The Disputation of Mallorca (1286): A Case Study in the Medieval Culture of Disputation

By Alex J. Novikoff

Ever since Christianity parted ways from Judaism, its adherents have felt the need to defend their new faith, often combining advocacy of the new religion with the urge to delegitimize Judaism as an outdated and obsolete vestige of a prior epoch. From this theological impulse was born the so-called Adversus Judaeus corpus of writings that stretches from the earliest centuries of Christianity through the end of the Middle Ages, and well beyond. The repetitive nature of this genre notwithstanding, scholars have increasingly come to recognize the many ways in which this confrontation evolved theologically, intellectually, and even socially, involving new spheres of contact and new participants in those debates. Nor was this controversy entirely one-sided, since beginning in the twelfth century Jews began to mount their own polemical response in Hebrew, a corpus that has likewise been the subject of increased and deserved attention.

My current project involves a translation and detailed study of the fascinating—and fascinatingly understudied—encounter known simply as the Disputation of Mallorca, a Latin text that records the public debates held between a Genoese merchant named Inghetto Contardo and four Jews in the port city of Palma de Mallorca in the spring of 1286. While the Jews are not historically identifiable, the Italian merchant is in fact well attested in other Genoese notarial sources from the time, giving this encounter a tantalizing whiff of quotidian life not found in most other theological polemics. First edited by Professor Ora Limor in the 1980s and subsequently published with an extensive critical apparatus in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica series in 1994, the text of this disputation has yet to receive a sustained treatment comparable to the many other texts of the Jewish-Christian controversy.[1] Indeed, the earlier and much commented upon Disputation of Barcelona (1263)—to which the Mallorca debate makes explicit reference—seems to be at least partially responsible for diverting attention away from this equally (and in some sense even more) intriguing text.

The basic framework of Mallorca disputation is as follows. One bright morning on the first of May in the year 1286, a Jew known only as rabbi approached the Genoese merchants in their loggia (or headquarters) in the port of Palma de Mallorca with an unruly taunt about their failure to observe dietary laws. What follows is a series of discussions (variously taking place in the loggia, the harbor, outside a spice shop, and in private homes) over a mostly standard series of topics relative to the Jewish-Christian debate: dietary laws specifically and the validity of Mosaic law more generally, the divine nature of the Messiah, the interpretations of Isaiah 7:14, the Trinity, and so forth. There are some unusual elements too (such as an extended discussion over the future of Jerusalem and the status of Daniel as a minor prophet), but the debate never turns violent, and the discussion proceeds not according to any prearranged order but more, it would seem, as a function of who sails into port and who departs. The debate winds down when one of the learned Jews, a recently arrived Catalan by the name of Astruc Isaiah, converts to Christianity and begins the process of becoming a Christian under the tutelage of Inghetto Contardo. The disputation ends as quickly as it began with an unfulfilled promise for a further discussion in a private house about the book of Daniel. 

The Catalan Atlas of 1375 is undoubtedly the most famous product of the Mallorcan cartographic school, a largely Jewish circle of cartographers and cosmographers that flourished on the island in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. Produced most likely by Abraham Cresques (and with the likely collaboration of his son Jehuda), the map was made using nautical instruments and knowledge inherited as a result of Genoese mercantile interests on the island—the very contextual backdrop for the Disputation of 1286. Source: Wikimedia Commons.  

To appreciate the importance of the Disputation of Mallorca, it is necessary to understand how it both extends and challenges the boundaries of previous religious encounters between Jews and Christians. This is the subject of my accompanying study, but here let me highlight four key areas of expansion. On the most fundamental level, and as Ora Limor stressed long ago, the debate at Mallorca represents one of the very first encounters that features a secular merchant as the Christian protagonist rather than a cleric or a Jewish convert, as is the case for example at the more famous encounters in Barcelona in 1263 and Paris in 1240.[2] In fact, the only other comparable account is that of another Genoese merchant in 1179 holding a debate with Jews in the North African port town of Ceuta, an account that was likewise edited by Ora Limor in her 1994 volume. But that is a much shorter text and the Genoese merchant there, who goes by the name Alfachino, is not nearly as reliably identifiable as Inghetto Contardo. The fact that there is a considerable amount of textual overlap between the two texts suggests that these were likely redacted around the same time, rendering it yet more difficult to determine which debate (Ceuta in 1179 or Mallorca in 1286) was in fact the more “accurate” in its reproduction of the conversations.

The Disputation of Mallorca extends the boundaries of Jewish-Christian encounters in a more geographical dimension too, since here the locus of the action is the strategically positioned Balearic Island, a nexus for commerce, interfaith contact, and geo-political ambitions—a “Mediterranean emporium,” as David Abulafia felicitously titled his study of the island.[3] The island’s importance was all the more central in the last quarter of the thirteenth century owing to the political conflicts that resulted in the death of three kings in the year 1285 (Peter III of Aragon, Philip III of France, and Charles I of Anjou), a fact specifically mentioned in the course of the disputation. To be more precise, from 1285 (and for the next decade) a veritable crisis of suzerainty hung over the inhabitants of the island as there were in fact two contending “kings of Mallorca”: the Count of Roussillon James II (who ruled from the fortress-palace in Perpignan) and the actual king of Aragon and last heir to the throne of Mallorca, Alfonso III (whose eventual death in 1291 paved the way for James’s absorption of the island into his own domains). It is worth noting that four of these five princes are either singled out or alluded to by Dante Alighieri as part of a class of “negligent rulers” whose failure to stabilize the politics of the western Mediterranean earned them an inglorious spot in the antechamber to Purgatory (Canto VII).[4] Far from being on the margins of the more populous cities of continental Europe, the island of Mallorca in the year 1286 was therefore at the geographic, commercial, and political center of very different set of colliding interests. 

A third challenge is posed by what might be called the subversive message of the text. By the second half of the thirteenth century most Christian disputational interactions with Jews and Muslims were conducted by learned members of religious orders (usually Dominicans and Franciscans), and in fact several church councils specifically forbade laypersons from engaging in argument with non-Christians. Not only does Inghetto Contardo defy this ban, but he proudly declares that he is only a merchant, thus in a sense challenging the clerical monopoly on converting Jews. Also active in the very same milieu is the celebrated philosopher, theologian, poet, and missionary Ramon Llull (c. 1232-c. 1315), whose own accounts of his conversionary activities on the island have received sustained attention from generations of scholars. A court advisor and confidant to “king” James II of Mallorca, Llull was a frequent visitor to Genoa (where his texts were in circulation by the early thirteenth century) as well as one of the most prolific polemicists of his era, and so there are good reasons to see Inghetto Contardo as a competitor with Llull in the first instance, and as part of a more general attempt to undermine Catalan presence on the island in favor of a wider Genoese sphere of influence in the second.

Ramon Llull is the most celebrated missionary associated with the island of Mallorca, and an almost exact contemporary of Inghetto Contardo. This image is from an illustrated summary of Llull’s works, the Breviculum, compiled by his student in Paris Thomas le Myésier for the Queen of France. The image shows Lull delivering his message to Muslims, but also vividly depicts two themes common to both Ramon Lull and Inghetto Contardo: sailing and verbal public debate. Source: Universitätsbibliothek Freiburg im Breisgau.

Lastly, the disputation of Mallorca also extends the boundaries of Jewish-Christian encounters in a more cultural sense. By this I mean that the style of the debate and the sequence of the scenes have as much in common with the contemporary popularization of intellectual discourse as they do with the strictly theological ambitions of earlier polemical broadsides. Much of my work to date has been devoted to exploring the interrelations between different spheres of debate and argumentation in the high Middle Ages. The recourse to classroom disputatio (both as a staged exercise in performance and in the literary form of the pedagogical dialogue), the absorption and even bastardization of Aristotelian logic, the expanding horizon of non-elite participants, and the application of age-old matters to current life are just some of the qualities that have led me to characterize the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries as a “culture of disputation.” As I hope to show, the Disputation of Mallorca presents a striking case study of that very phenomenon.

I have described this text as not only fascinating but also understudied, and it is worth ending with a few thoughts on why that may be. As modern scholars we remain heavily constrained by our modern disciplinary divides, and it is instinctive to shy away from those works that defy easy characterization, or straddle multiple contexts. One important reason for the disputation’s relative neglect I believe stems from the text’s indeterminate status: it is regarded as too Genoese for most Iberianists, too Mallorcan for most Italianists, too minor (or seemingly derivative) for most scholars of Jewish-Christian interactions, and too theological or polemical for most scholars of social or economic history. But these qualities are also its attractions, so long as the analytical lens is adjusted to permit a wider focus. The time is right, I believe, to bring this fascinating text to a wider audience and to present it at the center of such rich and overlapping worlds.

Alex J. Novikoff is a historian of medieval intellectual and cultural life and has published widely in the fields of interfaith relations and Mediterranean studies. He is the author of The Medieval Culture of Disputation: Pedagogy, Practice, and Performance (Penn Press, 2013); the editor of The Twelfth-Century Renaissance: A Reader (University of Toronto Press, 2017); and the translator of Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Conversion of Herman the Jew: Autobiography, History, and Fiction in the Twelfth Century (Penn Press, 2010). Along with Brian A. Catlos, he co-edited a special issue of the journal Medieval Encounters (2018) on the theme of “Interfaith Dialogue and Disputation in the Medieval Mediterranean.” He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Rhodes College, Fordham University, the Juilliard School of Music, and is currently on the faculty at Kenyon College in Ohio (since 2017) and Franklin University Switzerland (since 2007).

[1] Ora Limor, ed., Die Disputationen zu Ceuta (1179) und Mallorca (1286): Zwei antijüdische Schriften aus dem mittelalterlichen Genua (Munich: Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 1994). Rather coincidentally, a separate edition prepared by Gilbert Dahan, but based on fewer manuscripts, appeared almost simultaneously accompanied by a French translation: Ingetto Contardo: Disputatio Contra Iudeos (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1993).

[2] See esp. Ora Limor, “Missionary Merchants: Three Medieval Anti-Jewish Works from Genoa,” The Journal of Medieval History 17 (1991): 35-51.

[3] David Abulafia, A Mediterranean Emporium: The Catalan Kingdom of Majorca (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[4] The one exception is James II (1243-1311) who was still alive at the time Dante’s allegory takes place (Easter of the year 1300).

About Hannah Teddy Schachter

I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Doctoral Fellow of the ERC-funded research group "Beyond the Elite: Jewish Daily Life in Medieval Europe" led by Prof. Elisheva Baumgarten. While my PhD explores the relationships between Jews and royal women--specifically queens--in 13th-century France, my further research considers how Jews danced and incorporated musical movement into their lives during the European Middle Ages.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.