• Michaela Selway

Contesting the Motivations for Conversion in Las Siete Partidas

The idea of convivencia, a term that translates as coexistence and carries connotations of peace, is a contentious one that has been used by historians to define the period of Christian occupation in Medieval Iberia after their overthrow of the Islamic Principalities. Convivencia was an ideal first suggested by Américo Castro in 1948. Castro argued that the ‘cultural interaction and exchange’ between the Christians, Muslims and Jews coexisting in Medieval Iberia was unique, something that had not been seen in any other area of history - at no other point in time had these three dominant religious groups interacted better than at this period of time [1]. Castro’s contentious article caused historians of religion and medieval Spain to revisit this time period to disclose what it was that made Castro believe these people to be so unique.

Some historians followed the trajectory chartered by Castro, conjuring ‘images of total harmony’ between the Christians, Muslims and Jews cohabiting this area [2]. Others sought to rewrite this idealistic notion of harmony by claiming that it overlooks the other tensions that were in play throughout this period. My honours dissertation followed this argument, stipulating that law codes, such as Las Siete Partidas, that set out to govern the peace were in fact stimulants for cross-racial tensions. This can particularly be seen in the sections on conversion that contradicted primary source accounts from lay people, thus highlighting the inconsistencies between the Law Code and reality.

Las Siete Partidas (translated as the Seven-Part Code, the Seven Divisions or the Seven Law Codes) were composed by the court of King Alfonso X ‘The Wise’ of Castile and Léon between 1256 and 1265 AD. Past decades saw the overthrow of the Islamic Principalities in Iberia to Christian rulers. King Alfonso X believed that this transition could be regulated through law codes that defined the role of Christians in society and governed the turbelt relationship between Christians, Muslims and Jews living alongside one another in Spain throughout this transition in leadership [3]. Located within the seventh book of the Partidas are two titles specific to the role of Jews and Muslims. It is within these two titles that Alfonso X states that conversion was to occur only due to ‘kind words and suitable discourses… not by violence or compulsion’ [4]. It can be implied that this statement was written in response to the mass conversions that had occurred due to the Christian overthrow of Islamic principalities, where Islamic subjects had been given the option to immigrate away from their homes, convert, or die [5]. It was easier to govern a people that shared a common belief system and could be held to the same standards and rules.

It is this notion, that all three religious groups were held to the same standards and rules, that I challenged. The titles regarding Jews and Muslims were placed in the seventh Partida entitled ‘the dead, the criminal, and the marginalized.’ Directly preceding these two titles are issues relating to treason, violence, fraud, sorcery, and magic. Moreover, directly afterwards are titles concerning heretics, blasphemers, punishment, and torture. By placing these two titles in this section, Alflonso X was likening these religious minorities to criminals. The two titles carry on to disclose restrictions placed on Jewish and Islamic dress codes, interactions with those of other religions, and their public worship [6]. While some leniences were awarded them - for example, Jews could legally uphold their Sabbath day of rest - these laws were not, in reality, upheld. In 1280, Alfonso X himself imprisoned as many Jews as possible on one of their Sabbaths. Their release was only to occur when they paid him a ransom equal to two years annual tribute. Within this time, many Jewish leaders were tortured in an attempt to convert them, an action that distinctly contradicts Alfonso’s prior statements on conversion in the Partidas [7].

Alongside this direct and physical coercion, comparisons can be drawn between the titles on Jews and Muslims and the title on Slavery [8]. While Alfonso X’s administration does not directly relate the Jewish and Muslim situation with slavery, inferences can be made through a study of the language and descriptions presented. The Partidas state that a slave is one who is ‘under obligation to those to whom they belong, by reason of the authority they have over them.’ Therefore, a slave is one who is bound to abide by the rules and commands of those in authority over them; similar to the way that Jews and Moors were bound to abide by the commands of the Christian rulers. Indeed, their “legal” status bore more similarities to slaves than they did to citizens of the state. This led to more subtle forms of coercion to convert to the dominant religion as Christians could not be held as slaves. Thus, Jews and Muslims were coerced to convert, as it was their only opportunity to gain freedom.

Alfonso X sought to bring peace to his kingdom after centuries of upheaval through the construction of a law code that would define the roles of all his subjects in society. This law code deemed that all conversion was to occur through peaceful debate and example. However, through a study of the legal status of religious minorities and how they were oppressed through restrictions to their right to worship and dress, it cannot be argued that this law code promoted Castro’s ideas of peace and harmony, a Medieval Iberian utopia. Rather, it reinforced the idea that Jews and Muslims were not equal within society, and that they, indeed, bore more similarity to slaves than to Christian citizens.


Michaela Selway is the co-founder of Tāhuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying how biblical ideas on Origin Myths, Morality, Prophecies and Gender Roles were projected into Chronicles throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.

[1] Wolf, Kenneth Baxter, ‘Convivencia in Medieval Spain: A Brief History of an Idea,’ Religion Compass, 3, 1, New Jersey, 2009, pp.72.

[2] Elukin, Jonathan, Living Together, Living Apart: Rethinking Jewish-Christian Relations in the Middle Ages, Princeton, 2007, p.135.

[3] The translation I used was that of Robert Burns and Samuel Parsons Scott. Scott, S. P., & Burns, Robert, Las Siete Partidas, Philadelphia, 2001.

[4] ibid., p.1438.

[5] Nirenberg, David, ‘Conversion, Sex, and Segregation: Jews and Christians in Medieval Spain’, The American Historical Review, October, 107, 4, Oxford, 2002, pp.1078, 1084.

[6] Las Siete Partidas, pp.1435-8.

[7] Gorsky, Jeffrey, Exiles in Sepharad: The Jewish Millenium in Spain, Nebraska, 2015, p.82.

[8] The title in question here is Partida IV, Title XXI, which can be found on page 977.

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