Tales from the dark side

Tough topic today. A history lesson, not about food, but it is about language (and a bit of perversity) pertaining to the Judeo-Spanish experience, so I’ve included it here.

Dear Janet,
I have a bit of a question for you about Sephardic history/culture. I know that the yellow ritual garment worn by the accused “heretics” (especially marranos) during the Inquisition was/is called a sanbenito or sambenito in Spanish. What does this mean? Some translate it as “blessed sack”. People have linked it to Saint Benedict… I assume it refers to Saint Benedict of Monte Cassino, the founder of Catholic monasticism, since the persecution of Jews and heretics was so often linked to the monastic orders, particularly Dominicans and Franciscans. But could it also be derived from the Ladino name for G-d? In a Ladino version of Chad Gadya, I heard G-d referred to as “Santo-Bendicho-El”, i.e. the Holy Blessed One (ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu). I know it’s a strange linkage to make but could it be plausible? – Mark L.

Yikes! No way, Mark. In the 1500’s, New Christians and Old spoke the same Spanish. This one belongs strictly to the Spanish Inquisition, though the convicted heretics (i.e. Jews) condemned to wearing one did coin an enduring expression around the word, which I’ll explain at the end of this post.

Without going into great detail about the various designs (there were several), the ‘saco bendito’ – or sambenito, as it came to be known – as such was an invention of the Spanish Inquisition. The former name does mean ‘blessed sack’ and the latter is a contraction of San Benito, i.e. Saint Benedict.

Anyone found guilty of heresy was required to wear a saco bendito as part of their punishment, either when being led to be burned at the stake, or, if one was not condemned to die, then at all times when appearing in public, for the duration of their punishment. Imagine having to walk around dressed like this for the rest of your life:

As a written word, ‘sambenito’ is first known to have appeared in the notes of a Jesuit missionary describing the Americas circa 1560, and he used it in a way that suggests it was already part of the Spanish vernacular. (The Inquisition began in 1478.)

Some opine that the saco bendito was loosely (and I use that word loosely) based on the scapular, an unadorned monastic garment smock that hangs from the shoulders – scapula in Latin.  Saint Benedict did wear a scapular, but in his day it served as an ordinary smock to protect one’s tunic while working; it was much later that the scapular became a sacramental garment, and in the Benedictine Order, it also developed special significance in relation to dying.

The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that specifically for lay followers of the Benedictines, “it was regarded as a great grace and privilege [to an oblate or a lay person] to be able to die and be buried in the monastic habit, which was frequently given to the dying or placed on the deceased before burial.”

That’s clear enough for me. I surmise that the architects of the Spanish Inquisition took inspiration not from Saint Benedict and his scapular (which nobody can explain satisfactorily) but from his later followers, twisting a dignified death rite to to suit their own dark purposes.

Autos-da-fé were religious proceedings in which heretics were put to death. When the ‘blessed sacks’ were donned by the condemned, prayers would have been said invoking the name of Saint Benedict, and thus the nickname was coined. One final note: To followers of the Order of Saint Benedict, he is their patron saint of a happy death. What a nice thing to keep telling yourself as they tie you to a stake and set fire to your blessed sack.

With this bitter knowledge, you can now appreciate a Spanish colloquialism also coined during the Inquisition:  poner el sambenito – literally, to put the sambenito on someone, means to lay false blame or accusation.

And so it goes.



Filed under History

7 responses to “Tales from the dark side

  1. Ana

    I am a decendant of portuguese/ spanish Jews both my parents have family that were victoms of the aude fe.. I am portuguese by birth and jewish by religion thank you for bringing this up and lest we forget

  2. Mylineage is 100% Sephardic via Maternal line and about 75% Sephardic via Paternal line, the other 25% is Ashkenazi. This was a family secret I stumbled upon at the age of 18. I since have claimed my Jewish heritage but mourn the loss of culture and tradition as my forefathers became conversos upon leaving Spain for the new world. The reality of many of the Anusim with families who fled to Central and South America is just like mine; a reclaiming journey that all too frequently is traveled alone.

  3. Very interesting Janet, thank you for the post!

  4. Mark L

    Hi Janet, THANKS for answering my question! I feel so honored. I was unsure whether you would consider it safe for discussion or within the purview of this website. Thank you, thank you, thank you. What a gruesome story! Stories like these remind me how important the return of Anusim and Meshumadim like me really is. The sambenito makes a weird kind of allegorical sense- the victim would be swathed and submerged in Christianity prior to death, which is exactly what the Inquisitors set out to do. I know that many Sephardic Jewish families had titles of nobility prior to 1492. What’s up with that, how and why did the Spanish Crown allow that?

    I found early medieval Spanish anti-Semetic laws which strictly forbade Jewish and Christian cohabitation and marriage… being issued by either the royalty or the Catholic Church. I understand why the Jewish community would want such a law. But why would the Church or the royalty care about Christians marrying Jews? Catholics are allowed to marry non-Catholics as long as the couple marries Catholicly and the children are raised Catholic. Did these laws have something to do with “limpieza de sangre” and/or the “sistema de castas”?

    Sorry Janet… another “long Mark response”.. but one question leads to others and many Sephardim become understandably touchy to discuss these sensitive issues. But Jewish conversion to Christianity was never simple.. in theory Jewish-Christian converts ought to have been embraced, but in practice, they were shunned, marginalized and held in suspicion by both Jews and Old Christians. Ashkenazi Jews faced the same marginal fate as Sephardim upon conversion. Converts in Great Britain or the Netherlands fared better.. particularly in Britain, conversion was done by very wealthy, very prominent Jews as a final social step towards intermarriage and assimilation with the very best class of English nobility- i.e. Montefiore, Disraeli, Zangwill..conversion was “becoming English”. Ironically not so different from early Iberia!

    • janet

      Well I thank you, Mark, for asking such a good question. Let’s see if I can answer some of these new ones, too, but briefly.

      The Jewish people were not ceaselessly harassed and harangued throughout Spanish history; there were good centuries under Christian rule (and bad ones in al-Andalus). Many Jews worked in government, at all levels and in a broad spectrum of professions. Noble titles were not only inherited through birth or attached to land ownership, they might be bestowed on a person for doing something extremely well or important in service to the crown. Jews were fully integrated members of Spanish society and rewarded for exceptional service like anyone else.

      Still, non-Christians were subject to different sets of laws (higher taxes, for example), and laws governing the rights of Jews were adjusted to suit the sociopolitical & economic climate of a given moment in history. Mostly these had to do with political alliances between various kingdoms and their relationship to the Church. There was only one form of Christianity and one Church, which was in expansion mode. Any belief that ran counter was a threat. The fear was that Jews might sway born Christians to, or conversos back to, Judaism. At the end of the day it boils down to power and ambition.

      Re intermarriage, Judaism and Christianity are two separate religions. In the period of history you’re looking at, neither allowed intermarriage. Theology and ambition aside, in Spain, Jews were also semi-autonomous. Imagine the complications of legislating and taxing a Jewish-Christian household – it would be impossible.

      Re the shunning of converts, I’ll leave that for another day (It’s not hard to explain or understand, just lengthy). For now, keep in mind that most conversions were not rooted in a sincere belief in Christianity, but in the desire to survive.

  5. Yehuda Franco

    Sanbenito, sackcloth, it was bestowed upon anyone condemned of offenses against the church. The garment was made out of a sack, which usually are made of jute or rough raw material and elicits real punishment to the person wearing it, something painful to wear. The Inquisition was established few centuries earlier, it was primarily to punish christians that failed to abide by the church rules, then it focused on those forced to convert with the ulterior motive to confiscate their property regardless of their sincerity. Some scholars argue that the persecutions were not anti-Semitism but religious in nature, something easily disproved by the actions and the consistent harassment of the con-versos and their descendants and the efforts of the church to denigrate anything pertaining to Judaism even in language, as corrupting the meaning of words like “marrano”(instead of cerdo), “bruja” (instead of hechicera) etc. words that until the XV century were not related to their modern meaning. The war against the Jewish People continued for centuries and sadly has not stop. Thank you for contributing to human culture.

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