In 1497, Portugal began the forced conversion of its Jewish population, which included large numbers of Jews who had fled there after their expulsion from Spain five years earlier. Thousands of Jews were massacred or deported and many more converted, leading to the establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition, which sought to stamp out real or imagined cases of the secret practice of Judaism among converts and their descendants. Under these circumstances, the survival of the Abravanel Bible in the library of the University of Coimbra—an institution founded in central Portugal in 1290—is quite remarkable. Cnaan Liphshiz writes:
[T]he handwritten Bible from the 15th century is perfectly preserved. The book is filled with drawings on parchment that are so vibrant they seem to have been recently created. The Abravanels—a distinguished, wealthy family with branches in Spain and Portugal that fled to Amsterdam and the Balkans during the Inquisition—commissioned twenty such Bibles. The volume in Coimbra is among the best preserved of the handful whose whereabouts are known today. . . .
The University of Coimbra has little information on how exactly it came to possess the Abravanel Hebrew Bible, possibly because it was hidden or scrubbed from the library’s indices to hide it from Inquisition agents. . . .
Thanks to the university’s undocumented policy of subterfuge against the Inquisition—its librarians essentially hid many books that censors would likely have wanted to destroy, reintroducing them to the indices only after the Inquisition was abolished in 1821—Coimbra was in possession of a collection of rare, pristine Jewish manuscripts found nowhere else.