Conversation with Paola Tartakoff

Rutgers scholar of medieval Jewish-Christian relations at UConn Feb. 6

By Cindy Mindell


In 1341 in Aragon, a Jewish convert to Christianity was sentenced to death, only to be pulled from the burning stake and into a formal religious interrogation. His confession was as astonishing to his inquisitors as his brush with mortality is to us: the condemned man described a Jewish conspiracy to persuade recent converts to denounce their newfound Christian faith. His claims were corroborated by witnesses and became the catalyst for a series of trials that unfolded over the course of the next 20 months.

Dr. Paola Tartakoff

Dr. Paola Tartakoff

This is the setting of Paola Tartakoff’s book, Between Christian and Jew: Conversion and Inquisition in the Medieval Crown of Aragon (University of Pennsylvania Press, Middle Ages Series, 2012), which lays bare the intensity of the mutual hostility between Christians and Jews in medieval Spain.

She will present “Conspiring Against the Inquisition: A Tale of Revenge in Medieval Spain” on Thursday, Feb. 6 at UConn Storrs.

An associate professor of history and Jewish studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Tartakoff studies the social and cultural history of Jews and Christians in medieval and early modern Europe. She is particularly interested in conversion to and from Judaism and in the medieval and Spanish Inquisitions. Her work is grounded in archival research conducted in Catalonia, Aragon, and Valencia, but it also explores the Mediterranean region more broadly, as well as northern Europe.

Tartakoff received her BA from Harvard and her PhD from Columbia. Since joining the Rutgers faculty in 2007, she has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where she developed her project, “Conversion and the Jewish-Christian Confrontation in Medieval Iberia.” At Rutgers, she teaches courses on Jewish-Christian relations through the ages, the medieval and Spanish Inquisitions, Jewish identities in the medieval Mediterranean, and ancient and medieval Jewish society and culture.

Tartakoff’s other publications include Christian Kings and Jewish Conversion in the Medieval Crown of Aragon (Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 3, 2011); The Toledot Yeshu and the Jewish-Christian Controversy in the Medieval Crown of Aragon, in Toledot Yeshu Reconsidered (Berlin: Mohr Siebeck, 2011); and Jewish Women and Apostasy in the Medieval Crown of Aragon, c.1300-1391 (Jewish History 24.1, 2010).

Tartakoff spoke with the Ledger about this little-known period of Jewish history, lost in the shadow of the impending Spanish Inquisition.


Q: How did you develop your academic interest and hone your specialty in Jewish-Christian relations in Iberia, and religious conversion and the inquisitorial prosecution of Jews and converts?

A: I became interested in medieval history when I was in high school and my family moved to Paris for a year as my father, who is a biologist, took a sabbatical there. In France, I fell in love with medieval art and architecture and became increasingly interested in the history of Jewish-Christian relations. Medieval Spain always intrigued me as it was famously religiously diverse – home to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. I found the stories of Spanish conversos – their complex religious identities and their inquisitorial travails – particularly fascinating. When, as a graduate student in medieval history at Columbia University, I returned to Spain to conduct research in church, municipal, and national archives, I came upon a highly unusual and little-known inquisitorial dossier in the archive of the Cathedral of Barcelona. The stories of the defendants and prosecutors in this dossier form the backbone of my book, Between Christian and Jew: Conversion and Inquisition in the Crown of Aragon, 1250-1391.


Q: What did you want to explore and reveal in writing Between Christian and Jew

A: The book explores the worlds of Jews, converts, and inquisitors – and how the three intersected – in medieval Spain, over a century prior to the famous mass conversions of 1391 and the establishment of the notorious Spanish Inquisition in 1480. I sought to learn why Jews converted to Christianity during this earlier period and what became of these little-known converts; why and how inquisitors prosecuted Jews in this earlier period, when Jews technically fell beyond their jurisdiction; and how Jews responded to the challenges of apostasy and inquisitorial prosecution. By sifting through hundreds of unpublished documents in archives across northeastern Spain and analyzing these in light of rabbinic responsa, canon law, inquisitorial sources, and papal and royal correspondence, I lay bare the intensity of tensions between Christians and Jews – and the centrality of Jewish converts to these tensions – during a century that has often been considered one of interfaith harmony.


Q: What are some of the major myths and/or misconceptions about Jewish life in medieval Spain?

A: The co-existence of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in medieval Spain is often discussed wistfully and viewed through rose-colored glasses. The historical record, however, actually reveals incredibly complex and often hostile interfaith dynamics that were fundamentally similar to interfaith dynamics in northern Europe.


Q: How did you learn Catalan and Latin sufficiently well to conduct your scholarly research?

A: I was raised speaking French and Spanish and am therefore able to understand spoken Catalan and read Catalan. Most of my sources for the book, however, were in Latin, which I studied as an undergraduate at Harvard, as a graduate student at Columbia, and also at the Vatican during two summers in Rome, medieval Catalan and Provençal, and Hebrew.


Q: What other aspects of medieval West European Jewry are you interested in pursuing in future research?

A: My current research explores the seemingly improbable phenomenon of medieval conversion from Christianity to Judaism across Western Europe. I am interested not only in the social realities of medieval conversion to Judaism – about which we have documentation in rabbinic responsa, the Cairo Geniza, papal and royal correspondence, canon law, and even tombstones – but also in expressions of medieval Christian anxiety about conversion to Judaism, which distorted and greatly exaggerated the scope of these social realities. My research asks what we can learn from both the overlaps and the gaps between social realities and Christian concerns.


Q: What is the “tale of revenge” that you will discuss in your UConn lecture?

A: Medieval Jews are often portrayed as passive victims of inquisitorial machinations. A case from the kingdom of Aragon in the 1340s, however, reveals a staggeringly audacious Jewish plot to retaliate against a group of inquisitors who had attempted to destroy their community.


“Conspiring Against the Inquisition: A Tale of Revenge in Medieval Spain” with Prof. Paola Tartakoff, on Thursday, Feb. 6, 5:30 p.m., at UConn, Babbidge Library Class of 1947 Conference Room, Storrs. For information call (860) 486-2271 or email

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