The first documentary evidence of the Hebrew presence in Ávila dates back to 1144: Alfonso VII assigned the tithe pertaining to the Jews' annual income to the Cathedral. This is the first specific
reference but there are many preceding versions further steeped in mythology until
the actual foundation of the city. Some say that there were Jews in Ávila well before
in Hispano-Roman times. Further evidence backing up this theory is the very legend
of how the original Basilica of San Vicente was founded in the 4th century when on
the same site as it is in today a Jew built the first martyrial church dedicated to
the Vincentian saints Sabina and Cristeta.
In his Historia de las grandezas de la ciudad de Ávila (History of the great Events of the City of Avila), Friar Luis Ariz stated in 1607 - after the taking of the city from the Moslems by the Castilian king
Alfonso VI - the first contingents of Jews arrived in around 1085 as part of the repopulation being arranged by his son-in-law
Count Raymond of Burgundy. This is how the name of Rabbi Centén arose in the first chronicles of the occupation of Ávila after several centuries
during which it was regarded as no man's land, the frontier between the Christian and Moslem kingdoms.
The Jews of Ávila were mainly involved in craft-based activity, particularly rich
cloth trading. Nissim ben Abraham wrote in this city too, better known as the Ávila prophet, his Book of the wonders of wisdom, and here the heights of Christian mysticism were reached by Teresa of Jesus and
John of the Cross, the offspring of New Christians rooted in old families of Jewish
The Almohad invasion of 1147 had major repercussions on the Hebrew expansion through
the peninsula. The threat of this people led to the exodus of Jews and Christian from
the south of the Peninsula to the centre and north of Spain.
With Alfonso VIII (1155-1214) the Jews' situation did not vary greatly. The monarch
generally treated his subjects as equals in terms of the law. It was attempted to
increase the Jews in the Court which gave rise to criticism but this favour came at
a price: Jewish collaboration was vital for commercial life and administration. What's
more, the Jewish quarter contributed a significant amount in taxes which was usually granted by the king:
in 1176, the king granted to the Cathedral and its bishop Sancho a third of the income
he received by way of tolls from Jews at a time when the Jewish quarter in Ávila was
one of the most important in Castile. At this time the Jewish community was prosperous
and had achieved a greater degree of harmony than in other Castilian Jewish quarters.
This policy did not change under Fernando III (1199-1252). The Council of Valladolid
of 1228 led to restrictions on the free movement of Jews in streets and commerce on
markets, but the King did not apply the new rules to the Jews of Ávila. Sancho IV
«the Brave» followed his father's policy and showed a liking for the Hebrew community
from Ávila. In 1285 Yuçaf de Ávila was the tax collector for the bishopric and he
owned houses in the city. In this year the Jewish population had increased so much
both in number and influence that they refused to pay the tithe of their income.
In the early 14th century the Jewish population lived side-by-side with Christians.
The Jews initially inhabited the Lomo Street area, today Esteban Domingo. During the
course of this century and the 15th century the Jews gradually began to move to the
Mercado Chico zone, a very commercial area. Everything changed with the Courts of
Toledo Decree in 1480 which ruled that they should live withdrawn and separate. So they settled in an area delimited by Vallespín Street (the former Zapateros Street),
the Santo Domingo church and the Polentinos Palace with the town wall forming the
In the late 14th century the relations between Christians and Jews started to deteriorate
in Castile. But Ávila continued to stand out from this general trend and its Hebrew
community expanded further, taking on the mantle in the second half of the century
as a people, which had saved the faith, the masoret. The uprisings and disputes brought about by the heights for power of the Trastámara
had little impact on Ávila. The worst was yet to come in 1391. At that time almost
half a century had elapsed since the death of King Alfonso XI whose attitude to the
Jews of Ávila had been positive despite some hostile movements in synods and councils.
Pedro I generally adopted a more peace-seeking approach towards the Jewish community
in the Courts of 1351 in Valladolid which earned him the title of the Jews' friend, a name which sought to insult the monarch who allowed them to put up new synagogues
and expand the old ones. With Pedro I but later too with Henry II, Ávila suffered
attacks by some groups who would steal and burn commercial documents and letter of
undertaking between 1360 and 1366 owing to the moratorium on Jewish debts, time which
some rioters used to get hold of promissory notes and guarantees. However, the King
saved the day for the Jews. But in 1375 this same king allowed pressure to be put
on the Hebrew community to attend the religious debates in the churches, one of which
was protagonised by the convert Juan de Valladolid and Moses ha-Cohen of Tordesillas.
Moses ha-Cohen wrote:
En este año vinieron hombres perversos y duros, que habían renegado de nuestra santa
ley y tomado una religión nueva; y en virtud de una carta real que les autorizaba
a ello, recorrían nuestros pueblos y convocaban a los judíos donde y cuando querían
para discutir con ellos sobre su religión [...]. Uno de ellos [...] nos reunió cuatro
veces ante la multitud y la asamblea de los cristianos y los musulmanes. Se extendió
en alegorías y comparaciones, pero yo le refutaba siempre cuanto decía con pruebas
sacadas del Pentateuco y de los Evangelios.
The growing anti-Semitic feeling in Castile gradually led to the conversion of Jews
and the start of Crypto-Judaism. At this time Juan I came to the throne and despite a ban on the sermons of Ferrand
Martínez, the Archdeacon of Écija, of the most important anti-Semitic preachers, anti-Judaism
worsened. Ferrand Martínez became extremely popular because of his sermons and preaching
which continually whipped up hatred of the Jews and, through them, he became the great
driving force behind the anti-Jewish revolt of 1391. Juan I had a particular affection
for Ávila Cathedral and in 1384 he granted it an income of three thousand maravedis for the so-called pechos judíos (Jewish «head-taxes»), payable in November of each year, a privilege which was confirmed in 1391 by Enrique
The anti-Jewish slaughters of 1391 did not reach Ávila but the climate of concern
and unrest with the general situation began to make itself felt. The Crown did all
it could to play defuse the situation but Vincent Ferrer's sermons in 1411 in Valladolid
led to many Jews fleeing the town. Ávila was still an oasis in this tense atmosphere
and not even the sermons of Alonso de Espina in the mid-15th century could make any
impact on this status. The segregation of the Jews envisaged in the Pragmática of
1412 was not applied because the Cabildo (chapterhouse) rented houses and premises
to Jews and was not interested in any measure which could have led to a fall in its
revenue. The Jews continued to live in the streets neighbouring the Cathedral or between
Mercado Chico (small market) and Grande (large market) on Zapateros Street, San Juan square, Arco de Montenegro and from the Gate of Bad
Luck to the stretch of the city wall at Adaja Bridge.
In 1442, when the bull Cantate Domino of Eugene IV reached Ávila, Álvaro de Luna, King´s favourite and with close link
to the city, rejected its implementation and convinced Juan II to grant favours to
the Jewish settlement in the Pragmática of Arévalo. The bull, famous for its thesis
«There is no salvation outside the Church», requested the conversion of Jews to Christianity.
After Enrique IV came to the throne in 1454 he adopted the previous laws and authorised
unlimited commerce, a free market and economic freedom which benefitted the Jews of
Ávila. Some people wished to interrupt this approach after ten years of his reign
with the sentence of Medina del Campo which, amongst other measures, included the
separation of Jews in ghettos and the humiliation of obliging Jewish citizens to wear
a sign on their clothing, the ban on wearing doublets and silk attire or from holding
palace office. Henry IV prevented the sentence of Medina from being applied, leading
to his being deposed in the so-called farce of Ávila when the League of Nobles led by Juan Pacheco and allied with some anti-Jewish elements
of the city, proclaimed Alfonso, the monarch's brother, as King and revoked all the
rulings which had favoured the Jews.
The reign of the Catholic Monarchs seemed hopeful. Many Jews, like Abraham Senior,
had supported the monarchs. Nevertheless, the Courts of Madrigal of 1476 implemented
measures such as the withdrawal of the Moorish quarters' capacity to judge criminal
lawsuits and the requirement that Jews wear a roela bermeja (golden or silver circle). The new measures created conflictual situations in Ávila both in terms of the attire
and the restrictions on usury. The Jewish Quarter leaders recommended that money should not be lent under these terms which put at
stake the city's funding. Faced by this situation, Isabel I looked for formulas to
prevent the damaged caused to Jews and thereby prevent them from leaving Ávila, a
threat which she held in fear in view of their importance to the economy and commerce.
In 1478 and in Medina del Campo the Catholic Monarchs granted their Charter in favour of the Jews of Ávila which constitutes the first case of habeas corpus applied to a Jewish community in European history:
Cada que ante Vos [...] fuese dada querella de algund judío de esa dicha cibdad por
qualquier persona [...] de algund delito que digan aver cometido, no dades contra
ellos mandamiento para que los prendan syn primeramente traer información sobreello
según e como el derecho lo quiere el manda.
The Municipal ordinances of the city of 1485 stressed the long-rooted tradition of tolerance and good relations:
their text ignored and played down any kind of humiliating discrimination or rules
offensive to the members of religious minorities and they granted everyone the same rights as citizens:
Ordenamos [...] que estos derechos del suelo paguen los judíos [...] desta cibdad
según e por la manera que lo han de pagar los cristianos e de suso se contiene. Quier
salgan a la feria quier non [...] [ningún cristiano] se entremeta a prender a los
judíos en sus juderías [...] aunque labren y fagan sus labores puertas abiertas en
los días de Pascua e Domingos e Fiestas que son de guardar, ni en otras algunas aunque
dentro de ellas anden sin señales, e quien lo contrario hiciere caya en la pena.
In this way, the Ordinances moved away from the criteria of the previous year's Synod
and the Church's recommendations and they distanced themselves from what was the norm
in most Castilian districts which were always endeavouring to reduce their rights.
The pro-Jewish stance of the Council of Ávila was supported by the Catholic Monarchs
who were in Murcia one year later in 1488, authorising certain rights to the Non-Christian
community, in particular as regards the trading of foodstuffs.
In the last quarter of the 15th century the Council which had defended the Jews' rights,
denied them the title of residents. Under the «enclosure» law the Jews of Ávila had to move to the area around the Gate
of Bad Luck, into a very small zone considering the large number of Jews in the City.
This wouldn't be for long. On May 1st 1492 the edict of expulsion reached Ávila. The
Jews of the city sold their property and homes. Their synagogues and cemeteries and
all their communal properties became Council property. All aspects of local life felt
the impact and this measure was decisive for the city's fall from grace, immersed
as it was in a socio-economic crisis which lasted for several centuries. The expulsion
of the Jews was a hammer blow which did not seem to garner any support amongst the
Mercado Chico (Small market) Square
The Jews also kept on living between the Mercado Chico and the Grande until the issuing
of the Edict of Expulsion in 1492
Reyes Católicos street gives out onto the Mercado Chico square, the most intimate heart of the walled city with its colonnades, its Town Hall
and St. John's Church. At present, the municipal archives have in their safekeeping one of the scarce surviving
originals of the decree of expulsion by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492.
As was usual amongst the Jews, in view of their commercial vocation they settled in
the city centre to afford greater projection to their businesses. Their district par
excellence was the area which stretched between the St. Vincent Basilica, the Mercado Grande and the San Millán district. In the trades set up there the Jews raw materials were provided in order
to make the hamin or hot food in shabbatwhich included the adafinas and pan with chickpeas, egg and sheep's trotters as well as lentil soup, capons and
sausages, trout, etc.
The Decree of Expulsion of 1492
The expulsion of the Jews from the Spanish kingdoms should not be regarded as an isolated incident in the European
context. Growing religious intolerance had already brought about similar cases in
England, France and elsewhere. The decision by the Catholic Monarchs thus came as
no great surprise. It could even be said that the incorporation of Spain into this
widespread process of European Christendom against the Jews actually came late.
Before signing the Decree of expulsion the Catholic Monarchs attempted to eradicate Jewish proselytism by adopting certain
measures. These included the Jews living in separate places which does not seem to
have been enough, giving rise in 1480 to the foundation of the Inquisition Court and, in 1483, their expulsion from Andalusia. As these measures were not sufficient
to prevent those evils which, in the opinion of the Monarchs, were being brought upon
the Christian religion, after much deliberation and listening to their advisors and
the prelates, they agreed to set a final deadline of the end of July 1492 for all Jews to leave their kingdoms forever, on pain of death and confiscation of
their assets despite the economic problems this measure would cause.
Consequently, the banishment order was communicated to all prelates, nobles, Masters
of Orders and priors of Castile, commissioning them to ensure that the Jews left their
lands without any harm coming to themselves or their assets. Until this time the monarchs
would afford them protection, authorising them to exchange or sell their property
on equitable terms and take them outside the Kingdom except for gold, silver, coins
and anything else prohibited by law. However, the cases of exploitation and fraud were widespread and the Jews were forced to sell their assets at very low prices or to abandon them leaving them with their Christian representatives.
San Pedro Church
Western Façade of St. Peter's Church
St. Peter's Church is undoubtedly one of the most significant temples of Castile and León. Since its
Romanesque origins both the building and its decoration have evolved, the upshot of
the prolongation of its construction over time. It was probably started in the second
quarter of the 12th century but, for unknown reasons, the works were halted until
the end of said century.
On the exterior, the triple header, an apse on each of the naves, brings together an amazing sculptoric
repertoire with vegetal, fauna and geometric motifs but also including religious scenes
like the history of Cain and Abel or the Temptation of Adam. Altogether this would
be the first construction stage.
At the second of these stages the transept walls were built and at the third the lateral
naves. As early as the 13th century the pillars of the main nave were raised and the
roof would gradually be covered with barrel and ribbed vaults. The passage of time
meant that the artistic criteria gradually changed and the arches started to become
evident as the preface to the Gothic tendencies which would end up prevailing. Finally,
upon completing this Romanesque stage, the dome was raised. The temple has a «Latin
cross» ground plan with a central nave whose dimensions are larger than the lateral
ones, separated by spacious stone arches.
St. Peter's Church was declared a National Monument in 1914.
An esplanade extends throughout almost the whole perimeter of the temple. This is
St. Peter's Atrium. It was here that the Castilian monarchs swore to respect the regional charters of
Castile and the Inquisition raised a platform to stage the trials of heretics. This all goes to illustrate the great importance of this church in the period of
the greatest political importance in the city of Ávila.
It was at St. Peter's Atrium that the notorious trial took place of those Jews accused
in the case of the Holy Child of La Guardia, an event which grabbed the attention of the kingdom at that time and which serves
as a perfect illustration of the worsening of relations between Jews and Christians
in the late 15th century.
The case of the Holy Child of La Guardia
The case of the Holy Child of La Guardia is a prime example of the anti-Semitism prevailing in the late 15th century to achieve
religious unification and which, according to some historians, serves as the spark leading to the signing of the decree of expulsion promulgated by the Catholic Monarchs.
Benito García, a convert, who was suspected of stealing consecrated hosts, is arrested.
He confesses that he is still practising the Jewish religion along with another convert,
Juan de Ocaña, and a Jew Franco de Tembleque. Benito García is set to the Inquisition
prison of Ávila where he meets Yucé Franco, a Jewish cobbler. In prison the latter
confesses to Antonio de Ávila, a Jewish doctor pretending to be a Rabbi, that a few years previously he had taken part in a ritual crime in La Guardia (Toledo).
One Easter Friday he had crucified a boy and then he had mixed his blood and heart
with a consecrated host in an act of witchcraft aimed at bringing about a rabies epidemic
throughout the land.
Denounced by the Rabbi, an Inquisition spy, Yucé Franco recants saying the story was told to him by a convert,
a certain Alonso Franco. Subjected to torture, he again confesses his participation
in the crime. The Inquisition decides to arrest them all and takes them to the prison
The proceedings commenced on December 17th 1490 and ended one year later. Despite
the fact that there was no corpse and the continuous contradictions appearing in the
process, on November 16th 1491, at an auto de fe held in Ávila, the two Jews and there converts are sentenced to death by the Inquisition. Two of them confessed their guilt and their error in at the last moment and they were garrotted before
being burned. The rest were burned alive slightly later.
San Vicente Basilica
The Basilica of San Vicente from the city wall
The Basilica of San Vicente dates back to the 12th century but it was built on another prior place of worship
which it is hard to define. Although it is a compendium of Romanesque architecture
as their construction lasted until the 13th century it also bears traces of late Romanesque,
directly preceding Gothic art.
On the exterior the use of cali stone (orange) lends it an amazing array of colours which contrasts with the sober
grey granite of its portico.
Inside, it has a «Latin cross» ground plan with three naves which culminate in their attendant
apse. Its narrowness lifts our gaze up to the ceilings which are vaulted.
The inclusion of this monument on the Ávila list of cultural heritage related with
the Jews can be put down to the extraordinary reliefs which decorate the cenotaph (13th century) or urn where the remains of the martyrs are kept. These saints were
the siblings Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta and they suffered martyrdom during the persecution
of Diocletian (around 360) by refusing to admit they had carried out pagan rites.
Tradition would have it that their bodies were laid out on a rock and the first basilica
was built at this site. Its construction was paid for by a Jew who had boasted of his martyrdom: when he was gloating over the torture they were
being subject to, a snake wrapped around his body and he felt that if he didn't renounce
his faith, it would put paid to him.
Now converted to Christianity the Jew went ahead with the erection of this place of
worship where he himself would later be buried. All these events are portrayed in
the aforementioned cenotaph reliefs.
At present the martyrs' remains are located in urns arranged at the Main Altar and
the cenotaph is admired for its excellent carvings as well as for the canopy which covers it and
was added later in 1469.
The Basilica of San Vicente was declared a National Monument in 1882.
The legend of the Jew
Although documents have told us about the arrival of a first contingent of Jews in
the late 11th century as participants in the venture to resettle the city by Count
Raymond of Burgundy, after a long period as no man´s land on the border between Christians and Moslems, theories abound satting that there
were Jews in Ávila well before this historic time, undoubtedly back in Roman times.
This possibility is further backed up by the very legend of the foundation of Ávila
as a Christian city in the 4th century in which at the same place where the first
martyrial church dedicated to the saints Vincent, Sabina and Cristeta, a Jew builds,
after having miraculously saved after a deadly snake bite which surprised him whilst
laughing about the martyrdom of the brothers at the hands of Roman soldiers. This
is recounted in every gory detail on the expressive vignettes surrounding the magnificent tomb of the martyrs at the Basilica of San Vicente, one of the great gems of the Castilian Romanesque.
The brothers Vincent, Sabina and Cristeta were captured and martyrized in Ávila in
306. In the times of Diocletian, the governor of Hispania, they had refused to sign a document acknowledging they had offered sacrifices
to the Roman gods. A Jew was collaboration in the martyrdom when a snake curled round
his neck. He promised God that if he got free, he would convert to Christianity and
provide the martyr brothers with a tomb; at this same place the first church would
be erected where, according to tradition, he was buried.