In the 25th issue of Nashim (2013), Howard Adelman published an interesting article attempting to analyze the nature of the relationship between two of the most famous conversas in Jewish history. Brianda, Gracia (or Beatrice)’s younger sister, has always been portrayed as the jealous, volatile and aggressive sibling, whose loyalty was questionable.
In 1539, Brianda wed her brother-in-law (and uncle) Diogo Mendes (né Benveniste) in Antwerp, two years after she, her widowed sister Beatrice and niece “little Brianda” left Portugal. Diogo, like his brother Francisco who had been married to Beatrice, was older than his wife. He likewise saw the birth of a daughter (in 1540), “little Beatrice,” and then died in 1543 – leaving his wife a widow.
Although there had been a prenuptial agreement, Diogo altered the conditions in his will by leaving additional property to Beatrice and her daughter, as well as by granting his sister-in-law joint guardianship of the family business and of his daughter. Needless to say, Brianda was not pleased to learn of these changes, as they seriously diminished her power and access to funds.
The family left Antwerp (because the Inquisition was seeking to confiscate as much of their assets as possible) and upon arrival in Venice in 1544, the sisters elected to live as Christians outside the ghetto. Each was conducting business by illegally utilizing Christian nobles to camouflage their activities. Each set up her own home and then proceeded to challenge her husband’s will in the Christian courts. These two conflicting claims continued for years, as each sister believed that she was due maximum control of the family assets.
Finally in 1546, Beatrice, after swearing on the Gospels, received the Venetian courts’ confirmation of her guardianship over her niece and the right to remain in control of the family. This did not end the bickering or the claims and counter- claims.
Had the sisters been crypto-Jews? According to testimonies in Inquisition trials, Diogo and Brianda were Judaizing in Antwerp and even had a clandestine synagogue in their home. While in Venice, Brianda’s majordomo was questioned about his own observances, as well as those of her household. He seemed to be protecting his employer from investigation.
When Brianda and her daughter were brought before the Venetian Council of 10, she attacked her sister viciously and questioned the court’s right to interrogate her.
After relating that she had fled the Portuguese Inquisition, she stated that although a New Christian, she was a Jew in her heart and asked to be granted residence in the Jewish ghetto. Her daughter then swore by the Law of Moses and claimed that like her mother, she too wanted to live as a Jew. The council decided that while they could have their assets returned, they were to be expelled.
None of the archives located have produced similar testimony relating to Beatrice.
As a matter of fact, she preferred to deal with non-Jewish courts while in Europe.
She always attempted to protect her property in various Christian countries and was loath to bring matters to a beit din there, fearing that this might result in a loss of property. After all, her contracts had been drawn up according to the laws that applied to the world of Christian merchants.
Meanwhile, Beatrice was unhappy with the support given to her sister by the Venetian courts, and found a duke willing to reject their decision and support the terms of Diogo’s will. Consequently she moved to Ferrara in 1549, while Brianda alerted the Venetians to the fact that her sister was planning to take everyone and everything to Constantinople. Were the two sisters were really so at odds with one another all the time? If so, why did they move to the same locales while in Italy, and why did Brianda move in with her sister when she arrived in Ferrara? Adelman made an interesting observation: Perhaps the sisters made claims in so many places in order to prevent the greedy rulers in each location from claiming their family assets. The sisters might well have been cooperating with one another.
In addition, records reveal that Brianda was not as incompetent as portrayed, for she was financially astute and managed to finagle delicate diplomatic deals. If the quarrel between sisters and niece had been so severe, why did the niece agree to her aunt’s becoming her guardian in 1556 after the death of her mother? The sisters certainly had their differences, but the documentation seems to indicate that both were able to see the larger picture. They were both negotiating with eminent rulers and fighting for recognition, though bickering among themselves.
It seems that the more accurate image of these siblings is less eschewed than has been traditionally presented. Their lives and relationships were as complicated as the lives of the New Christians, who sought to enter the Jewish world without losing what they had amassed beforehand. The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and the academic editor of Nashim.