The Sephardic Fron­tier: The Recon­quista and the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty in Medieval Iberia

Jonathan Ray
  • Review
By – November 11, 2011

Fron­tiers are open areas where the ambi­tious often find oppor­tu­ni­ty. When the Chris­t­ian king­doms of the north­ern Iber­ian Penin­su­la recon­quered the south from the Mus­lims in the ear­ly 13th cen­tu­ry, they sought to repop­u­late the ter­ri­to­ry, open­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for Jew­ish as well as Chris­t­ian pioneers. 

Draw­ing on large­ly unpub­lished research, Jonathan Ray, vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish his­to­ry at UCLA, describes a flu­id and dynam­ic Jew­ish soci­ety in south­ern Iberia, in con­trast to the view that the new set­tlers con­gre­gat­ed in estab­lished com­mu­ni­ties. Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties were, in fact, few, and pow­er­ful fam­i­lies, often rely­ing on roy­al favor, moved freely, unham­pered by com­mu­nal stan­dards and author­i­ty and Chris­t­ian restric­tions. Jews often chose to live out­side Jew­ish quar­ters, if they exist­ed, and par­tic­i­pat­ed in the over­all growth and activ­i­ty of the area. The crown used loy­al Jew­ish courtiers to extend its con­trol over the local nobil­i­ty, and only toward the end of the cen­tu­ry did it begin to rein in Jew­ish mobil­i­ty and inter­ac­tion with the Chris­t­ian community.

In its well-stat­ed argu­ments, The Sephardic Fron­tier shows indi­vid­ual Jews and dynas­tic fam­i­lies as sig­nif­i­cant par­tic­i­pants in the expan­sion of south­ern Iberia and gives stu­dents of the peri­od a new perspective. 

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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