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Legajoo 162: The Rediscovered Case of Isabel Lopez, Burned at the Stake November 30, 1518

The Spanish Inquisition [1480-1608] conducted approximately 300,000 trials of suspected secret Jews; Isabel Lopez’s trial was just one of them. The documents which describe these myriad trials are largely lost, having been destroyed by an enraged populace at the end of the Inquisition. Still, 6000 or so transcripts of trials are extant, scattered throughout the great public libraries of Europe and America. Written in a stylized medieval Spanish stenography, they are decipherable only by scholars. By far the largest collection of transcripts—including Isabel Lopez’s story of 94 pages—is stored in the National Archives at Madrid. Claudia Wise worked from transliterations into Spanish done by Renee Levine Melammed (author of the unpublished dissertation, “Women in Spanish Crypto- Judaism 1492-1520”), using scores of eyewitness testimonies to piece together the life and conduct of Isabel Lopez.

“My name is Ysabel . . . I am a New Christian, converted from Judaism twenty-four years ago.” The notary of the Spanish Inquisition recorded these words on October 20, 1516 in the City of Toledo. His handwritten account became File 162, one of the many secret documents of the Spanish Inquisition.

Isabel Lopez stood before the Lord Inquisitors—all priests—after having suffered forty-one days of imprisonment away from her husband and young children, not knowing what charges had been brought against her. Alone and afraid, afraid for herself, afraid for those not yet arrested, Isabel had waited for her ordeal to begin. She had been isolated from all the other prisoners, including her mother.

Isabel had been summarily removed from her well-to- do family life late in the summer, shortly after the Inquisition came to town. In standard fashion—like a heinous travelling circus—preachers employed by the travelling court arrived to do advance work, stirring up the population with sermons denouncing heresy, including intimate (and instructive) descriptions of what “closet” Jews might be found to do in the privacy of their own homes. After the clergy sowed these malevolent seeds of fear and suspicion, the Inquisitors arrived, ready to accept confessions and accusations.

The Inquisitor General, Father Tomas de Torquemada (a single individual who, like Hitler, had obsessions so relentless that they fueled an entire country), sometimes preached his own fire-and-brimstone sermon in a village, and required attendance by all. Torquemada urgently warned New Christians who had committed heresy and treason—that is, who had in any way practiced anything Jewish—to confess.

If New Christians admitted their crimes early and willingly, perhaps also beneficently supplying the names of other lapsed Christians, their punishments varied—but were guaranteed to be less irrevocable than death. If they confessed after a conviction, they earned themselves a “good” death: quick and merciful strangulation before being burned publicly at the stake [the quemadero]. If, like Isabel, they insisted on their innocence to the end, they were often first tortured, and then delivered to the ghastly pain of conscious cremation. Death at the stake was a bloodless execution, an important point to the secular arm of the government which was prohibited by the morally sensitive Church from spilling blood.

Blood, in fact, was an obsession all around, responsible, in many paradoxical ways, for the tragedies of the Inquisition. Spanish Christians (like later Germans) had developed a cult of racial purity (limpieza de sangre, “clean blood”) which handicapped New Christians as they tried to compete economically and socially with Old Christians. Since Jewish conversions were often mistrusted (for good reason, since Jews had generally converted under threats to life, livelihood and/or of exile), racial theories helped keep up the boundaries between who was authentic and who questionable. Many unusual laws speak to these racial-religious compulsions: for example, it was prohibited for Jewish wet nurses to nurse Christian babies— Jewishness could perhaps be transmitted in breast milk.

Jews, for their part, had their own extreme concern with blood. Animals had to be slaughtered ritually, salted, and then soaked in water in order to drain away all blood; Jewish aversion to blood bordered on the phobic as Jewish women underwent ritual immersions in order to purify themselves after monthly menstruation. Maintaining these rituals naturally made crypto-Jews visible and vulnerable, if only to their non-Jewish maids who were in a unique position to observe them at home. All in all, blood was a mysterious and powerful force which was feared and respected by medieval Jew and Christian alike. Blood defined who one was, influenced what one did, distinguished piety and social eminence. Blood was hard to change.

In any case, Isabel Lopez remained silent, not only through all the preliminary stages of Inquisitorial advance work, but later as well (after she was denounced), through the initial stages of her actual trial. It’s possible, of course, that Isabel was in truth a believing Christian (having been converted as a small child); during torture she apparently cried out only to Jesus. And it had, indeed, been twenty-four long years since Isabel and her parents converted, after rushing, like thousands of Jews, into the port town of Cartagena in a desperate scramble to leave Spain forever.

The Lopez family, like all Spanish Jews in 1492, were given four months in which to choose either exile (with the stipulation that they could not take anything of value with them), or Christianity. The latter choice entitled one to become part of the Converso, or converts, class, a social caste which had increased significantly in response to the Edict of Expulsion. Either choice, of course, implied a leap into the unknown. In any case, by July, 1492, there was not a single Jew left in all of Spain.

Isabel’s young parents, two among thousands, in tumult and urgency chose (or, just as likely were forced into) baptism. Together with their first-born, the three assumed new identities: the father (Abraham) becoming Pedro (after Peter the Apostle), the mother, Maria (after Jesus’ mother), and the child, Isabel, after the Catholic Queen herself, co-author of the Edict of Expulsion. The family returned to its small village, and Pedro resumed his prestigious position as tax collector, which afforded him wealth as well as authority (and some hostility) in his community. Tax collectors had traditionally been Jewish; now the office very often went to Conversos— the connection perpetuated the sense that Conversos were basically Jews.

Through the following years Pedro and Maria had three more children, all born and baptized as Christians. It seems probable that the boys were well educated, and so were the girls (this was rare). Pedro had a critical role in the building of an elegant local ducal palace (considered one of the jewels of the Renaissance, today under government restoration). The household was maintained by a large staff of maids drawn from the local countryside.

Isabel, the eldest daughter, grew up to marry Francisco de Murcia, also a Converso and a shopkeeper. In the rigid social hierarchy of late medieval Spain, “shopkeeper” fell much below the prestigious position that Isabel had occupied as the daughter of the tax collector, friend of the aristocracy. It’s likely that Francisco offered great wealth to compensate for his lack of social status.

Isabel’s one sister, Catalina, fared much better in marriage than did Isabel, possibly because she was a born, not a converted, Christian. She married an aristocrat—an hidalgo (a “son of someone,” contracted from hijo de algo“). Hidalgos had full Christian blood. Catalina’s husband was a lord-in-waiting to a member of the local ducal family. Through her marriage, Catalina moved away from the Jewish heritage of her parents and older sister, assimilating successfully into Old Christian society. The Inquisition didn’t go after her.

Of Isabel’s two brothers, the older had married while the younger remained single—at least until the Inquisitors lost interest in the Lopez family. In any case, the younger son’s prospects for marriage were certainly radically altered by the Inquisition’s scrutiny.

To go back to the summer of 1516, the Inquisitorial team arrived in Isabel’s village, and the advance guard clergy began their sermonizing against Judaizers. A typical sermon ran as follows;

If you know or have heard of anyone who keeps the Sabbath according to the law of Moses, putting on clean sheets and other new garments, and putting clean cloths on the table and clean sheets on the bed on feast-days in honor of the Sabbath, and using no lights from Friday evening onwards; or if they have purified the meat they are to eat by bleeding it in water; or have cut the throats of cattle or birds they are eating, uttering certain words and covering the blood with earth; or have eaten meat in Lent and on other days forbidden by Holy Mother Church; or have fasted the great fast [Yom Kippur], going barefooted that day; or if they say Jewish prayers, at night begging forgiveness of each other, the parents placing their hands on the heads of their children without making the sign of the cross or saying anything but, “Be blessed by God and by me;” or if they bless the table in the Jewish way; or if they recite the psalms without the Gloria Patri; or if any woman keeps forty days after childbirth without entering a church; or if they circumcise their children or give them Jewish names; or if after baptism they wash the place where the oil and chrism was put; or if anyone on his deathbed turns to the wall to die, and when he is dead they wash him with hot water, shaving the hair off all parts of his body. . . [from Henry Kamen’s Inquisition And Society in Spain, Indiana U. Press, 1985].

Such sermons not only prepared the way for the arrival of the Holy Tribunal itself—creating a climate for the denunciation of Conversos—but they also ironically helped preserve the very rituals that the Inquisition was committed to stamping out.

Next the Inquisitors arrived, followed by a formal “period of grace” during which crypto-Jews could come forward on their own. Isabel and her parents remained silent but watchful. At the same time, they trusted that their privileged social position would protect them. Within days the period of grace was over, and informers were urged to come forward.

Five informers emerged to denounce Isabel, her husband and her parents, and their testimonies inadvertently referred to other Conversos, casting the net even wider. The informers’ identities were kept secret from Isabel and her family throughout the course of the trials.

The first witness was a woman named Catalina de Cervantes. She said that eight years ago a housemaid named Mari, now deceased, had lived with Isabel and her husband. One day Catalina had asked her friend Mari, “Tell me, how did those tornadizos [‘turncoats’] you worked for live?” Mari then reported that she had seen Francisco and Isabel get dressed up on Saturdays and go into a special room where they would pray, raising and lowering their heads, and that they would not leave their house on Saturdays, even though they were all dressed.

The second witness was a blacksmith and trader. He said that twelve years ago, more or less, he went into the kitchen of Isabel’s parents where he saw Isabel with a leg of meat in her hands. She was cutting the meat along the side and removing the fat with her fingernails. Then she cooked it. Asked if there was any enmity between himself and the accused, he answered, “No, before we were friends.”

Witness number three was another former housemaid, named Madalena, who’d lived with Isabel’s parents some thirteen years ago. Madalena said she had never seen her employers eat or cook pork, rabbit, eel or octopus. The Converse family used to cut all the fat from meat and then take something out of the animal’s leg— Madalena could not remember what. Sometimes Isabel’s father did this, sometimes one of Isabel’s brothers, sometimes Isabel’s husband, cutting the meat and taking this thing out. Madalena said that the family used to ask her to leave the house when they ate this meat. When the Inquisitors asked her if there was any enmity between herself and the accused, she replied, “No.”

Next came Maria, the twenty-year-old daughter of a shepherd who’d lived as a maid with Isabel, her husband, and her children three years ago. She reiterated having seen kashrut observed, and, like the other informers, reported having witnessed (without having understood) the removal of the sciatic nerve. Isabel’s husband, said Maria, tested the sharpness of his knife with his fingernail before slaughtering poultry. Isabel would not cook pork, but would cook garbanzo beans and onions. Though the family did cook eel, it was only for the maids to eat, not for the Converses. When asked about enmity between herself and the accused, she replied in the negative, saying that she was only discharging her conscience.

Two years later—Isabel being in jail this whole time, her possessions all confiscated, her children beyond contact—a final witness, another Madalena, emerged, claiming that she’d been away when the Inquisitors had been in town, and so didn’t know about the trials. Madalena reported living as a maid with Isabel’s parents five years earlier and seeing a cellar where the family had hanging lamps which they used to light on Friday afternoons. They would not extinguish these lamps, but would just let them burn out by themselves. The Converso family went into this cellar for two or three hours with the door closed; Madalena did not know what they did in there, but they dressed up as for a feast day. On Friday and Saturday afternoons, but not on Sundays or any other days of the week, the family dressed up. Madalena said it was her job to clean the little oil lamps and put new wicks in. She reported, like the others, the observance of kashrut —when Isabel and her mother baked, they would take a lump of dough the size of an egg and throw it in the oven; they tried to hide what they were doing, but Madalena saw. She also saw the meat-washing, three or four separate washings until the meat was white and the water clear. No, she said, there was no enmity.

Meanwhile, Isabel, in her audience with the Inquisitors, said that she did not know why she’d been arrested. She was told that there were accusations against her of heresy and apostasy. She was admonished to confess entirely all that she had said and done against the Holy Catholic faith; she was to admit that she followed the Laws of the Jews. As a Catholic, she was promised compassion and pity for her confession and repentance.

Properly warned, Isabel rushed into a confession: “… it must have been seven years ago, more or less, that I had a sick daughter who was one or two months old at the time. And I took her out into the country to a farmer, I think her name was Juana, she was a woman of the evil-eye, and she bathed my daughter’s forehead and then my child recovered.”

Two audiences with the Inquisitors followed, Isabel was again admonished to confess and repent, but, even in the face of the Inquisitor’s total silence, she courageously stayed with her original confession—a single experience with witchcraft and superstition.

Assisted by attorneys and her family, Isabel launched a complex defense, trying to prove that she was a sincere Catholic, bringing forward the town’s most religiously pious residents (and also its nobility) to affirm her Christian standing. Her attorneys tried to argue that there was mortal enmity between Isabel and her informers—hatred sufficient to motivate the latter into false accusations. In the torture chamber, tied upside down on ladder-like devices while quarts of water were poured into her inverted throat so that she couldn’t breathe (many drowned this way), she still clung to her innocence, saying she had no accomplices to name, crying out, “Oh Mother of God, Lady of Guadalupe, Jesus Christ, I am coming to my end . . . already I have told the truth.”

Nevertheless she was charged with everything: “cooking Jewish stews,” “refusing to eat rabbit,” “covering up heretical acts,” “perjuring herself,” “taking communion without fully confessing her sins or telling what she knew about herself and others.” All of her wealth was confiscated to the Crown of Spain; her children (and their descendants through the third generation) prohibited from holding public office, wearing gold, silk, pearls or precious stones, carrying arms or riding horseback, becoming lawyers, physicians, surgeons, or, in any other way, attaining any honors or high office.

She was found guilty of spreading the Converso heresy by encouraging others to commit acts of “Judaizing;” of insulting the sanctity of the Holy Catholic faith by taking confession with a false heart— her duplicity, said the prosecutor, jeopardized the internal security of Spain itself. Isabel Lopez, stated the Inquisitor, was a dangerous woman. She was also a source of wealth to the State Treasury, and, indirectly, to the selfsame Holy Tribunal.

Meanwhile, her mother was found guilty and burned at the stake, and her father (tried later) found less guilty— he confessed to Judaizing—and allowed to live.

On November 30, 1518, in the city of Toledo, in the great public church ceremony of an auto-da-fe, among those sentenced to bloodless execution at the quemadero (burning alive at the stake) was one Isabel Lopez: married woman; grown daughter; mother of small children; baptized (unlike her Christian-born siblings) over a quarter-century earlier; married not to an aristocratic Christian-blooded hidalgo—a “son of someone” (like her younger sister Catalina), but to Francisco de Murcia, just another Converse who also, many years earlier as a little child, forehead still damp with baptismal water, stepped forward into his new identity, one among many thousands.

Claudia Wise, who lives near Seattle, is working on a book about Isabel Lopez. Illustrations are from Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, by Therese and Mendel Metzger (Chartwell Books, 1982), reprinted with permission of William Konecky Associates.

Writing a Book: First you hear voices
by Claudia Wise

Three years ago, as a hard-working and serious-minded graduate student of comparative religion, I came across these 16th-Century trial transcripts of the Converso Isabel Lopez. I never wanted to study this particularly cruel and depressing period of history— actually, I avoided the subject of Jewish suffering and anti-Semitism (irrational hatred threatening my sense of my own safe, beautiful world), yet I found myself drawn to this woman’s fate.

The facts of the trial upset me, even disturbed my sleep. I’m far from crazy and I don’t hear voices, but Isabel—and even more so her seven-year-old daughter—emerged from the historical material, intruding into my life. As I moved from working on my thesis to writing my book about Isabel Lopez, I started to “hear” Isabel’s daughter talking with me, as I went about my life, running errands, doing research, lying awake in bed:

“My mother was taken away by the inquisition: my voice is the voice of a wounded child. Like a peacock crying, I haunt your nightmares and startle you awake. You want to: tell my mother’s story, resurrect her old bones? Just save us from becoming lifeless data, keep my mother from being one number more or less in the statistics of the Spanish Inquisition. We lived once, my mother, my family and I. We lived and breathed and loved and prayed.

I was seven when my mother was arrested, just an innocent child, playful and enthusiastic. Two years later, after it was over and my mother was a handful of ash, I was already old. Tell my mother’s story for me. even if you don’t have all the answers, even if you can’t make sense of it all, you safe, comfortable woman with your life and health and your own daughter: you student with the luxury to study other peoples’ lives. These forty-seven pages of my mother’s trial do not satisfy your search for spirituality, that other luxury you enjoy; they disturb your thoughts about God and meaning.

I’m not sure I truly appreciated my mother’s strength and her need to answer the Inquisitors with silence. I was young then and afraid for myself, not realizing how important it was that she be strong and careful in her replies. Worry about us because it is your nature, hut don’t worry about us; it’s beyond your understanding.

You have a document to go by. Forty-seven pages are all that remains of my family. Read this document carefully, read and re-read, and I will meet you there . .. between the lines.

Feminist Hermeneutics: Them “R”’ Us
by Claudia Wise

I convened to Judaism the month before our first child was born. It was easy to walk away from my Protestant upbringing; it was superficial. We never talked about faith or God at home—they were such embarrassing subjects. Even today my mother says she doesn’t go to church because it only raises more questions. When I became engrossed, to my utter surprise, in the 16th-Century case of Converso Isabel Lopez. I realized that it wasn’t so much that I related to her as a wife, mother and religious convert, but that I understood how hard it is to change.

I had not realized how important my Christian traditions were to me until years after I had given them up. I thought I could reason my way out of Christianity and into Judaism, but I had not counted on some deeply held feelings. I had left out my need to share my birthright traditions with my children, and that outstanding Christian childhood experience of Christmas morning.

Every year at Christmas/Chanukah I struggled with an inner conflict that worried my children and erupted into arguments with my husband. We lit the menorah not just to ape Christmas but to affirm our pride in Judaism’s ability to resist Hellenism. We chanted the Hebrew blessings and gave presents. But still Christmas held its spell over me. (Perhaps my desire to honor Judaism’s resistance to religious confiscation had also a private, unconscious meaning for me in terms of my need to find the courage to be true to myself.) Last year, finally, things changed.

Our family celebrated Christmas: a decorated tree, lights, presents to give and to receive. A secular event that was important for me in that I was finally able to share some of the happiest moments of my childhood with my own children and husband. It was an enormous relief to listen to my inner clock that had been set so long ago for December 25.

I could satisfy my emotional needs and let go of the intellectual. It felt good even if it didn’t make a lot of sense. I felt liberated and validated as a whole person with a legitimate childhood. Despite my being a committed Jew, Christmas morning was a deeply satisfying experience of family solidarity. It’s hard to change and it’s hard to give up family traditions; and I was finding out I didn’t have to.

And so back to Isabel Lopez. Throughout her trial she appeared as a sincere Catholic—the court notary documented, word for word, her cries to Jesus to save her as she was bound and tortured. On the verge of death, it was to Jesus she cried. But was she, really, a “secret Jew”—whatever complicated tiling that means? Did she, as her informers reported, kasher her meat, pray in the basement, light Sabbath lamps?

Religion and identity are clearly much more intricate than either the Inquisition or most contemporary religious assumptions can tolerate. “Being” is a process, not one particularly intense moment. And for some of us, God and faith are also a process, rather than a leap of faith made once and forever.

I see the tremendous courage and complexity of Isabel, and I feel myself drawn to rescue the life events of this “simple” housewife who was such an extraordinary woman. Isabel’s story, after all, validates and brings light to my own story, while my own story moves me to try to validate and bring light to hers.