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1492: Jewish Women on Trial

The article “Burned at the Stake: The Rediscovered Case of Isabel Lopez” (Summer 1992} generated so much interest that LILITH wanted to share with our readers a picture of the scholarly work involved in unearthing this saga of a horn Jew who converted to Christianity but was put to death by the Spanish Inquisition.

Renee Levine Melammed, currently a scholar in residence in Judaic Studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, conducted the original research for the LILITH story of the 16th- Century Inquisition trial of the Spanish-Jewish woman Isabel Lopez. She tells us:

The Inquisition documents translated are legal dossiers, verbatim trial records from the Inquisition courtroom, written in the Spanish of the 15th and 16th centuries, a language very different from modern Castellano or Spanish. They were recorded meticulously by notaries, and each trial has a myriad of hand writings. Isabel’s trial, for example, shows thirty three changes of notaries. Besides changes in handwriting, each notary created for himself his own abbreviations and shorthand, adding an extra challenge lo the transcription process.

In order to gain access to the material, first I had to learn Spanish paleography. After ,six months of learning this art, I set forth to the Archive Historico Nacional in Madrid to see the originals. It took six months simply to transcribe the trial painstakingly, to transform the notarial shorthand into legible Spanish, often arguing with my dissertation director, Professor Haim Beinart, over the significance of one squiggle or another, finally agreeing on the final copy.

For purposes of my dissertation alone, I consulted 111 files of women accused of “Judaizing” and tried in the Archbishopric of Toledo, Spain between the years 1492 and 1520. Since then I have published and lectured widely on various aspects of the material: the Inquisition’s pursuit of a Judaizing midwife; prayers remembered and/or created by conversas and conversas; death, mourning, birth and purity rituals of the medieval community; the transmission of knowledge needed to perpetuate a secret Judaism; and the role of women in crypto-Judaism.