Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Life was always precarious for Europe’s Jews during the Middle Ages. But the thirteenth century saw the rise of an exceedingly dangerous foe – mendicant orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, whose zeal for hunting down heresy led to the establishment of the Inquisition, as well as the death and destruction of many Jewish communities.

When Pope Gregory IX approved the creation of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in the 1230s to combat heresy within the Catholic Church, few could foresee the havoc they would wreak on Europe’s Jews.


The friars were supposed to take care of their own. Western Europe was becoming increasingly urban, with more people leaving the countryside for the city. As often happens, instead of finding riches, many found only poverty and sickness. The job of the friars, who had been granted papal permission to travel wherever they were needed without having to report to the local bishop, was to minister to the poor masses, reinforce their faith, and correct doctrinal errors.

The friars themselves were something of an anomaly. On the one hand, they were highly educated. Not only did they study at universities, members of their orders held the theological chairs. But many of the friars were the sons of craftsmen or peasants. Therefore, thanks to their humble beginnings, they were able to cloak their theological arguments in language the common people could relate to and understand. Preaching in open-air markets and similar places, a good orator could attract thousands of a city’s residents. Indeed, it’s said that tens of thousands of people came to hear Dominican Girolamo Savonarola preach in Florence.

Very soon the friars set their sights on a different audience – the Jews, whom they hoped to convert. The friars began to learn Hebrew and study Jewish texts, looking for ammunition they could use to refute Judaism and prove the correctness of their own religion. Their attack plan included disputations, such as the one that took place between Ramban and the Dominican Pablo Christiani in Barcelona, and forcing Jews to gather in churches and listen to their sermons. The friars, having found the Talmud and other seforim to be filled with “heresy,” also advocated for the burning of the troublesome books or, at the very least, their censorship.

When the Jews proved resistant to their eloquence, the friars took their anger and frustration to the marketplace, where they found an audience ready to listen – and act. While the start of the horrific massacres of 1391 which destroyed most of Spain’s kehillos can be attributed to the rabble-rousing sermons of Ferrand Martinez, who was an archdeacon and not a member of a mendicant order, the mob violence between 1411 and 1413 resulted from the virulent rhetoric of Dominican Vincent Ferrer, who had influence over Castile’s king and threatened Castile’s Jews with expulsion if they didn’t convert. It’s estimated that Ferrer oversaw the forced baptism of 20,000 of Castilian Jews by using these strong-arm tactics.

Ferrer was also the instigator behind the Laws of Valladolid, which severely curtailed the rights of the Jews. After the laws were enacted in 1412, all Jews were forced to live within the gates of an enclosed Jewish quarter, were prohibited from working in most professions, including medicine or handicrafts of any kind, and were forbidden to leave the country. The purpose of the laws was to humiliate and impoverish the Jews, again with the goal of convincing them to convert.

It’s estimated that the total number of Spain’s Jews who succumbed to the pressure to convert was between 200,000 and 250,000 souls. Those who remained true to the Torah were expelled in 1492. But those who had converted learned that not even conversion could save them from the friars’ fiery wrath.


The Rise of the Inquisition

Before there was a Spanish Inquisition, there was a Medieval Inquisition, which was established in 1184 by Pope Lucius III to determine if certain Christian sects were, indeed, guilty of heresy. In theory, the Inquisition was a non-violent way for those who had strayed to repent, do penance, and be restored to the Church. But because torture was used to extract confessions and unrepentant heretics were turned over to the secular authorities, who administered the death penalty, the Inquisition quickly became associated with violence and death.

Burning of the heretics sentenced in Spanish Inquisition

The Dominicans, in particular, were given the mission of rooting out heresy. Thus, it was Dominican friar Alonso de Ojeda who first alerted Queen Isabella that some conversos were secretly practicing Judaism. Another Dominican, Thomas de Torquemada, was placed at the head of the Spanish Inquisition when it was established in 1478.

In the early years of the Inquisition, Old Christians, who were jealous of the success and wealth of the conversos, used the Inquisition to settle scores. By 1482, the accusations and arrests had become so numerous that Pope Sixtus IV tried to intervene, commenting that the Inquisition was “causing disgust to many.”

But when Sixtus ordered the local bishops to take a role in the proceedings, King Ferdinand accused the pope of taking bribes from the conversos. The king also warned the pope not to try to interfere again or he would withdraw military support, and Sixtus, who was worried about a Turkish assault on Rome, heeded the warning.

It’s hard to estimate how many people were arrested or burned at the stake during the nearly 350 years that the Spanish Inquisition was in existence because much of the post-1560 documentary evidence has been destroyed or lost. The historical record has also been muddied by the “Black Legend of the Spanish Inquisition.”

While today we know that the vast majority of those hunted down and sentenced to death were the formerly Jewish conversos, during the mid-1500s the Church found yet another target to investigate – Protestants. Only a few hundred Protestants were arrested – there weren’t that many living in Spain – but because of political tensions between Catholic Spain and Protestant England and other Protestant lands, the Protestants used the excesses of the Inquisition to paint an even blacker picture of what went on in Inquisition prisons and courtrooms than actually occurred.

Therefore “Black Legend” estimates that perhaps hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people, were arrested and killed are today considered much too high. On the other hand, the Catholic Church’s recent estimate of only about 1,250 people being sentenced to death is almost certainly too low.

The British historian Cecil Roth, citing research done by Jose Amador de los Rios about the first 50 years of the Spanish Inquisition, put the number at 28,540 souls burned alive and another 16,520 burned in effigy, with more than 300,000 people punished in other ways.

But even if the number of people killed is “just” in the thousands or tens of thousands, the total number of people effected – the number of people arrested, the number of people tortured, the number who had their property confiscated by the state, as well as all those who lived in terror of being arrested – is certainly much, much higher.


Reform, But No Relief

The Inquisition wasn’t limited to Spain. It was set up in many Catholic-ruled countries, including Portugal, Mexico and other parts of South America, and Goa in Portuguese controlled-India. Although some popes protested the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, in the mid-1500s they established an Inquisition of their own, which was called the Roman Inquisition.

The Roman Inquisition was established in response to changes in the Western world that were threatening the Church’s dominance over Europe. The Church had always had critics within its ranks, those who claimed that the Church’s vast power and wealth had made it corrupt. The early mendicant orders, which required a vow of poverty to join, were formed partly in response to this complaint. But by the 1400s even the friars were selling indulgences – the Church’s remedy for reducing punishment for sins.

One friar disgusted by the Church’s corruption was Martin Luther, who was a member of the Augustine Order. In 1517 he nailed to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church his now-famous Ninety-five Theses, in which he accused the Church of corrupting the people’s faith through the cynical sale of indulgences. Aided by a new invention – the printing press – copies of the Ninety-five Theses swept through Germany in two weeks and reached the rest of Europe within two months.

Luther had started a revolution, which is today called the Protestant Reformation. With much of Northern Europe turning Protestant while Southern Europe remained Catholic, the whole of Europe would become a battleground between Catholicism and Protestantism for the next two centuries.

In the beginning, Luther spoke favorably about the Jews, portraying them as models of common sense. “If I had been a Jew and seen such oafs and numbskulls governing and teaching the Christian faith,” he wrote in 1523, “I would have rather become a sow than a Christian.” But like other Christians before him, his goal was to persuade the Jews to convert, which he thought he could do by gentle persuasion. Surely, he reasoned, it was only the corruption the Jews had objected to; now that Christianity had been purified, the obstacles had been removed.

When the Jews continued to remain true to the Torah, Luther turned against them. Indeed, by the end of his career his hostility exceeded that of the Church. He advocated destroying synagogues and Jewish homes, confiscating Jewish writings, prohibiting the rabbis from teaching, prohibiting Jews from making loans and charging interest, banning Jews from the roads and marketplaces, forcing Jews to do hard labor and, when all else failed, expelling them.

The short-term effects of the Reformation were an increase in Jewish persecution in German lands. Conditions also worsened for the Jews living in the Papal States and northern Italy, who were forced to live in ghettos for the first time. But the Reformation also brought with it some positive changes. The split of Christianity into Catholic and Protestant sects ended the Church’s dream of creating and controlling a homogeneous society. New ideas about how religious authority should – and should not – be exercised would eventually lead to the development of the principle of separation between church and state.

Another change was the role of the Bible in Christian life. Until the Reformation, study of the Bible was reserved for clergymen, who mainly used the Latin Vulgate translation. Luther insisted that the Torah be translated into the language that people spoke so that anyone could read it. Once the translations were made, people did read it, avidly. In many places, groups were formed to study the laws and values of ancient Jewish society, seeking a model for their own. While admiration for the Torah didn’t usually result in love for individual Jews, there was at least a grudging respect for the people who had wisely clung to the Torah, despite so many centuries of persecution.

But all that lay in the future. In Part V of this series we will take a look behind the Ghetto’s doors to see how a new century of Church decrees affected Jewish life and culture.



A History of the Marranos, Cecil Roth, Shocken Books, 1975.

Holy Hatred: Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust, Robert Michael, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, Peter Burke, Routledge, 2009.

“Reformation and the Jews,” Rabbi Ken Spiro,

The Friars and the Jews: the Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism, Jeremy Cohen, Cornell University Press, 1984.

The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, David I. Kertzer, Vintage 2007

“The Reformation,” Magda Teter, the Center for Online Judaic Studies (COJS).

“The Reformation,” Rabbi Berl Wein,

“The Spanish Inquisition,” Yosef Eisen, excerpted from Miraculous Journey,


Previous articleAnxiety Q & A: The Unusual Places Anxiety Rears Its Head
Next articleConan in the Big City