Having driven out the Moors from Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors, Ferdinand and Isabella, who considered themselves the champions of Christianity, wanted to eradicate from Catholic Spain any other religious groups and set about the task by ordering a massive campaign to convert or drive out the Jews. Under pressure from the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, Ferdinand and Isabella signed an edict in which they accused the Jews of proselytizing and of eating away at the well-being of Christians with their usury, and ordered them to convert to Christianity or to leave all Spanish realms within three months on pain of death and confiscation of all their wealth.
Their expulsion from Spain was deemed essential to "extirpate... the apostasy and iniquitous perversion of the Jews who by their practice and conversations have induced many Christians into heresy and in some errors." In Sicily, which belonged to Spain and was governed at that time by Viceroy Don Ferdinand de Acugna, remembered as one of the better Viceroys, the antisemitism rampant on the Iberian Peninsula was not shared by Sicilians and they did not want to see their numerous and long-standing Jewish communities leave the island. The Viceroy, sensing the enormous impact that the edict was going to have on the island, did not make it public until June 18, 1492, two and a half months after its proclamation in Spain (March 31, 1492), perhaps hoping that its implementation would not take place.
No doubt he knew that an action of that magnitude was bound to create animosities, especially among the powerful members of the Sicilian Camera Regia (Sicilian Parliament) which could have objected not only on legal grounds - that body had not been consulted on a matter that was of the utmost importance to them - but also for moral and economic reasons. Losing the entrepreneurial skill of the Jews would be catastrophic to the island and the elite knew it. The Viceroy also knew that public opinion was definitely against the mandate because the Jews, having lived in Sicily for so long, were already well integrated into the social fabric of the country.
Once the edict was made public, Sicilians in positions of authority, which included the count of Adeṃ Tommaso Moncada---Grand Justice of the Regnum---as well as the Judges of the Magna Curia, the Masters of the Royal Patrimony, the Treasurer of the Regnum, wrote a petition to Ferdinand and Isabella in an attempt to stop the edict from taking effect. Other bodies protested to the Viceroy with letters and personal appearances.
In essence, these petitions briefly contradicted the religious rationale given by the King for the expulsion order and focused on a number of points of economic and social importance:Once the edict was made public, Sicilians in positions of authority, which included the count of Adeṃ Tommaso Moncada---Grand Justice of the Regnum---as well as the Judges of the Magna Curia, the Masters of the Royal Patrimony, the Treasurer of the Regnum, wrote a petition to Ferdinand and Isabella in an attempt to stop the edict from taking effect. Other bodies protested to the Viceroy with letters and personal appearances. In essence, these petitions briefly contradicted the religious rationale given by the King for the expulsion order and focused on a number of points of economic and social importance: 1. In Sicily the Jews did not try to convince Christians to abandon their faith nor did they cause heresies; 2. The Jews spent nearly one million florins a year to feed and clothe themselves and if they were evicted the island would lose this enormous sum (Titta Lo Jacono, in his Judaica Salem, estimates this sum to be equivalent to three quarters of a billion dollars); 3. The commerce between Jews and Christians would come to an end and cause much hardship on Christians; 4. The island would come to lose the iron works industry, which was totally in the hands of Jews. And this would have disastrous consequences on ship building; 5. The island would come to lose low-wage workers employed in the construction of city defenses against incursions by pirates; 6. The state coffers would come to lose the income from taxes levied on the Jews; 7. Some of the islands belonging to Sicily, like Malta, Gozzo and Pantelleria, which were inhabited in large numbers by Jews would become deserted; 8. The Jews, finally, with the exception of a few individuals and families, were generally so poor that if the three months limit was not extended, many would starve to death. The tone of the petition, written in Sicilian, is one of dismay, sadness and disbelief. In a second letter written to the Viceroy by the municipal government of the City of Palermo, and similar in tone, the Jews are cleared of the accusation of proselytizing and of usury: the letter states categorically that there are no reasons for proceeding against the Jews since the accusations are not founded on fact: "And for this reason the action must not be continued against this regnum since there are no reasons for it, nor can the cause be that the mentioned Jews are usurers for in this kingdom it has never been known that the Jews practiced usury publicly.." A demonstration of some of the favorite methods employed by the Holy Office to extract testimony or confessions from defendants.
The events of the
fateful year 1411 marked the catastrophic turning point of Jewish destiny in Spain. There
was a continuing and relentless pressure, legal and extra-legal, from both Church and
state to bring the reluctant Jews to the baptismal font. The opportunists and the
frightened succumbed to the terror and became conversos. At first the blandishments of
being Christian communicants appeared alluring: all the shining doors of opportunity were
opened wide to the apostates. Many of them carved out careers in government, finance,
trade and the army. A number became hidalgos and even grandees of the kingdom. While a few
who had been schooled in the Talmudic academies found a ready outlet for their religious
learning in the service of the Church. One of them, an able Jewish scholar - it is said, a
rabbi - was almost elected pope in Avignon. This was Paulus de Santa Maria, formerly
Solomon Halevi (1352-1435). He eventually became Archbishop of Burgos, the Primate of the
Church of all Spain, and acted as Vincent Ferrer's evil genius, inspiring him to ever
greater ferocity in his crusade to convert or exterminate the Jews. It was to be expected
that in an atmosphere charged with violence and intimidation informers, eager for reward
or approval, should have risen everywhere to furnish the Church with alleged knowledge of
heretical views or actions of the conversos. The heresy consisted principally of secret
relapses into Jewish religious beliefs and practices. By a treacherous ruse, thousands of
Marranos (literally "Pigs") or New Christians, who were promised amnesty if they
would confess their "judaizing" sins, stepped forward voluntarily and did
confess, only to discover that they had been lured into a trap. Under torture many
implicated other Marranos, who in turn were stretched on the rack only to implicate still
others. It was an ever-widening circle of violence and treachery which cast a deadly pall
over Jewish life in Spain.
Tomas de Torquemada, the Inquisition, or Holy Office, as it was sometimes called, began to operate on an enormous man-devouring scale. Many thousands of Marranos were arrested and flung into dungeons, waiting in agonizing suspense for their turn to be tried by the courts of the Inquisition. The Inquisition was efficient and legalistically scrupulous. It issued special manuals for the guidance of the inquisitors, and others for the instruction of would-be informers.
How, really, was one to tell a heretic among the conversos? There were a number of recognizable signs of heresy, the manual pointed out helpfully. If a New Christian wore his best clothes on the Sabbath: if he celebrated the Seder on Passover: if he was overheard muttering prayers in Hebrew; if he bought wine and meat from a Jew; if he fasted on Yom Kippur; if he circumcised his male child- then he was most certainly a "Judaizing heretic."
The trials of the Marranos were not routine hearings. They were invariably marked by tragedy and a trail of blood. Those who refused to confess were put to the torture, and the ingenuity of sadists was fully taxed to create the most agonizing torments for the crushing of the stubborn. Thousands babbled incoherent confessions they never believed and almost eagerly implicated innocent persons in order to be free at last of the pain they could not endure. Amazingly enough, there were thousands who remained firm under torture. They died in tight-lipped agony in the flames of the autos-da-fe.
auto-da-fe, or 'act of faith,' took on all the theatricality of a religious spectacle and,
like the morality play, it was designed by the Church to strengthen the religious fidelity
of the crowds who assembled to witness it. Besides, it was also intended as a stern
warning to the vacillating and to the unrepentant heretics. To the churchly sound of
chanting priests and amidst the full display of the Church's panoply of power, the
relapsed were led into the arena, especially constructed for this purpose, while the
assembled thousands watched.