Photo by Mónica Navarro
Carrer Marlet, looking towards the possible site of Barcelona’s former main synagogue
On August 5th, 1391, a mob stormed the ancient centre of Jewish Barcelona and set about butchering its inhabitants. By the time the authorities managed to stop the killing, hundreds of men, women and children lay dead in the streets. Although the last of the city’s Jews were not finally banished for another 101 years, the pogrom left the community fatally wounded.
Small numbers of Jews may have arrived in Barcelona soon after 70 CE, as part of the wave of migrants arriving in Europe fleeing Roman repression in Palestine, so the city was probably Jewish before it was Christian. They settled, first through custom, then by obligation, in what became known as El Call, the labyrinth of narrow streets in the heart of the Gothic quarter.
The community prospered and reached its period of splendour in the 13th century when between four and five thousand people lived in the neighbourhood, perhaps accounting for some 15 percent of the city’s population. This was the centre of intellectual life in medieval Catalunya and provided the city with its doctors, lawyers, financiers and translators.
Many Jews spoke a slew of languages (Catalan, Castilian, Hebrew, Arabic and Latin)—uniquely, in addition to Catalan, the Jews of Catalunya also still used Hebrew in everyday life, whereas elsewhere it had been relegated to ceremonial and literary functions. Their knowledge of Arabic aided their good relations with the Islamic south, allowing them to work as traders and ambassadors for the Catalan count-kings; officially at least, Jews were property of the crown who greatly valued their servants’ work.
But not all was rosy in relations with their Christian neighbours. Papal instructions in 1215 called for Jews throughout Christendom to wear hoods and a red button sewn on their clothes to identify them. The rise of the Dominican order, the intellectual precursors of the Inquisition, was also an increasing threat as they had developed the doctrine of the Jews being responsible for the death of Jesus. Dominicans were also allowed to preach inside synagogues, which often led to conflict.
This situation worsened in the 14th century, when Europe was engulfed by a series of cataclysms that savaged the economy. Barcelona was no exception. The city was hit by a run of famines beginning in 1333 and in 1348, the Black Death struck. Possibly a fifth of the city’s population—then less than 40,000—died, including a large number of the ruling elite. Desperate people looked around, as they sadly still do today, for someone to blame. Rumours were rife. It seemed everybody knew of a Jew who had poisoned a well, leading to an attack on the Call in 1349. The plague periodically reappeared sowing terror and mistrust in the city for the next hundred or so years, and as the economic woes continued, it seemed only a matter of time before violence broke out.
By 1391, there was rising discontent with the economy, the municipal government and taxation. A few Jews were employed as tax collectors making them an easy target of ire, but any proto-political agenda the mob may have had was soon poisoned by the endemic anti-Semitism of the time, and the enticement of Dominican preachers. On August 5th, St Dominic Day’s, a righteous mob descended on the Call. By the end of the day, 300 people were dead. King Joan I of Aragon was incensed. Jews were his property and brought him handsome returns and good consul. He had a number of the chief perpetrators hanged or sent to the galleys, and he returned all Jewish privileges and made them exempt from taxes for three years. But the damage was too great. The attack resulted in the effective extinction of the Call. Those survivors who could afford it emigrated to the Maghreb and the Eastern Mediterranean, but many stayed in Barcelona, moved out of the Call and converted en masse to Christianity. The abandoned synagogues were demolished, their stones used to build the royal palace and the new Generalitat building.
Many settled in El Call Menor (originally an extension given to the expanding Jewish population) and opened their shops on Carrer de la Boqueria; they converted the synagogue on Ferran to the Church of the Trinity, now called Sant Jaume. Although they were distrusted by the rest of the population and married within their own community, for many conversion brought benefits as they could now hold positions that had been previously barred to them.
Similar processes were going on throughout the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, and in 1480 the Spanish Inquisition was created by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile with the aim of maintaining Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and rooting out ‘false’ converts from Islam and Judaism. The new converts became known respectively as moriscos and conversos, or, in the insulting term of the time, marranos (pigs). Paradoxically, this is the time when Spain’s love affair with the pig begins, as a righteous affirmation of one’s religious credentials.
Barcelona’s converted Jews remained, in theory, under the protection of the monarchy and subject to royal justice, not to the Inquisition, though this did not always stop it from getting its murderous fingers on a number of unfortunate individuals, accused of secretly continuing Jewish practices. The repression began in earnest in 1487 when 12 people were burnt at the stake in Plaça del Rei along with, in testament to the madness of the times, 229 effigies of fugitives. Many others were condemned to a short, brutal life of imprisonment.
But the Inquisition was only levelled against so-called heretical Christians: Moors and Jews who had falsely converted, not the few surviving practising Jews. The final straw for the city’s Jewish community came in March 1492 with the edict of the Catholic Kings to expel all Jews from the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. They were given four months to convert or go into exile. Despite the protests of Barcelona’s councillors, who claimed it would involve a great loss to the city as the Jews ran profitable trades such as the coral business (at a time when Catalunya’s coasts were still rich in the resource), their calls fell on deaf ears and the expulsion went ahead. In truth, Barcelona itself was not greatly affected as there were so few Jews left by this point, but throughout Catalunya and Aragon, it did have a significant impact on the economy.
A tour of conjecture—Exploring the Call
Start at Sant Ramon del Arc, one of the old entrances to the Call: at the end of the street on the right is what’s said to be the oldest house in the city and the cursed one-time home of an alchemist (see last month’s magazine), though recent research suggests it is probably from the 17th century. The front side of this building is today the Call Interpretation Centre. However, here at the back, see if you can find a well-worn grove on the stone door frame. This may be a mezuzah where scriptures would be left in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Now head back a few metres to Marlet. Immediately on your left is a replica of a stone marker in Hebrew dedicated to the memory of a 12th-century rabbi who donated money for a hospital, which was found in the 19th century when the old building here was demolished. The original can be seen in the Barcelona History Museum.
Ahead of you at number 5, a building juts out at a strange angle, reportedly so that it faces Jerusalem—this, it is claimed, is Barcelona’s old main synagogue. After being closed for more than 600 years, it was re-consecrated in 2002, and its ancient walls can now be visited. However, Barcelona council’s own historians aren’t convinced, unsure that this really was the synagogue site or whether it was part of a private house or, at most, the temple’s side entrance for women.
You now reach the intersection with Sant Domènec del Call, the main street running through the Call, originally known as Sinagoga Major. All the street names were Christianised when the Jews abandoned the quarter, this one in honour of the man who was to inspire many medieval pogroms and an effigy of Saint Dominic can be seen halfway along the street.
Outside the Call, along Banys Nous (New Baths) is the deliciously expensive Caelum, which sells a range of cakes and biscuits made by nunneries and convents all over Spain. Downstairs is an arcaded tearoom, which the owners and many guidebooks claim to be the remains of the women’s section of the old Jewish baths. Putting a dampener on things again, many historians believe the construction to be much newer.
Some of the most interesting and uncontroversially authentic remains are in Plaça de Sant Iu at the side of the cathedral, where, if you’re observant, you can spot several stones with Hebrew inscriptions taken from the synagogues of the Call demolished after 1391 and used to build the 16th-century Palau del Lloctinent. Another one can be seen in Plaça del Rei, site of the Inquisition’s public horrors.