Home Perspectives Opinions The long reach of the Spanish Inquisition

The long reach of the Spanish Inquisition


Walk into a Portuguese butcher shop and you may find a five-century-old blood-sausage delicacy called botifarro de marrano. To taste it is to endure the dread of Jewish existence.

The marrano looks like an ordinary pork sausage. To the inexpert tongue, it may even taste like pork. But it’s not. It’s chicken, flecked with red spice.

The origins of the marrano go back to the Castilian Alhambra Decree of 1492, which outlawed Judaism in Spain. Jews were forced to choose between conversion, exile or death. “Marrano” was the term used to describe fake Christians who continued to practice Judaism in secret.

The sausage was part of the ruse. Marranos would keep a supply in their homes, not just as sustenance, but as Exhibit A for inquisitors who might suspect the occupants of crypto-Judaism. One can imagine a marrano devouring the thing as a form of public performance, licking his fingers lustily as he held forth on the deliciousness of local pigs.

As Simon Schama describes in his extraordinary new book, Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492-1900, the closet Jews who lived during the height of the Inquisition were forced to perform as actors in their daily lives – always trying to convince a Roman Catholic audience that their love of Christ was true and pure.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating 16th-century Jewish figures sketched by Schama is Leone de Sommi Portaleone, a true professional actor and showman who became so famous and well-connected in Mantua, that local officials allowed him to remove the yellow patch from his coat.

“When kosher butchers in Mantua were accused of exploiting Lent to raise process for gentiles who fancied a leg of mutton, it was Leone who argued that the accusation was unjust,” Schama writes. “When the local guild silkworkers and vendors tried to shut out Jews from the trade, Leone contested the case.”

Leone took anti-Semitic stereotypes and baked them into his art – such as in his play, The Comedy of Betrothal, in which a mercenary wife and a shyster Jewish lawyer scheme to win an inheritance. At the same time, Jewish actors were providing entertainment at gentile shindigs. One particularly popular double act, Solly and Jacob, bestrode Mantua as the Penn & Teller of their day.

Schama shows us how the habits of mind and profession that took root during this critical period informed a religion’s collective character right up to the creation of Jewish Hollywood in the 20th century. And after reading Belonging, I felt like I could see the line of continuity that connected Solly and Jacob with Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.

Belonging also provides the reader with insights into the nature of anti-Semitism. Some of the worst spasms of murderous Jew hatred during that era were motivated by the idea of secret Jews as fifth columnists dressed up in Christly garb. Jewish women, in particular, were feared as seductresses who spread venereal disease through Christian communities.

In some cases, Jews were burned at the stake for purportedly proselytizing their creed in secret – a campaign suffused with the same paranoia and hate frenzy that animated witch hunts in Europe and the United States. In this way, the Inquisition’s probing of a New Christian’s spiritual state encouraged a Jewish fixation on the secret life of the mind – a road that arguably led to Sigmund Freud and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

There is much truth in the stereotype of the Jew as the bookish neurotic who’s always interrogating his own thoughts. Perhaps without intending to, Schama has helped explain where this originates. And I think of Belonging when I ponder why my gentile friends and colleagues sometimes seem so relatively incurious about exploring the dark web of shameful, hidden motivations that guide even the most mundane forms of our behaviour.

I suspect it’s because they always have been able to eat any damn sausage they please.