition published a set of guidelines so that Catholics could inform on their Marrano neighbors:

  • If you see that your neighbors are wearing clean and fancy clothes on Saturdays, they are Jews.
  • If they clean their houses on Fridays and light candles earlier than usual on that night, they are Jews.
  • If they eat unleavened bread and begin their meal with celery and lettuce during Holy Week, they are Jews.
  • If they say prayers facing a wall, bowing back and forth, they are Jews.

The mildest penalty imposed on Marranos began with the forfeiture of their property, which proved to be a convenient fund-raising technique for the war against the Moors. This was followed by the public humiliation of being paraded through the streets wearing the sambenito, a sulfur-yellow shirt emblazoned with crosses that came only to the waist, leaving the lower body uncovered. They were then flogged at the church door. This was the punishment suffered by Juan Sánchez de Cepeda, the grandfather of Teresa de Avila.

The scale of punishments continued up to burning at the stake, which was performed as a public spectacle called an auto-da-fé (“act of faith”). If the condemned recanted and kissed the cross, they were mercifully garroted before the fire was set. If they recanted only, they were burned with a quick-burning seasoned wood. If not, they were burned with slow-burning green wood.

In 1490 Torquemada staged a famous show-trial, the LaGuardia trial. This involved eight Jews and conversos, who were accused of having crucified a Christian child. No victim was ever identified and no body was ever found; nevertheless all eight were convicted, on the strength of their confessions which were obtained through torture. They were burned at the stake.

Rumours about Jews committing ritual murder of Christian children have circulated around Europe for centuries and are known collectively as “the blood libel.” While there is no evidence to support the blood libel, its opposite, the ritual murder of Jews by Christians, is well known. The Spanish Inquisition alone committed the ritual murder of about thirty thousand Jews.

Torquemada used the LaGuardia trial to argue that the Jews were a danger to Spain. His intention was to convince Ferdinand and Isabella to order their expulsion. Hearing of this, two influential Jews raised thirty thousand ducats and offered it to Ferdinand and Isabella, saying they could give them even more if they would allow the Jews to remain. Ferdinand and Isabella, always hard up for cash, wavered at this; but Torquemada said, “Judas sold his Master for thirty ducats. You would sell Him for thirty thousand … Take Him and sell Him, but do not let it be said that I have had any share in this transaction.”

On March 31st, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella issued their Edict of Expulsion. “[We] have decided to command all of the aforesaid Jews, men and women, to leave our kingdoms and never to return to them.” The Jews were given until July 1st to leave the kingdom; any found within its borders after that date would be killed. Some fled to Portugal or North Africa, where they faced more persecution; some took ship with a foolhardy explorer named Christopher Columbus; some remained in Spain as “Secret Jews”, and their descendants are still Secret Jews today.

Having accomplished the expulsion of the Jews, Torquemada retired to the monastery of St. Thomas in Avila, which he had designed himself. In his last years he was convinced that he would be poisoned, and kept a unicorn’s horn by his plate as an antidote. He was not poisoned, however, but died a natural death in 1498.

copyright © 1996 Beth Randall

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