Church, conversion, and tradition:
the problem of Jewish conversion in Sixteenth century Italy

di Kenneth R. Stow

That Catholic ecclesiastics in the sixteenth century faced an existential challenge is well known. Just what remedy was needed, they were asking themselves, to prevent the ship of the Church, tossed in the seas of (religious) upheaval, from dashing itself on the rocks of destruction? Justin Martyr had evoked this image of danger on the high seas as early as the second century; yet it remained current on the verge of modernity. And just as then, the remedy in the sixteenth century could still be doctrinal discipline and practical movement toward reform. But perhaps most effective would be a new policy structured on time-honored roots. In the shattered and simultaneously reinvigorated society of sixteenth century Europe, modification was well presented, and justified, as the embodiment of tradition rightly understood. The new was said to be a reformulation of the old. At the same time, this procedure was a self-limiting one. One operated within a predefined set of ideas and social and cultural structures, the bounds of whose flexibility, as though a radius jutting out from a center, defined the size and circumference of the circle itself, in this case, the circle of permissible and admissible social programs, actions, and, most of all, novelty.

The case I would use to illustrate this point is the desire for Jewish conversion, and the source of the illustration is the «De Iudaeis et Aliis Infidelibus» of the later sixteenth century Udinese jurist «utriusque iuris» Marquardus de Susannis1. As a jurist, de Susannis was bound to the terms of the law. The texts were fixed, and the interpretative tradition was long and fully on the public - meaning here the printed and published - record. Tradition bound even his style, which was that of a practicing judge and jurisconsult, whose opinions determined and managed Italian justice rooted in the «ius commune», and which, thus, could not well tolerate innovation. De Susannis was not the exponent of the novel «mos gallicus», the new intellectual legal school whose interest lay in determing the specific historical roots of individual laws2. Rather, he had to offer realistic and workable solutions. Nor could he be the propagandist for personal predilection.

Nonetheless, within the limits of legal tradition, De Susannis set out to advance an effectively radical program. One look at the «De Iudaeis'» sub-structures and subtleties leaves no doubt that the work is a defense of Jewish conversion: its desirability, its essential necessity, yet also its pitfalls, and even its political dangers. However, this polemic is couched in innuendo. Rarely, does de Susannis let on that he is writing against a background of political and theological debate - the debate over marranism and the viability of any conversionary policy at all - and that he is taking the part of the legal paladin of Pope Paul IV, who had challenged widespread contemporary diffidence on the subject and had made conversion the heart of his program for the Jews of the Papal State3. But de Susannis' reticence is not ascribable to the Renaissance propensity for saying (and hinting) the opposite of what one really believed. The traditional terms and format of the «De Iudaeis» are not a ruse. De Susannis was personally committed to tradition at all costs, and he thought he was voicing not innovation, but the essence of Christian policy on the Jews as St. Paul himself had formulated it in the Epistle to the Romans. In fact, he was.

De Susannis would have been correct to criticize as a deviation from Paul the long standing formal ecclesiastical posture which lauded conversion, but saw little hope of achieving it and, hence, no need to make it into the focus of Jewry policy; and he would have been doubly correct to criticize the wholesale rejection of conversion by that ever swelling number of critics who had been saying (actually for a number of centuries but in particular) during the hundred years prior to de Susannis that all converts were doomed to become marranos and, accordingly, that conversion was a source of apostasy. In fact, and surprising as this may seem, these were the majority positions: the paucity of medieval missions to the Jews is well illustrated in Petrus Browe's classic study; the tale of the Spanish Nuevos cristianos, the laws of limpieza del sangre, and the Spanish Inquisition needs no recounting4. De Susannis - in his traditionalism harking back to Paul - thought otherwise. So bound was de Susannis to Paul's vision of «the grafting of the branch back onto the tree» (Rom. 11:16), that he grounded his solutions - and his optimism - in those same utopian expectations first voiced by Paul, but which were now being reiterated as imminent by such as Pope Paul IV and, before him, by the Camaldulese Querini and Giustiniani in their influential tract on reform written in 1513 for Leo X5.

Yet, it would appear at first glance that de Susannis should have supported unity not via incorporation but excision, that even he had come to consider the dangers posed by the Jews too great - until they converted and however rapidly de Susannis believed that conversion would occur - to allow harboring them within Christian society at all. De Susannis may have reiterated the classic position that Jews are tolerated because of Christian «caritas» and he may have supported the Thomistic position that a Jewish presence illustrates for Christians the just deserts of inappropriate behavior but personally he found Jews repugnant: he accepted as true various host-libels and the blood libel of 1475 at Trent, and he justified the expulsion of Jews from his native Udine in 1556, citing the renowned opinion of the Avignonese lawyer Oldradus da Ponte, who, in about 13236, wrote that «optime iure», Jews who caused irremediable scandal might be expelled; the vision of Paul to be adopted was (not that of Romans but) that of Galatians: the menacing son of Hagar - Ismael, the (exegetical) Jew - ought to be sent away for his unrepentantly criminal behavior.

At the very least, De Susannis could have retreated into the position of the ecclesiastical authorities, who intervened to moderate violence, while tacitly (or sometimes even actively) condoning the inciteful hatred preached by the mendicants7. He did not. Nor did he allow himself to be swept up in the currents of such Roman humanists as Sigismondo di Foligno (or even the spirit expressed by the diarist Stefano Infessura) which cavalierly designated all Jews coming to Rome from the Iberian peninsula as Marranos, by implication confusing marranism with Judaism itself, and which ominously imputed the source of syphilis (just then arrived in Europe) to the Marranos, suggesting that all those of Jewish descent were a permanent source of physical infection8, a gangrene, as Bernardino da Feltre had once put it, needful of amputation9. To be sure, de Susannis castigates Marrano fraud. Marranos, he says, are the «pessimum genus hominum», atheists, in fact; some were also venal; and these very Marranos (he says) had been expelled from Spain by Vincent Ferrer10. De Susannis himself no doubt observed the double lives of certain Marranos in his own Venice.

Nonethless, like Paul IV, the author of the burning of twenty four Marranos at Ancona in 155611, de Susannis clearly distinguished the Marrano from the mass of potentially convertible Jews.

He also - one may call this the heart of his program - distinguished the Marranos from those who had indeed been forcibly converted and whose apparent return to Judaism must «not» be judged apostasy. The problem with conversion in his day was that so much of it derived not - properly - from free will, but from force, which was always illegal. It was as if de Susannis was resuming the debate (discussed elsewhere by Anna Foa), which was aroused by and reflected in the bull «Sempiterni regi» in the days of Clement VII and Paul III: Were, it was asked, the conversions of 1497 in Portugal licit, despite the eye-witness testimony indicating beyond a doubt that many of these conversions resulted from absolute, not conditional force, that is, with forcible immersion and the baptised person constantly protesting («ligatus manibus et pedibus... reclamans immergeretur violenter»)12. De Susannis never refers to this debate directly, in which the popes tended to doubt the conversions' validity (but eventually ceded their case de facto by allowing the Portuguese king to establish an Inquisition). However, he expresses himself indirectly by citing on the issue of forced conversion's eventual validity a consilium of Cardinal Pier Paolo Pariseo, noted professor of law, legate to Charles V, sometime chair at the Council of Trent, and, most of all, advocate of protecting New Christians at the Roman Curia throughout the 1530s13. Pariseo makes no bones: the Portuguese conversions were - and remain! - absolutely illegal, and even the usual mode of validation («purgare») through subsequent acts (advanced by such as Goffredus in the early thirteenth century14 was illegitimate, for the conditions of force were still operative («perpetuo durasset eadem causa coactionis praecise»)15. What is more, the baptism of these converts' children was justifiable only by stretching the canonical concept of spiritual oblation.

Yet, because the debate had ended with the establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition, rejecting in effect Pariseo and leaving the doctrinal issues unresolved, de Susannis was left in a quandry. His problem was further exacerbated by the burnings at Ancona in 1556. Most likely, it had been on the basis of Pariseo's opinion - that despite their ostensible identity as long-time «conversos» these people had never been Christians and hence were not apostates - that those now burned as Marranos had at first been admitted into (papal) Ancona in the 1530s to further its commerce. Accordingly, de Susannis pragmatically accepted the classical distinction, that even the Portuguese had validated their (forced) baptism through their actions and that most of them had later apostasized to become despicable atheist (Marrano) dissimulators. Moreover, had not even Pariseo (reluctantly?) admitted that the children of the Portuguese were bound by Christian discipline?

And was it not these children and their offspring who had been burned at Ancona? Likewise, it was Marrano dissimulators (not forced converts) who were massacred at Lisbon in 150616 (1930 of them, de Susannis says). Marranos were truly a class apart. Nonetheless, these were clearly legalistic distinctions. No less than Pariseo, de Susannis' remained uneasy, nagged by his residual hesitations and by resonances of both intellectual and doctrinal ambivalence. Indeed - daringly, one might say - de Susannis closed his discussion of force by repeating verbatim Pariseo's unsettling qualification: baptism was never received should the conditions of force endure («perpetuo durasset eadem causa coactionis praecise»).

These severe reservations de Susannis aired again in discussing the licitness of the conversions of the indians in the New World. Strictly speaking, he said, these conversions were not forced and illegal, since the indians had been subjected only to «predisposing force», that used to ensure their presence at missionary sermons. And here, of course, de Susannis was transmitting a second and, for him, essential message: Conversion, real conversion following an act of free will, was distinguishable from that which was forced, as well as from marrano-like dissimulation. De Susannis applied these criteria once again to justify another kind of conversion, namely, that reported by the Jewish eye-witness and chronicler, Benjamin ben Elnatan. The heavy fines for underpayment of taxes and excessively charged usury, Benjamin wrote, leveled roughly contemporaneously with the bull «Cum nimis absurdum» (17th July 1555) that established the Ghetto of Rome, led «to the impoverishment of many, leaving them with no way to support themselves, and causing them to apostize from Judaism; for they feared mightily that they would not survive these evil decrees, just as had happened in Moro di Valle, a small town in The Marche, where seventeen Jews apostized at one fell swoop, and all the other Jews there fled for their lives...»17.

How was this kind of conversion to be legitimized? Even more, de Susannis had to respond to the obvious criticism that such conversion was spurious and would stimulate apostasy or give comfort to the so-called «ships with two rudders», namely, the Abramo Righettos, people who lived double lives18. And what of the innovatively devout Franciscan Orlandini in the 1660s, who secretly judaized himself and persuaded others not to convert at all19, and what of those who had themselves baptised - and sometimes rebaptised - for a fee? No wonder Carlo Borromeo, who otherwise ordered Jews to attend conversionary sermons20, suspected needy converts of fraud and deception21, a term he may occasionally have applied to those who really did convert, yet whose «rite de passage» into Christianity remained incomplete, that is, those who continued to frequent and have business dealings with Jewish parents and relatives, or to have their Jewish sisters bring them the Sabbath cholent, or, if they were young, to have their mothers see to their treatment for such maladies as ringworm22. Should such contacts by encouraged, it goes without saying that real apostasy, not to mention heresy - purely Christian heresy - would be encouraged as well. Rules controling Jewish conversion, accordingly, had to be no less precise and rigidly applied than the rules concerning heresy - or apostasy - of whatever stripe.

Yet, as noted by Prosperi, paradoxically, these rules - in particular those establishing the ghetto, controlling so-called perverse Jewish behavior, and allowing a (temporary) refuge from the resort to expulsion - these rules alone made a conversionary policy possible23. As I myself have written, the old medieval equilibrium of Jews «within» Christian society was no longer viable. The Ghetto, consequently, was a strategic device, in effect a limbo to which Jews were assigned until their conversion, which itself was the stated purpose of «Cum nimis absurdum»24. Indeed, de Susannis' essential argument throughout the «De Iudaeis» is that stringently applied Jewry law, to wit, the rules of «Cum nimis» and many other canons, were appropriate measures for «predisposing» the Jews to convert. What Benjamin ben Elnatan observed, therefore, was, precisely what papal policy intended and considered a justifiable end. The predisposing force that applied to the indians was also applicable to the Jews. Indeed, did not this doctrine permit Gregory XIII, in 1584, to innovate canonically and «to order» Jews to attend conversionary sermons25. The problem of the limits of force with respect to the Jews thus was resolved.

Nonetheless, how precisely was conversion to be effected, what privileges was the convert to recieve, and what was to insure against fraud and promote fidelity? To these questions de Susannis responds implicitly - and I confess that the following precis reads in between the lines to elicit the skillfully hidden polemic. «The Holy Church», he begin, «accepts all», who must be received with love. Of course, many doubt that anybody seriously approaches the baptismal font. Thus, to obviate these doubts, a Jew is not to be baptised at once, but to make his will known, he (or she) must wait forty days - in fact (de Susannis must have been thinking) - in the «casa dei cathecumeni» established at Rome in 154326. Fraud could be prevented! Moreover, once arrived at the baptismal font, a Jew may not renege. Baptism received under false pretenses is still valid baptism, and the recipient must live as a Christian. This is also true of those who rush to the baptismal font to escape the weight of taxes and fines27.

In a similar vein, (duplicitous) Jews must know that «baptism frees a man only from his sins against God», not from his sins against the republic28. Conversion provides no escape from punishment, no release from a civil suits, or exemptions from the obligation to return illicit, especially usurious, gains (albeit this argument is really equivocal because of a longstanding legal fiction)29. Nevertheless, baptism makes one into a «new man». A (sincere) convert is deemed worthy of «not only the priesthood, but the diadem of royalty»30. Those who would speak of two classes of Christian, Old Christians, as it were, and Converts whom they would even discriminate against (notably, for example, in the debate whether to admit the descendents of Jews into the Jesuit Order)31 must simply desist. In this spirit, too, converts are not to forfeit their inheritances, their dowries, or, despite what many simpletons («multi simplices») think, their lawfully owned property.

The observance of these privileges, restrictions, and limitations also protects against forced baptism, where one «dicatur pati quam agere»32 and even against Marrano dissimulation. A further protection is that we do not consent to children being taken from their parents and baptised. This is force, and «the prophecy of a Jewish remnant's salvation could thus never be realized». Nonetheless, a converted father or mother may demand his or her child's baptism, irrespective of the other parent's refusal. The chief concern is to achieve unity, to bring all mankind into the Church, and to legislate wisely to avoid trickery.

What we must not forget, de Susannis says in conclusion, is that Jews, as Jews, are kept out of church structures. Yet they are brought into the churches in order to be baptised; they are even brought in to hear the word of God preached. Indeed, although the Church forces a couple of which only one spouse converts to dissolve its marriage, it does everything to reinstate the marriage should the second convert to rejoin the first. The message is clear. The union of the faithful into the all-encompassing body of the «Ecclesia», the very union which marriage itself signifies - as de Susannis' contemporary preachers never tired of reiterating - is and has been the fundamental goal of the Church since the time of St. Paul. From this goal, Christians may never swerve, no matter how daunting is the road to its achievement.

Yet why, apart from his legal roots, his traditionalism, his social status in the local Udinese gentry, or even his millennarianism, should de Susannis take so clearly demarked a pro-conversionist course? The answer, as well as a possible explanation for his millennarianism itself, may perhaps be found by looking at the recent studies of mission and conversion made by Louis Rambo33. Potential converts, Rambo says, are often those seeking both to free themselves from a combination of communal, familial, emotional, intellectual, and religious structures and also to adopt other structures in their place. Their goal is to enhance self esteem, acquire power, or, by contrast, to accept charismatic leadership. Nonetheless, without undergoing a complete «rite de passage» - namely, what Marranos, among others, did not do - conversion remains in balance. By contrast, should conversion be complete, not only the convert, but the missionary as well, is affected. For a successful conversion validates the missionary's own choice of a pattern of life, belief, and understanding. In which case, the convert is the ultimate justification of the missionary's personal stance (which, inversely, also explains why such as Marranos are categorized as dissimulators, not as the disallusioned). Consequently, the combat for consciences was one the highly destablized sixteenth century Church had to engage in perforce34. Yet was not sixteenth century Jewish life, too, destabilized: by the Spanish expulsion, but more by the many and brutal crises that German Jewry had continuously undergone since the end of the thirteenth century - the Jewry emigrated to the Veneto that de Susannis knew best - not to mention by blood libels like the one at Trent in 1475 with its disastrous consequences, as well as by such universal debacles as the 1527 Sack of Rome? The Jews of De Susannis' own Udine had been expelled.

Two groups, both Jews and Christians, had thus been destabilized, even traumatized. Was this not, accordingly, a moment for the traditionally more missionary of the two, Christianity, to restabilize itself by taking advantage of the instability of the Jewish other? Medieval Christianity had sought stability and reassurance in tales of individual Jewish conversion. The troubled sixteenth century Church proposed going further. A massive Jewish conversion would demonstrate the Church's continuing vitality; hence, the Church would offer - and devote its energies to having accepted - a safe haven to those whose own religious, social, and even intellectual moorings had been severely shocked, those who, following Rambo, should have been prime candidates for radical religious and social change.

Beyond vitality, conversion also signified renewal, which is certainly the principle process that the sixteenth century Church was undergoing. Nonetheless, that renewal, at least for de Susannis, was to take place through the affirmation of tradition, especially legal tradition. Yet, interestingly, this same legal tradition, and that of Roman law in particular, was in de Susannis' day also being used - and would be ever more so used - to justify receiving Jews back into Germany's Imperial cities and domains35. The old was truly giving birth to the new, so much so that the fundamental emancipationist tract written as late as 1782, the «Concerning the Civic Amelioration of the Jews», by the arch-proponent of Jewish entrance into German society, C. W. Dohm is little more than a modernly interpreted discussion of the Roman law that Dohm so liberally cites36. At the same time, just because Dohm bound himself by Romanist legal tradition, which categorized Jews as citizens, but of a second class status, he could never conceive of emancipation without limitations, that is, his version of emancipation was no true emancipation at all. Exclusively through reinterpreting the old the new could never wholly be achieved.

The same applies to the theories promoted by the «De Iudaeis», which, like Dohm's is a tract about civil reception. Through a completed «rite de passage», Jews were to enter Catholic society in full, no longer to live on its margins as they had for centuries. However, whereas the society Dohm wrote about was almost a «civil one», and even its concept of emancipation failed, how much the more would utopian hopes of amalgamation fail in de Susannis' ideal society that was Catholic through and through. With the fundamental terms of society unmoved, renewal and change for Catholics and Jews alike was severely limited. Because of his traditionalism, de Susannis and his ilk could perceive unity only in terms of pressing Jews, all Jews, either to convert or to remain in a ghettoized limbo - what the Jews themselves soon named their «ghet», their bill of (social) divorce37. Expulsion, an admission of failure to achieve unity and a sign that the storm-tossed Catholic ship was still rolling and unstable, was theoretically! inadmissable. Accordingly, de Susannis was entrapped. The Jewish amalgamation he so hoped for could not be achieved because his methods were tradition-bound. Rather, that amalgamation required all the rules of the game to be changed entirely, which, in neither the case of de Susannis - nor later, in that of Dohme - is what even remotely occurred.


1. Marquardus de Susannis, in De Iudaeis et Aliis Infidelibus, Venice, 1558.

2. D. R. Kelly, Bud and the First Historical School of Law, in «American Historical Review», 1957, pp. 807-34.

3. See A. Foa, Il gioco del proselitismo. Politica della conversione e controllo della violenza nella Roma del Cinquecento, in M. Luzzati, (ed.), Ebrei e Cristiani nell'Italia medievale e moderna: conversioni, scambi, contrasti, Rome, 1988, and K. R. Stow, The Papacy and the Jews, Catholic Reformation and Beyond, in «Jewish History», vol. 6, 1991, pp. 268.

4. The most accessible introduction to the subject of the large scale conversions in Spain and ensuing problems remains the classic, Y. H. Yerushalmi, From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto, New York, 1971, chapter 1; and on the history of conversionary policy, see P. Browe, Die Judenmission im Mittelalter und diePaepste, Rome, 1942.

5. P. Giustiniani and P. Querini, in Libellus ad Leonem Decem, J. B. Mittarelli and A. Costadoni, (eds.), in «Annales Camaldulenses», vol. 9, Venice, 1593.

6. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica, IIa, IIae, 10-12. For Oldradus «consilium», N. Zacour, in Jews and Saracens in the Consilia of Oldradus da Ponte, Toronto, 1990, p. 56.

7. A. Prosperi, L'inquisizione romana e gli ebrei, in M. Luzzati, (ed.), L'Inquisizione e gli Ebrei in Italia, Bari, 1994, pp. 67-120, especially, 77.

8. A. Foa, The Old and the New. The Growth of Syphilis 1494-1530, in E. Muir and G. Ruggiero, (eds.), Sex and Gender in Historical Perspective, Baltimore and London, 1990, pp. 26-45.

9. See K. Stow, The Good of the Church, the Good of the State: The Popes and Jewish Money, in D. Wood, (ed.), Christianity and Judaism, 1992 («Studies in Church History», 29) pp. 237-52.

10. De Susannis, in De Iudaeis, 3,2.

11. See S. W. Baron, in A Social and Religious History of the Jews, Philadelphia, 1952-, 14:39-45; C. Roth, in The House of Nasi:Dona Gracia, Philadelphia, 1948, pp. 134-75; A. Toaff, Nuova Luce sui Marrani di Ancona, 1556, in «Studi sull'Ebraismo Italiano», Barulli, 1974, pp. 261-80; especially, I. Sonne, in Mi-Pavolo ha-Revi'i 'ad Pius ha-Hamishi, Jerusalem, 1954, pp. 19-100, and also K. R. Stow, in Catholic Thought and Papal Jewry Policy, New York, 1977, pp. 28-30.

12. A. Foa, Converts and Conversos in Sixteenth Century Italy: Marranos in Rome, forthcoming, acts of a conference held at UCL, in London, April 1995.

13. A. Herculano, History of the Origin and Establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal, New York, 1972, p. 474.

14. Goffredus de Trano, in Summa super Rubricis Decretalium, 1570, X.1.14, in «De aetate et qualitate».

15. Pier Paolo Pariseo in Consilia, Venice, 1570, vol. 4, in «consilium» 2, fols. 5r-10v, esp. f. 6r.

16. Y. H. Yerushalmi, The Lisbon Massacre of 1506 and the Royal Image in the Shebet Yehudah, Cincinnati, 1976.

17. I. Sonne, Mi-Pavolo ha-Revi'i 'ad Pius ha-Hamishi, Jerusalem, 1954.

18. B. Pullan, A Ship with Two Rudders: 'Righetto Marrano' and the Inquisition in Venice, in «The Historical Journal», 1977, pp. 25-58.

19. A. Prosperi, L'inquisizione romana e gli ebrei, pp. 94-95.

20. On Borromeo, see Stow, in Catholic Thought, pp. 208-09.

21. B. Pullan, The Jews of Europe and the Inquisition of Venice, 1550-1670, Totowa, N.Y., 1983, p. 244.

22. K. R. Stow, A Tale of Uncertainties: Converts in the Roman Ghetto, in D. Carpi, M. Gil, and Y. Gorni, (eds.), ShlomoSimonsohn Jubilee Volume, Tel Aviv, 1993.

23. A. Prosperi, L'inquisizione romana e gli ebrei, pp. 67-120.

24. See, Stow, in Catholic Thought, pp. 20-21.

25. The text of in «Cum nimis absurdum» is reprinted with English translation in Stow, Catholic Thought, pp. 291-98.

26. Stow, Catholic Thought, pp. 50-55.

27. De Susannis, in De Iudaeis, 3,8, citing a precedent of Gregory the Great.

28. De Susannis, in De Iudaeis, 3,5,1.

29. De Susannis, in De Iudaeis, 3,5,1 and 3,2,4 & 11.

30. De Susannis, in De Iudaeis, 3,4,8 and 3,6,1.

31. Stow, in Catholic Thought, p. 180, n. 52.

32. De Susannis, in De Iudaeis, 3,2,5.

33. Lewis R. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion, New Haven, 1993.

34. L. Caperan, in Le problème du salut des infidèles, Paris, 19322.

35. G. Landauer, Zur Geschichte der Judenrechtswissenschaft, in «Zeitschrift fuer die Geschichte der Juden In Deutschland», 1930, pp. 255-61.

36. C. W. Dohm, in trans. Helen Lederer, Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews, Cincinnati, 1957.

37. K. R. Stow, The Consciousness of Closure: Roman Jewry and Its 'Ghet,' in D. Ruderman (ed.), Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, New York, 1992.