For a traveller who arrived in Torre de Moncorvo in the Trás-os-Montes province of northern Portugal in the 1550’s, the best place to stay in town was Isabel’s Inn. To do justice to her fame, it must be mentioned, that her Inn functioned like a central clearing house for information on Marrano practises, even like a cultural centre for the New Christian community. It was there that we hear for the first time news about the Lisbon massacre of New Christians in 1506 (in 1497, all Jews in Portugal were forcibly baptized and were henceforth known as New Christians and later, Marranos) or the news of the rupture of relations between king of England and the Pope in Rome. It is also there that strange words appears such as tani (fasts) or canarim (a person from India, applied pejoratively to Old Christians), and stories with a messianic flavour that then filled the cultural universe of the New Christians persecuted by the Inquisition. But before discussing these matters, let us turn to the owners of the Inn, all New Christians.
Isabel Lopes, the innkeeper, was born in Torre de Moncorvo in 1516. Her parents were Jewish, forcibly Christianized in 1497. Isabel, had two more sisters, both married, and living in a village within the limits of Bragança (also in Trás-os- Montes), and three brothers, all of who were in the lands of India, and from she had not received any news for years.
Isabel married Pedro Lopes in 1532 and from him had several sons and one daughter, Leonor Lopes, who married Gabriel Rodrigues, also a New Christian originally from Galiza. She became a widow after18 years, re- marrying in 1552 with João Rodrigues Trindade. João Trindade was from Miranda do Douro and was also a widower. His first wife was called Isabel Gonçalves and bore him two daughters and four sons. One of the sons, born in 1535, was named Francisco Rodrigues Trindade.
Francisco was an accomplished student at Coimbra university, as were many other New Christians in the 16th century, and came to stay for a spell (45 or 50 days) at his father’s house during Passover in 1553. His relationship with his stepmother was “very friendly”, according to him, but characterized by Isabel as consisting of “great fights". Francisco Trindade later headed to Lisbon where he became an assistant of Dr. Monção, the curate of the church of Madalena (next to the former Great Judiaria of Lisbon). Almost two years later, on the 3rd of January.1555, he presented himself to the casa do despacho at the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Lisbon to denounce, for practising Judaism, his stepmother Isabel Lopes, her daughter and the son-in-law, Leonor Lopes and Gabriel Rodrigues, as well as a notary from Miranda do Douro, Diogo Mendes. As a result of the denunciation, Isabel Lopes and the Gabriel Rodrigues were arrested and jailed at the prison of the Inquisition in Lisbon on the 2nd of April 1556. (1)
The proceedings of each one of the cases mentioned will not be examined in detail; instead some of the more unusual aspects will be highlighted. First, it should be emphasized that the New Christians of this era were very mobile. Gabriel’s parents lived in Salvaterra, kingdom of Galiza, opposite the village of Monção and they already had lived in the island of Terceira, Açores, where Gabriel himself is thought to have been born and baptized.
With respect to Gabriel, a tailor, Francisco makes the following denunciation:
He said that everything the Pope did was deceitful, because he did everything for money, and gave the example of the King of England and Queen Mary, who were not able to marry without dispensation from the pope, who would not grant it without copious amounts of money; and then the king made a submission without identifying themselves as King and Queen, and the pope immediately conceded for little money, and then the king said to the people that everything was a mistake, that nothing could be done in Rome without money. (2)
It does seem a bit strange that an ordinary tailor in an inn in northern in Portugal should be so well informed about international events such as the politics of Henry VIII, king of England, who abandoned the Catholic religion and established the Anglican Church. The New Christians must already have developed trustworthy international information networks. Portuguese New Christians, posing first as Catholics and then as Protestants had settled in England since Elizabethan times. (3)
The Inquisitors wanted to be certain about Francisco’s denunciation, so they convoked a session with the defendants and the denunciator, to confirm the accusation that he had made at the casa do despacho on the 6th of June1556, being present the male defendant Gabriel Rodrigues. This was a highly unusual procedure because the procedure of the Inquisition was to withhold the identities of the denunciators from the defendants. We are not aware of any other such case.
Gabriel denied the accusation and said that it was all an invention and the fruit of hatred, since on many occasions he fought and yielded a knife with the father and the brother of Francisco Rodrigues Trindade and one time he was even wounded in a finger and was put in the jail of Moncorvo. The case proceeded and Gabriel was freed after abjuring de levi (slight indices of Judaizing-ie little suspect in faith) on the Mesa (Table, the court or “bench” of the Tribunal of the Holy office of the Inquisition where judges, prosecutors, lawyers, notaries, scribes, and the defendants sat).
The denunciations against Isabel included allegations arising from “confidential” conversations with her stepson about the coming of the Messiah* which so mesmerized the New Christian cultural universe at that time. Francisco alleged that,
The said Isabel, his stepmother, said that Christ was not the son of God, but rather Our Lady was married with Jose, that they had a blacksmith as a neighbour; and Jose being out of the house, the said blacksmith had been spying on her; and as he saw him outside the house, he entered and had carnal relations with her. And upon Jose returning home, he became aware that she had committed a bad sin; and then Our Lady told him the truth, how she had sinned and the blacksmith had slept with her. And Joseph told her not to be afraid, that he would not defame her; saying, his said stepmother that at that time women who committed adultery were stoned. (4)
It was without a doubt, the negation of the Mary’s virginity and the divine nature of Jesus, a basic tenet of Christianity that aggravated Isabel’s case before the Inquisitors. Following is another allegation of heresy made by Francisco:
On another day, being both alone, his said stepmother told him that the reason why Jesus Christ was called King of the Jews was because, Jesus, living with a prophet, one night the prophet had a large water basin full of water and had a lit candle in the basin, or attached to the basin, and that the prophet lay down to sleep and told him that when the candle reached a certain point to wake him up; and when the flame of the candle reached that point, Jesus Christ came to the window and saw the heavens open and heard a voice telling him; “ ask what you want”, and that Jesus Christ said, “Lord, I do not ask you for anything except that you make me king of all these people”, and feeling this, the prophet rose, and from then on Jesus Christ was king.
The Sephardic Jews of Iberia were expelled from Spain in 1492 and in 1496 were also ordered to leave Portugal, but instead, as was stated, they were forcibly baptized. With the imposition of the Inquisition in Portugal in 1536, the New Christians must have felt like they were re-living the captivity of Egypt and Babylonia. However, there was great faith that the end of this captivity was nearing its end and that the Messiah was about to arrive.* He would come as a great king, form a powerful army, and establish a great Jewish Kingdom. Amongst the many versions of the coming of the Messiah, there was a widespread belief that the Messiah had already been born but was imprisoned in Rome. Isabel reveals this remarkable story in an alleged “confidential” conversation with her stepson, Francisco,
Being both alone, she told him that there was a locked house in Rome, and that all the Popes that came would order the installation of a lock and that inside there was a man (...) that he was the Messiah and that he had shackles on his feet; and that there was a young boy with a saw sawing it; and as soon as the irons were finished being sawed, the New Christians would be free, and that they would return to the land where they first had come from, that it was Jerusalem and that there they would be great Lords and that they would be taken from there by the horses of the Old Christians.**
Of course Francisco said that he reprehended his stepmother but she did not accept the rebuke and even retorted, Poor you that have to remain here because you are “ canarim”, for calling the Old Christian “canarin”s, and he informed the Tribunal of this after confessing to Dr. Monção who said that this was heresy.
Isabel recounts a variation of the same story in another alleged “confidential” conversation with Francisco,
His said stepmother told him, both being alone, that a Pope would order the opening of the house in Rome where the Messiah was and would order a Christian to be put in it and he would soon die; and that he would order a Moor to be put in it and he would soon die; and then he would order a Jew to be put in to see what was going on and that he would survive; And that the Messiah, who was sitting there, would tell him to enter and to throw out those scum, saying this about the Moor and Christian, and that the Jew would speak to the Messiah who would after tell him to go outside and to close the doors as they had been, and that the Jew would say outside that there was a little left to complete the sawing of the irons, she (Isabel) saying that she expected to see this in her time and that she believed it would happen.
Again Francisco said that he did not believe her and that Isabel responded, that "he was the greatest “ canarim” of all and that the hell was full of idiots", to which he retorted, "it is with, the idiots, I want to be".
Isabel denied everything, and in her defence, invoked the testimony of many important people of Torre de Moncorvo. Isabel recounted many scenes of being hit by her husband, always because of his children and said that,
She threw them out of the house many times and did not consent to them being at home; and one day she had so many fights over throwing out the said graduate, her stepson, that he, Francisco Rodrigues gave her a great big slap on her face and the defendant took a sword to kill him and advanced towards him and would kill him if he did not flee out the door; and he, the graduate, fled and never returned home and became her capital enemy (…) therefore, no credit ought to be given to the testimony of that graduate, Francisco Rodrigues.
Two declarations of Francisco are noteworthy and reveal the secret practices of the New Christians. In the first, he presents both himself and his father as Old Christians, which does not correspond to the facts. Whitewashing New Christian heritage was to become a significant practice in later years. Sanitized “Old Christian genealogies” of New Christians showing “pure or clean” blood were concocted, perhaps at a price. In the second declaration, Francisco says his stepmother taught him to do the tani (fasts) and that she spoke, other words in Hebrew that he did not understand and she was astonished that he did not know Hebrew. Secret prayers in Hebrew were to survive amongst Portuguese New Christians well into the 20th century.
Who should the Inquisitors believe? Should they keep Isabel imprisoned, subject her to torture, or oblige her to admit her guilt, denounce more people and oblige her to ask for forgiveness of her guilt? At this time, in the early stages of the introduction of the Inquisition in Portugal, the well-oiled machinery of the (un)Holy Tribunal was not fully developed, possibly due to the huge bribes being paid by the “Men of the Nation” to the Pope and Cardinals in Rome.
Isabel Lopes was freed, after abjuring de vehementi (strong indices of Judaizing-ie strong suspicion in faith) for suspicion of heresy. She was a remarkable woman.
1- ANTÓNIO BAIÃO, A Inquisição em Portugal e no Brasil, in: Archivo Histórico Portuguêz, vol. VII, p. 4- On the 3rd of January of 1555 Francisco Rodrigues da Trindade appeared and denounced Isabel Lopes, his stepmother, of Torre de Moncorvo, for having said that Jesus Christ was not the son of God , and other heresies (the note in the margin says: imprisoned) Gabriel Rodrigues, her son in law, for having said that everything the Pope did was a lie (the note says: imprisoned), his wife, Leonor Lopes, and finally Diogo Mendes, notary in Miranda, all New Christians, A.N.T.T. Inquisição de Lisboa, processo 16 035, de Gabriel Rodrigues.
2-A.N.T.T. Inquisição de Lisboa, processo 3123, de Isabel Lopes.
3-Cecil Roth, The History of The Jews In England, Oxford, 1941
4-A.N.T.T. Inquisição de Lisboa, processo 16 035, de Gabriel Rodrigues.
In 1525, David Reubeni, a false messiah, met with King John III of Portugal seeking arms and ships for a Jewish army to battle the Turks and liberate Jerusalem. Reubeni met with the pope, and claimed to be a king from an eastern Jewish kingdom. He created much consternation amongst the New Christian population.
Maria José Ferro Tavares refers to the prophecies of the messianic prophet/poet Bandarra (the shoemaker of Trancoso) who predicted the defeat of the Turks and prophesized that the New Christians of Iberia would be taken to Jerusalem in “horses of keels”, i.e. ships.
(Maria Pimenta Ferro Tavares, “ Para o Estudo dos Judeus em Trás-os-Montes sec. XVI”, in Historia e Filosofia, Vol. VI, 1985, pp. 391-392.)