The Other Within: The Marranos: Split Identity and Emerging Modernity

May 28, 2009

It is likely that anyone familiar with Spanish, Portuguese or Jewish history will have come across the case of the Marranos or Conversos, Iberian Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism under pain of death or expulsion - a phenomenon that began in 7th-century Spain and intensified in the 15th and 16th centuries during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions.

Similarly, those interested in Jewish thought may know that Benedict de Spinoza's philosophy and subsequent excommunication in 1656 are both inextricably intertwined with his own Marrano heritage, as well as that of the Amsterdam community that expelled him. In the fields of history and philosophy, the case of the Marranos is certainly important, but only within a very specifically delineated context.

Yirmiyahu Yovel's study, The Other Within, however, elevates the status of the Marranos to heroic proportions, arguing that their particular experiences anticipated major developments within modernity, such as the discovery of subjectivity and the construction of a non-integral inner self. These experiences, argues Yovel, therefore transcend historical and linear boundaries and assume far greater significance.

The Other Within is divided into six main chapters: the first five ambitiously expound the history of the Jews and Marranos in Spain and Portugal, alongside detailed explications of the countless and overlapping nuances that existed within Marranism, and the impact they had upon contemporary Iberian theology, literature, philosophy, economics and politics.

The sixth and final chapter considers the relevance of the Marrano experience to Western and Jewish modernity, while the lengthy but entertaining epilogue describes the author's trip to Belmonte in Portugal, where he visits a "present-day" Marrano family.

The first chapter, a highly compact potted history of the Jews in Spain that covers the period 416-1430 in fewer than 50 pages, is a must for any reader new to the field, but is likely to disappoint anyone for whom this is familiar territory.

In the second chapter, however, Yovel's book becomes considerably more engaging. In describing the multiple forms of Marrano duality that emerged as a consequence of the forced conversions - those who ardently assimilated into Catholicism, those who feigned Catholic beliefs yet secretly practised Judaism, and those who combined the two to create a religion unacceptable to either party - Yovel creatively uses an assortment of documents that bring the Marranos to life.

One such document, partly embellished by the author, but nevertheless based on primary material, is a report sent by spies to the Inquisitorial authorities describing the illicit activities of Converso monks in a Guadalupe monastery: "At table, several monks show disgust for pork, the food Jews loathe the most, and use various stratagems to avoid it. I saw Brothers Francisco de Burgos and Francisco de Toledo shove their pork plates to an Old Christian neighbour, claiming it was 'bad for their stomach' ... ".

Indeed, it is Yovel's immense array of primary documentation throughout the book - letters, songs, poems, novels and Inquisitorial records - that enlivens the erudite historical and philosophical analyses and makes them both enjoyable and accessible to any interested reader.

The chapter on the Spanish picaresque novel, in which Yovel offers a highly convincing Converso reading of The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, will be greatly appreciated by fans of literature; while the chapter concerning the Marrano founders of Spanish Catholic mysticism will surprise and enlighten those with an interest in theology and church history.

Yovel's slightly disenchanting contemporary observation aside - that intermarriage among Marranos over the centuries has led to genetic and mental problems in the present - The Other Within remains a brilliant reappraisal of modernity's birth.

The Other Within: The Marranos: Split Identity and Emerging Modernity

By Yirmiyahu Yovel. Princeton University Press. 488pp, £24.95. ISBN 9780691135717. Published 23 February 2009

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