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Philip II of Spain and His Italian Jewish Spy

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image of Journal of Early Modern History

A bitter conflict between the Spanish and Ottoman empires dominated the second half of the sixteenth century. In this early modern “global” conflict, intelligence played a key role. The Duchy of Milan, home to Simon Sacerdoti (c.1540-1600), a Jew, had fallen to Spain. The fate that usually awaited Jews living on Spanish lands was expulsion—and there were signs to suggest that King Philip II (1527-1598) might travel down that road. Sacerdoti, the scion of one of Milan’s wealthiest and best-connected Jewish families had access to secret information through various contacts in Italy and North-Africa. Such intelligence was highly valuable to Spanish forces, and Philip II was personally interested in it. However, this required Sacerdoti to serve an empire—Spain—with a long history of harming the Jews, and to spy on the Ottomans, widely considered as the Jews’ supporters at the time. This article offers a reflection on Simon Sacerdoti’s story. Examining how a Jew became part of the Spanish intelligence agency helps us understand how early modern secret information networks functioned and sheds new light on questions of Jewish identity in a time of uprootedness and competing loyalties.

Affiliations: 1: UNC Chapel Hill


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