Strangers Within: The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Trading Elite

A comprehensive study of the New Christian elite of Jewish origin—prominent traders, merchants, bankers and men of letters—between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries


Published (US):
Mar 26, 2024
Published (UK):
May 21, 2024
6.13 x 9.25 in.
35 b/w illus. 1 table. 2 maps.
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In Strangers Within, Francisco Bethencourt provides the first comprehensive history of New Christians, the descendants of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism in late medieval Spain and Portugal. Bethencourt estimates that there were around 260,000 New Christians by 1500—more than half of Iberia’s urban population. The majority stayed in Iberia but a significant number moved throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, coastal Asia and the New World. They established Sephardic communities in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, Italy, Amsterdam, Hamburg and London. Bethencourt focuses on the elite of bankers, financiers and merchants from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries and the crucial role of this group in global trade and financial services. He analyses their impact on religion (for example, Teresa de Ávila), legal and political thought (Las Casas), science (Amatus Lusitanus), philosophy (Spinoza) and literature (Enríquez Gomez).

Drawing on groundbreaking research in eighteen archives and library manuscript departments in six different countries, Bethencourt argues that the liminal position in which the New Christians found themselves explains their rise, economic prowess and cultural innovation. The New Christians created the first coherent legal case against the discrimination of a minority singled out for systematic judicial inquiry. Cumulative inquisitorial prosecution, coupled with structural changes in international trade, led to their decline and disappearance as a recognizable ethnicity by the mid-eighteenth century. Strangers Within tells an epic story of persecution, resistance and the making of Iberia through the oppression of one of the most powerful minorities in world history. Packed with genealogical information about families, their intercontinental networks, their power and their suffering, it is a landmark study.