Carsten L. Wilke: Sephardi Samizdat: Clandestine Anti-Christian Literature in the Portuguese Jewish Diaspora, 1580–1740

As the opening event of this semester’s series of Departmental Research Seminars, Carsten Wilke shed light on a hidden territory of the confessional age: the secret anti-Christian literature of the early modern Iberian Jewish diaspora in Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Hamburg, and Venice. Wilke outlined his project for the recovery and analysis of these works, a research which he has been pursuing for the past years, and which already resulted in his book The Marrakesh Dialogues (Leiden, Brill, 2014). The project is ground-breaking, for although the existence of such texts was known to historians, very few of them actually took the pains to trace back the genealogies of the various texts and to unearth the proper historical circumstances of their creation.

In his presentation, Wilke gave a review of the texts which comprise this literature. At the present state of research, he managed to identify about 200 volumes scattered in libraries all over Europe, one third of them in the Ets Haim Library in Amsterdam (, and dozens in The Hague, London or Oxford for instance. While most denominations could engage in the theological controversies of the confessional age openly, through printed texts, more extreme positions had to use the anachronistic weapons of manuscript circulation. Therefore, all of these texts are manuscripts, often embellished and designed however to mimic printed books. The only way they entered into print was through reproductions by Christian authors who printed them in order to refute them. The works include treatises, memoirs, dialogues, and poems, most of them in Portuguese or Spanish, some in French, Latin, Italian or Dutch. They range from 1-2 page long pamphlets to the remarkable 4000-page long piece by the stock broker Abraham Gomes Silveyra in the first half of the 18th century. The identity of the authors is frequently difficult to be ascertained, for the texts went through multiple copying, compilation and reworking; however, the rabbi Saul Levi Mortera for instance is known to be the author of the work entitled God’s providence with Israel, truth of the Law of Moses and Invalidity of all other religions (1650s). The anonymous1580’s text Dialogues of Obadia ben Israel and Andrew Anthony in Marrakesh was published by Wilke in his above mentioned book and attributed to Estêvão Dias, a merchant.

One of the most exciting questions is the actual usage of these books. At the present state of research it can be stated that it was mostly Jews and crypto-Jews who circulated them, and that they served a variety of purposes. Their owners used them to be able to answer Christian criticism and proselytism directed at Judaism, but also simply in order to entertain themselves. At the same time, these readings would help returning crypto-Jews to recover and strengthen their community identity. However, they were also to be found in the libraries of sceptical Christian or atheist thinkers, who adopted some of the arguments found in these texts into their attack on dogmatic Christianity. The texts therefore entered the debates of the confessional age in such invisible ways as well.

Wilke’s presentation was followed by a lively discussion, with several questions about the details of the texts and our present knowledge about their usage. Answering a question about the validity of talking about these texts as belonging to a tradition separate from Christian polemical literature, Wilke emphasised that though the texts did indeed engage in confessional debates, their content was deemed to be much greater a threat than that of Christian polemical literature, and was classified as blasphemy instead of simply erratic beliefs. This made these works illegal, and therefore their integration into the debates was only scarce. In response to another question about the visibility of these texts for Christian authorities, the professor explained that while some of the texts were practically invisible, others roused the attention of the authorities and were refuted publicly and put on index.