The concept of limpieza de sangre (Spanish: [lim'pje?a ðe 'sae]), limpeza de sangue (Portuguese: [l?'pez? ð? 's?], Galician: [lim'pe ð? 'sa]) or neteja de sang (Catalan: [n?'t ð? 'sa?]), literally "cleanliness of blood" and meaning "blood purity", was a system of discrimination used in early modern Spain and Portugal.
The label referred to those who were considered "Old Christians", without recent ancestry from people who had not been Christian, such as Muslim or Jewish ancestors. In the context of the Spanish Empire, the concept defined castes of those of Spanish or Portuguese ancestry, as opposed to the non-Christian aboriginal populations of Asia, Africa and the Americas.
By the end of the Reconquista and the conversion or expulsion of Muslim mudéjars and Sephardi Jews, the populations of Portugal and Spain were all nominally Christian. Spain's population of 7 million included up to a million recent converts from Islam and 200,000 converts from Judaism, who were collectively referred to as "New Christians". Converts from Judaism were referred to as conversos and converts from Islam were known as Moriscos. A commonly leveled accusation was that the New Christians were false converts, secretly practicing their former religion as Crypto-Jews or Crypto-Muslims. The concept of purity of blood came to be focused more on ancestry than of personal religion.
The first statute of purity of blood was enacted in Toledo, Spain, 1449, where an anti-converso riot succeeded in gaining a ban on conversos and their descendants from most official positions. Initially, these statutes were condemned by the monarchy and the Church; however, in 1496, Pope Alexander VI approved a purity statute for the Hieronymites.
This stratification meant that the Old Christian commoners might assert a right to honor even if they were not in the nobility. The religious and military orders, guilds and other organizations incorporated in their by-laws clauses demanding proof of cleanliness of blood. Upwardly mobile New Christian families had to either contend with discrimination, or bribe officials and falsify documents attesting generations of Christian ancestry.
The claim to universal hidalguía (lowest nobility) of the Basques was justified by intellectuals such as Manuel Larramendi (1690-1766). Because the Umayyad conquest of Hispania had not reached the Basque territories, it was believed that Basques had maintained their original purity, while the rest of Spain was suspect of miscegenation. The universal hidalguía of Basques helped many of them to positions of power in the administration. This idea was reinforced by the fact that, as a result of the Reconquista, numerous Spanish noble lineages were already of Basque origin.
Tests of limpieza de sangre had begun to lose their utility by the 19th century; rarely did persons have to endure the grueling inquisitions into distant parentage through birth records. However, laws requiring limpieza de sangre were still sometimes adopted even into the 19th century. For example, an edict of 8 March 1804 by King Ferdinand VII resolved that no knight of the military orders might wed without having a council vouch for the limpieza de sangre of his spouse.
Official suppression of such entry requirements for the Army was enacted into law on 16 May 1865, and extended to naval appointments on 31 August of the same year. On 5 November 1865, a decree allowed children born out of wedlock, for whom ancestry could not be verified, to be able to enter into religious higher education (canons). On 26 October 1866, the test of blood purity was outlawed for the purposes of determining who might be admitted to college education. On 20 March 1870, a decree suppressed all use of blood purity standards in determining eligibility for any government position or any licensed profession.
The discrimination was still present into the 20th century in some places such as Majorca. No Xueta (descendants of the Majorcan conversos) priests were allowed to say Mass in a cathedral until the 1960s.
The earliest known case judging Limpieza de Sangre comes from the Church of Cordoba, that explained the procedure to judge the purity of blood of candidates as follows: kneeling, with right hand placed over the image of a crucifix on a Bible, the candidates confirmed themselves as being of neither Jewish or Moorish extraction. Then the candidate provided the names and birthplaces of their parents and grandparents. Two delegates of the council, church or other public place would then research the information to make sure it was truthful. If the investigation had to be undertaken outside Cordoba, a person, not necessarily a member of the council, would be appointed to examine the witnesses chosen by the candidate. This researcher would receive a sum per diem according to the that person's rank, the distance traveled and time spent. Having collected all the reports, the secretary or the notary had to read them all to the council, and a simple majority vote would decide whether the candidate was approved; after approval the candidate had to promise to obey all the laws and customs of the Church.
The concept of limpieza de sangre was a significant barrier for many Spaniards to emigrate to the Americas, since some form of proof of not having recent Muslim or Jewish ancestors was required to emigrate to the Spanish Empire. However, within Spain's overseas territories the concept evolved to be linked with racial purity for both Spaniards and indigenous. Proofs of racial purity were required in a variety of circumstances in both Spain and its overseas territories. Candidates for office and their spouses had to obtain a certificate of purity that proved that they had no Jewish or Muslim ancestors and in New Spain, proof of whiteness and absence of any in the lineage who had engaged in work with their hands.
Additionally, as early as the sixteenth century, shortly after the Spanish colonization of the Americas was initiated, several regulations were enacted in the Laws of the Indies to prevent Jews and Muslims and their descendants from emigrating to and settling in the overseas colonies. There was a thriving business in creating false documentation to allow conversos to emigrate to Spain's overseas territories. The provisions banning emigration were repeatedly stressed in later editions of the Laws, which provides an indication that the regulations were often ignored, most likely because colonial authorities at the time looked the other way as the skills of those immigrants were badly needed. During the period when Portugal and Spain were ruled by the same monarch (1580-1640), Portuguese merchants, many of whom were crypto-Jews, passing as Christians, became important members of the merchant communities in the viceregal capitals of Mexico City and Lima. When Portugal successfully revolted in 1640 from Spain, the Holy Office of the Inquisition in both capitals initiated intensive investigations to identify and prosecute crypto-Jews, resulting in spectacular autos-da-fé in the mid-seventeenth century.
Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), said that "he would take it as a special grace from our Lord to come from Jewish lineage". In the first 30 years of the Society of Jesus, many Jesuits were conversos. However, an anti-converso faction led to the Decree de genere (1593), which proclaimed that either Jewish or Muslim ancestry, no matter how distant, was an insurmountable impediment for admission to the Society of Jesus - effectively applying the Spanish principle of Limpieza de sangre to Jesuits Europe-wide and world-wide.
Aleksander Maryks interprets the 1593 "Decree de genere" as preventing, despite Ignatius's desires, any Jewish or Muslim conversos and, by extension, any person with Jewish or Muslim ancestry, no matter how distant, from admission to the Society of Jesus. Jesuit scholar John Padberg states that the restriction on Jewish/Muslim converts was limited only to the degree of parentage. Fourteen years later this was extended back to the fifth degree. This 16th-century Decree de genere remained in force far longer among the Jesuits than in the Spanish state, though over time the restriction relating to Muslim ancestry was dropped leaving only people of Jewish ancestry to be excluded. In 1923, the 27th Jesuit General Congregation reiterated that "The impediment of origin extends to all who are descended from the Jewish race, unless it is clear that their father, grandfather, and great grandfather have belonged to the Catholic Church." Only in 1946, in the aftermath of the Second World War, did the 29th General Congregation drop the requirement, but it still called for "cautions to be exercised before admitting a candidate about whom there is some doubt as to the character of his hereditary background".