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Better to be Jews than Christians

Anton de Montoro and the Spanish Converts

By Jeffrey Gorsky

(adapted from a chapter in my history: Jewish Blood, the Tragedy of the Iberian Jews.)

The 15th Century Castilian Anton de Montoro was the most representative poet of the Spanish "conversos". A convert to Catholicism, he flaunted his Jewish heritage. He dramatized the plight of his fellow converts, victims of discrimination and violent persecution. He wrote about something unique in Jewish history—a community of thousands brought into Catholicism through force or compulsion, trying to fit into their new Christian world.

The conversions came at the end of one of the most successful Jewish periods in human history. For centuries, during the "convivencia", Jews prospered from unprecedented, if limited, tolerance from Muslim and Christian rulers. The Jews exploited new opportunities for power, riches, and cultural and scientific encounters. Their success led them to call their land Sepharad, a name from the book of Obadiah that implied that Spanish Jews were the successors to the Jews of Israel.

This world ended in 1391. A rogue priest named Ferran Martinez incited mobs to riot throughout Spain with the slogan "Convert or die". When the violence ended, further State and Church repression followed. After 20 years of repression, a third to half of the Spanish Jews had converted.

These "conversos" quickly achieved enormous success. They obtained high public office, rose to the top of the Church hierarchy, and married into the aristocracy. But their success bred resentment. During 60 years of civil war and instability, they became handy scapegoats. They inherited the hatred and resentment traditionally directed against Jews. This led to violent anti-Convert riots, mostly centered in Southern Spain.

By the reign of Enrique IV (half-brother to his successor, Queen Isabella), most conversos had been Christian for two generations or more. This new generation had much less solidarity as conversos than their previously converted forefathers. The instinct of Jews and early conversos to side with the King for protection led the first generation to side almost unanimously with King Juan II and his principal minister Alvaro de Luna—but Luna sold them out. When Juan's son Enrique inherited both the throne and civil unrest, conversos were on all sides of the new civil wars: some stuck by the King, some sided with his brother Prince Alfonso, while others supported the untrustworthy minister Don Pacheco even after he showed he could be as treasonous to conversos as he was to the King.

The new political loyalties of the conversos reflected their assimilation and adoption of Old Christian manners. But while the conversos rejected Judaism (whether through free-will or compulsion) they were still distrusted and discriminated against by Old Christians. This blocked full assimilation. Conversos developed their own perspective and customs. This soon became an important force in Spanish art and culture.

The converso perspective first erupted through humor. The court jester, or truhan, became a feature of the Court in the 15th Century. The jesters were largely or wholly conversos. This may have been in part due to the Jewish cultural acceptance of humor. It also reflected the conversos marginal status—it was easier for Old Christians to make fun of these former Jews, and they in turn could look more skeptically and satirically at Castilian society.

A school of poetry developed during this period, with the poets called the Cancieneros, or songsters. While these poets wrote in a wide variety of styles, much of their poetry was burlesque, jester poetry written to entertain and gain the patronage of the royal court and grandees.

Many if not most of these poets were conversos. Among them, Anton de Montoro stood out as the cancionero poet who most openly admitted to his Jewish heritage. He dramatized the plight of the converso, and protested the killings and discrimination conversos suffered in Castile.

Born a Jew around 1404 in or near Cordoba, Montoro probably converted around the time of the anti-Jewish legislation of 1414. His Jewish name was Saul, and his mother remained Jewish.

He became known as the "Ropero", or clothes peddler. Trade had a low status in Castilian society, and this trade was particularly low. A tailor could service the aristocracy, and anyone with money would have clothes made-to-order. A seller of used or ready made clothes only serviced those too poor to buy fashionable wear.

He became known as a poet late in life. His first known poems date from the 1440s, when he obtained the patronage of the dominant aristocrat of Cordoba. He became one of the most successful poets of his day, engaging in poetry duels or correspondence with other well-known poets, and leaving a reasonably substantial estate.

Montoro may have stressed his low class and Jewish background partly as a pose. Like jesters, the comic cancioneros poked fun at themselves. Juan Baena, for example, a prominent converso poet, pointed to his physical ugliness and short-stature.1 Montoro's low-class occupation and Jewish background allowed, like a physical defect, for self-deprecating humor.

Montoro often satirized his Jewish descent. In a poem to his wife, he notes that they were well matched as conversos, and that he won the match because she was considered unworthy for any reputable Christian:

As a comic poet of his era, he could be bawdy even by our standards. One of his poems is called, To the Woman Who Is All Tits and Ass (Montoro a Una Mujer Que Todo Era Tetas Y Culo)3. In Montoro to the Woman Who Called Him Jew, his response to what a woman meant as an insult is to refer to her as a sodomite, implying that the mouth that sent out that insult was used to perform oral sex.4

In several poems, without entirely abandoning the satiric voice, he bitterly protested the mistreatment of the conversos. After the attacks on the conversos in Carmona, he addressed King Enrique IV: "What death can you impose on me/That I have not already suffered?"5

The massacre of conversos in his hometown of Cordoba elicited a lengthy and complicated poem to Alonso de Aguilar, the aristocrat who after befriending the conversos deserted them during the attack and then allowed them to be exiled and barred from public office: "Montoro to Don Alonso de Aguilar on the Destruction of the Conversos of Cordoba". The poem begins as a fulsome panegyric to Aguilar, possibly reflecting Montoro's need to continue to live under Aguilar's protection in Cordoba. Only after eight verses of praising Aguilar does Montoro turn to the massacre, noting that after this disaster "it would serve the conversos better to be Jews than Christians."6

By verse 19, he praises the Grandee, and abjectly begs mercy for the conversos: "We want to give you tributes, be your slaves and serve you, we are impoverished, cuckolded, faggots, deceived, open to any humiliation only to survive." In the next verse, Motoro describes himself as "wretched, the first to wear the livery of the blacksmith" (the man who started the anti-converso riots). He pleads for the grandee's mercy, while he remains "starving, naked, impoverished, cuckold, and ailing."7

It has been suggested that this poem is an ironic attack on his former patron. Yet there is no apparent irony in the poem. The main attitude seems to be helpless despair in wake of the destruction of his fellow converts.

His best-known depiction of the plight of the conversos comes in his poem dedicated to Queen Isabel:

      "O sad, bitter clothes-peddler [ropero]
      who does not feel your sorrow!
      Here you are, seventy years of age,
      and have always said [to the Virgin]:
      "you remained immaculate,"
      and have never sworn [directly] by the Creator.
      I recite the credo, I worship
      pots full of greasy pork,
      I eat bacon half-cooked,
      listen to Mass, cross myself
      while touching holy waters--
      and never could I kill
      these traces of the confeso.

The epitath at the end of the verse, "puto Judio" is a generic insult, not an imputation of homosexuality—it is the worst insult in the language: "behind the sodomite, bearer of pestilence, is the outline of the converso. They are joined in the worst popular insult that could be hurled: 'faggot Jew!.'. 9 "The English translation of "puto judio" cannot fully convey the pejorative sense of this masculinization of "puta," which figures the Jewish male subject both as a whore and as the passive partner in the homosexual act. " 10

The poem ends with a chilling prediction of the soon to be established auto-da-fe: He asks Queen Isabella, if she must burn conversos, to do it at Christmastime, when the warmth of the fire will be better appreciated.

Montoro evaded the Inquisition. He died soon after writing the poem, probably before the Inquisition came into force. He showed his lack of respect for the Church by leaving it only a nominal sum in his will. His wife was not as fortunate: she was burned as a heretic before April, 1487.11

As an artist, Montoro represents both a dead-end and a harbinger. He was a dead-end because with the imposition of the Spanish Inquisition and the purity of blood laws, conversos after him could no longer proudly point to their Jewish roots. That attitude would lead to being burned to death as a heretic. Converso artists turned instead to secrecy and indirection. It is no coincidence that the two most important works by conversos, La Celestina and Lazarillo de Tormes (both classics of world literature), were both initially published anonymously.

He was a harbinger in that the attitudes he and other cancioneros embraced: irony, irreverence, and the use of low class characters to attack the pretensions of the higher classes, would soon inspire a much more important genre. Picaresque literature came out of the cancionero tradition.12 The picaresque novel, in its turn, was to become part of the foundation of modern literature.

1 Francisco Marquez Villanueva, "Jewish 'Fools' of the Spanish Fifteenth Century", Hispanic Review, V. 50, No. 4 (Autumn, 1982), P. 393.

2 Yirmihayu Yovel, "Converso Dualities in the First Generation: The Cancioneros", Jewish Social Studies, V.4, N. 3 (1998), P. 4-5.

3 Montoro, Antón de. Poesía completa. Ed. Marithelma Costa. Cleveland: Cleveland State University Press, 1990., Poem No. 12

4 Ibid, poem No. 10

5 Marquez Villanueva, P. 403.

6 Montoro, Antón de. Poesía completa, P. 23

7 Ibid, P. 29-30

8 Yovel, P. 5-6

9 Barbara Weissberger "A Tierra, Puto!", in Queer Iberia, (Duke University Press, 1999), p. 294

10 Ibid, P. 316

11 Marquez Villanueva, P. 397

12 Victoriano Roncero Lopez, "Lazarillo, Guzman and Buffoon Literature", MLN 116 (2001), P. 237.

This article is adapted from a chapter in my draft history: Jewish Blood, The Tragedy of the Iberian Jews, about the Spanish Heine, Anton de Montoro, who dramatized the plight of the forced converts in 15th Century Spain.


from the December 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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