In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree, ordering the expulsion of all Jews from their kingdoms. In a matter of months, Spanish Jews were forced to renounce their faith or leave their thousand-year homeland behind. Meanwhile, the Spanish economy crumbled as hundreds of thousands prepared for departure, liquidating their assets and scrambling to arrange their affairs.
Amid this chaos, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella wrote a crucial directive to their agent Rodrigo de Mercado, Governor of Medina del Campo, regarding the dissolution of Jewish property in Spain. Signed on December 10, 1492, this letter in the Museum’s Permanent Collection marks a transformative moment in world history. It tells the story of a unique culture nearly destroyed, and of a disastrous blunder by the Spanish government that impacted not only the Jews of Spain but Christian and Muslim countries across Europe and Africa.
Ferdinand and Isabella initially signed the decree for the expulsion of all Jews residing within their domain on March 31, 1492. Spanish Jews, who numbered around 300,000, were required to emigrate or convert to Catholicism by the end of July the same year, giving them a period of four months to liquidate all of their property, vacate their homes and businesses, and venture abroad. The magnitude of the undertaking and the timeframe given resulted in social and economic chaos, to which this letter responds directly.
It reads: “As regards what you say about the goods which some people have taken from the Jews in their towns and lands, as well as outstanding debts, we command you to find out which goods were seized and the number of debts that remained and they are collecting.”
The King and Queen of Spain’s instruction alludes to the issues that immediately arose following their March order. Four months was insufficient time for the liquidation of all Jewish-owned assets. Where liquidation was possible, Jews were unable to sell their property at its real value due to the saturation of the market as hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously placed their land, homes, tools, and belongings up for sale. Compounding these difficulties was the prohibition against Jews’ owning the standard currency of the day: gold and silver. In addition, Jewish creditors would have no means of collecting money from their non-Jewish debtors after their departure. Likewise, non-Jewish creditors would be unable to retrieve debts owed to them by Jewish debtors who were being forcibly expelled.
The letter further instructed, “Stop seizing or expropriating what each one [Jew] has in their own towns and lands. However, whatever you find outside of their towns and lands in goods and other assets, seize it all according to the provision you have.”
The measures that Isabella and Ferdinand enacted through this letter and their following orders were ultimately insufficient to prevent damage to the Spanish economy. The country was deprived of the skills and talents of thousands of individuals. Moreover, prominent Jewish thought centers in cities like Toledo, a major hub for Jewish life, were extinguished. Jewish doctors, lawyers, artisans, and professionals flooded neighboring countries, enriching their cultures and economies instead of Spain’s.
King Bayazet, then the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, remarked: “Do they call this Ferdinand a politic prince, who can thus impoverish his own kingdom and enrich ours?”
Within the year, 175,000 Jews left Spain, while those who stayed were forced to renounce their faith. The Jewish presence in Spain was virtually extinguished for the next several hundred years. This letter chronicles a moment in that tragic and transformative episode in Jewish history, after which Jews went on to disseminate Sephardic culture and innovation around the world.