Plural identities: the Portuguese New Christians
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This essay argues against what the Economist Amartya Sen calls the “singularist” and “communitarian” views of identity, both of which have (mis)informed scholarly approaches to the problem of New Christians. Specifically, the work argues against a tendency, seen among inquisitors and modern scholars alike, to approach “religion” as the chief yardstick of conversos’ identities, which were in fact multiple and simultaneous, and to find “endogamous” communities of conversos where there were really homogamous ones that did not depend on religious affinities or on a truly distinct “ethnic” culture. The essay explores a few categories—economic, occupational, and “national”—that described and/or were said to describe the multiple identities of Portuguese New Christians inside and outside the Iberian Peninsula during the Habsburg Era, and which sometimes clashed with the Jewish religious identity that Old Christians (especially antisemites) ascribed to, and Jewish proselytizers and apologist tried to promote among, conversos. Identity for the Portuguese New Christians, I argue, was not so much an inner process of discovery, but a series of reasoned choices taken by individuals in accordance with their needs at any given moment, within a dynamic, open, and complex process of cultural construction. Hence, for example, the ethno-religious “community” of New Jews in the Diaspora was an “imagined community” built largely by religious authorities and not by its supposed or actual members. So too, early modern and modern notions of the supposedly unitary “identity” of New Christians are but ascriptions that do not reflect the complexity of historical reality.
KeywordsIberian Peninsula Seventeenth Century Jewish Community Jewish Identity Religious Identity
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