Jew­ish Life in Medieval Spain: A New History

February 18, 2022

Jew­ish Life in Medieval Spain is a detailed explo­ration of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in medieval Spain from the dawn of Sephardic soci­ety in the ninth cen­tu­ry to the expul­sion of 1492. An impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion of the book is the inte­gra­tion of the rise and fall of Jew­ish life in Mus­lim al-Andalus into the his­to­ry of the Jews in medieval Chris­t­ian Spain. It traces the col­lapse of Jew­ish life in Mus­lim Spain, the emi­gra­tion of Andalusi Jew­ry to the lands of Chris­t­ian Iberia, and the long and dif­fi­cult con­flu­ence of these two dis­tinct Jew­ish subcultures.

Focus­ing on inter­nal devel­op­ments of Jew­ish soci­ety, it offers a nar­ra­tive of Jew­ish his­to­ry from the inside out, bring­ing to light the var­i­ous divi­sions and rival­ries with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. This approach, in turn, allows for a deep­er under­stand­ing of the com­plex rela­tions between Span­ish Jews and their Mus­lim and Chris­t­ian neigh­bors. Jonathan Ray’s orig­i­nal per­spec­tive on the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence is par­tic­u­lar­ly instruc­tive when con­sid­er­ing the widescale anti-Jew­ish riots of 1391. The com­bi­na­tion of vio­lence and mass con­ver­sion of the Jews irrev­o­ca­bly shift­ed the dynam­ics of inter-reli­gious rela­tions as well as those with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty itself. Yet even in the wake of these trag­ic events, the Jews of Spain con­tin­ued to flour­ish, fos­ter­ing a cul­ture that they would car­ry into exile and that would pre­serve the mem­o­ry of Jew­ish Spain for cen­turies to come.

Discussion Questions

In Jew­ish Life in Medieval Spain, Jonathan Ray explores the expe­ri­ences of Jews in medieval Spain under Islam­ic rule, lead­ing all the way to the expul­sion of 1492. In a sense, it is a pre­quel to his ear­li­er book, After Expul­sion: 1492 and the Mak­ing of Sephardic Jew­ry. Just as in After Expul­sion, this book revis­es much of what we knew about Jew­ish life in Iberia and the for­ma­tion of Sephardic iden­ti­ty. It exam­ines the col­lapse of Jew­ish life in Mus­lim Spain, the migra­tion of Jews to Chris­t­ian Iberia, and the stark dif­fer­ences between those two worlds that exist­ed side by side. Ray focus­es on devel­op­ments with­in Jew­ish Iber­ian soci­ety, inter­nal feuds and divi­sions with­in Jew­ish soci­ety, and the rela­tion­ships Jews main­tained with their Mus­lim and Chris­t­ian neigh­bors. Specif­i­cal­ly, he recon­sid­ers the long-term effects of the anti-Jew­ish riots and mas­sacres of 1391. Pre­vi­ous­ly believed to have been the begin­ning of the end of Jew­ish life in Iberia, Ray shows that Jews con­tin­ued to pros­per and devel­op their unique iden­ti­ty after the events of 1391, which would in turn help them pre­serve their expe­ri­ences and the mem­o­ry of Jew­ish Iberia while in exile. This book there­fore recasts the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive of the decades lead­ing up to the expul­sions of 1492 and 1497.